Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007
“And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark Satanic Mills?”
- William Blake, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time”
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was greatly concerned with the dark satanic mills of Victorian Britain, and although there is nary a mill in sight in the published text his 1893 play Mrs. Warren’s Profession director Anders Cato has placed them front and center in this intriguing production on the MainStage at the BTF.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession is never directly named, but it is, of course The Oldest Profession. By the time we meet Kitty Warren (Lisa Banes) she is no mere prostitute but the very successful co-owner and manager of chain of brothels across Europe. She has used her money and her connections to raise and educate her only child, Vivie (Xanthe Elbrick), away from her business. In fact, at the open of the play Vivie, now in her early twenties, barely knows her mother and has no idea where their money comes from. This is not because Vivie is dim-witted, naďve, or uninterested, but because Kitty has worked very, very hard to keep the truth from her.
“The whole story of the play, the atmosphere surrounding it, the incidents, the personalities of the characters are wholly immoral and degenerate. The only way to successfully expurgate Mrs. Warren’s Profession is to cut the whole play out. You cannot have a clean pigsty.”
– from an unsigned review in the New York Herald, October 31, 1905
Needless to say, Mrs. Warren’s Profession was considered very, very scandalous and distasteful when it was first written. It was only Shaw’s third play (he went on to write more than 50). It was banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in England, and the cast of the 1905 New York production referenced above was immediately closed and the cast arrested. According to some sources I have read, what was shocking about the play was not that it discussed prostitution, but that it discussed the limited opportunities for financial, sexual, and personal freedom available to even educated women like Vivie.
For many centuries the only career path open to women that was referred to as a “Profession” was prostitution. Today it is the only profession open to women that is against the law. Shaw’s Kitty and Vivie clearly represent the “old” and “new” woman, but despite Vivie’s third in Maths at Cambridge, her options are exactly the same as her mother’s were growing up in poverty a generation earlier. She has escaped the dark satanic mills, where most “good girls” of limited means slaved away for a pittance, but just barely. She can either marry well or scrape out a living at fairly menial labor, in her case as an actuary. In 1893 the idea that Vivie, as a woman, could ever rise to a managerial or ownership position, like her mother, was unimaginable. And Vivie’s opportunities to marry well are seriously compromised by her mother’s profession. Luckily she is a Katharine Hepburn type (More accurately Hepburn, born in 1907, is a Vivie Warren type) who strides about it split skirts, plays a mean game of tennis, and has no interest in love, romance, or even their artistic expressions.
The men Shaw has surrounding Kitty and Vivie are specific types. Frank (Randy Harrison) is young and irresponsible. While he and Vivie may or may not be half-siblings, he loves her and wants to marry her – until he finds out that she has refused to continue accepting her money from her mother. Mr. Praed (Mark Nelson) is a hopelessly romantic architect who cannot accept Vivie’s rejection of all that he considers beautiful and worthwhile in life. The Reverend Samuel Gardner (Stephen Temperly) is a hypocrite consumed with the fear that his congregation will find out about his all-too-human flaws (but do note that as an Anglican priest he is not expected to be celibate.) And Sir George Crofts (Walter Hudson) is Kitty’s business partner who invites Vivie to become Lady Crofts, despite the 20+ year difference in their ages and the fact that he has as good a chance as anyone of being her father, in order to keep the business “in the family.”
Elbrick is a perfect Vivie. Her back is ram-rod straight, her intentions are clearly and directly spoken, and she is the picture of a healthy, athletic, not particularly pretty English girl. In contrast Banes’ Kitty is all glamour. Shaw is clear that Kitty’s half-sister, who were “not well built,” did not have the Oldest Profession open to them (consequently one dies very young of lead poisoning in the mills). Kitty’s looks were her ticket out of poverty and even in middle-age she makes the most of them, as do the magnificent gowns the Olivera Gajic has designed for the character. Banes is beautiful and sexy in that Mrs. Robinson way.
While I liked that Banes’ allowed her voice to become more strongly cockney and lower-class in its accents as Kitty’s emotions rose, by her final scene with Elbrick I felt that she had crossed the line into melodrama and became a sad caricature of a scenery-chewing actress, which was a great pity. It spoiled what was until then a perfect evening of great theatre.
Harrison is just ever-so jolly and endearing as Frank. You know he’s a rotter, but he’s a good-hearted one who ultimately parts from Vivie for all the right reasons. Nelson is equally appealing emotionally as Praed, although he has not (and should not have) Harrison’s boyish charms. Temperly is easily identifiable as the cowardly and proud Pooh-Bah of this tale – constantly cowering from his own errors – and Hudson is delightfully odious as the story’s villain.
Cato and dramaturg James Leverett have made a judicious cutting of the play, which is one of Shaw’s most frequently performed because it is one of his shortest (and it provides a wonderfully juicy role for an actress of a certain age). This production clocks in at just over two and a half hours and is anything but dull. If you are one of those people who equates late 19th-century theatre with endless butt-numbing hours of watching stuffy people talk, this production and Barrington Stage’s Uncle Vanya will quickly change your mind.
Carl Sprague has stripped the stage almost bare and Cato has relegated the performers to a smallish and steeply raked trapezoid on which spare and suggestive doorways and scraps of furniture set the mood and locale. A series of blue-green tormentors, quite romantically painted with twining roses echo the inward sloping side lines of the trapezoid. At the start these curtains are lit with an opalescent fire, but as the action progresses those dark, satanic mills slowly appear in projection, obscuring the roses and vines.
Cato has devised an ensemble of young actresses who both move the scenery and represent that vast unseen and silent underclass of women that Kitty and Vivie are striving so valiantly to escape. As they move set pieces and furniture with carefully choreographed and mechanical movements we hear the screech and clang of the factory assembly line and the piercing shriek of the whistle which regulated these women’s lives. Dan Kotlowitz’ lighting flashes and flickers throughout. This is one of the few times I have witnessed a scene change get a hearty round of applause.
Do women have it better now? Well, in Britain and the United States and a few other western cultures, yes, a little, and it is largely thanks to people like Shaw willing to speak and write publicly about the injustices of the old system. But have we builded Jerusalem yet? Hardly. And we still have plenty of dark, satanic mills ready to consume the lives of our lower classes – male and female.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession runs through September 1 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (box office 413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007