By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, May 23, 2010; W40
To: Akiva Fox, Literary Associate, The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, D.C.
I was delighted to learn that you have begun asking outside experts to review the plays your company will soon perform, for publication in your company's newsletter. I don't really understand why you chose me for this one, but my essay is below. Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance, particularly in your new job search.
"Mrs. Warren's Profession," by George Bernard Shaw, is the most famously controversial, shocking, downright lascivious boring play in history. Although it is about prostitution, it contains no nudity, no profanity and only the most genteel hints about the nature of the activities that prostitution entails.
The fact that this play was banned in Britain in 1898 seems less to do with its contents than with the fact that the custodians of the moral standards of turn-of-the-century England were persons with names like Sir Perciville Wussingham, Lady Plushbotham-Harrumphton and Geoffrey Stammerblush, second Earl of Priggington. (In general, British aristocrats and peers have always been extremely stuffy about sex, until such time as they are discovered deceased in their closets, hanging by a garter, wearing ladies' undergarments with a poached mackerel in their mouths.)
Apparently, the central objection to this play was that it seemed to violate an unwritten literary convention of the time, which was that you could write about pimps and harlots and whatnot only so long as you made it clear they were loathsome deviants who would roast in Hell for seducing their unsuspecting, otherwise virtuous clientele (a clientele that comprised, near as I can tell, all adult British males younger than 80). This sort of unwritten literary convention may seem quaint today, but such subtle rules are still practiced. For example, American journalists know they can write about the Tea Party, but only if it is presented as a serious ideological movement instead of as a posse of ignoramuses carrying signs such as the one in the second photo on this page.
But I digress!
Shaw evidently ran into trouble because he portrays Mrs. Kitty Warren -- who runs a chain of bordellos -- as an interesting, even admirable woman driven to her profession by financial need. Miss Kitty is trying to make a better life for her daughter, Vivie, a college-educated sophisticate who had been unaware of the nature of her mother's business. When Vivie finds out, she is so angry and so overwhelmed by the moral ambiguity of her circumstances -- she is considered a lady but owes her refinement to the proceeds of this wicked and unseemly business -- that she rips off her clothes and defiantly parades naked before her mother's gentleman callers.
Just kidding! That sort of indecorous if intriguing behavior would never do! Instead, Vivie responds by engaging in several indignant dialogues that forthrightly discuss her mother's occupation, but only to the extent that it is never overtly mentioned.
The playwright's final sin, in the eyes of contemporaries, was that Mrs. Warren does not die -- death being the only morally acceptable denouement for a person of such debased character. (Here again, we find a parallel to modern cinema, and other unwritten rules: Only attractive people ever get naked; all religious people are hiding deep moral flaws; leaping in the air at the last moment will prevent you from dying in an explosion.)
Finally, I don't mean to suggest that "Mrs. Warren's Profession" is a bad, boring play; it is, in fact, a good, boring play, a milestone in proto-feminist literature. It lays bare society's appallingly timeless tendency to victimize, trivialize and objectify women. You should definitely go see it. I plan to. I hear the actress playing Vivie is hot.
"Mrs. Warren's Profession" runs from June 8 to July 11 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW.