As her daughter coldly probes for answers, Mrs. Warren breaks:
"Do you think I was brought up like you?" she cries. "Able to pick and choose my own way of life? Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn't rather have gone to college and been a lady if I'd had the chance?"
It's one of the moments critics always latch on to: when, in George Bernard Shaw's 1893 play Mrs. Warren's Profession, the titular character finally reveals her source of income to her only child, Vivie, after 20 years of deception. Through prostitution, Mrs. Warren has climbed out of destitution and up the social ladder. After Vivie scoffs, she counters: "What right have you to set yourself up above me like this? You boast of what you are to me - to me, who gave you a chance of being what you are. What chance had I?"
Shaw and Mrs. Warren come to the Lantern Theater Company Sept. 8 to Oct. 9. Set in Victorian England, the play tracks "the indifference of capitalism, the unfairness of the system," according to director Kathryn MacMillan. Shaw juxtaposes Mrs. Warren, an amiable brothel madam, and her daughter Vivie, a recent Cambridge graduate who represents the burgeoning New Woman. As they try to reacquaint themselves after a lifetime apart, four men weave in and out of the action, complicating their situation. Together, the cast represents a system that bars women from practices that are both lucrative and legal, and that thrusts young girls into criminalized activity.
"When we create and profit from a society that is invested in capitalism to its most intense degree," said Meghan Winch, the Lantern's dramaturge, "it necessitates people being left behind and making so little money that being 'moral' is just not possible."
Despite their glaring differences in class and perspective, Vivie and her mother are, in fact, "two sides of the same coin," in Winch's words. Vivie looks forward to daily life as a businesswoman, giving her more in common with her mother than she might guess. And the very fact that Vivie is smart, savvy, and independent makes her position in Victorian society uncomfortable to many - another unwitting parallel.
Both mother and daughter would have posed challenging problems for women who subscribed to 19th-century gender roles and who led activism against those who didn't. "It was often really impossible for women to get power, and it almost feels like a lot of the puritanism was born from that, that it was a way to do something and to grab power," Winch said. "Protecting your role as 'the angel in the house' was something they could do without compromising their propriety."
MacMillan said she understands how it feels to be judged for not fitting others' social expectations: "For me, that's a big part of feminism, is my awareness of the notion of what's expected of me, even in 2016. What is sort of the right feminine behavior? How I'm supposed to be ambitious, but not too ambitious. Or how I'm supposed to be outspoken, but not too outspoken. The artificial things that are expected of us as women, I think that's what people are drawn to."
Shaw himself was a strong advocate for women's rights, and his plays often show support for women in the public sphere. Claire Inie-Richards, who plays Vivie, said that "female playwrights were not in abundance at that time, and so for Shaw to take on this and choose to write this piece, this story about women at the forefront, I think speaks volumes to his insight as a playwright, and as a man, and as a human."
Because of his piece's political import, Shaw referred to Mrs. Warren's Profession as a "problem play," and it is an artwork that ran counter to the official and social preference for fluffier pieces with safer moral resolutions. "A problem play is many things," said Mary Martello, who stars as Mrs. Warren. "This, to me, of course, as all Shaw is, is in the words. And the words are so alive that they can create a play in themselves."
Mrs. Warren touches on income inequality, sexual discrimination, and other issues much at hand in this year's election cycle. MacMillan and Winch said the play feels especially relevant. "It's a helpful reminder," said Winch, "that these are conversations that we were having 120 years ago that we still need to be having today."
Not everything is solemn in Mrs. Warren's Profession. MacMillan applauded Shaw's wit, even with serious subject matter, as though to say, " 'See? I know it's classical. I know it's supposed to be good for you, a smart play. But poke and you'll see that this is funny.' "
As the director, her most immediate challenge will be to walk the line between humor and caricature with her protagonist/antagonists. "If I make them funny, how do I keep them real?" she wondered. "Because Vivie, boy, you ought to believe in her because she grows so much in the play. And if we don't care about that, then all of [Shaw's] criticisms of social hypocrisy fall flat."
Mrs. Warren's Profession
Sept. 8-Oct. 9 at Lantern Theater Company,
923 Ludlow St.
Tickets: $10-45. Information: 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.