Arts Listings

Shotgun Stages ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’

By Ken Bullock, Special to The Planet
Tuesday April 01, 2008

“No secret’s better kept than the secret everyone guesses.” That secret finally breaking through to its unaware—and unwilling—beneficiary is the story of Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, now on the Ashby Stage in a crisp new Shotgun Players production, with Shaw’s double-edged barbs at the double standard zinging around the auditorium. 

That realization, and what an independently minded late Victorian young lady come of age, like Shaw’s Vivie (in a fine portrayal by Emily Jordan) does with it, rivets the audience’s attention as the tightly wound plot unravels, revealing new nuances and secrets corollary to the principal one: What’s a girl to do, after leaving Cambridge with a sterling reputation in mathematics, when she discovers her mother, a mostly absent figure who provided for her and put her through school—is an old courtesan and businesswoman, in the hospitality business of running a string of bordellos across Europe? 

That the play, originally written in 1893 but banned from the stage until 1925, doesn’t seem dated to an audience today, as do many other socially aware spectacles of yore, is a tribute to Shaw’s cutting wit. It is also a testament to the penetrating quality of his dramaturgy, derived from Ibsen, which takes the formula of the modern commercial play (with its “arc” of emotional build-up and anticipation of a climax) and stiffens it with the Socratic sense of demonstrating the terms of a problem completely by arguing out its different points of view.  

Plato, who canonized that method in his Dialogues, was originally an aspiring tragedian. And when all is said and done, after the gusts of laughter have died down, it’s the genuine tragedy that remains. It’s a tragedy of independence won from stand-offs (not wars) between generations and between sexes, a Pyrrhic victory. The heroine divests herself of the shady business of the past, amid a welter of emotional promises and admonitions, to devote herself, ironically, to the shiny, if sterile, beacon of the commercial world, with a flippant “Goodbye, Frank!” It’s not Nora fleeing from her dollhouse, but it’s an irreparable split nonetheless. 

Vivie’s mother, the madame herself, is portrayed by longtime Shotgun star Trish Mulholland with all Mrs. Warren’s no-nonsense “vulgarity,” the result of coolly going from being a scullery maid in a Temperance establishment, to waitressing, and finally into management as a whorehouse keeper. 

Her old and seemingly stodgy bankroller, Crofts, is portrayed knowingly by John Mercer, another Shotgun Player, who makes an offer to the daughter. “Crofts ... only has one subject,” Vivie’s told when she complains. 

Vivie’s would-be lover, Frank, whose part Joseph O’Malley plays with tart insouciance, recognizes both Mrs. Warren’s questionable metier and Crofts’ corrupt gambit, despising him, though without prejudice, as it were, saying “There’s a freemasonry among the thoroughly immoral.” His father, Reverend Gardner, a social-position-obsessed clergyman, turns out to be an old familiar of madame Warren. 

Then there’s Praed, “old Praddy,” whom Nick Sholley brings off appropriately with a too discreet, overly delicate air. A Ruskin sort of chap, Praed believes in the power of Art and of Beauty—and a detached discretion—as a bulwark against the unpleasantness of the world, provided of course that one has the means to take a convenient tour of Italy. 

The show’s very well cast, and all show themselves at their best—in some cases, even better. Susannah Martin’s direction keeps the pacing brisk and funny with anticipation maintained at the right level to cash in on the reversals and double reverses in the plot. Shaw turns social hypocrisy back on itself with gusto, dryly exposing the true incestuousness of such a milieu, in which (as filmmaker Sam Fuller put it once, discussing war films and the causes of war at the PFA), everyone has an excuse: “If I didn’t do it, somebody else would.” 

Like most contemporary productions of Shaw, this one misses the way his characters know just who they are so well that they acquire a figural stature. Characters like these can make Euripidean rhetorical statements which transcend the situation of the play, making telling points in the guise of wit, somewhat as Shaw’s fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde did. This attribute, and the way it can be used politically, attracted Brecht to Shaw, who demonstrated that one could craftily stylize seeming realism to go beyond itself, . 

Here the actors occasionally half-turn to the audience to declaim, not quite in soapbox style, but using just enough oratory. Shaw always cuts both ways, so the springloaded irony of Mrs. Warren’s exclamation turns back on itself and on the beliefs of its onstage and offstage listeners: “Lord help the world if everybody took to doing the right thing!”