Incest and the Trafficking of Women in Mrs. Warren's Profession: "It Runs in the Family"
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Incest and the Trafficking of Women in Mrs. Warren's Profession: "It Runs in the Family" Petra Dierkes-Thrun California State University, Northridge MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION (1893), the third play in George Bernard Shaw's Plays Unpleasant trilogy, provoked Victorians by putting not one, but two taboo topics on the public stage: prostitution and incest. Instead of unequivocally condemning the individual figure of the prostitute as a scapegoat for moral hypocrisy and sexual promiscuity , the play critiqued the ideological and economic system that produced her, attacking the problematic double standard of male privilege and the deeply entrenched objectification of women, which Shaw saw pervading all levels of Victorian society down to its most basic nuclear element, the family. While the controversial representation of prostitution as a dramatic topic in Mrs. Warren's Profession is clearly the major reason the play remained banned from the British public stage until 1925 (even though Shaw never actually used the words "prostitution" or "prostitute" in it), its incest theme contributed strongly to the brewing controversy concerning Shaw's Fabian socialist and feminist literary stance. The reviewer for the New York Herald, for instance, wrote that the play was "morally rotten," "defend [ed] immorality" and "glorifie [d] debauchery," and stressed that "worst of all," it "countenance [d] the most revolting form of degeneracy, by flippantly discussing the marriage of brother and sister, father and daughter."1 According to the social reformer Shaw, it was one of the most important tasks of the modern dramatist to put such uncomfortable subjects in the public pillory. In a 1907 letter to The Nation, in which he protested the dramatic censorship of such taboo material as nonconformist sexuality, crime, and disease, Shaw argued that "it is futile to plead that the stage is not the proper place for the representa293 ELT 49:3 2006 tion and discussion of illegal operations, incest and venereal disease. If the stage is the proper place for the exhibition and discussion of seduction , adultery, promiscuity and prostitution, it must be thrown open to all the consequences of these things, or it will demoralize the nation."2 To Shaw, incest and prostitution both exemplified the victimization of young women and girls, not just in brothels but also in private lives, to which society conveniently turned a blind eye. While Shaw's stance on prostitution in Mrs. Warren's Profession has been extensively discussed by scholars, the play's incest theme has received surprisingly little critical attention, despite its clear role in earlier manuscript versions (toned down for the 1898 publication).3 Its comparative dismissal as a major dramatic element in its own right is exemplified by a brief comment Dan H. Laurence makes in a recent article, where he argues that the "presence of incest, as Shaw slips it in, is just sufficient to remind the audience that incest is a natural consequence of an iniquitous system tolerated by a profit-minded society. Promiscuous sexual intercourse must inevitably result in the raising of insoluble questions of consanguinity."4 Laurence is of course correct in suggesting that in Mrs. Warren's Profession incest and prostitution are inextricably intertwined. But the incest theme is more than a mere supporting tool for Shaw's criticism of nineteenth-century prostitution: just as the selling of women's bodies has directly or indirectly touched the lives of all the characters in the play and makes them appear interconnected in deeply ambiguous and problematic ways, suggestions of incest and forbidden erotic entanglements extend far into the complicated social and erotic network of relations that touches and preys on Vivie and Mrs. Warren. The incest theme in Mrs. Warren's Profession exists on two levels: biological incest (such as the suggested blood relation between Frank and Vivie, and possibly between Vivie and the lecherous Sir George Crofts), and impure desire that cuts across multiple relationships between the two women and two generations of male lovers and suitors. Shaw's play casts a deliberately wide net around several possible fathers and lovers for Vivie who are, incidentally, all erotically or romantically connected to Mrs. Warren as well, so that the differences between the two individual women, prostitute and New Woman, mother and...