Prof. Sehdev Kumar
TORONTO: Playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was a tireless crusader for one social cause after another. Theatre and fine arts, he believed, were “subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective instruments of moral propaganda in the world.” Shaw’s plays thus are often full of debates and arguments – sometimes eloquent and some didactic, but never dull.
Shaw’s passion and love for debate and argument for the ‘oldest profession’ — why it exists, how it exists — is most eloquently present in a current play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Written at the end of nineteenth century, during the Victorian era, at a time when, it is estimated, over 100,000 prostitutes roamed the streets of London, the play has had a shocking journey of its own. It was not allowed to be performed in a theatre in London; it was too shocking, too obscene, and too immoral. Mrs. Warren is a rich and respectable woman. She hobnobs with the gentry of the society: the lords, bishops, the successful artists and businessmen. Once she was a poor woman, who was forced into prostitution to make both ends meet, and to survive. But today she is a successful business woman; she runs and owns many houses in many countries. She is a ‘Madam’ with panache; she is an international brothel entrepreneur.
All this in a play was very shocking a hundred years ago, not only in London but in many other cities where efforts were made to present the play, and were thwarted by the custodians of morality, including in USA and Canada: “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 sty.”
In 2016, after more than 110 years since the play was first written and presented in a private men’s club in London, there is much that has changed in the world, including the position of women in the society. Women have vote and position in the cabinets; they are there in all professions and universities in many countries in the world. Despite all this, this play has the power to ring true even today.
In the play, it is not the men who raise an accusatory finger against Mrs. Warren but her own daughter Vivie. She has been brought up in luxury, and has been educated at Cambridge with all the privileges available mostly only to men, and to the rich. She is confident and confrontational. But she has no idea about the source of her mother’s luxuries, or about her own privileged life. When she does discover, she can understand the circumstances that pushed her mother into prostitution, but she cannot understand why she would choose to be a Madam herself and a ‘capitalist’.
As a fervent socialist, Shaw railed against the decadent power of money to rob people of their morality; he saw money as form of prostitution that made people to sell not only their bodies but their souls.
Thus the debate here is not between Mrs. Warren and her myriad men clients, but between her and her ‘modern’ daughter Vivie.
Brilliantly directed by Eda Holmes, and acted with aplomb by Nicole Underhay as Mrs. Warren, and Jennifer Dzialoszynski as her daughter Vivie, this is Shaw at his best: provocative, witty, and very contemporary.
(Prof. Sehdev Kumar lectures on ‘International Films and the Human Condition’ at the University of Toronto)