Mrs. Warrant's Profession: The Intellectual, the Victim, and the Conventional Woman
Mrs. Warren's Profession" by George Bernard Shaw was a play written more than a hundred years ago in 1894
The roles that women play in this masterpiece show that Shaw was far ahead of his time in his thoughts about what women should do and be. He presented a new vision of an intellectual, entrepreneurial woman and challenged the conventional roles imposed by society. He also included accounts of women victimized by a capitalist society and defended their rights to take whatever actions they had to in order to changer their circumstances even if that meant prostitution. In fact, Shaw's beliefs are consistent with modern-day feminism with only one exception. Shaw seemed to fear that a woman's independence and choice of a career had to come at the expense of something else, namely love and family. Nonetheless, "Mrs. Warren's Profession" is still revolutionary in comparison to the idealized Victorian version of what a woman should be.
The play has two main characters, Vivie Warren, and her mother Mrs. Kitty Warren. Vivie is an intellectual seeking an actuarial career, but her mother is involved in a more unseemly profession, prostitution. The play begins with visits from guests Praed, a friend of Mrs. Warren's and Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren's business associate. These guests are later joined by Frank, a pursuer of Vivie's romantic affections and his father, Reverend Gardner. The plot centers around Vivie's discovery of her mother's secret career and her inability to get her to change. The interactions that Shaw shares make for a lively discourse that clearly conveys his beliefs on the more fortunate intellectual woman, the woman victimized by capitalism, and the conventional role model.
The Intellectual, Entrepreneurial Woman
Shaw's play shows that women have the opportunity to be the intellectual woman as illustrated through Vivie Warren. His description of her in Act I is:
She is an attractive specimen of the sensible, able, highly-educated young middle-class Englishwoman. Age 22. Prompt, strong, confident, self-possessed. Plain business-like dress, but not dowdy. She wears a chatelaine at her belt, with a fountain pen and a paper knife among its pendants."
Vivie has distinquished herself at mathematical tripos at Cambridge and is very independent as evidenced by her turning to actuarial work at Honoria Fraser's to support herself instead of accepting her mother's money.
With the characters of Vivie and her mother, Shaw gives us a more realistic treatment of women's economic and social position, getting away from the idealized Victorian image of the "Angel in the House" and her symbolic role of embodying the spiritual values of the family and of the society. Instead, he presents them as individuals struggling in a complex moral world and making their different choices as different people. And, as discussed later in this paper, these choice are greatly influenced by the woman's circumstances that they are born into.
Vivie and her mother are unconventional for Victoria times in choosing a career other than marriage. But, unfortunately, Shaw depicts these careers as meaning the loss or rejection of love. For Vivie, this means a complete dismissal of love and the romance and beauty of life. She says:
But there are two subjects I want dropped, if you don't mind. One of them is love's young dream in any shape or form: the other is the romance and beauty of life, especially Ostend and the gaiety of Brussels. You are welcome to any illusions you may have left on these subjects: I have none. If we three are to remain friends, I must be treated as a woman of business, permanently single and permanently unromantic."
And, Mrs. Warren if forced to lose her daughter in order to keep her career. Responding to her daughter's request to abandon her profession managing brotherls, Mrs. Warren passionately responds.
A must have work and excitement, or I should go melancholy mad. And what else is there for me to do? The life suits me: I'm fit for it and not for anything else. If I didn't do it somebody else would; so I don't do any real harm by it. And then it brings in money; and I like making money. No: it's no use: I can't give it up -- not for anybody.
Shaw's view that women must sacrifice love and relations with family members is the most disappointing aspect of his play. While the majority of his work represents a dramatic leap forward for women in the Victorian time, he hasn't allowed for women to progress in their intellectual growth and entrepreneurship without a consequence. He seems to support their advancement, but is at the same time, afraid of it. This is apparent in Praed's questions to Vivie, "What happens to the world of chivalry, feeling, beauty in the modern business world? Does practicality not appear more viable than romance in a world where sentiment has been reduced to sentimentality?" Regrettably, these concerns are still present in today's society where it's argued that a woman going to work will negatively impact the unity of the family and the nurturing of their children.
In addition to the fact that the Warren women aren't married is unusual for the Victorian times, there are a few extra peculiarities about their being single. First, Mrs. Warren is not only single, but she is also a single mother. The role of a single mother was scandalous during Shaw's time. Secondly, Vivie is being pursued by a man named Frank that wants to marry her mainly because he has no money and she does. Thus, we see a role reversal from the typical scenario of a female gold digger trying to marry a man for his money. Throughout the play Vivie, is constantly fending off Frank's attempts at winning her affection. Finally gives up his attempts when he realizes how her mother earns the money. He states, "I really can' bring myself to touch the old woman's money now." This shows that Frank didn't really love Vivie.
Women as Victims of the Capitalist Society
The play's discussion of why women turn to prostitution clearly shows the woman as a victim in the capitalist society. Shaw wrote the play partly in response to an 1885 law making prostitution punishable by fine and imprisonment. He saw prostitution as an outgrowth of deplorable working conditions for women in the new Industrial England.
This view is clearly reflected in Mrs. Warren's explanation of why she got started in the business of prostitution through the description of what happened two her two half sisters in ACT II:
One of them worked in a whitelead factory twelve hours a day for nine shillings a week until she died of lead poisoning. She only expected to get her hands a little paralyzed; but she died. The other was always held up to us as a model because she married a Government laborer in the Deptford victualling yard, and kept his room and the three children neat and tidy on eighteen shillings a week -- until he took to drink."
Shaw's play dispelled the myth that women engaged in prostitution are possessed by the devil,-lewd, depraved creatures who would not, even if they had the choice, engage in any other profession. Says Mrs. Warren, "Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn't rather have gone to college and been a lady if I'd had the chance?" Shaw further shows that the only difference between a prostitute and a "respectable" girl is hypocrisy and legal sanction. He makes his point by showing how Mrs. Warren's sister, Liz, uses her money to buy back her reputation from the Church and Society. However, Mrs. Warren remains the outcast, while all those who benefit by her profession, including her daughter, move in the best circles. Shaw also reinforces the respectability of a prostitute by depicting Mrs. Warren as an excellent mother who has surrounded her daughter with comfort and ease and has given her a first-rate education. Mrs. Warren's outrage at the hypocrisy of the world's view on prostitution is evident in the following passage:
What is any respectable girl brought up to do but to catch some rich man's fancy and get the benefit of his money by marrying him? -- as if a marriage ceremony could make any difference in the right or wrong of the thing! Oh, the hypocrisy of the world makes me sick!"
Shaw further illustrates the hypocrisy of those against prostitution by showing how religious figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Reverend Gardner and the supposedly outstanding citizen Croft take advantage of and profit from prostitution.
The Archibisop of Canterbury makes money from renting to brothels and Croft has invested heavily in the profession, but all hide behind a shield of respectability. Reverend Gardner has fathered an illegitimate child with Mrs. Warren and he is a drunk in addition to being a frequent adulterer. He even…