Northlight Theatre

Mrs. Warren’s Profession can be found in George Bernard Shaw’s 1898 anthology, Plays: Pleasant and Unpleasant, where it’s grouped with the plays unpleasant. Shaw put it there because, as he said, its “dramatic power is used to force the spectator to face unpleasant facts.”

Of course, the popular notion of what constitutes an unpleasant fact changes from place to place and time to time. What offended or disturbed a late Victorian Englishman needn’t do the same to enlightened us. And sure enough, the most obviously unpleasant fact about Mrs. Warren–that she runs a string of pricey brothels from Brussels to Budapest–is, though still a felony, no longer a scandal.

Even Mrs. Warren’s less sensational but much more subversive observation that “the only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her” comes across now as standard, if somewhat premature, feminism. And again, not at all unpleasant.

And yet, seeing Mrs. Warren in its new Northlight production left me with a distinctly creepy, uneasy feeling. For all that Shaw’s been absorbed or defanged by the 20th century, he and his play had nevertheless managed to disturb me, make me face something I didn’t care to face. Still unpleasant after all these years.

I guess I should have seen it coming. Though I love to consider myself a cultural and political progressive, I remain philosophically, even aggressively sentimental about certain hoary institutions. The family, for instance. I was a member of one as a child, and I went out and started another when I grew up. Though there was a period of about a decade in between there, when I was only–shall we say?–loosely affiliated with a family, I don’t think I ever perceived myself as permanently independent. I always wanted to be part of the continuity, the plain coziness, that a family represented to me.

Mrs. Warren blows families all to hell. It does so incidentally, as a consequence of vaporizing Victorian concepts about women and capital–but it does so completely. Shaw’s tale about the clever whore who raised her daughter for better things lays bare the pecuniary, the commercial basis of conventional family arrangements. Worse for me, it demonstrates that the family isn’t some mystical entity conferring love, happiness, and forgiveness on all who submit themselves fully enough to it; no, it’s a system: a way of ordering things, a medium for producing certain social effects. And as any good McLuhanite knows, put whatever hopes and wishes you like into it, the medium will still determine the result you get.

In Mrs. Warren’s case, the medium determined that she should get a shock. Hardworking, deeply pragmatic, and dirt-poor, she recognized the economics of sex early on and began putting them to work for her, ultimately making out extremely well. Along the way she gave birth to a daughter, Vivie, and decided the girl would be “respectable.” She invested heavily in Vivie–right schools, right friends–meanwhile keeping her distance from the girl because she knew she herself wasn’t right.

Now Vivie’s all grown up, and Mrs. Warren wants to start collecting dividends on her investment. She wants a share in Vivie’s respectability. More, she wants the love she figures Vivie owes her as a mother. But the family system as she’s worked it doesn’t convert pound notes to love. It’s just not part of the program. Like Cordelia, Vivie’s prepared to offer Mrs. Warren what she’s owed according to her bond; but the deal as Vivie conceives it doesn’t include a lot of the heavy emotional return her mother demands. Shit in, shit out: Mrs. Warren gets shit back from her family system.

None of this is really news, even for me. A harsh analysis of the family has always been part of the feminist critique. The feminist critique, however, is not always presented in such sharp dramatic terms. What got to me this time was the ugly, absolutely compelling theatrical dialectic into which Shaw shoved me with perfect cool–and through which director Richard E.T. White led me with immense humor and intelligence. Though his period jumping, between the 1890s and the 1990s, is as facile as it is fashionable, it’s also devastatingly correct, giving us a visual metaphor for Mrs. Warren’s schizoid dream of making her hard-ass modern style yield her an old-fashioned, sentimental idyll.

White’s also correct in casting an Asian actress, Jacqueline Kim, as Vivie–not only because Kim’s looks show what a world away she is from the occidental Jo Leffingwell’s Mrs. Warren, but because Kim’s so brilliant: bright and hard and not quite hard enough. Bill McCallum and Daniel Mooney are especially fine, too, as different sorts of parasites.

The question now is, What am I going to do? Probably nothing. That’s always best when the profit in conceding a truth exceeds the expense of ignoring it. Anyway, I honestly think I like my family. But now there’s this queasy, unpleasant fact where I used to have something so much softer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Avery.