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  • Who Was Phillipa Summers?Reflections on Vivie Warren's Cambridge
  • L. W. Conolly (bio)

There is a fascinating diversity of critical opinion about Vivie Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession. For Louis Crompton, she is the "moral conscience" of the play. For Ellen Gainor, Vivie has "the outer frame" of the New Woman, but a "sexually and emotionally troubled core." By the end of the play, says Charles Berst, Vivie is "in a state of self-knowledge, purgation, and peace with herself, constituting salvation." But for Robert Whitman, Vivie "is incomplete as a person and social force," and for Bernard Dukore, Vivie "has been sucked into the system that embraces and causes what had filled her with loathing." Is this perhaps the same Vivie who, according to Margery Morgan, is "forlorn" at the end of the play? Perhaps by then Vivie has been betrayed by what Alfred Turco describes as her "idealistic presuppositions." Or maybe, as Maurice Valency would have it, Vivie "remains mysterious throughout the play" because "Shaw did not know quite what to make of her"—hard to believe though that may be. And then there is the wayward opinion of Catherine Wiley that Vivie is, anyway, "hardly credible as a human being."1

However, it should be neither surprising nor disconcerting that Vivie has provoked these multiple and varied reactions. While it is hard to generate disagreements about Dryden's one-dimensional Cleopatra, we expect divergent views about the more complex Cleopatras of Shakespeare and Shaw, and we certainly shouldn't anticipate uniformity of viewpoint about such a provocative character as Vivie Warren.

It is not my purpose in this paper to referee among the Vivie critics—and several others could be added to the roster—let alone presume to declare a winner. My objective is much more modest. It is simply to provide a context that is usually overlooked in discussions of Vivie, although I also want to suggest that some knowledge of this context—Vivie's experiences as an [End Page 89] undergraduate student at Cambridge University—necessarily influences one's opinion of her.

When Mrs Warren's Profession was finally licensed in 1924 for public performance in England, after a delay of twenty-five years, the Lord Chamberlain required only one change to the script. The license to produce the play was issued "on the understanding that a fictitious name shall be substituted in the place of that of the Duke of Beaufort."2 Shaw had no problem with this, altering the reference (it comes in Act II) to a Duke of nowhere (i.e., simply "the Duke").

There is another reference in the play to a living person, a.k.a. Phillipa Summers, but in this instance there were no aristocratic sensitivities to protect, or perhaps by 1924 the then Lord Chamberlain (the Earl of Cromer) and his Examiner of Plays (George Street) would not have picked up the allusion. In Act I, Praed compliments Vivie on her "magnificent achievements" at Cambridge, particularly the "perfectly splendid" success in "tieing with the third wrangler" in the mathematical tripos. ("Tripos" was, and is, the term used for degree courses at Cambridge. The name derives from the medieval tradition of the examiner sitting on a three-legged stool. In the mathematical tripos the student who gains the highest marks in the final examinations is called senior wrangler, the runner-up the second wrangler, and so on.)3 Vivie deflates Praed's excitementby telling him that she made the effort to distinguish herself only because her mother offered her £50 if she tried for "fourth wrangler or thereabouts." Vivie had also been encouraged by her tutor at Newnham College, whose faith in the ability of Newnham students had been buoyed by the success of one Phillipa Summers. "The papers," Vivie tells Praed, "were full just then of Phillipa Summers beating the senior wrangler. You remember about it, of course."4 As it happens, Praed can't remember anything about it at all, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that many early readers and viewers of Mrs Warren's Profession were more alert and better informed than Praed and knew exactly what Vivie was talking about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1480
Print ISSN
0741-5842
Pages
pp. 89-95
Launched on MUSE
2005-09-15
Open Access
No
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