Leading Shaw expert Leonard Conolly tells us more about the history of Mrs Warren’s Profession
Openings of Shaw plays at Shaw’s Corner are always exciting events, but it is unlikely that the opening of Mrs Warren’s Profession will be as exciting as the New York opening on 30 October 1905. At that point there hadn’t been an opening in England, the play having been banned from public performance by the Lord Chamberlain when a licence was applied for by the manager of Victoria Hall in Bayswater in March 1898. In late Victorian England plays about prostitutes were fine—provided they were dead, or at least repentant, by the end of the play. Mrs Warren is neither, so she had to wait nearly thirty years before the Lord Chamberlain decided that the morals of the English theatregoing public would survive her outspoken defence of her chosen profession. It probably helped that the première was in Birmingham (at the Prince of Wales Theatre on 27 July 1925), the morals of Brummies perhaps being viewed as beyond redemption anyway.
Shaw was uneasy about how the play would be received in the United States, rightly so. This was the era of Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock is said to have been responsible for the destruction of more than 50 tons of indecent books and some four million allegedly obscene pictures and photographs. And in 1905 he was ready to take on Bernard Shaw.
Mrs Warren’s Profession had a short pre-Broadway run in New Haven. It turned out to be a very short run. The day after it opened at the Hyperion Theatre, the New Haven mayor revoked the theatre’s licence, and the company quickly left town. Waiting in New York, licking his lips like a hungry fox waiting to pounce on a tasty chicken, was Anthony Comstock. He hadn’t read the play, but he knew it was “filthy” anyway. New York’s police commissioner, William McAdoo, let the opening go ahead at the Garrick Theatre on 30 October 1905, but only after he had censored the play to get rid of what he decided were “dangerous” bits.
The Garrick Theatre was packed, and there were huge crowds outside. The actress playing Mrs Warren (Mary Shaw, no relation of GBS) needed a police escort to get to the theatre. As in New Haven, the play lasted for just one performance. Next day the press was almost uniformly hostile: “If New York’s sense of shame is not aroused to hot indignation at this theatrical insult, it is indeed in a sad plight,” thundered the New York Herald. To Comstock’s delight the whole cast was arrested the next day on a charge of “offending public decency.”
The case meandered through New York’s legal system for several months, but there was a happy ending. By the time it reached the New York Court of Special Sessions on 6 July 1906 all charges had been dropped. Mrs Warren’s Profession re-opened at the Manhattan Theatre in March 1907, still with Mary Shaw as Mrs Warren, and subsequently went on a lengthy tour, free from Comstockian molestation, throughout the United States.
Former President of the International Shaw Society (and an unredeemed Brummie).
Mrs Warren’s Profession will be performed at Shaw’s Corner Fri 26 – Sun 28 June. You can get your tickets here.