Before being performed in an English public theatre (one that sold tickets to the general public), a play had to receive a license from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The Lord Chamberlain Examiner refused to grant Mrs. Warren a license as it was deemed immoral. The Stage Society, a private club, produced it in London in 1902 to be viewed only by its members. After Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, the Lord Chamberlain lifted the ban, and the play was finally presented in London in a public theatre. In the United States the play was first presented in New Haven on October 27, 1905, but the police shut it down. It moved to New York to perform on October 30, with the entire cast being arrested on charge of disorderly conduct. They were released on bail and later acquitted.
The New York Herald published an anonymous review on October 31 that included such comments as, “The whole story of the play, the atmosphere surrounding it, the incidents, the personalities of the characters are wholly immoral and degenerate. The only way successfully to expurgate Mrs. Warren’s Profession is to cut the whole play out. You cannot have a clean pig stye.”
Victorian society had devised in drama a code for a character who received money or some other reward in exchange for sex as “woman with a past,” “a fallen woman,” or if a foreign character, “courtesan.” Shaw was actually most circumspect in Mrs. Warren with no reference to the actual word or a synonym.
In 1848 Alexander Dumas,fis wrote the novel, La Dame aux Camelias (The Lady of the Camellias)and then dramatized it in 1852 with great success. A year later Giuseppe Verdi turned the work into one of his most popular operas, La Traviata (The Fallen Woman). These works were acceptable to the audience in that even as she finds true love, the heroine dies. A play of great popularity during the 1890s was The Second Mrs. Tanqueray by Arthur Wing Pinero, first produced in 1893. The second Mrs. Tanqueray was a “woman with a past,” and at the end of the play she dies by suicide. Shaw had read the play prior to its first presentation.
Many critics of the time had serious reservations with Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Throughout the play was a tone of flippancy that they could not reconcile with the subject matter. They found the irreverent portrait of and the cavalier attitude toward Rev. Samuel Gardner unacceptable for a man of the cloth. The greatest condemnation, however, was reserved for the character of Mrs. Warren who was unrepentant and exultant in her choices. She says, “The life suits me: I’m fit for it and not for anything else. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would; so I don’t do any real harm by it. And then it brings in money; and I like making money.”
Mrs. Warren exhibits many of the themes and dramatic treatments that Shaw developed throughout his more than 50 plays:
- the hypocrisy of society
- the ability of polite society to turn a blind eye so long it does not have to acknowledge the existence of the unacceptable subjects
- the power of money
- the corruption that money can cause
- the use of tainted money to support good causes and activities
- the emergence of the new woman
- the tone of flippancy counterpointing the subject matter for comic purposes.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession has become one of Shaw’s most frequently produced plays. Since its beginning in 1962 the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, has presented it four times. Welcome to the Springfield premiere production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession written by Bernard Shaw in 1893.