The title wasn’t meant to be anything to do with the Radio 4 programme (which was hilarious by the way – Anthony Head is my hero). Improved on my last grade though. I also read ‘The Invention of Altruism’ by Thomas Dixon for this essay but didn’t refer to it within my writing – it’s pretty interesting.
Shaw’s play was written to ‘throw that guilt’ of Mrs Warren’s profession ‘on the British public itself’, (Shaw, Preface, 199) as a way to inspire reform in society by making the general public better understand the perils of poverty and the dangers of rigid morality. He writes that ‘Mrs Warren is not a whit a worse woman than the reputable daughter who cannot endure her,’ (199) and yet it is apparent that Vivie is not at all a moral character. In fact, the entire play is devoid of any true morality apart from that which it seeks to inspire in its audience, and as a result the moments of seeming altruism, such as Mrs Warren raising her child away from prostitution and Vivie’s self-imposed estrangement from her mother at the end, are all self-interested and in a sense, immoral.
In order to understand this play’s immorality, it’s important to know how Shaw viewed morality. In ‘The Quintessence of Ibsenism’, he states that immorality ‘implies conduct, mischievous or not, which does not conform to current ideals,’ (Ibsenism 166). By this he conveys the idea that morality is a fiction created by society and is subject to change according to the will of the people. Vivie herself, in Act Four, states that ‘fashionable morality is all a pretence,’ (Shaw, Warren, 279) and the word ‘fashionable’ implies that morality is also arbitrary and superfluous. This is a concept that is well explored and exposed in Act Two during the exchange between Mrs Warren and Vivie.
MRS WARREN. … [She suddenly breaks out vehemently in her natural tongue – the dialect a woman of the people – with all her affectations of maternal authority and conventional manners gone, and an overwhelming inspiration of true conviction and scorn in her] … You boast of what you are to me – to me, who gave you the chance of being what your are. What chance had I? Shame on you for a bad daughter and a stuck-up prude!
VIVIE. … [Sitting with a shrug, no longer confident; for her replies, which have sounded sensible and strong to her so far, now begin to ring rather woodenly and even priggishly against the new tone of her mother] Don’t think for a moment I set myself above you in any way. You attacked me with the conventional authority of a mother: I defended myself with the conventional superiority of a respectable woman. (242-3)
Shaw calls Mrs Warren a ‘woman of the people’ to show that her experience and outlook on the world is common, and her ‘natural tongue’ is that of bitter indignation in the face of the ‘superior’ and ‘respectable’ view that she chose the life she leads. He juxtaposes her now ‘true conviction’ against her previous ‘affectations of maternal authority and conventional manners’ to validate her anger. When followed by an actor, these directions would bring a sudden and dramatic change to the audience’s perception of Mrs Warren, just as it does when read, because her speech is so full of feeling that it breaks away from the melodramatic stock figure of the ‘fallen woman’ that she has been emulating, and as a result it is difficult not to feel for her rather than judge her negatively. Vivie, at this point symbolising the most proper of young ladies who is both respected and clever, is directed to act ‘no longer confident’ of herself in further justification of Mrs Warren’s indignation, because Shaw here has exposed Vivie’s indebtedness to her mother for making her the woman she is, standing in high esteem of both reader and audience.
Mrs Warren’s scolding of Vivie for being a ‘bad daughter and stuck-up prude’ highlights the immorality of Vivie’s dismissal of her mother, and the disapproval of such indifference and ingratitude is emphasised when Vivie makes a distinction between Mrs Warren’s ‘conventional authority of a mother’ and her own ‘conventional superiority of a respectable woman.’ The word ‘conventional’ bears similarity to the ‘current ideals’ written about in ‘The Quintessence of Ibsenism’. Therefore, the ‘morality’ of both women, and Vivie’s ‘superiority’ is subject to change according to the current fashions of thought in society, thus making the moral position of each woman arbitrary in the face of reality.
In the play, Shaw emphasises society’s guilt in sustaining immorality by allowing for the exploitation of the impoverished, and for allowing ‘morality’ to be bought. In his Preface to Mrs Warren’s Profession, he writes that ‘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,’ (Shaw, Preface, 179). In Act Three, Mrs Warren displays an unexpectedly moral and logical insight into the hypocrisies of respectable society by pointing out that every ‘respectable girl’ is brought up 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!’ Respectability here, is linked closely with money or want of more money, and yet later in the exchange she argues that prostitution is ‘far better than any other employment open’ to a poor girl and that she thinks there should be ‘better opportunities for women.’ (Shaw, Warren, 246) In this speech Shaw points out the hypocrisy of associating respectability with money when such a view doesn’t allow for someone desperate to try to gain money simply to live on. And the idea of prostitution being ‘better’ than all the other options to a girl with no money highlights how it would be illogical for a girl to follow the ‘moral’ path of even worse poverty and probably death, which as he points out in his preface reflect how ‘the alternatives offered are not morality and immorality, but two sorts of immorality’ (Shaw, Preface, 200).
As a consequence of the lack of moral alternatives in the background of the play, altruism is not only an impossible concept, but a foolish one as well . In Act Four, Vivie’s only attempt to expose Mrs Warren and Crofts results in showing her powerlessness to change the situation by a moral means:
VIVIE. … There is nothing I despise more than the wicked convention that protects these things by forbidding a woman to mention them. And yet I can’t tell you. The two infamous words that describe what my mother is are ringing in my ears and struggling on my tongue; but I can’t utter them: the shame of them is too horrible for me.
There is open acknowledgement that it is society’s ‘convention’ that won’t allow the immorality of Mrs Warren and Corfts to be exposed. Shaw implies that Vivie must choose between ‘two immoralities’ herself: she can either remain quiet and be guilty of knowing of, but not stopping the actions of her mother and Crofts – whist remaining a ‘respectable’ member of society; or, she can ‘utter’ the ‘infamous words’ that she has to, and mention them amongst society in blatant disregard for ‘convention’ (which would be truly moral) – but if she does this she will lose her status amongst society and will suffer greatly for it. The latter would truly be an act of altruism on Vivie’s part, but according to I.M. Britain ‘Shaw referred in particular to the fallacy and danger of idealising self-sacrificing acts in the service of revolution’ when he spoke about Socialism (Britain 387-8). Whilst Vivie would hardly be revolting against a government, she would be risking almost everything she had if she decided to face the battle against immorality on her own, which would be both illogical and ineffectual. In order to be truly moral she would also have to give up her ambitions to make money out of ‘actuarial calculations’ (Shaw, Warren 215) since that would entail exploiting those dependent on insurance companies. Therefore, the way that Shaw aims to achieve morality in the real world is by writing his plays in a way that directly implicates his audience and readers, and means that the act of speaking about the immoral is not taken on by one person, but many, which will create a shift in the ‘current ideals’ of society and the ‘fashion of morality’ will be more tolerant to those whom it currently condemns.
Mrs Warren’s Profession is a play concerned with morality, but which conveys the impossibility to act morally in reality without risk to oneself and one’s future. The only current option is altruism which would be unlikely, illogical and short-lived. Shaw has written a play in which the ultimate goals, that of equality and morality, are stopped by the very people who attend the performance but who are forced to understand their part in the immorality of the world. His challenge to them is to consider the lives of impoverished women with a view to help, rather than condemn them, or else risk creating more Mrs Warrens.
Shaw, George Bernard, ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’ Plays Unpleasant: 1984. London: Penguin Books Limited. Print.
‘Preface’ Plays Unpleasant: 1984. London: Penguin Books Limited. 179-210. Print.
The Quintessence of Ibsenism: 1922. London: Constable and Company Ltd. Print.
Britain, I.M, ‘Bernard Shaw, Ibsen, and the Ethics of English Socialism’ Victorian Studies: 1978. Vol 21. JSTOR. 26 February. Web.