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The story centers on the relationship between Mrs Kitty Warren, a brothel owner, described by the author as "on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman" and her daughter, Vivie, an intelligent and pragmatic young woman, who has just graduated from college and come home to get acquainted with her mother for the first time in her life.
The play was originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain (Britain's official theatre censor) because of its frank discussion and portrayal of prostitution, but was finally first performed on Sunday, January 5, 1902, at London's New Lyric Club with the distinguished actor-manager Harley Granville-Barker as Frank, Fanny Brough as Mrs. Warren, George Goodhart as Sir George Crofts, Julius Knight as Praed, Madge McIntosh as Vivie and Cosmo Stuart as Rev. Samuel Gardner. Members-only clubs had been a device to avoid the eye of authority, but actors often also used the opportunity to invite their fellow-artists to a private showing of a play, usually on Sundays, when theatres were closed to the public. The first public performance in London took place in 1925.
A 1905 performance in New York, this time on a public stage, was interrupted by the police who arrested the cast and crew for violation of New York's version of the Comstock laws. The play was later held not in violation of the law. The play has been revived on Broadway five times since, most recently in 2010.