Read an Excerpt
From John A. Bertolini's Introduction to Man and Superman and Three Other Plays
Shaw was a socialist, and therefore a severe critic of capitalism, from his reading of Karl Marx and other economists of the 1880s. Widowers' Houses made a socialist point that Mrs. Warren's Profession would reiteratenamely, that as we all participate in capitalism, whether we like it or not, none of us can have clean incomes, meaning incomes that do not at some point or in some way derive from the exploitation of other people's labor. As a consequence, it does no good for one participant to point to another and call him villain; Shaw believed it was the capitalist system that needed to be transformed, and by everyone. In keeping with that principle, Shaw does not assign villain status to any of his characters in Mrs. Warren's Profession, not even the woman whose past transgressionprostitutionis the Ibsenite secret from the past that comes back to affect the characters' destinies.
Instead Shaw crafts a series of ambushes for the audience, leading us to sympathize with one character in the first act only to reveal something in the second act that discredits that sympathy. One of the great theatrical pleasures of watching Mrs. Warren's Profession with an audience is to feel its sympathies seesawing between Mrs. Warren and her emancipated daughter, Vivie, who represents "the New Woman" of her era. As act II begins, Vivie, who has never met her father and has just finished a distinguished academic career at Newnham, the women's college at Cambridge, prepares to challenge her mother's authority over her, particularly her mother's plan to live with her daughter and, in Lear-fashion, set herself on Vivie's "kind nursery." She bases her challenge on her mother's secretiveness about her past, so her mother reveals the secret, which is that she has been a prostitute and made the money that supported Vivie from that profession of prostitution. Vivie is only cowed, however, when her mother explains the circumstances in which she chose to become a prostitute. Mrs. Warren explains that she saw her half-sister die of lead poisoning after working "in a whitelead factory twelve hours a day for nine shillings a week." Meanwhile, Mrs. Warren's older sister, Liz, had left home only to return after a time fashionably dressed and with plenty of money. Liz advised her younger sister not to let other capitalists exploit her good looks for their profit, but to become instead a prostitute like her and maintain her self-respect by making her own way, free of exploitation by others. Vivie is impressed by her mother's tale because of the gumption she displayed and particularly by her apparent lack of shame, which seems to Vivie like a kind of integrity. The curtain falls on Vivie's admiring her mother for her strength of character ("you are stronger than all England") and on the procuress Mrs. Warren's bestowing "a mother's blessing" on her daughter. It is one of the most strikingly odd and ironic curtains in British drama because the audience does not know quite what to think or with whom to side. And because Shaw believed the primary purpose of drama was to stir people out of conventional thinking and automatic assumptions so they would think for themselves, such a state of unease and discomfort suited his purpose perfectly.
The play's ending similarly disallows the audience a complacent position. Vivie renews the struggle with her mother until she learns that her mother has not renounced her "profession" and yet pursues the image of respectability. Not being able to stand her mother's hypocrisy in this regard, which to Vivie signifies a lack of integrity, she breaks with her mother finally and fully in a scene of compelling conflict in which every line between them contains a bullet wrapped in an irony.
The final phase of their confrontation begins with Mrs. Warren appealing to her daughter on the basis of duty and justice, and as she does so Shaw directs that she fall back into her dialect "recklessly," as a way of showing the emotional pitch she has reached, in which she is no longer in control of what she says or feels. But she errs when she invokes Vivie's daughterly duty. Such an appeal, based as it is on convention, will not sway the hardheaded Vivie. Mrs. Warren's other appeal, "Who is to care for me when I'm old?" makes it seem as if she only supported Vivie so she would have a prop for her old age. But when she adds that she kept herself "lonely" for Vivie by letting go all of the girls who had formed an attachment to her, she hits the audience right in the heart, though she touches Vivie not at all. Quite the opposite: Mrs. Warren's regression to her native accent (according to Shaw's stage directions) jars and antagonizes Vivie. Another dramatist might have made Vivie melt a little at her mother's self-denial, but it is precisely Shaw's strength and originality that he does not and instead has Vivie firmly repudiate her mother's assertion of her daughterly duty.