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In Shaw’s vast community of characters, the playgoer will find a large assortment of women: saints, sinners, sphinxes and scatter-brains. Of these, Shaw’s most complex character is the redoubtable brothel-madam Mrs. Warren, a woman both fearsome and aggressive, who ultimately commands our grudging respect for her own powers of self-analysis.
What is amiss with this extraordinary woman, a heroine of a certain sort? She has freed herself from grinding poverty and now keeps a sparkling environment for her “girls,” has given her only daughter an upper-class education and has tactfully stayed out of her way. In some societies she might very well have been lauded for providing special services with discretion. So unacceptable, however, was the role of Mrs. Warren that the play was immediately labeled, by Shaw himself — hoping to beat the professional critics — as his first “Unpleasant Play.”
For once, the critics agreed with the playwright, finding the character of Mrs. Warren wholly unacceptable. Still, it might have received a more positive reaction were it not for the unattractive final value system of the title character. On the one hand, Mrs. Warren commands our respect as an aggressive champion in the fight against poverty who offers the audience her earnest defense of the industrialization of sex. On the other hand, she forfeits our admiration when she continues to ply her nefarious trade as a secure wealthy woman, revealing that her corrupt behavior is no longer motivated by a need to survive, but rather by her sheer greed.
Mrs. Warren is not alone in her corruption: her social superiors are still her sponsors and customers. Shaw seems to have a sense of underlying scorn for the hypocritical male patrons of the sex establishment. He despises them for cultivating an air of respectability while they are secretly gorging at the trough. Their false respectability is far more disgusting to the Puritanical playwright than the outright greed of the “madam.”
And yet, Shaw seems not to have intended his play to be moralizing, at least not on the topic of sexual depravity. As Shaw wrote in a letter to theatre critic Daniel Arnold:
“The production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession is one of those exploits which startles everybody by its apparent daring but is really perfectly safe … Stir up social consciousness with a few matinees. You will not be forgotten in a hurry.”
The consciousness Shaw was referring to was not a collective notion about sexual propriety but, rather, a heightened awareness of poverty and its costs. Poverty, not sexual licentiousness, is the true crime in this play.
As a socialist, the injustice of impoverishment was a theme to which Shaw was repeatedly drawn; it is a central focus of his Major Barbara as well. In a group of 10 unpublished lectures and essays, the playwright discussed three modes of earning a living: private property, collectivism and communism. Although he himself was in favor of the combination of the latter two, he did concede that when a person “claims to do what he likes with his own possessions, he is making the strongest possible assertion of the right of private property.”
This is the underlying ideology of Mrs. Warren, an entrepreneur firmly convinced of the rectitude and positive results of her philosophy and behavior. Having saved herself and her girls from the poverty that sickened and destroyed her impoverished contemporaries, Mrs. Warren knows what works for her and what will continue to sustain her girls.
The only fly in Mrs. Warren’s smooth ointment is her very own daughter, Vivie Warren, who has benefited the most from her mother’s generosity and finally shoos her away with a puff of cigarette smoke — ironically paid for by her self-sacrificing mother, as are all her upper-middle-class expenses. Mrs. Warren, the businesswoman in a disgraceful trade, at least earned the money to educate her daughter to make a livelihood with her brain.
Vivie Warren launches her own commercial enterprise — accounting — owing to her mother’s openhandedness. A modern woman, Vivie offers to shake her disreputable mother’s hand and, rejected, accepts the refusal amiably and smokes as the curtain falls. Where is the justice?
The chief conflict in this play, to my mind, has always been the question: who is more unsavory — the brothel-madam mother or her cold-hearted daughter? It is to Shaw’s credit that he poses the question and leaves it to the audience for argument. How to classify the heroines and the villains of this melodrama — for melodrama it surely is — depends on the audience member.
Rhoda Nathan is Professor Emerita of Literature at Hofstra University.