By the time Mrs. Warren’s Profession made its public debut in England in 1925, George Bernard Shaw’s play had earned a rap sheet a mile long: banned from public production in London in 1894; called “revoltingly offensive” and “wholly evil” by one critic upon its first private production in 1902; shuttered after a single public performance in New Haven in 1905; deemed “morally rotten” when it opened in New York a few days later, its entire cast arrested and charged with “offending public decency.” “Ah, when I wrote that,” Shaw later confessed, “I had some nerve.”
What made it impossible to perform Mrs. Warren’s Profession for nearly 30 years after Shaw wrote the play? First and foremost, that unspeakable profession itself: Mrs. Warren manages a chain of brothels across Europe, to the horror of her idealistic daughter Vivie. Shaw wrote the play at the beginning of a long career built on lobbing literary grenades at “respectable” society, but no play rattled that society as thoroughly as Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
Victorian England claimed to be outraged by the “great social evil” of prostitution, publishing calls for reform and passing laws to combat the practice. And yet the profession boomed throughout the last decades of the 19th century; according to estimates by the medical journal The Lancet, one in 60 houses in London at this time was a brothel, and one in 16 women a prostitute. Shaw shocked his audiences by asserting that the “honest” work offered to lower-class women paid so meagerly that it drove them to the higher wages the Mrs. Warrens of the world provided. The same respectable society that denounced the profession also created the demand for it.
Indeed, Shaw specialized in exposing uncomfortable truths to his audiences, scandalizing them just as Vivie Warren is when she discovers that her mother’s sinful occupation paid for her upbringing. Shaw returned to the same theme over and over in his writing: his novel Cashel Byron’s Profession describes how poverty forced a prizefighter into his brutal line of work; his first play, Widowers’ Houses, centers on a moralistic young man who discovers that his income comes from slum housing; and his later play Major Barbara (originally titled Andrew Undershaft’s Profession) features a young woman whose father profits from weapons manufacturing.
What originally seemed scandalous in Mrs. Warren’s Profession may now seem tame to a modern audience. But George Bernard Shaw never believed that its subject matter doomed his play to censorship; he claimed that “the licensed drama positively teems with prostitutes and procuresses.” In fact, Shaw wrote his play shortly after seeing Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, the story of a woman who kills herself when her husband discovers her past life as a courtesan. No, Shaw instead blamed the ban on “the unexpectedness with which my characters behave like human beings instead of conforming to the romantic logic of the stage.” Without an easy punishment or pious repentance for his “fallen woman,” Shaw provoked a scandal by honesty alone.