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Eric Uhlfelder
Lucy Komisar

Eric Uhlfelder

"Mrs. Warren’s Profession"
at The Gingold Group

Written by: George Bernard Shaw
Directed by: David Staller
October 12 through November 20, 2021
Gingold Theatrical Group
Review by: Eric Uhlfelder
Running Time: 100 minutes without intermission

Left to Right: Raphael Nash Thompson, Nicole King, Karen Ziemba, Robert Cuccioli, Alvin Keith, and David Lee Huynh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

In 1905, The New York Times ran a story about the scheduled production of George Bernard Shaw’s "Mrs. Warren’s Profession."

Anthony Comstock, Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, will not accept (producer’s) Arnold Daly's invitation to attend a rehearsal of the George Bernard Shaw's play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, which is to be put on at the Garrick next week. “Why should I?" asked Mr. Comstock yesterday afternoon. “In writing Mr. Daly regarding the play, I desired to impress upon him the fact that there are laws dealing with those who present plays which are in contravention of the morals of the community and offensive to public decency. If, in defiance of the warning, he persists in producing the play and the play proves to be what I am informed it is, then he "will have no excuse to offer, and his punishment will be much more severe." “Have you read the play?" Mr. Comstock was asked. “I have not,” Comstock responded.

Today, playwrights and producers would salivate over such publicity. And likely back in the early years of the 20th century when Shaw wrote Mrs. Warren, when avant-garde artists we’re playing havoc with all sorts of tradition (think Picasso, Stravinsky, the Matisse and the Fauvres), standing out by creating a new way of seeing was precisely their point.

Pity Comstock’s response entirely missed the playwright’s intent. Shaw was a social critic, activist, and humanitarian—an insightful, moral writer who revealed things as they really were. His use of language was clear and literate and anything but risqué. But if shock was a byproduct of his storytelling, so much the better if it provoked the establishment into thinking a bit more clearly about itself. Further, Comstock’s admonition had just the opposite effect for which he had intended. The opening show in New York was sold out with ticket prices scalped at outrageous prices.

"Mrs. Warren’s Profession" is a play about a very successful middle-aged female madam who became spectacularly rich and respectable from her work--hardly a matter that would shock today’s theatergoers.

But one should see it as a well-crafted production along with the way it goes about exploring a contemporaneously taboo subject as it addresses sexism, inequality, poverty, opportunity and the lack thereof, wealth, family, survival, hypocrisy—that people are bought and sold all the time whether in business or in marriage—and ultimately morality.

Before shifting to London, the play starts just outside the city in the English country town of Surrey in 1912. (Never mind the fact The New York Times article predates the play, requiring more sleuthing to resolve than this reviewer can muster.) It’s comprised of a half of dozen diverse characters--including a rich businessman, an architect, and a reverend and his clever vagabond son--whom Shaw uses to generate and collide various perspectives.

Early on, before we get to even hear from Mrs. Warren, the audience meets her attractive Cambridge educated daughter Vivie, who’s actually the play’s central character off of which everything pivots.

She’s the next generation of her mother—a lovely ambitious young woman who cares little for convention, dismissive of love, displaying independence and wit, and plans on being a professional woman, living by own code.

VIVIE: People are always blaming circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.

But all the while, she’s naive about many things—the lot facing most people who don’t have access to wealth as she has enjoyed, her mother’s past and family and poverty that drove her into her profession. She doesn’t even know who her father is.

By the middle of the play, Mrs. Warren begins to fill in the picture by describing one of her sisters who worked in a white lead factory twelve hours a day until she died of lead poisoning. She herself worked at a bar in Waterloo station, slaving fourteen hours a day serving drinks and washing glasses for four shillings a week and her board. That is, until another sister, Lizzie, wandered into the place and saw what happened to her beautiful sibling, scolding her for wearing herself out for other people’s profits.

Lizzie offers her an alternative: to be part of a house in Brussels where the girls were always treated well. All is then made clear about Vivie’s mom and how her own seed had been planted.

MRS. WARREN: Where can a woman get the money to save in any other business? Of course; if you have a turn for music, or the stage, or newspaper writing: that’s different. But all Liz or I had was our appearance and our turn for pleasing men. Do you think we were such fools as to let other people trade in our good looks by employing us as shopgirls, or barmaids, or waitresses, when we could trade in them ourselves and get all the profits instead of starvation wages?

There are two obvious shortcomings with Mrs. Warren’s argument. Despite claiming concern for her girls, Warren had no problem becoming dazzling rich by turning them into sex workers and the baggage they would unknowingly carry from such a life. And even after Lizzie had given up madaming, Mrs. Warren remained hooked on the easy money and the place in life it had earned her. And she doesn’t seem particularly concerned about her own familial confusion such a life bred.

Director David Staller assembled a fine cast to tell Shaw’s story, led by Nicole King and Karen Ziemba as daughter and mother. Robert Cuccioli, David Lee Huynh, Alvin Keith, and Raphael Nash Thompson splendidly round out the ensemble. Together, they help propel the story—along with the decision to run the play without intermission—to its provocative ending.

MRS WARREN: You think that people are what they pretend to be: that the way you were taught at school is the way things really are. But it's not: it's all only a pretense, to keep the common people quiet. Vivie: the big people, the clever people, the managing people, all know it.

Hard to know if Mrs. Warren realizes this about herself, a point Vivie helps drive home, which ultimately makes for a compelling evening of theatre. The audience can enhance this takeaway by imagining just how life was for women without means little more than a century ago, before they had the right to vote, and the reasons why the world’s oldest profession persists.

Lucy Komisar

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession,”
Shaw’s century-old feminist satire of women selling sex
still reverberates.

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”
Written by George Bernard Shaw, directed by David Staller. 
Gingold Theatrical Group at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York City.
https://gingoldgroup.org/ 212/714-2442, ext 2, 12pm – 5pm.
Runtime 1hr 40min.
Opened Oct 27, 2021.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Oct 23, 2021.
Closes Nov 20, 2021.

GB Shaw is the doyen of political plays, and when you see them, you have to put yourself back in time to imagine the outrage of the elites. How they railed at his prickling their class oppression of women, by men and the rich, their snobbery and always their hypocrisy. One of the favorites is “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a 1902 feminist satire of the times given a fine production by the Gingold Theatrical Group. Except it’s maybe not so outdated!

It helps to have the excellent Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Kitty Warren and a fine newcomer, Nicole King, making her off-Broadway debut as her daughter Vivie. Both characters make choices that were not acceptable for women, though it’s hard to tell whether a woman running a bordello or becoming a judge was worse from the elites’ point of view!

Karen Ziema as Mrs. Warren and Nicole King as Vivie. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Ziemba reminds me of a tough grandmother in a fish shop who drives a hard bargain. Vivie and her mother have lived apart, she in Surrey, southeast of London, her mother in Brussels, it takes a while to find out why. But she is coming for a visit.

Vivie is assertive, strong, she will study law, she likes working and getting paid for it. She doesn’t like the boorish men who pay her attentions. She’s tough with her mother too. “Are you my mother? Where are our relatives? Who was my father?”

They do a dance to a banjo, with words “I see trees of green, red roses too….What a wonderful world,” the irony added of course by the excellent director David Staller.

“Wonderful?” We learn Mrs. Warren had been a poor working girl. Went into biz with her sister because, “We had appearance and turn at pleasing men. We could get all profits instead of starvation wages.” And, “The girls were very well taken care of, one married an ambassador.” More on the hypocrisy side.

Mrs. Warren: “I always thought that it oughtn’t to be. It can’t be right, Vivie, that there shouldn’t be better opportunities for women.”

Robert Cuccioli as Sir George Crofts, Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Kitty Warren. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Her partner Sir George Crofts, (Robert Cuciolli,) a gentleman by label, demeanor and attire, invested 35%, safe from the money point of view. They have five places in Brussels, Oostend, Vienna, and Budapest. He wants to marry Vivie, young enough to be his daughter, in exchange for his property.

Vivie, “When I think of the society that tolerates you, and the laws that protect you! When I think of how helpless nine out of ten young girls would be in the hands of you and my mother! the unmentionable woman and her capitalist bully—”

But he, “Do you remember your Crofts scholarship at Newnham? Well, that was founded by my brother the M.P. He gets his 22 per cent out of a factory with 600 girls in it, and not one of them getting wages enough to live on. How d’ye suppose they manage when they have no family to fall back on? Ask your mother. And do you expect me to turn my back on 35 per cent when all the rest are pocketing what they can, like sensible men? No such fool! If you’re going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles, you’d better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society.” Decent? Really?

Robert Cuccioli as Crofts and Nicole King as Vivie. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Vivie: [conscience stricken] You might go on to point out that I myself never asked where the money I spent came from. I believe I am just as bad as you.

Crofts: [greatly reassured] Of course you are; and a very good thing too! What harm does it do after all?

[Rallying her jocularly] So you don’t think me such a scoundrel now you come to think it over. Eh?

This production, a charmer, if one can say that about the subject, takes place in a bower covered with pink flowers and set with white wooden chairs. The music is rag. The play of course caused outrage and condemnation. In this production, the acting is fine, the direction stays carefully inside the reality of the world that is satirized, and fans of Shaw, feminist and political theater should see it.

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