Broadway Features and Reviews
The Shocking History of "Mrs. Warren's Profession"
By Ellen Anthony, Broadway Magazine
There is perhaps no twentieth century playwright more controversial than George Bernard Shaw, and Mrs. Warren's Profession was perhaps his provocative work. Written early in his career, the play was immediately censored by England's censor, the Lord Chamberlain, thus preventing it from opening in London's West End for over two decades.
It was first performed in London on January 5 of 1902, at the New Lyric Club with Harley Granville-Barker, the well known actor-manager of the New Lyric Theatre, but this was for an invited audience only. The New Lyric Club was a "members only" club (which was really a kind of theatre company that maintained a paid membership audience as a way of working around London's censorship rules). Actors, writers and artists would also use these clubs as a way of showcasing their work to a group of friends and fellow artists. But the first public performance of Shaw's drama actually took place in New Haven, CT in 1905.
Unlike England, the United States had no formal censorship laws, thus making it a much better place to stage Shaw's scathing critique of British society. That said, the play ultimately caused an uproar in the United States also. "The most shocking immoral dialogue ever publically repeated…the words, suggestions—the whole rotten mess of immoral suggestions—have no place on the public platform" wrote the theatre critic of The New Haven Leader upon its premiere at the Hyperion Theatre in New Haven, CT in October of 1905. The New Haven Register was equally as offended and described the play as "repulsive," recommending that it "should not under any circumstances be given before a mixed audience."
The play was quickly transferred to New York, where the director Augustan Daly hoped it would meet with a more sympathetic audience at the Garrick Theatre. He would be disappointed.
The opening night of Shaw's play in New York had been preceded by such scandal and hype that the environment inside the theatre that night was already ripe for trouble even before the play began. Mary Shaw, the original Mrs. Warren, noted that "in the very first act, speeches that had no special significance were already being greeted with exclamations from the audience, and that as the second act progressed, "it became plain to all of us there was going to be trouble."
In a rare moved, the police commissioner, William McAdoo, demanded to see the script before the performance and, mirroring the policies of the British government, actually returned the script to Daly with his own cuts, demanding it be performed in his altered version. Daly and his actors went along with the suggested changes and, surprisingly, the play was performed to a packed house (some were even turned away) without inciting riots.
But even New York audiences were scandalized by Shaw's bold ideas—a poll conducted by the New York World indicated that about on third of the audience thought play was unfit for public performance. By 1907, Americans, it seems, had become used to Shaw's provocative style and the play was performed without scandal or uproar. Mary Shaw continued to play Mrs. Warren for many years and even went on to have a successful United State tour of the production, performing it in states like Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and California. It took the British another eighteen years to allow Shaw's controversial play on its stages.
Now, Broadway audiences can enjoy the play for themselves at the Roundabout Theatre's production starring Cherry Jones. Look for more features on this and other plays on Broadway.tv and in the pages of Broadway Magazine.
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