- Mrs Warren's Profession
One of our favourite ways of flattering our own modernity is of course by recalling amusing stories of our ancestors' follies, and in that regard the story of the morally purblind reception of Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession (1893) in its early days never fails us, as it makes us wonder how the most moral of plays could have been mistaken as the most immoral. Was the world then that upside-down?
In the latest version of this modern morality play, a superb teaching edition provided by L.W. Conolly, the teaching begins with the story of the play's banning in New Haven after its American premiere in 1905, with the mistaken moral outrage there again illustrating the irony of how cultural backwardness in the provinces tends to lead to commercial success in more cosmopolitan centres like New York. 'Banned in New Haven' was almost as good as 'Banned in Boston' for selling tickets in New York and then for taking the succe's de scandale on the road, although not without legal and moral storms occasionally raining on the parade along the way. But count America advanced, for England did not allow a commercial production until 1925, when Shaw was on his way to a Nobel Prize! Since the 'censor morons' never seem to learn their lesson, and since there are plenty of examples of mistaken censorship from our own time for our descendants to laugh at, the future of Mrs Warren's Profession as a teaching tool seems assured.
And for some time to come we will need look no further for a splendid teaching tool than this edition, for nothing seems to have been overlooked here in providing context and interpretive help. Included are a comprehensive historical and critical introduction, with a brief chronology of Shaw's life; the most relevant extracts from Shaw's prefaces to the play; documents on censorship that help explain Shaw's expurgations of the text forced by censorship; examples of silly and wrong-headed reviews of first productions of the play, illustrating [End Page 311] that nothing had been learned from the similar, earlier condemnation of Ibsen's Ghosts; and contemporary documents on prostitution, incest, women's education, and the 'New Woman,' all relevant to the play's focus on an unusual mother–daughter relationship nevertheless representative of the conflict between the Victorian and the modern. As the play represents a world and a world view that we should never forget for the lessons they can teach against backsliding, this edition expertly leads the way as a case study.
But however valuable this play is in its history lesson, Conolly's explanations also show how this play has timeless qualities and can live on today's or any day's stage. Until we eliminate sexes and sexual exploitation, and as long as children insist, against their parents' wishes, on taking their own path, this drama will always ring true to experience. And as long as capitalism is the default setting on the world's economy, there will always be universal complicity in the buying and selling that degrades and commodifies over half the human life of the planet, to the guilty profit of the rest. Shaw's play didn't come right out and call us all whores and pimps and financial backers of whores and pimps, but that was the implication, with the severest condemnation directed at those who imagine themselves innocent.
Despite all the play's resonance in our social and economic life, not the least of the play's remarkable qualities, as Conolly points out, is its powerful rendering of an elemental battle between two strong-willed people, with their friends caught in between, as it shows them all either struggling to escape complicity in 'Mrs Warren's profession' or to justify it. With all the characters given powerful arguments to rationalize individual choices, typical of a Shaw play, the play's immense dramatic energy continues to startle and captivate but also to puzzle as its problematics pose questions that...