The Playgoer: When Mrs. Warren Was Dangerous

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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

When Mrs. Warren Was Dangerous

Times theatre-page webman Erik Piepenburg has put together a nice little educational primer (with documents!) on the controversy surrounding the original NY premiere of Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession back in 1905, which was basically banned, as it had been in London a decade earlier when it first debuted.

When the American actor Arnold Daly tried to produce the play in New Haven in 1905, police shut down the production after one performance. By the time it reached the Garrick Theater on West 35th Street, interest was at a fever pitch. After opening night, New York City Police Commissioner William McAdoo canceled the remaining performances and arrested almost every person involved, calling the play “revolting, indecent and nauseating where it was not boring.”
Well, ok I know some folks would agree about the "boring" part being adequate grounds for arrest.

Still, Mrs Warren is perhaps my favorite Shaw play, and while I haven't seen the Roundabout's revival with Cherry Jones yet, I recommend just seeing it if you never have.  It's early Shaw (so, he wrote it only in his 40s!) and a little more raw than the later plays.  And its searing indictment of capitalist society's hypocrisy over criminalizing vice never gets old.  Mrs. Warren's graphic and bitter defenses of what poverty makes people do (as she slips from her learned poshness into her natural gutteral cockney) will shock those who think Shaw is just all quips and teacups.

By the way, you'd think the play's subject of prostitution would be a selling point, right?  Then, tell me, why is the word nowhere in the Roundabout ad campaign?  Maybe we haven't come that far since the Comstock days after all...

The word, of course, never appears in the play, either--perhaps causing some audiences today to miss the point!  But this isn't Shaw's choice, just another silly constriction imposed by the censors.  Shaw does make great hay of this, though, in the final scene in one of my favorite meta-theatrical moments of all time.

Long story short, Mrs. Warren is a high-class, international Madam who has kept this secret from the polite society she travels in, and from her now-adult daughter, Vivie.  Kitty has never known who her father is, and barely knew her mother, who sent Vivie off to fancy boarding schools and university with her "tainted" earnings.  In the course of the play she learns who her mother is and, in this last scene, wants to explain this to some close friends.  What ensues is a devilishly clever negotiation by Shaw of both the dramatic and political conflicts at stake in the play and the censored playhouse:

VIVIE. I am sure that if I had the courage I should spend the rest of my life in telling everybody--stamping and branding it into them until they all felt their part in its abomination as I feel mine. There is nothing I despise more than the wicked convention that protects these things by forbidding a woman to mention them. And yet I cant tell you. The two infamous words that describe what my mother is are ringing in my ears and struggling on my tongue; but I cant utter them: the shame of them is too horrible for me.

[She buries her face in her hands. The two men, astonished, stare at one another and then at her. She raises her head again desperately and snatches a sheet of paper and a pen].

Here: let me draft you a prospectus.

FRANK. Oh, she's mad. Do you hear, Viv? mad. Come! pull yourself together.

VIVIE. You shall see. [She writes]. "Paid up capital: not less than forty thousand pounds standing in the name of Sir George Crofts, Baronet, the chief shareholder. Premises at Brussels, Ostend, Vienna, and Budapest. Managing director: Mrs Warren"; and now dont let us forget her qualifications: the two words. [She writes the words and pushes the paper to them]. There! Oh no: dont read it: dont!

[She snatches it back and tears it to pieces; then seizes her head in her hands and hides her face on the table].
So in what seems to be just a private little scene between three close friends is hardly private at all.  Vivie really is addressing the audience: I really wish I could tell you what this play is about but the stupid censors won't let me!  The result is a quite puzzling moment dramatically...but a fascinating one politically.  And one that will surely baffle Broadway audiences today without this context.

Now I must admit, I've never gotten around to researching what the "two words" are.  I always assumed it was a phrase that meant a prostitute or madam.  But do any Shavians or other Victorian scholars out there have an idea?

A free full text of the play here, by the way, if you want to save on the ticket.


Slim and Slam said...

In a review of a 2000 production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, Lynne Walker of the Independent claimed that the two words were "brothel" and "keeper."

Thank you, Google.

Slim and Slam said...

...and J. Ellen Gainor (from Cornell) made the same claim two days ago on the Roundabout's blog. I think we have a winner.

Playgoer said...

Thank you, Slim, for settling a 20 year old question of mine!

Timothy Childs said...

Nice dramaturgical work by Mr. Piepenburg! I wish The Times would do this kind of article more often...

- Timothy Childs