MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Doug Hughes
At the American Airlines Theatre
(227 W. 42nd St. btw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
For tickets, call 212-719-1300
Photo by Joan Marcus
Cherry Jones, left, and Sally Hawkins.
Ms. Jones becomes an assertive ‘Mrs.’
Tony winner crafts a ‘full, courageous, thinking, complex human being’
BY JERRY TALLMER
Cherry Jones is lucky, always was. Well, she makes her own luck, always did.
Right now Cherry Jones, who has strong feelings about women’s independence, gets to voice nightly to a thousand listeners one of the most forceful perorations in the English language on the plight of being born a woman, and poor, in the modern world — and how one flamboyant woman made her way out of that trap.
Ms. Jones does this thanks to a male named George Bernard Shaw, as the Mrs. Warren of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” at the American Airlines Theater (on the very 42nd Street that not so long ago, before it got dopily Disneyfied, was a breeding ground for women in Mrs. Warren’s profession, i.e., the whorehouses profession).
As it happens, the regulars of those sad pavements were far more likely to work on their backs in such establishments, or in isolation, than, like Kitty Warren — mother of scornful, advantaged, up-to-date, intolerant Vivie Warren (Sally Hawkins) — to own and operate a nice little chain of high-class bordellos in several neighboring countries.
Playwright Shaw describes Mrs. Warren as “showily dressed in a brilliant hat and a gay blouse” [in the days when gay meant gay and nothing else] “fitting tightly over her bust….[She is] decidedly vulgar but, on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman.”
Cherry-ripe round-faced Cherry Jones is all of that, in a brilliant hat and tight cherry-red blouse at the start of the play — against the grays and blacks of everyone else. “I wanted to be bawdy but to refrain from being too bawdy,” the actress says.
Later, when the whole drama has turned around for the second and last time, her own garb converts to gray. “A cruise ship in the first three acts, battleship gray in Act IV,” is how she puts it.
After a recent performance, this playgoer said to Ms. Jones: When you deliver that stunning bawling-out to the snotty daughter, I get all lit up — as you must be, up there on stage.
“Yes,” Ms. Jones responded. “I relish getting to say it.”
Here are bits and pieces of that bawling-out, as Mrs. Warren lets the spoiled, well-dressed, well-educated Vivie in on the facts of life — mama’s hard cash — that have made it all possible:
What right have you to set yourself up above me like his? You boast of what you are to me — to me who gave you the chance of being what you are. What chance had I?…
Do you know what your grandmother was? No, you don’t. I do. She called herself a widow and had a fried-fish shop down by the Mint and [supported] herself and her four daughters out of it.
Two of us were sisters: that was me and Liz and we were both good-looking and well-made…The other two were only half sisters, undersized, ugly, starved-looking, hard-working, honest, poor creatures…They were the respectable ones. [Ah there, Alfred Doolittle.]
Well, what did they get by their respectability? I’ll tell you. One of them worked in a white lead factory twelve hours a day for nine shillings a week until she died of lead poisoning. She only expected to get her hands a little paralyzed, but she died. The other was always held up to us as a model because she married a Government laborer…and kept his room and the three children neat and tidy on eighteen shillings a week — until he took to drink. That was worth being respectable for, wasn’t it?…
Liz went out one night and never came back…The clergyman was always warning me that Lizzie’d end by jumping off Waterloo Bridge. Poor fool: that was all he knew about it…No river for Liz, thanks.
And when Liz reappeared and set Kittie up to go halves with her in running a swanky bordello in Brussels, Kittie Warren jumped on it.
Would you have had me stay in [several scullery, waitressing, and bartending jobs for a handful of coins a week] and become a worn-out old drudge before I was forty?
At this point, daughter Vivie, the scales lifted off her eyes, exclaims: “My dear mother, you are a wonderful woman: you are stronger than all England. And are you really and truly not one wee bit doubtful — or — or ashamed?”
“Well, of course, dearie,” her mother replies, “it’s only good manners to be ashamed of it: it’s expected from a woman. Women have to pretend to feel a great deal that they don’t feel.”
That certainly is true, as we all know these days, much of the time in the bedroom, though I don’t know if Bernard Shaw intended that reverberation. I do, however, in contemplating this crucial play anew, have the following outrageous thought:
Ernest Hemingway once notably said that all American literature started with one book by Mark Twain called “Huckleberry Finn.” But in the end, Hemingway went on to say, Twain lost his nerve and gave those blazing anti-slavery pages a goody-goody whitewashed conclusion.
Well, maybe it sounds ridiculous — it even sounds ridiculous to me — but didn’t Bernard Shaw to some extent lose his nerve when he not only let Mrs. Warren pretend to be ashamed but, as the curtain comes down, actually be bitterly ashamed and alone? The wages of sin, and all that….
“The thing is, Vivie can’t stand her mother’s hypocrisy about how good a life she’s made for all these young women [in her brothels]. One even married an ambassador, and so forth. Her mother paints a rosy picture, knowing enough not to tell her the truth,” said Jones.
In short, Shaw plays it both ways, here as in another of his dazzling dramas, “Major Barbara,” in which Ms. Jones has twice starred, not least up at Robert Brustein’s and Andre Serban’s Cambridge, Massachusetts-based American Repertory Theatre.
“The other day,” Ms. Jones says, “two old friends came to my dressing room after the show. One of them said, ‘Shaw’s a polemicist.’ The other said, ‘No, he’s a torturer.’”
I hate to have to tell director Doug Hughes (who, among much else, has given us the extraordinary production of “Doubt” that won Ms. Jones a Tony Award) that to my mind this production is largely rendered hollow by a consortium of actors acting. The one who is not acting but being a full, courageous, talking, thinking, blundering, complex human being is sweet-faced, firm-backboned Ms. Cherry Jones of Paris, Tennessee.
Thanks to her, you might enjoy being tortured by Bernard Shaw.