By Dramaturg Mary Olsen
The first production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession was banned from the stage by the Lord Chamberlain on account of inappropriate subject matter. When Mrs. Warren’s Profession was first presented to acquire a performance license from the Lord Chamberlain, it was denied flat out. The main reason was how it treated the profession that the title suggests. Prostitution was not an uncommon subject in the theatre at the time, but the woman who fell into the profession had to show remorse and shame for her line of work. This was not the case for George Bernard Shaw’s script. While prostitution is not as controversial a topic today, there is still a stigma around sex work that is not often addressed. Mrs. Warren’s Profession depicts a woman who made a decision for herself between working endlessly for a minuscule wage, or taking control of her life and making enough money to live in comfort in a profession that made her an outcast of society.
The Lord Chamberlain’s office was established in 1737. One individual in the office was in charge of reviewing plays that were going into production and censoring any information that wasn’t suitable for public viewing. The office was originally established to prevent plays from speaking against political entities so that playwrights couldn’t target political figures, something that Shakespeare constantly did in his history plays. As time went on, lewd subject matter became more of a concern to the Lord Chamberlain. Subjects that were deemed immoral or immodest were prohibited from making it to the stage. What is strange about this censorship was its particular focus on the theatre. Literature and other art forms were not nearly as scrutinized by the Lord Chamberlain as live performance. It just goes to show that even people in high political offices knew the power of theatre to draw audiences and move them in a particular way.
Shaw was so against having one person in charge of the theatre being performed in England that he wrote a scathing obituary for one of the men who held this position:
“It is a frightful thing to see the greatest thinkers, poets, and authors of modern Europe—men like Ibsen, Wagner, Tolstoy, and the leaders of our own literature—delivered helpless into the vulgar hands of such a noodle as this amiable old gentleman—this despised and incapable old official- most notoriously was.”
Shaw so strongly believed that his play needed a stage that he offered to make edits to it in order to comply with most of the Lord Chamberlain’s requests, in what he called the “blue pencil script.” Even still, it was denied a public audience. Shaw, like many other playwrights of the time, found a loophole and ended up having a private performance at the New Lyric Club in London. Since this club was for members only and not open to the public, the play was performed in its entirety, without the cuts that were proposed by the Lord Chamberlain. Even performances in America were stopped by police, and the managers and actors of the theater company were arrested. On one occasion, one of those opposed to the American production admitted to not reading the script at all and simply making the judgement based off of the newspaper stories from London. One reviewer from The Era commented on the private performance of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, saying, “The people who paid to hear the play may be supposed to have known their own minds; and, if appearances go for anything, the majority of the audience at the New Lyric on Monday would take a keen scientific interest in a discussion on such a subject as ‘brothel-keeping as a career for women.’ But – strange to be stated of anything written by Mr. Bernard Shaw– Mrs. Warren’s Profession is frequently tedious.”
Mrs. Warren’s Profession would not see a public performance in England until 1925. Its subject matter may not seem as obscene to us today, but this was one of many plays that did not see the stage during the time of the Lord Chamberlain. These censorship laws would not be repealed in their entirety until 1968. One can only imagine how many plays were lost or changed completely during this time. Luckily, scripts like Mrs. Warren’s Profession found their way to publication, and Emerson Stage is able to bring you one of those “scandalous” plays that was too much for 1890s London.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession runs December 8-11, 2016 in the Semel Theater. Tickets can be purchased in person, online at www.aestages.org, or by phone at (617) 824-8000.