BBC Radio 7, 25 January 2009
Mrs. Warren's Profession caused a considerable stir in its day. Banned from the stage on its first performance in the 1890s, on account of its frank discussion of female sexual mores, it did not reappear until the 1920s. In these days of sexually liberation, we might wonder what all the fuss was about - plenty of women have made their fortune as brothel-keepers and sent their offspring to university on the proceeds. The play contains strong melodramatic slements: the evil Sir Gerald (Jonathan Coy) tells Mrs. Warren's daughter Vivie (Justine Waddell) about his shady past in an attempt to get his own back on the young woman who has just refused his proposal of marriage. Information is gradually revealed at strategic points throughout the plat, providing suitable coups de théatre and allowing for much moral heart-searching as the ever-so-respectable Victorian males instantly revise their opinions about Vivie's suitability as a marriage partner.
Nonetheless Mrs. Warren's Profession is still worth reviving on account of the climactic final confrontation between Vivie and her mother. In Marion Nancarrow's 2002 revival this was staged as a battle of wills between a sublimely confident Mrs. Warren (Maggie Steed), who believed she understood her daughter perfectly; and an equally determined Vivie who had made up in her own mind never to accept another penny of her mother's fortune. With her deep resonant voice, it appeared that Steed's Mrs. Warren would get her own way once more, just as she had done throughout the rest of the play. After all, hadn't she acted from the best of intentions by sending her daughter to university? As the scene unfolded, Vivie refused to crack; if anything she became must stronger in her resolve - as signalled by increasing emphasis on the consonants in Shaw's dialogue. Not only did she spurn her mother's charity, she did not want any further contact, preferring instead to carve a life out for herself. Mrs. Warren's tone gradually changed; by the end of the scene she begged Vivie in a tremulous voice not to leave her alone. But all to no avail: Vivie's decision was final. The scene ended in an atmosphere of forced politeness as Mrs. Warren recovered her sang froid and reassumed her role as the play's mistress of ceremonies, dictating people's lives with her money. Yet this was nothing more than another facade: Vivie emerged the winner as she achieved what she wanted, rather than conforming to her mother's expectations. One should acquire self-determination, even if that means sacrificing potential wealth and/or prosperity. Bearing Shaw's later work in mind, one wonders why Eliza Doolittle did not heed such advice rather than agreeing to return to Professor Higgins's house in Pygmalion. But that, as they say, is another story.