’Tis Understandable She’s a Whore

Illustration by Charles Wilkin/AutomaticPhoto: Carol Rosegg/Courtesy of Shirley Herz Associates

If a writer can’t win some love in this city by declaring “Money is the most important thing in the world,” then what’s left to try? A century has passed since George Bernard Shaw committed that mantra to print (mischievously, as usual), and New York, the world capital of getting and spending, or trying to do so and failing, still has not succumbed.

Explanations are easy to find. Shaw wrote long, verbose plays, many with big casts, hardly a recipe for uptown success. Sure enough, Broadway has seen only one Shaw revival in the past thirteen years, by far the driest stretch since his work started appearing here in the 1890s. Shaw was also an ardent socialist who spent most of his 94 years operating as a kind of Nuisance Without Portfolio. That line about the importance of money was part of an argument about why everyone deserved some; around Wall Street, he will always be a tough sell. But as the Irish Rep’s revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession makes clear, there are good reasons for the rest of the city to be more enamored of him than we are.

You may not agree with Shaw’s politics or his particular enthusiasms (including Stalin and Jack the Ripper, whom he called an “independent genius”), but that’s actually a step toward admiring him. In writing about money and power, Shaw didn’t want to affirm, he wanted to provoke. It’s a rare quality today—among playwrights, anyway—one that ought to help him more than it does in this disputatious town.

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a sense of outrage will be especially easy to achieve if you are a stockbroker, landlord, church official, or politician. Shaw herein lets you know you are no better than a whore. Nothing personal, of course. Upright young Vivie Warren has just discovered her mother built the family fortune by running a chain of brothels all across Europe. Her mother’s business partner chides her for getting so high-minded, because all money—even belonging to the priest or the alderman—is, in the end, dirty. “If you’re going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles,” he says with a grin, “you’d better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society.” Somewhere right now, Shaw is still cackling about that word, “decent.” Too bad it’s not in Manhattan. Pinpointing the exact level of scandal that disqualifies somebody from “decent” society has long been one of the chief amusements of New York life, from The House of Mirth in Shaw’s time to “Page Six” on whatever day the lobbyists disgracing themselves in Washington begin taking refuge here.

Shaw’s currency—and his heterodoxy—ought to be catnip to the city’s political types. The New Yorkers who rush out to buy doorstop biographies, have subscriptions to something other than magazines, and actually listen to the speakers at protest rallies will find in his plays an invitation to think complexly. Charlotte Moore’s production wants sharpness now and then, but its arguments are never less than clear; it delivers the lift you expect from Shaw, the pleasant sensation of synapses firing.

If you listen to the man himself, you might expect all you’ll get from him is mental calisthenics. “I have spared no pains to make known that my plays are built to induce, not voluptuous reverie but intellectual interest, not romantic rhapsody but humane concern,” he wrote. It may not exactly be reverie, but genuine emotion runs through his best plays. Mrs. Warren’s Profession hinges on Vivie’s dilemma: Accept her mother or reject her forever. Moore’s revival is lucky to have Dana Ivey, who disappears beautifully into the role of Mrs. Warren.

Best of all, Shaw is funny, much funnier than his reputation allows. Though this isn’t his most comical play, he gave Mrs. Warren a sharp tongue and provided a social-climbing cleric for everyone to harass. This mix of intelligence and political commitment with stinging humor seems to be working for Jon Stewart; it ought to be a boost for Shaw. For he didn’t just write this way, he lived this way, mixing sincerity, hyperbole, and satire to create a larger-than-life persona for himself. “The real joke,” he once said, “is that I am in earnest.”

Whatever reception this Mrs. Warren’s Profession gets, it’s sure to be nothing like the reaction to the New York premiere in 1905. The play’s Stateside debut sparked the now-familiar chain reaction of outcry leading to box-office bounty. Before it was shut down after a single performance, Shaw’s ode to prostitution drew black-market ticket prices as high as $30, which was a lot more in 1905 money than you’d lay down for The Odd Couple today. After years in the shadow of better-known Shaw, the play opened to acclaim on Broadway in 1975, starring Ruth Gordon and Lynn Redgrave—by which time there was plenty more prostitution in the blocks around Times Square.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession
George Bernard Shaw.
Irish Repertory Theatre.
Through January 29.

’Tis Understandable She’s a Whore