What ever happened to George Bernard Shaw? Even past the middle of the last century, he was regarded by many as the most important English-language playwright since Shakespeare. Now, but for the occasional revival he is pretty much a historical relic.
It’s true, theater tends to wear less well than other forms of fiction. There are no more Willy Lomans peddling their wares on the road; quotas are met differently these days, as the current Wells Fargo scandal reminds us. Drug addiction isn’t something alluded to in hushed tones, as in Long Day’s Journey Into Night; it’s a raging epidemic. So, it took some courage for Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater to to open its current season with Shaw’s 1893 play about prostitution, Mrs. Warren’s Profession. The result, however, despite its Victorian dress, is something startlingly contemporary.
Vivie Warren is a young girl who, despite a privileged and cloistered upbringing, is determined to make her own way in the world as a New Woman, focused on a career and personal independence. She’s embarrassed by her brassy, unlettered mother, who nonetheless mysteriously moves in elite circles, and utterly ignorant of the source of her own status. Kitty Warren—the “Mrs.” Is a courtesy title for someone with a daughter— is a working-class girl who has worked herself up to the management of an international chain of high-end brothels from Brussels to Budapest. Her ex-lover and business partner, Crofts, is now romantically interested in Vivie. His intentions are of course honorable, as the phrase of the day went; he means to marry Vivie and set her up permanently. It isn’t clear whether Kitty is in on this—she gives no indication of it, except to show up in Crofts’ company—but she should have no objection to the arrangement, at least in theory; nor is there any necessary reason why Vivie should know what her mother’s relationship to Crofts really is. Business is no business of young girls.
The truth does out, of course, in a pair of scenes between mother and daughter that are the dramatic apexes of the play, and which force Vivie to make the cruelest of choices: cruel, in fact, to both women. Vivie must accept or reject her mother as she is, and with that the realities of her own situation. She’s been educated (a tripos at Cambridge), and can work in an office rather than a factory, but she will be a drudge in either circumstance, perhaps worse-driven behind a desk than on an assembly line, because dreaming of an independence that the wage structure is designed to deny women. Shaw makes clear that the disparity in wages between the sexes is deliberately designed, at least in part, to drive the more attractive and enterprising women of the lower orders into prostitution, itself (as Crofts attests)a lucrative traffic. When one reflects on the fact that these disparities persist to the present day, with women still paid on average substantially less than men for equivalent labor, we are reminded in Shaw that the roots of our own inequality lie in the most naked sexual exploitation, and thus perpetuate its effects.
Vivie represses not only a curiosity about her mother’s ambiguous status, but the central fact of her own situation, namely the lack of an acknowledged paternity. Of course she’s aware of the absence of a father in her life; what she doesn’t fully realize—or at least consciously acknowledge—is how devastating this is for her mobility in a patriarchal order. She determines to be a New Woman, because her only alternative, as Crofts points out to her, is to be a kept one. Like her mother, she may be “a good sort,” but she is simultaneously “a bad lot”: someone whose lack of pedigree stamps her as a member of the lower orders.
The only person untroubled by this situation is Vivie’s caddish suitor, Frank Gardner, who sees her as a meal ticket—provided, of course, that she keeps in her mother’s good graces and retains access to her checkbook. Frank’s father, the local minister, may also be Vivie’s sire, but a little incest in the family doesn’t disturb him either. Only Praed, a middle-aged aesthete who also has his eye on Vivie, exhibits something like decent behavior. But Praed, too, is parasitic on a corrupt system, and when his willed naiveté crumbles, he has nothing to offer but submission to its harsh realities.
Shaw’s exposure of a brutal order is unsparing, beginning with the heavily ironized title of his play. “Mrs.” Warren is no such thing; “Madame” is her appropriate title, and what she practices is not a profession—unless one understands the other pursuits of the Victorian elite as similarly corrupt. Nonetheless, Shaw maintains a light touch; Kitty is a thoroughly human figure, and even the deplorable Frank has candor and charm. As for Vivie, Shaw would have had the example of Ibsen’s Nora before him, and she is his riposte: Vivie’s fate is precisely what awaits Nora when she leaves her doll house.
Kathryn MacMillan’s direction wisely keeps Shaw’s wit intact, and lets its underlying acidity gradually unfold. Five-time Barrymore Award winner Mary Martello will surely contend for another for her superb Kitty, and the rest of the cast—particularly Daniel Frederick’s Frank—is fine. Dirk Durosette’s flexible set works well, and Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes are almost a seventh character in themselves.
We like to see ourselves as far beyond Victorian hypocrisy, of course, but if we have leavened it it is largely with shamelessness. The New Feminism is now very old, and if it has changed the game in some respects—not without cost—it has left certain things intact. Gretchen Carlson has walked away with $20 million for the unwanted approaches of her boss, Roger Ailes, but Ailes’ sins were rewarded with a $40 million buyout. Plus ça change . . .