Last week I went to see Mrs. Warren's Profession at CalShakes. Mrs. Warren and her daughter Vivie are both great roles for women, and at CalShakes they were expertly acted by Stacy Ross and Anna Bullard, respectively. I loved how Ross slipped from a posh to a working-class accent in the scenes where Mrs. Warren reveals her secrets to Vivie!
The role of Mrs. Warren has always attracted famous middle-aged actresses (Cherry Jones will play it in an upcoming New York revival) but, if anything, I am even more impressed by Shaw's characterization of Vivie. So often when I read or see old plays written by men, I don't really believe in the female characters as people. Especially when the female characters are young and marriageable (ingenues), they often seem cobbled together from sentimental ideas of what women are like, rather than what such women would actually think, feel, and do.
Vivie, however, is bracingly real and unsentimental. You can tell that Shaw had fun writing her, upending the old cliches. A 22-year-old Cambridge grad with a head for mathematics, a firm handshake, and an aversion to art, she wants nothing more than to set up shop in London as an actuary. She carries on a summertime romance with feckless neighbor boy Frank, but marriage does not seem to loom large in her future plans. She is a "New Woman," placing work, not love, at the center of her world.
She's the protagonist, too--the play is about how Vivie is affected by learning her mother's profession (prostitute/brothel madam). And so Vivie has a really wonderful arc: initially brash and confident, then destabilized by the events of the play.
Furthermore, the audience is never sure what to make of her: is she admirably straightforward and smart, or is she priggish and pigheaded? Our uncertainty about Vivie goes all the way through to the end. The way I see it, Vivie has given into sentimentality just twice in her young life: first in her romance with Frank, then in her sudden outpouring of love and sympathy for her mother at the end of Act II. And both times, she gets punished for it, badly. Frank turns out to be her half-brother, and Mrs. Warren turns out to be a hypocrite who earns her money by exploiting others. At the end of the play, Vivie rejects both Frank and her mother, and the audience is meant to applaud her for having done what is morally right. But it is equally clear that Vivie, having learned to be wary of love, will spend the rest of her life as a cold, lonely woman. So the play ends on an ambiguous note; we can't be as happy for Vivie as Shaw wants us to be.
Now, I have a lot of actress friends in their 20s, and they're always complaining about the lack of good roles available to them, even in contemporary plays. And it strikes me, watching Mrs. Warren's Profession, that very few playwrights--male or female--are writing roles for young women that are as complex and rewarding as that of Vivie Warren. I had a similar thought when watching a contemporary adaptation of Pygmalion at my college, which made Eliza an African-American who had to learn to talk less "street." I didn't think that this adaptation worked too well--but that raised the question: why aren't more American playwrights writing plays that deal with class as incisively as Shaw does in Pygmalion? And why aren't they writing more roles for young women that are as good as Eliza Doolittle?
Indeed, despite the class differences, there are similiarities between Eliza and Vivie. Both are ambitious young women whose primary goal is to work in a respectable occupation. Both have a love interest, but the young man in question is rather silly, and the love story is a subplot. And both plays are very concerned with the choices available to women in Victorian/Edwardian England. Mrs. Warren's Profession contains the following exchange:
MRS. WARREN: Do you think I was brought up like you? able to pick and choose my own way of life? 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?It is as though this passage contains the seeds that would blossom into Pygmalion.
VIVIE: Everybody has some choice, mother. The poorest girl alive may not be able to choose between being Queen of England or Principal of Newnham; but she can choose between ragpicking and flowerselling, according to her taste.
Shaw had very strange relations with women in his personal life; but somehow, when he wrote about them, he was sympathetic, insightful, and unsentimental. Not that many of his contemporaries appeciated this. If you google "shaw heroine," one of the first results that pops up is an essay written by Francis Neilson (b. 1867) denouncing Shaw's female characters:
Characterization was not his forte, nor indeed were the women female, in the universal sense. They had no power of reaching the realm of the tragic, such as we find in Regan, Lady Macbeth, or Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry VI. There is nothing to remember of tenderness and love in Shaw's heroines, such as there is in Juliet, Cordelia, Imogen, and Rosalind.F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote "Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created — nothing." Shaw began with vividly drawn individuals like Vivie and Eliza, and ended up creating a type of the Shavian "New Woman" (I could go on analyzing the heroines of his other great plays, but this post is getting long enough as it is). Many lesser male playwrights, however, could only see woman as a "type" and place her in limited roles. No, Shaw's women are not grandly tragic, nor sentimentally tender and loving. But they are real human beings, whose goals and desires still strike us as worthwhile, and whose choices we can still debate.