- Taking Sides and Affixing Blame Polish Stage Productions of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession, 1907–1952
Mrs Warren’s Profession is both drama and crypto-pamphlet, wherein high- pitched disputes morph into hyperbole speech asking about prostitution and its causes; the capitalist foundations upon which prostitution is organized, and the rights of women to earn a livable wage. The play’s eponymous heroine is a Madame of several continental brothels who began at the inauspicious bottom of society’s ladder. The self-management of her business affairs, however, is a Victorian success story, built as it was on the virtues of industriousness, astuteness, thrift, and the ability to make good connections and surround oneself with the right sort of people. What is more, Mrs. Warren has selflessly tended to the upbringing of her only daughter, Vivie, who has grown up to become a brilliant mathematician and who, as the play begins, is contemplating a bright future after having achieved top honors at Cambridge. But if the play commences where mother and daughter have every reason for self-congratulation, their felicity is short-lived. Both are due to spend a pleasant weekend together in their country cottage, but as events transpire the house ends up playing host to a gathering of Mrs. Warren’s associates and admirers, both past and present, whose loose-tongued ways will reveal to Vivie the truth about her mother’s ill-gotten wealth. However, it is not so much Mrs. Warren’s past as her refusal to give up her business interests that will fatally compromise her in the eyes of her daughter.
Shaw wrote this, his self-professed greatest play, in 1893 at the outset of his career as a dramatist. Nevertheless, hardly before the ink had dried on the manuscript, it was refused a licence for performance by the [End Page 122] Lord Chancellor. The play mostly remained in the drawer for another decade before it was briefly staged to a mixed reception at the New Lyric Club on 5 January 1901.1
The first night’s performance was triumphant, whereas the second and last performance the following afternoon, staged for the benefit of critics and luminaries of the theatrical world, was largely denounced for having attacked the ideals upon which British society was built. Mrs Warren’s Profession had its first public performance in the United States on 27 October 1905, in the Hyperion Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, but the production was immediately closed down, having been described as a whole rotten mess of immoral suggestions, and was wished a speedy exit from the boards there and elsewhere.2 While Mrs Warren’s Profession was receiving such negative banner headlines stateside, in partitioned Poland the early critical response to the play was entirely positive. And while an errant production almost irreparably distorted this fact, as we shall see the play continued to hold a fascination for Poland’s theatrical world, which attempted to grapple with both the issues that underpinned the play and the motivations of its lead characters.
Preempting the play’s German premiere by several months, on 2 August 1907 Mrs Warren’s Profession had its Polish premiere in Warsaw’s Mały Teatr [Little Theatre], the city’s first private theater of the new century. Run by Marian Gawalewicz, the theater itself had no permanent home but took the chamber room of Warsaw’s Philharmonic, which could seat four hundred patrons.3 With the translated manuscript provided by Wiktor Popławski, the play opened to largely favorable reviews. However, one critic, Jan Lorentowicz, suggested that the play could have been cut down from four to two acts and should have focused entirely on how Vivie absorbs the truth about her origins and upbringing.4 In turn, Lorentowicz felt that Shaw might have explored better the dogged reasoning behind Mrs. Warren’s decision to carry on running her business, particularly when she realizes that this decision will definitively end her relationship with her daughter. The critic regarded these preponderances as largely unanswerable and concluded that both mother and daughter were in fact archetypes of intransigence in a melodrama that was simply hard to fathom. In this...