A DAUGHTER OF DISREPUTE
1893, and here’s George Bernard Shaw passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours by centring the action on two women at odds , with surrounding men remarkably disrespected. Mind you, to get this play onstage it took 32 years, a war and women’s suffrage: and even then the Lord Chamberlain only just choked it down. It belongs to that angry Ibsen,Chekhov, serious-Wilde era as Victoria was dwindling, the press noticing child-prostitution , and intelligent playwrights thinking, appalled, about how the roots of polite society sucked the life out of women.
It’s still a barnstorming play, especially in a final mother-daughter confrontation, and with all the twisty argumentative vigour of GBS. Like all his plays it is a challenge to modern actors, with no argument knowingly understated and the need to be natural even while preaching. But Anthony Banks’ cast handle it bracingly: Caroline Quentin is excellent as the mature lady calling herself Mrs Warren, and her own real daughter Rose Quentin rises to match her as the daughter Vivie who long ago she bore to – well, who knows who? . Vivie’s upbringing was lavishly funded all the way to mathematical-wrangler level at the newly founded Newnham College, Cambridge. It took money. Not respectable money .
Quentin senior is abundant, vigorous, bossy, overdressed , affluent but delightfully prone to betray in sudden vowel sounds her unladylike beginnings; Vivie is a casual no-nonsense bluestocking in culottes , who enjoys a whisky and a whodunnit and enjoys working out actuarial calculations in a liberated friend’s legal practice up Chancery Lane. They haven’t met that often over the years, but we encounter them reuniting in a country garden (with a cottage so undersized in scale that I fear it may be a metaphor for trapped womanhood). Mrs W is introducing her friends – a geeky architect Praed, who seems to have wandered in from an EM Forster novel, and Sir George, a galumphing baronet with a silvertopped cane. Shortly along comes Vivie’s half-boyfriend Frank and his father the Rector. Who ,to general delight, is played by Matthew Cottle, a man whose drop-dead comedy timing has never yet missed its chance.
Both the Rector and the baronet may, we quite soon realize, turn out to be Vivie’s father, though Mrs W would never tell. You can see why 1893 panicked over this play once the baronet (Simon Shepherd, beautifully high-Tory) has made a play for Vivie, while Frank flirts toyboy-style with her mother. But the core of the plot lies in the revelation – made surprisingly early by the mother to her daughter – that her wealth and position came from prostitution. It was, Shaw makes abundantly and angrily clear, society’s guilt: the pretty daughter of an unmarried east end fried-fish seller had a choice between marrying into enslavement by some drunken labourer, dying of lead poisoning in a factory or selling herself at a price. All women do, or did: “How does a marriage ceremony make a difference to the right and wrong of these things?”
The topical fascination of the play is the way that Vivie at first buys into her mother’s story with compassionate affection for a victim of the system. But in the second act, after a brief glorious appearance of a hungover clerical Cottle alongside another undersized building, his church, there are some audience gasps. The baronet reveals to scornful Vivie that the business – houses of ill repute in Vienna, Brussels, Budapest, Berlin and other sinful un-English places – is still well up and running. Mrs Warren is thus no longer a repentant victim of circumstance but a bit of a white-slaver . It is made clear to Vivie that the whole society, from Dukes and Archbishops down, is rotten ,so one might as well join in and profit from it.
Appalled, she storms off, pausing only to face another unwelcome revelation, and in Act 3 – the Chancery Lane set now full human size, which again may be a metaphor – two showdowns result. Mrs Warren makes one last throw for the status of treasured old Mum: Caroline Quentin truly magnificent, ropes of pearls swinging, accent cruder, frank about her needs. She won’t give up the management of her houses – must have “work and excitement, or I’ll go melancholy mad!” . Vivie, a chip off the old block, also wants work, but the excitement of actuarial calculations and legal papers is her shtick. Frank, in an authorial gesture of utter contempt for the supposedly likeable character, makes a despicable decision too.
Here the scandal was about sex; but 129 ever more sexually liberated years later, generations are still at odds over hypocrisies , and a sweatshop global society selegantly veils its abuse of the weakest. Those who live on the profits need the same discomfort, and shouting, and have decisions to make about who to shout at loudest. The final moments were refreshing.
To Saturday in Bath then Richmond, Chichester