Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Reexamining the World’s Oldest Profession

By Brianne Harrison

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, currently onstage at Princeton’s Berlind Theater, is a play of surprises both for the audience and the characters. The characters, particularly Mrs. Warren’s cold, unsentimental, highly educated daughter, Vivie and her layabout suitor, Frank, are shocked to learn that Mrs. Warren’s fortune has been made through prostitution, a subject rarely onstage now, and one that was particularly taboo back when the play was written, in 1893.

That a play like this should have been written in the last gasp of the straitlaced Victorian era is one surprise for the audience. That it should be sympathetic to Mrs. Warren’s choice of profession, the plight of women at that time, and written by a man are three more. That man is George Bernard Shaw, one of the preeminent playwrites of his time.

Shaw is perhaps best known to today’s audiences for Pygmalion, which inspired My Fair Lady. With Mrs. Warren, Shaw takes one of the ideas developed in Pygmalion a bit further: it’s hard for a Victorian woman on her own. Even with her education and polish, Eliza Doolittle’s only real option is working in a flower shop—barely a step above peddling nosegays in Covent Garden. The young Mrs. Warren faced a similar problem. Women’s work at that time was low-paid, menial, and often dangerous (the character gives a vivid description of a sister who dies working in a lead factory). So, she used what she had to get by: a pretty face, which she eventually parlayed into a profitable franchise.

This play is not only about “the profession” (which is never mentioned by name), but also about the relationships between mother and daughter and the struggles women faced to achieve economic stability and be viewed by men as equals (a subject that many of us can connect with even today). Vivie, who stomps around and acts like a bratty teenager who naturally thinks she knows more than her mother throughout most of the first two acts, is a woman ahead of her time. Cambridge-educated, she has no use for romance and even comes across as quite masculine, with her hand-crushing handshake, love of mathematics (a pursuit which was essentially reserved for men at that time), and rejection of marriage and family life. Despite this, the men in the play view her as a child who needs protection. Her mother doesn’t fare much better, in their estimation. But these women clearly don’t need protecting—they’ve done just fine on their own. No fainting Angels of the Household here.

The play has its problems for sure (including a mixed-message ending) but it, like Vivie, was ahead of its time and deserves some notice because of that. Prostitution is still a subject that raises eyebrows and invokes stereotypes, but what Shaw understood was that for some women, it wasn’t a bad job at all. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of—it’s not a sin, it’s business. A profession, like any other.

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