The George Bernard Shaw story about a madam who comes clean to her disapproving daughter gets a strong airing at Seattle Shakespeare Company through April 10.
“It annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable,” wrote the reformer dramatist George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” made Victorian England society very uncomfortable indeed. The tale of mother-and-daughter conflict (now on view in a rare local production by Seattle Shakespeare Company) ruminates on recurring Shaw themes: the evils of capitalism, the oppression of women, the sanctimonious moralizing of the church.
Yet when referring to the livelihood of the prosperous madam Kitty Warren, Shaw sidestepped using the then-shocking word prostitution — or even Rudyard Kipling’s euphemism, “the world’s oldest profession.”
‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’
by George Bernard Shaw. Through April 10, a Seattle Shakespeare Company production, Center House Theatre, lower level, Seattle Center; $31-$45 (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).
There’s no doubt, however, how Kitty (Bobbi Kotula) got rich, though it is news to her sheltered adult daughter Vivie (Emily Chisholm). She was raised in so-called polite society, far from her mother’s string of European bordellos, and is at first repulsed by the revelation.
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England banned the play, which Shaw penned in 1893, for 30 years. America was only a tad less prudish. A 1905 mounting of “Mrs. Warren” was shut down in New York after one performance, as an affront to decency. (The producer and actors were also arrested.)
Today SSC’s bristling, articulate staging by Victor Pappas and a strong cast is unlikely to offend. But the play remains provocative, in the way that Shaw’s most vigorous, absorbing dramas of ideas and issues can be.
The heroine here is actually Vivie, an unflashy trailblazer and “new woman” with a university math degree. She has a penchant for fat cigars, plain attire and hard work — but also a soft spot for her charming, feckless suitor, Frank (dashing Trevor Young Marston).
The dialectical clashes are triggered by Kotula’s bold, blowsy Kitty, when visiting her briskly intelligent daughter in Surrey (nicely evoked in designer Martin Christoffel’s sylvan landscape backdrops). Gradually, the truth comes to light: Kitty has handsomely funded Vivie’s education and upkeep, to make her something a madam could never be — acceptable in high society, and eminently marriageable.
Vivie chafes at the prospect. And learning the source of her allowance, and where the obnoxious mogul Sir George (Richard Ziman) fits into the scheme, stiffens her resistance: “My work is not your work, and my way is not your way.”
However, nothing is cut and dried in Shaw’s witty, eloquent debates and his socialist argument that in a class-driven, capitalist, moralistic culture, prostitution of various kinds (including marrying for money and status) are rampant.
Kitty’s robust self-defense is a centerpiece of the play. She vigorously outlines her youthful dilemma: work herself to death as an impoverished factory drudge (like one of her sisters) or join the lucrative sex trade (as another sister did), to provide well for herself, her employees and Vivie.
In a response to moralizing critics, Shaw framed Kitty’s “immoral” and, in his view, degrading choice, from a feminist/economic perspective: “It is no defense of an immoral life to say the alternative offered by society collectively to poor women is a miserable life …”
He went on to castigate men “who cannot see that starvation, overwork, dirt and disease are as anti-social as prostitution … and the crimes of a nation.”
Less persuasively, “Mrs. Warren” raises the specter of incest, and considers the romantic stance of an aesthete, architect Praed (excellent Robert Shampain), pitted against Sir George’s hard-nosed business mentality and the hypocritical religiosity of the Rev. Gardner, father of the candidly self-serving Frank.
The actors deliver Shaw’s elegantly wry witticisms with style. And under the assured command of Pappas, the wrenching emotional changes Chisholm’s fully limned Vivie undergoes pierce through the stiff-necked British propriety. Kotula, usually cast in musical-comedy roles, makes vivid Kitty’s coarseness and her fierce maternal love.
It is worth noting that prostitution in the U.S. is still illegal in 49 of 50 states, and still a matter of public debate. The act itself is legal in Great Britain, but brothels are not.
Information in this article, originally published March 28, 2016, was corrected March 29, 2016. In a previous version of this story, Robert Shampain’s name was spelled incorrectly.