George Bernard Shaw’s play, revived in this production at the Comedy theatre by Michael Rudman, is a damning portrayal of women’s position in Victorian society.
The story of an ostensibly respectable woman and mother who is actually a prostitute and brothel madam was understandably shocking when it was published in 1898, leading the Lord Chamberlain to ban it from performance. But though the frank discussions of prostitution will not offend 21st century sensibilities, the story remains admirably punchy. No one, after all, wouldn’t be a touch perturbed to discover their mother was a member of the oldest profession.
This is what happens to Vivie Warren, a Cambridge educated maths genius who has been brought up with all the accoutrements and benefits of money, but without ever knowing how her largely absent mother came by it. A thoroughly modern woman who smokes, drinks whiskey and puts men swiftly in their place, Vivie has such composure and strength of mind that you wouldn’t expect her to be shaken by anything. And indeed, when her mother first reveals her employment and outlines the reasons her younger self entered into it, Vivie reacts as reasonably as anyone could expect. But that is before she finds out that her aging mother, now wealthy and in very different circumstances to her youth, has not exactly taken early retirement.
Bernard Shaw’s discussion of the issues involved in prostitution is refreshingly frank and it is clear why the play would have made the censor squirm in his seat; not because it promotes prostitution – it doesn’t – but because it shows the hypocrisy of Victorian men’s attitudes to women and the struggle of women to survive independently in life without resorting to desperate measures. Mrs Warren may be a lady of the night but she is also a fine businesswoman and has the independence and financial security that other women get through marrying well. Is marrying for money any better than being a prostitute? Shaw puts the question out there.
With a rasping voice, Felicity Kendal plays Mrs Warren as a woman who long ago came to terms with her situation and isn’t going to apologise for it now. But her encounter with her daughter reveals an inner vulnerability as she is forced to question the decisions she made long ago, decisions that, at the time, were pragmatically-made. But despite the title, the play revolves around daughter Vivie, confidently played by Lucy Briggs-Owen. It is Vivie’s reactions to her mother that form the basis of the piece, as she struggles to ally her privileged upbringing with the profession that made it all possible. Most poignant of the thoughts swirling round in her head is her disillusionment with love and romance. Her mother’s practical approach to the opposite sex has ensured that her daughter will never rely on men, whether emotionally or financially. But fortunately – or unfortunately – for her, it is the education paid for by her mother’s money that has ensured she may never have to.
The men in the piece make Vivie’s decision understandable. Either weak, manipulative, hypocritical or all three, all of them prove to be ruled by sex. Which is why, in a world ruled by men, the only way Mrs Warren could get the upper hand was by using sex to her advantage. Hopefully, Vivie’s advantages mean that she won’t have to do the same.