Mrs. Warren’s Profession: Production History
by Sarah Wansley

“It’s much my best play; but it makes my blood run cold: I can hardly bear the most appalling bits of it. Ah, when I wrote that, I had some nerve”

–George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to actress Ellen Terry, May 28, 1897.

The scandal surrounding Mrs. Warren’s Profession was not the fact that Shaw wrote about prostitution, but how he did it. While other plays of the era dealt with prostitutes, they inevitably regretted their behavior and made a bad end. The morally impugnable part of Shaw’s play to his society, is that Mrs.Warren lives, unrepentant. In his preface to the published version of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Shaw addresses a concern expressed by Independent Theatre manager J.J. Greins, and no doubt shared by much of the audience, that as a fallen woman, Mrs. Warren “is not wicked enough.” These critics, Shaw insists, have entirely missed the point. Rather than place the guilt of Mrs. Warren’s Profession on Mrs. Warren herself, Shaw explains, “The whole aim of my play is to throw that guilt on the British public itself.” The tumultuous production history and heated public reception of Mrs. Warren’s Profession demonstrates that whether or not he succeed in throwing guilt, he certainly managed to make a significant portion of the public uncomfortable.

London, 1893. Shaw writes Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Quite aware of the censorship regulations, Shaw cautions Greins, “I do not think there is the least chance of the play being licensed.” English copyright law, however, requires the performance as well as the publication of a play for the author to have complete legal ownership of the piece. Shaw decides to submit Mrs. Warren’s Profession for a license to produce a small staged reading of the play.

London, 1894. The Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays declares the piece “immoral and otherwise improper for the stage,” and prohibits its production in England. This proclamation does not faze Shaw, who realizes that with or without the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition the “ordinary commercial theatres would have nothing to say to me,” and that the censorship actually serves to strengthen his reputation among serious readers.

London, 1898. Shaw publishes Mrs. Warren’s Profession in a collection instructively titled, Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant. Despite the ban on performance, this “unpleasant” play’s publication goes widely unnoticed.

London, 1902. The Stage Society, a members-only club exempt from the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction, produces Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the New Lyric Club. The club, which “rather courted a pleasantly scandalous representation,” opens its doors for one afternoon and one evening performance. The resulting press scandal, far from disheartening Shaw, proves to him the necessity and success of his play. A review published in the St. James Gazette the next day pronounces, “That the tendency of the play is wholly evil we are convinced. The second act contains one of the boldest and most specious defenses of an immoral life for poor women that has ever been written.” Shaw, however, delights in the “shock to the foundations of morality which sends a pallid crowd of critics into the street shrieking that the pillars of society are cracking and the ruin of the State at hand,” and remarks that, “truly my play must be more needed than I knew.” The play is not scandalous because of any lewd scenes or words (indeed, mention of prostitution is clouded in euphemistic terms throughout the play), but rather because it insists that the real immorality in the sex trade is the poverty that forces women in to it. His play indicts not only legislators and factory owners for creating a system in which prostitution is the only financially viable option, but also every individual who buys a garment or product manufactured at starvation wages and by doing so upholds the system. Since Shaw views the evils of prostitution through an economic lens, it is the men who demand sex, not the women who supply it, with whom he finds fault.

New Haven, 1905. American actor Arnold Daly produces Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Hyperion Theatre in New Haven. The opening night crowd is rowdy--Yale had beat Princeton in football that day--and a thousand students pack the galleries alongside professors and local dignitaries. Mary Shaw (no relation to the playwright), the actress playing Mrs. Warren, notes that in Act Two a “pandemonium broke loose in the upper galleries” when Vivie demands to know the identity of her father. Mary realizes that “it was going to be impossible to play Kitty Warren as Kitty Warren should be played, in the vulgar cockney dialect” and “knowing something of the methods of controlling mob audiences” instead adopts the upper class accent and manner of Lady Macbeth. A silence falls over the theater and when the curtain closes rapturous applause sounds. The next day, however, the mayor of New Haven, John P. Studley, receives calls that something improper had played at the Hyperion. Studley meets with Daly, to discuss the play and although he does not personally object to it, decides it would be best if the play not be performed within his jurisdiction. The police chief revokes Daly’s license and the company packs their bags for New York City.

New York City, 1905. The scandalous reputation of the play precedes it, and the production’s opening night in New York sells out. At the end of the third act, Daly gives a speech to the audience, suggesting that children should keep to simplified codes of morality, but for an adult audience, “surely there should be room in New York for at least one theater devoted to truth, however disagreeable that truth may be.” The audience applauds vociferously. In the face of this popular success, critics decry the production as improper. An anonymous review in the New York Herald states: “It defies immorality. It glorifies debauchery.” Interestingly, the appalled critic notes that the play is well acted, but that this success “constituted an added sin to last night’s production, for the better it was acted the more the impurity and degeneracy of the characters, the situations and the lines were made apparent.” Following this outcry from the press, the police commissioner arrests Daly and his company for “offending public decency,” and cancels all future performances. The Court of Special Sessions tries Daly and his manager, but ultimately acquits them. In the decision, handed down by Justice Olmstead, the court admits that “the complaining police officer, who was the sole witness, testified to no indecent or suggestive act on the part of the performer,” and that “there is nothing in the words themselves, nor in any particular phrase or expression, which can be said to be indecent.” Among the press’s critique is the fact that women are present at the performance, which supposedly is improper for the ears and eyes of the weaker sex. Countering this allegation, Shaw points out that he not only wrote the play for women, but also that it had been performed and produced mainly through the determination of women.

New York City, 1907. Daly and his company, having been vindicated, produce Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Manhattan Theatre. This production tours nationally.

London, 1917. British producer Edwin Heys presents a petition for a license to perform Mrs. Warren’s Profession to the Lord Chamberlain. The petition contains the signatures of three bishops, forty-four privy councilors and several members of Parliament. The license is denied.

London, 1924. A new Lord Chamberlain, Roland Baring, the Earl of Cromer, decides that the ban is unwarranted, given that Mrs. Warren’s Profession has been performed all over the United States and Europe. He reluctantly grants a license.

London, 1925. Esmé Percy directs the first licensed public production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession in Britain at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Birmingham. Much has changed since the first illicit production; in his postscript to the play, Shaw notes that despite the suppression of his play for many years, a campaign for the abolition of White Slave Trade has finally been taken up by the League of Nations. Critics of the 1925 production are quick to call the play dated and declare that “the scandal of underpaid virtue and overpaid vice is a thing of the past.” Despite marginal progress within the sex work industry, Shaw pointedly remarks that the contemporary labor conditions for women in other industries amounts to exactly the same exploitation.

Today. Despite great advances in women’s rights and labor conditions, the issues raised in Mrs. Warren’s Profession remain pertinent. No longer scandalous, Mrs. Warren’s Profession receives its Broadway debut at Lincoln Center in 1976, has an extended run Off-Broadway at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2005 and is now frequently produced at regional theaters across the country.