One proof of a play’s value is that, a century later, it’s still shocking. Written in the 1890s and first presented publicly 100 years ago (in the U.S.; it wasn’t licensed for public performance in England till the 1920s), Mrs. Warren’s Profession can still elicit an audible gasp or two from an audience. Only now, I suspect, the shock stems less from the once scandalous subject matter than from Shaw’s coolly compassionate approach to it. Our theatergoers, so used to being mollycoddled by cheap pleasures and brutalized by cheap sensationalism, are startled awake by a playwright who not only faces hard facts but pays us the compliment of pointing out where they fit in the overall scheme of things. That Mrs. Warren is a former prostitute who has upgraded herself to madam, and that her daughter is reluctant to marry at least in part because the young man she favors might be her half brother, are only the lurid pink icing with which Shaw has frosted the rich cake of social conventions and economic connections that is his substance. He’s also, of course, laced the batter with a good stiff shot of bracing melodramatics, in the form of a parent-child conflict, but even to this he adds a new spicy twist: Mrs. Warren and her daughter Vivie embody two stages in the history of feminism, the generation that had to fight for its independence, and the next one, struggling to define its role on that newly won ground.
As mathematically orderly as its heroine, the structure of Shaw’s play has the elegant lucidity of an equation: Mrs. Warren, whose past is as mysterious as her source of income, is its x; Vivie, explicit in her goals but uncertain of her place, its not-yet-known y. Add x to y; divide by the additional factors of Mrs. Warren’s longtime “business partner” Sir George Crofts and Vivie’s beau Frank Gardner, minus Frank’s father, the local clergyman; and what do you get? The procedural model is the mid-19th-century French well-made play, but Shaw uses a progressive new math: Every element in the equation turns out to have a hidden value. Sir George is not merely a bounder who lives off female sex workers; he is a key player in respectable society, and knows in which shady businesses all his respectable peers have their capital invested. Reverend Samuel Gardner is not merely the conventional voice of moral disapproval, but a man who knows the other side of life from experience, and is trying, ineffectually, to prevent Frank from repeating his own youthful mistakes (just as Mrs. Warren is trying to save Vivie from hers). And Praed, the architect whose friendship is the link between Mrs. Warren’s raffish circle and the Gardners’ respectability, is Shaw’s sardonic portrait of the artist as willful escapist, who knows something shady is afoot but naively doesn’t trouble himself about it.
Praed is part of Mrs. Warren’s bait to Vivie, an aspect of the “refined” life she can live on her mother’s money now that she has completed her schooling. But Vivie’s education, cultivating her natural bent for factuality, has only blinded her to the aesthetic side of life: The conflict, ironically, results from her having inherited her mother’s instinct for business. In the long run, Mrs. Warren is stuck with the consequences of her choice of profession, just as Vivie, forswearing love for actuarial calculations, will be stuck with hers. The chilling end shows their final estrangement. Laid out in four acts, the play offers Mrs. Warren a huge showpiece scene at the end of each half, in which she strives to win her daughter’s love. The second of these, in another bitter irony, destroys the effect of the first: Vivie sees that the “respectable” life with which her mother tempts her is no better than that of an expensively kept prostitute. Mrs. Warren’s paean to the joy of having her daughter live in her own house receives the cutting rejoinder, “In one of your own houses.”
In Charlotte Moore’s production at the Irish Rep, the cut stings insufficiently because Moore has allowed Laura Odeh, playing Vivie, to succumb to one of the role’s basic unwise temptations: to give vent to histrionics. Young actresses tend to worry that a Vivie who displays no visible emotions will seem a prig. But Vivie has been trained to react scientifically; she can get as emotional as she likes, but the emotions must always be just below the surface. (It isn’t easy: In about eight productions of
Mrs. Warren over the years, the only successful Vivie I can recall was Lynn Redgrave.) Some of Odeh’s excess emotionality may come from understandable jitters at having to stand up against Dana Ivey, who can control a stage with absolute assurance, and whose innate sense and skill have landed her comfortably in the center of a role for which she might not be thought optimal casting. Mrs. Warren is a sensuous woman of 40 with a 20-year-old daughter. Closer in age to the character than either of New York’s two most recent Mrs. Warrens (Ruth Gordon and Uta Hagen), Ivey supplies, in lieu of sensuality, an earthy straightforwardness: This is a woman who knows all about what goes on behind closed doors. Add a gift for articulating the multiple peaks of Shaw’s Matterhorn-like speeches, and you have a solid, impressive heroine for this play whose solidity shames the shoddy workmanship of our own time. Sam Tsoutsouvas makes a strong, if overly coarse, Sir George, and Kevin Collins an appealingly mercurial Frank.