Sydney Theatre Company presents MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION by George Bernard Shaw In Wharf 1, Hickson Rd.
MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION: A play that intelligently deals with contemporary issues around gender equalities and sex and money.That it was written almost 120 years ago and still is deeply applicable to the social agenda debate, tells us something of the sluggish cruelty of the human being in its capacity to affect proper change. Our embedded prejudices and habitual moral blindness's, such obstacles to human rights!
This play written in 1894 did not have it's first unexpurgated licensed performance in Britain until over thirty years later.This play had subject matters socially controversial, and represented women in a very challenging and, similarly, controversial manner.There was much uproar, especially from the male press of the times.
George Bernard Shaw writes in his preface to his play :
MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION was written in 1894 to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and over working women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together. Indeed all attractive unpropertied women lose money by being infallibly virtuous or contracting marriages that are not more or less venal. If on the large social scale we get what we call vice instead of what we call virtue it is simply because we are paying more for it. No normal woman would be a prostitute if she could better herself by being respectable, nor marry for money if she could afford to marry for love.
Also I desired to expose the fact that prostitution is not only carried on without organization by individual enterprise in the lodgings of solitary women, each her own mistress as well as every customer's mistress, but organized and exploited as a big international commerce for the profit of capitalists like any other commerce ...
I have spared no pains to make known that my plays are built to induce, not voluptuous reverie but intelligent interest, not romantic rhapsody but humane concern. ... MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is no theorem, but a play of instincts and temperaments in conflict with each other and with a flinty social problem that never yields an inch to mere sentiment. ...
I simply affirm that MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is a play for women; that it was written for women; that it has been performed and produced mainly through the determination of women that it should be performed and produced (Mr Shaw is talking of the original presentation) ... and not one of these women had any inducement to support it except their belief in the timeliness and the power of the lesson the play teaches. ...
Andrew Upton, Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company, in his message in the play program tells us that:
Sarah (Giles) who recently directed MARRIAGE BLANC for us, is very interested in the social construction of women's roles. This same question of women in society was one of the preoccupations of George Bernard Shaw's work. Sarah in her reading came across MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION which was a play we had never seen (this is the third professional production I have seen in Sydney - the last at the Q Theatre in Penrith, in the 1980's). It leapt off the page with its vigorous ideas and its ruthless scrutiny of men and women and their foibles
…There's no point in programming a play unless you can cast it. Mrs Warren and Helen Thomson seemed a match made in heaven.
So, as Mr Shaw intimates above, in the original presentation, women led the production to the stage, women have led this manifestation of Shaw's genius in this Sydney Theatre Company revival of the play. Ms Giles and Thomson, thank you.
Shaw, born in 1856, was an Irishman, leaving Dublin for London, at the age of 20. An autodidact, he developed the skill of a persuasive orator/speaker, and became, politically, a Socialist, an active member of the Fabian Society (joined it in 1884 and worked beside Beatrice and Sidney Webb). He wrote five unsuccessful novels, including CASHEL BYRON'S PROFESSION and AN UNSOCIAL SOCIALIST; wrote music and theatre criticism for a living, as well as being a pamphleteer and essayist for the causes and many interests that attracted his very active attention: THE QUINTESSENCE OF IBSEN, appeared in 1891. MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, his third play, of over forty-two, followed on from WIDOWER'S HOUSES (1892) and THE PHILANDERER (1893). This play, then, is relatively, a young playwright's 'effort'. His great plays and his hallmark stylistic powers are still to be crystallised: in my estimation, MAN AND SUPERMAN (1903); MAJOR BARBARA (1905 - incidentally, was, amusingly, once entitled ANDREW UNDERSHAFT'S PROFESSION - the critique of capitalism being the connection to Mrs Warren, one supposes); HEARTBREAK HOUSE (1917);and SAINT JOAN (1924). Certainly, his most popular is PYGMALION (1912) - even more esteemed by the general public as the musical, MY FAIR LADY(1956). Shaw was awarded the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature. His wife, Charlotte Shaw died in 1943; he, in 1950 (I was two and a half! I had always thought of him, when I was an ignorant young actor, being a long ago Victorian, and was/am amazed to consider our time, his and mine, on the planet, coincided briefly. Humbling).
The most evident sources of MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION are, 1: de Maupassant's short story, YVETTE (1884), concerning the relationship between a mother and daughter and the profession of prostitution. 2: Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's play THE SECOND MRS TANQUERAY (1893), and, "although it differs significantly from Shaw's in that the protagonist is what has been termed a 'fallen woman' or a 'woman-with- a-past', and not a prostitute ... "  and that Mrs Tanqueray like many heroines of this period ends by shooting herself (unlike our two Shavian women, here), following a convention of Victorian literature, where those iconoclastic heroines were required to 'bend' to the acceptable behaviour of the period at the conclusion of their stories, by either getting married (Jane Eyre), entering a nunnery or fleeing the country (Lady Emily Trevelyan), entering a 'mad house' (Lady Audley) or dying, either by misadventure (Anna Karenina) or disease (say consumption! Marguerite Gautier)), whereas, reason, Mr Shaw argues, in a biting critical review of the Tanqueray play, (1895) should suggest a more realistic end. 3: THE CENCI by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819, but performed , for the first time in 1886) - "this gothic horror play was contentious because of the portrayal of Beatrice's rape at the hand of her villainous father"  - a strong theme of incest on the British stage!!! contentious, indeed - but more obviously connected to MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION "because of the intergenerational struggles between two dynamic personalities and the curse of the elders upon the children." . Which, of course, then, connects to 4: Ibsen's GHOSTS (1881) to Shaw's play, which also has the shadow of incest and similar generational conflicts at its centre.
"In 1869 Emily Davies signed the lease on a house in the small market town of Hitchin, and made history. In years to come, she would be joined by others and would move to larger accommodation in Girton, nearer to the town of Cambridge. But at first there were only five young women in her care: the first women to study a degree course at an English University".  Cambridge's Newnham College was founded in 1871, the first women's college at the university. Despite the fact that the women could attend the lectures they were not awarded a degree. These women were part of the movement called THE NEW WOMAN. "At the time, the average female brain was thought to be 150 grams lighter than a man's, and the country's leading doctors warned that if women studied too hard their wombs would wither and die. Almost thirty years later, when the Cambridge Senate held a vote on whether women students should be allowed official membership of the university, there was a full scale riot."  "For Shaw, society needed to revise the way in which it viewed women as domesticated angels or unholy whores. The 'Woman Question', as it became known, dominated public discussion. ..."  . MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION was one of many plays to join the fray of public debate. Kitty Warren becoming a powerful representative with her daughter, Vivie, as two of the literary heroines/champions of the cause of women's rights.
Shaw framed his socialist arguments within the then regular theatrical means of the late 19th century, of farce and melodrama, sprinkling the sometimes near epigrammatic Shavian witticisms throughout, to leaven and relax his audience into attending to the play's content. "It was patently Shaw's intention to achieve a transference of the horror and shame conventionally associated with the sex-trade (has much changed?) to its normally accepted and respected counterparts in the economic and social organization of society (has much changed?!) ... MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is quite deliberately stagey ... riddled with the conincidences and surprises of farce; and makes its points with all the force of melodrama; ..." . " Man is an animal that laughs; he also possesses faculties of speech and reason more highly developed than in other animals. The observation is older than Aristotle. The curiousness of the combination it recognizes forms the basis of the drama of G.B. Shaw, himself supremely endowed with all three powers : laughter, speech and reason." .
Ms Giles sets this production in a stripped back kind of way and creates a mood representation effect/affect, aided by beautiful lighting states (Nigel Levings) - and the sparing selection of necessary furniture and properties, garden and interior, is reminiscent of period, if not actually period, set in front, for three of the acts, of a rose-pink wall of flowers (set design, Renee Mulder). What is gained in mood and pleasant sensation is not always balanced with the loss of clear storytelling 'stakes'; for example, the act three garden at the Rectory has a political and social context for the story that is lost with just an addition of a small hanging bell in the door like entry in the back flowered wall - in experience, the design as is, is accepted as the first act garden of Vivie's accommodation, by the audience, a very different social space, and contextually lessens the social and symbolic dilemmas of the action. The final act had a solid double writing table in the centre of the revolve covered with the necessary cluttered paraphernalia, but is architecturally awkwardly placed in consideration of the entrance used for the characters in the play. The garden wall has disappeared and we are simply in an island of light with no other design clue to the world, just an abyss of black wall - it is, indeed beautiful, but, clumsy for the physical action of the play.
Each of the scene changes and the opening and closing of the acts of the play have a specially composed score by Max Lyandvert. The music is very atmospheric, matching/supporting the visual direction by Ms Giles to the sensation mood affect of the production. As a composition it has a beautiful 'stand alone' quality - pieces of music to have at home. It does, however, mostly, set a romantic/sentimental tone, a little oppositional to the general cooler intellectualism of the debate, and is quite long, extending the scene changes to a choreography 'danced' by the actors and crew, that did not necessarily maintain the momentum of the play. It seemed that the music composition was the focus of the changes and the physical action was extended to accommodate it, rather than the usual, to be at the efficient need of the physical changes (the first act music change is quite starling in its modernity and is not contiguous with the subsequent sound offers. I quite preferred the direction of the first scene change sound offer - it seemed to contextualise the play more accurately as a contemporary one).
The costumes (Renee Mulder) are generally period but do not seem to register accurately enough the socio-economics of the characters' worlds. There do not seem to be enough changes, especially for the men - poor Praed, for instance, and the lack of detail, for instance, in Vivie's first act costume, and especially the last act costume of Mrs Warren herself, that with the removal of the mantle, looked as if she has come only partly dressed or had hastily dressed - alas, the Merchant/Ivory films, and recently Downton Abbey has set a standard for details!!! (One wonders if the Sydney Theatre Company had the budget to mount this production with six actors and the changes required.)
Beside the thrilling challenge of the play text of Shaw the reason to see this production is to watch a magnificent performance by Helen Thomson as Mrs Kitty Warren. The double life of this woman and the required social pretensions of dialect and gestural behaviour between the "Respectable Kitty" and the "Real Kitty" are dazzlingly engaged in, with moment to moment bravura. The shifts are colossal and almost appear to be anarchic in their presentation, but do have a constructed artistry of careful choice. The passionate reasoning of explanation of Kitty's life behaviours and the emotional devastation of the consequences to her personal life, are plumbed with pitiful accuracy - truly moving and breathtaking in its courage. The balance, that any actor of Shaw must have, of the head and the heart of the character, neither, swamping the other, is expertly judged. Besides the physical restraints, the selection of the dynamics for the chosen physical and vocal gesture to maintain textural clarity of argument, is astounding. The visual and vocal balance between the coarseness and pretensions of the character are captured unerringly. Ms Thomson engages with the language and uses her vocal range with expertise and relish. (It puts a pause to my reservations of her performance in THE SPLINTER last year).
What Ms Thomson does not have is a sufficiently helpful or challenging opposition from her Vivie. It prevents this Mrs Warren from being truly, frighteningly great. Lizzie Schebesta playing the 'bluestocking' Vivie Warren does not seem to have the measure of the character or the means to reveal her accurately. Ms Schebesta tends to indulge an emotional, even romantic version of a victimised Victorian girl, showing a propensity with choice to stray into, say, the melodrama of an Oscar Wilde ingenue, a Lady Windermere - that character, like Vivie, very young. But, Shaw's Vivie is a young independent woman, brought up without close parental care of either sex, without, even, a mentor of any kind, of any emotional commitment, and, so, had to build, perforce, for herself, a carapace and accompanying depth of no-nonsense practical self sufficiency - her education at a university level, very rare, excelling in a study of mathematics/numbers, that was thought to be highly improbable and inappropriate for anyone of the female sex to engage in, a symptom of the choice of her disciplinary inclinations for life survival.
Coolly, calculatingly, Vivie applied herself rigorously to study, to win a bet of 50 pound from her mother: "I said flatly it was not worth my while to face the grind ... but I offered to try ... for 50 pound. She closed with me for that, after a little grumbling; and I was better than my bargain. But I wouldn't do it again for that, 200 pound would have been nearer the mark. ... I can make calculations for engineers, electricians, insurance companies, and so on; ... I shall set up chambers in the City, and work at actuarial calculations and conveyancing. Under cover of that I shall do some law, with one eye to the Stock Exchange all the time. I have come down here by myself to read law: not for a holiday. I hate holidays." Very determined, manly occupations, indeed.
Vivie demonstrates her cool logical ability to assess the romantic offers about her, when she sees, firstly, the ridiculous and villainous Sir George Crofts (Martin Jacobs) for the low life he is and rejects his offers of marriage: " ... I am much obliged to you for being so definite and business-like. I quite appreciate the offer: the money, the position, Lady Crofts, and so on. But I think I will say no, if you don't mind. I'd rather not. ... My no is final. I won't go back on it. ... There is no chance of my altering it. ... When I think of the society that tolerates you, and the laws that protect you! ..." Then, onto Frank Gardner (Eamon Farren), her young wastrel wooer, and to Praed (Simon Burke) her aesthete admirer, she gives no quarter: " Mr Praed: once for all, there is no beauty and no romance in life for me. Life is what it is; and I am prepared to take it as it is. ... Sit down ... You both think that I have had an attack of nerves. Not a bit of it. But there are two subjects I want dropped, if you don't mind. One of them (to Frank) is love's young dream in any shape or form; the other (to Praed) is the romance and beauty of life ... You are welcome to any illusions you may have left on those subjects: I have none. If we three are to remain friends, I have to be treated as a woman of business, permanently single (to Frank) and permanently unromantic (to Praed). ... I was sentimental for one moment in my life - beautifully sentimental - by moonlight; ..."
That one sentimental moment, having taken her mother into her arms in the Shavian, deliberately preposterous melodramatic close of Act Two, bathed in moonlight. Tongue firmly in cheek, Mr Shaw writes:
Mrs Warren: "And you'll be good to your poor old mother for it, won't you?"
Vivie: "I will dear. (Kissing her) Goodnight."
Mrs Warren (with unction): "Blessings on my own dearie darling! a mother's blessing!"
She embraces her daughter protectingly, instinctively looking upward for divine sanction.
The training of Vivie's nature reveals and hardens itself as the world of her mother's fortune is confirmed in Act Four. She has, finally, a powerful sense of self with no care for the late, emotional needs of her mother, despite Kitty's desperate pleadings:
...From this time I go my own way in my own business and among my own friends. And you will go yours. Goodbye. ...Mother you don't at all know the sort of person I am. ... I don't think I am more prejudiced and straight laced than you: I think I'm less. I'm certain I'm less sentimental. ... (but) I am my mother's daughter. I am like you: I must have work, and must make more money than I spend. But my work is not your work, and my way is not your way. We must part. It will not make much difference to us: instead of meeting one another for perhaps a few months in twenty years, we shall never meet: that's all. ... It's no use, mother: I am not to be changed by a few cheap tears and entreaties anymore than you are, I daresay. ... They cost you nothing; and you ask me to give you the peace and quietness of my whole life in exchange for them. What use would my company be to you if you could get it? What have we two in common that would make either of us happy together? ... Now, once and for all, mother, you want a a daughter and Frank wants a wife. I don't want a mother; and I don't want a husband. I have spared neither Frank nor myself in sending him about his business. Do you think I will spare you? ... That is why I am bidding you goodbye now.
And, on her mother's exit, Vivie (matter-of-factly) says "Goodbye." and on the slamming of the door as her mother goes Shaw instructs :
The strain on Vivie's face relaxes; her grave expression breaks up into one of joyous content; her breath goes out in a half sob, half laugh of intense relief. She goes buoyantly to her place at the writing table; pushes the electric lamp out of the way; pulls over a great sheaf of papers; and is in the act of dipping her pen in the ink when she finds Frank's note. She opens it unconcernedly and reads it quickly, giving a little laugh at some quaint turn of expression in it. "And Goodbye, Frank''. She tears the note up and tosses the pieces into the wastepaper basket without a second thought. Then she goes at her work with a plunge, and soon becomes absorbed in its figures.
Ms Schebesta has some of the character, and it is the 'pretty'- feminine part of it, which is not a very big part, in Shaw's conception of Vivie Warren. Ms Schebesta does not easily embrace the cold hard steel of this young lady's upbringing: This New Woman. This is a woman who could soon mount the suffragette barricades, chaining herself to those barricades alongside Mrs Pankhurst! On the night, I attended, the problem in my belief in this Vivie was confirmed undoubtedly in those, above, quoted Shavian directions, being generally ignored. Ms Schebesta grappled with her own sentimentality about the situation and not Vivie's, and so, did not break into "a joyous content", rather a resigned one; when the breath was demanded it underlined the sob over the laugh, sentimental to the last!; she did not move "buoyantly" to the desk as if, at last, able to embrace her actuarial destiny free of any obligation but her own, there was instead a lingering sense of melancholia. Frank's note did not draw "a laugh" and the work was not taken with a "plunge", rather, a little intimation of the burden of the tasks. And certainly, as the revolve spun in a circle to the mournfully long music cue, directed by Ms Giles, Ms Schebesta became wearied and sad in her body language instead of, at last, carefree and perhaps, jubilantly absorbed.
The biggest problem throughout the night, however, was, Ms Schebesta's technical vocal work and lack of enjoyment in the language of Shaw - a love of the words - and the power that they had all on their own. And, if in tackling Shaw there is a lack of that embrace and sense of joy, it can be only less than impressive. For Shaw is, if, nothing else: words, words, words. The contrast between the masterful embrace of the opportunities that Ms Thomson understood Shaw had given Kitty, and her instrument's ability to play the music of the text, was terribly palpable in the two big duet scenes between Vivie and her mother in Act Two and Four. Ms Thomson was required to work doubly hard to get the drama up, and keep it up to an exciting level, time and again. Ms Schebesta unable to speak or think the text with the cool argumentative clarity that Shaw had given her, tended to substitute sentimental emotional life, becoming 'shouty' with a breathless red-faced anger, and, so, no real sense of these two instruments playing musically, harmonically together for the Shavian dexterities and delicacies occurred. Ms Schebesta came in, in reply to Ms Thomson's work and cue, without real listening skills, nearly always under the musical note and energy given to her by Ms Thomson, and fudged/compensated it with emotional blurrings, instead. This tendency was not restricted to her interaction with Ms Thomson - it was true throughout her engagement with all of her fellow players. Add to this the intellectual generalisation in and about the use of Vivie's language and most of Shaw's brillance becomes, relatively, muffled. There was no sense of word by word structuring for the Shavian arguments -no clear logics, rather, subjective internalisations as substitute - pure emotional instincts responding to all the combative arguments in Vivie's replies. The head/objective craftsmanship not engaged with sufficient balance for the full impact of the written text. Variation of pitch, vocal range, is always a more interesting choice, than volume, but it does require a coolness of the artist's temperament to override the instinctive rising emotional states, it demands an absolute objectivity in craftsmanship to contain the actor - the self - to rather serve the needs of the character, to totally facilitate the writer's conception, than the indulgence in the actor's emotional response - which is often gratifying for the actor but to no one else much. When craft is brought to bear on the instinctive passions of the actor and held within the 'container' that the writer has written, art, maybe, sometimes made. Never the other way round. If the emotional forces of the actor break through the writer's container, the result, relatively, is a 'mess' of the writer's aims and technique, and the audience is cheated of the main effort of the miracle of storytelling in the theatre - the primal gift of the writer. Listen to Ms Thompson to observe the wonders of it. Ms Schebesta's performance lacked objective skills and indulged in emotional 'escapes'. Ms Thompson manages herself and cuts the cloth that she has, apparently in abundance, emotional and technical resources, to create Kitty Warren as Shaw surely dreamed of.
There was, on the other hand, superb work from Mr Farren as Frank Gardner, capturing the practical and scheming, and, yet, essentially good natured human aspects of a man/wastrel, a young evolving man of his class, still with a wicked sense of fairness and boundaries - he is, as yet, not completely lost in the hypocrisies of the life temptations about him. Frank's words glittered with spiky intelligence and appeared to come with comfortable ease. Voice, and especially, that relaxed, louche body language embodying this young man was wonderfully thought through by Mr Farren.(Keith Bain, Julia Cotton and Bill Pepper would be pleased.) It is good to see Mr Farren, at last, truly challenged by a great playwright and seeing him rise to that. In this case, unlike Ms Schebesta, the balance of objective instrument control, as a craftsman, was balanced with the careful revelation of a rich, resource filled emotional life. His, Mr Farren's Frank's little duet of flirt with Ms Thomson's Kitty in Act Two, resulting in a very tense sexual kiss was uncomfortably real, in this world of Shaw. The stage noticeably moistened. I am sure Mr Shaw would have been delighted.
It was an unexpected pleasure to see Simon Burke on stage again at the STC. It has been some time. The wit and sense of honest propriety of his Praed was a weight of goodness without cloying, sensitive and knowing. I was particularly struck by the very expert and intelligently handled work of Martin Jacobs as Crofts. I have not seen this actor before, and look forward to seeing him again. Elegant, witty and generous. Crofts was more than the melodrama villain of the Victorian stage - rather a power to fear and be wary of, and, yet, also, understandable - another man of his times, but lost. Drew Forsythe playing the Reverend Samuel Gardner, Frank's father, and ex-paramour of Ms Kitty, tended to search for his character telling through low music hall hugger mugging. The style was unlike any of the other work of the other actors. It did not succeed in any way and was a puzzlement of directorial advice.
MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is a play worth seeing. This production works. It is by no means evenly accomplished but it reveals George Bernard Shaw as a playwright for all ages.
P.S. Appro Ms Giles reading, that has initiated this production, might I suggest reading the playwright Pam Gems. Except for DUSA FISH STAS AND VI (1976) and perhaps PIAF (1978), she has been strangely neglected on our stages in Sydney. I think of her not as a feminist writer, but as a "femalist'. (She passed away only last year.) Ms Gems re-writing of history in her telling of the Swedish queen, QUEEN CHRISTINA (1977) story is interesting; her adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas (fils) CAMILLE (1984), echoes some of the thematics of MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION; while STANLEY (1996) is ostensibly about the painter Stanley Spencer, it is the women in the play that are the subject matter of the thematics. A female playwright, directed by a woman, with great women's roles - amazing to see. Although, Joanna Murray-Smith is at last returning to our Sydney theatre scene.
- MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION by Bernard Shaw. New Mermaids edition, Methuen Drama - 2012.
- BLUESTOCKINGS by Jane Robinson. Viking an imprint of Penguin Books - 2009.
- THE SHAVIAN PLAYGROUND by Margery M. Morgan. Methuen and Co Ltd -1972.
- BERNARD SHAW -VOLUME ONE: THE SEARCH FOR LOVE by Michael Holroyd. Chatto and Windus - 1988.
- SHAW IN HIS TIME by Ivor Brown. Nelson - 1965.
- The Sydney Theatre Program Notes.