January 18, 2003: Shaw, Mrs Warren’s Profession
Strand Theatre. Matinee. Directed by Peter Hall
One of the best revivals of a Shaw play I have ever seen. It has been intermittently the critical fashion to denigrate this play for having a somewhat clumsy structure, but Peter Hall has discovered — or newly revealed — the secret of its continued life: the authenticity of its probing and analysis of the ills of a capitalist society coupled with the authentic presentation of the deeply passionate feelings of two women caught in the snares of capitalist exploitation, each of whom must seek and find her own way to survive it all. There should be a more terse, elegant way to express this idea, but that’s the idea, all the same. Peter Hall’s program essay, “Two Plays That Were Never Written,” comes down hard on the two hundred-plus years of theatrical censorship in England during which the Lord Chamberlain had unimpeachable power over the fate of all plays submitted for required censorship, blaming a long dearth of great plays on governmental stifling of dramatic creativity. He doesn’t add that censorship cannot long succeed unless acquiesced to and endorsed by the society upon which it is imposed; managers from Colley Cibber to George Alexander and beyond were firmly opposed to lifting the iron rule of the L.C.’s Examiner of Plays — until 1968, when it was finally abolished. Nonetheless, Hall makes a great thing of censorship, causing to be projected on the Strand act curtain the following legend, visible at the beginning of each of the four scenes of the play:
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
by Bernard Shaw
Banned until 1925
and beside it, a series of quotations from Shaw’s prefaces to the play, of which the following is typical:
“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions and executed by supplanting institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships. There is the whole case against censorships in a nutshell.”
What Hall proceeds to do, if I read his approach to the play correctly, is to take it as his job to bring out the real emotional truth, in all its depth and complexity, of what happens, not just to the creative forces of the dramatist, but to the lives and fates of women, in this particular instance, exploited on the one hand and condemned never to speak out against the oppression and suppression under which they live and suffer. It is not a giant step from this perception to the realization that censorship is part of the apparatus of a repressive and exploitative capitalism. One does not usually see Peter Hall extolled as a champion of political radicalism, and he might reply to this, if asked, that he is simply staging what lies all too apparent in Shaw’s text. Fair enough. Structural imperfections aside (example: the ruse of only having four sets of cutlery, hence, two persons have to wait for supper until a second sitting, so that those two persons can have a dramatically relevant conversation), this is a brilliant play for its pairing of two women, mother and daughter, each of whom has the right to explain herself to the other, and does — less than halfway through the play — a right denied by conventional society, which will not hear such “unpleasant” things, but a right conferred by the radical dramatist Shaw.
So all the materials for an absorbing afternoon in the theatre (a nice petty irony — Mrs. Warren’s Profession as a Saturday matinee) are here. They are fully, even brilliantly realized by six fine actors in this production, two of whom are making their West End debuts: Rebecca Hall as Vivie Warren (is she Peter Hall’s daughter? I seem to have heard somewhere that she is) and Laurence Fox as Frank Gardner, both ideally suited to their roles and both very likely to launch fine careers with these performances. Peter Blythe was an expertly fey Praed, a dapper dandy whom a stiff wind might blow away; Richard Johnson as Sir George Crofts, the image of a corrupt, cynical man of the world; James Saxon, as a blubbery Rev. Samuel Gardner, whose outsize double chin almost obscures his Roman collar — all do very well in supporting roles. Brenda Blethyn is exceptionally fine and resonant as Mrs. Warren, buxom, amply corseted, beautifully coiffed, sumptuously well dressed, and still bearing many traces, including linguistic ones, of her origins in a fish shop near the Mint. She is, as Frank ungenerously observes, “a caution.” She is that, all right, and is nonetheless a commanding presence who manages any and every man in sight but is finally no match for her daughter. Rebecca Hall’s Vivie is a masterly creation by an actress who makes up in deeply felt truthfulness and genuine deep emotion what she lacks in experience. In fact, it’s difficult to tell whether what we see is a freshness resulting from inexperience or a freshness expertly acted by a performer already able, competent, and beautifully present and focused.
In fact, Vivie is Shaw’s first really first-rate characterization of a type quite central to his inveterate interests as a dramatist: a character, intelligent and promising but naïve and too trusting of the world, who is thrust into a situation of awakening, or sometimes of disillusionment, and who responds by adopting a new view of the world that accords much better with what she finds is really the case. This is what happens to Vivie — and to Major Barbara, and Ellie Dunn, and Saint Joan, along with many others. It is, finally, Shaw’s perennial subject. That centrality is evident, poignantly and painfully evident, in this play. The pain is quite real. The first stage of Vivie’s awakening is shown in the late hours of an evening in Mrs. Warren’s holiday cottage, when Mrs. Warren’s answer to Vivie’s impertinent question “Who are you, anyway?” tells Vivie more, much more, than she might ever want to know. More is to be learned in Act Two, scene one, in the Vicarage garden, where Crofts, startled by Vivie’s curt refusal of his offer of marriage, blurts out the “truth” (we are finally unsure of it) that Vivie and Frank are half-sister and -brother. It is only in the last scene of the play that Vivie finds the courage to confront the bitterest of all truths: that she and her mother must part and never meet again. Shaw, who loved the theatre in all its flamboyant excess, wrote a whopper of a scene for his two central actresses, and Brenda Blethyn makes the most of it, realizing despairfully the loss of the daughter on whom she has counted to make her life worthwhile, in grim, wailing tones, frightening and appalling in their intensity. Bernhardt or Duse could have done that scene, and Mrs. Patrick Campbell could have countered well as Vivie. This is acting on a grand scale, and Peter Hall lets his actors pull out all the stops, notwithstanding the incongruity of the setting in the London City chambers of Honoria Frasier, actuarial consultant.
Another instance, then, of London theatre at its best. (More to come, for which see the next entry, which will have to be written tomorrow, since it is already almost 1:00 in the morning and I, after a late return from Richmond, am too tired to write any more.)