With every new critical edition of a literary work, the greatest challenge is usually trying to find something new and relevant to say about the text and its author, rather than simply reworking the same familiar ground. This is particularly true for a work such as Mrs Warren’s Profession, one of the most notorious works from one of the world’s most famous playwrights. So much has been written about both the play and the playwright that it is difficult to imagine creating a fresh approach to the play, making it both astonishing and delightful that the New Mermaids edition, edited by Brad Kent, manages to do just that.
In presentation, the volume incorporates the textual features with which New Mermaids readers are familiar. Some of these—the numbered lines and the running heads that identify the acts—are welcome and helpful improvements over other scholarly editions. The one that continues to rankle is the decision to treat Shaw’s preface as an adjunct, rather than as an important aspect of the reader’s encounter with the text as Shaw formulated it. This seems particularly indefensible for Mrs Warren’s Profession, as the lengthy stage censorship of the play made Shaw particularly acutely aware of the play’s literary presence; and yet in this edition, Shaw’s special preface to the play lies buried in the midst of the appendices.
Nonetheless, the editorial decisions and additions are otherwise superb. Kent’s real accomplishment derives from the freshness and originality of his perspective on the text and its context, even, in some cases, when he addresses familiar subjects. Kent begins his introduction with the obligatory [End Page 211] biographical note; however, in his account of Shaw’s rises to and falls from greatness, Kent manages to account for the entire Shavian dramatic oeuvre, and even names Shaw’s most significant dramatic collaborators, with easy efficiency, to offer a more comprehensive and satisfying snapshot of Shaw’s career than others might do with twice the space.
Even more innovative is Kent’s account of the play’s origins and influences. While other editions have noted that Shaw himself acknowledged the play’s genesis in Janet Achurch’s recounting of Guy de Maupassant’s novella Yvette, Kent is the first, to my knowledge, to examine this connection at great length in his introduction, even including an excerpt from that work in one of the appendices. Kent goes even further in examining the play’s influences by placing it within the larger literary context of “prostitute literature,” a genre, he points out, that “traces its British origins back to royalist pamphlets in the seventeenth century” (xix). Kent notes that Shaw would have been drawn to the genre’s original focus on prostitution as an economic phenomenon, used to “explore the changing relationships between people in an increasingly mercantile and urban culture” (xix–xx). By the time Shaw wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession, Kent points out, the prostitute had reemerged as a focus in literature and drama, “indicating a millennial hysteria for changing sexual mores in the wider society and a desire to question and push those boundaries” (xx).
In focusing so extensively on the topic of prostitution and the context of prostitute literature, Kent diverges from other editors, many of whom tend to focus more on the economic aspects of Shaw’s argument, and approach prostitution more or less as the vehicle by which Shaw delivers that argument. Shaw’s choice of prostitution to facilitate his economic thesis is commonly attributed to his acute awareness of the pervasive social problem caused by the sex trade from his work as a vestryman and from a few awkward personal encounters with prostitutes. Clearly, however, prostitution was an integral, not merely incidental, aspect of Shaw’s argument. He was acutely aware that turning Mrs. Warren into a thief, a Fagan-like character, would leave the economic argument intact and allow the play to be licensed for production; however, while he made those modifications...