In The Author’s Apology, George Bernard Shaw responds to the critical response to the first performances of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which occurred in 1902, eight years after the play’s completion. Shaw says he knew when he wrote the play that it would be censored by the Lord Chamberlain because it indicts society and describes its complicity in the institution of prostitution.
Shaw’s “apology” is nothing of the sort. Instead of apologizing for writing about the offensive topic of prostitution, he contends that the play sends society an unpleasant but necessary message: that prostitution is made possible by the false morality of a society that refuses to talk about it.
Shaw contends that theater critics expect to see the subject of prostitution portrayed through a very specific lens and, when they saw it portrayed differently, accused him of advocating for prostitution. Shaw argues that, to the contrary, the standard portrayal of prostitutes as beautiful, tragic young girls who either kill themselves or repent of their ways makes prostitution as attractive as any other fate to poor women without other good options. His play, on the other hand, is a piece of moral propaganda meant to make people think about the real roots of prostitution.
Shaw claims that the typical dramatic treatment of prostitution makes the profession seem attractive by featuring beautiful young people facing moral dilemmas. Instead of portraying prostitution as a problem of the inner struggle of sinful or immoral young women, Shaw wants to present it in an entirely new light, as a practical issue that affects the lives of many of his contemporaries.
Shaw continues to compare his play to other plays that pass muster with the censor and are more favorably viewed by theater critics. He says that the Lord Chamberlain allows plays to be staged that give a more positive portrayal of prostitution than his, because people like to be excited by tales of prostitution. Meanwhile, the Lord Chamberlain has no jurisdiction over classic plays that have been approved during other time periods, although these plays often contain very explicit references to sex. The censor also allows plays containing scenes of rape and incestuous lust, so long as they don’t show scenes of adultery, prostitution, or incest. Shaw contends that any censorship will skew the way a topic can be portrayed. Censorship is meant to protect current prejudices and systemic inequities.
Shaw now links his critique of the usual portrayal of prostitution to a critique of censorship. He believes that censorship is partially responsible for social injustices, because it keeps people from discussing problems frankly and coming up with solutions to those problems. In the play, respectable people censor themselves, because talking about issues like prostitution is taboo. But this taboo on discussing the problem of prostitution keeps people from seeing that outdated ideas about morality and lack of economic opportunity for women are the true roots of prostitution.
Shaw gives a tongue-in-cheek apology to members of the audience who saw Mrs. Warren’s Profession in the hopes of being excited. He says that the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of the play set up the expectation that it would be sexually arousing. Shaw also says his play must have disappointed those looking for a thrilling drama. He says that dramas should leave the creation of sublime aesthetic sensations to musicians and should instead concern themselves with how different people will interact when confronted with social problems.
Shaw contends that censorship and taboos on discussing certain topics have set up the expectation that talking about forbidden topics will be either sexually arousing or very dramatic. Instead, he wants to force people like the audience members to confront the unsexy reality that lies behind the things they usually are too polite to talk about.
Shaw says that those critics who criticize his characters as unrealistic are used to seeing characters behave predictably, instead of irrationally and based on temperament like real people do.
Shaw identifies himself with the Realist tradition, which believed in showing life and people as they really are, instead of as romantic, exciting, or attractive figures.
Shaw says that there are many critics who decided not to see Mrs. Warren’s Profession on the grounds that it is indecent. To these reviewers, he says that the play was produced only because women believed it was an important play to have staged, which suggests that the play’s perspective on issues impacting women resonated with them.
Shaw reminds male critics, who said that the play explored the topic of prostitution in a way that would be bad for society, that he had female support for the play’s production. To Shaw’s mind, his society forbids discussion of the experiences of women (especially poor women), and critics who refuse to see his play are continuing that pattern.
Next, Shaw takes on critics who contend that he didn’t make Mrs. Warren enough of a villain. This, he says, is precisely the point of her character. He intended to indict British society at large, not brothel owners in particular. To that end, he had Mrs. Warren argue that she had not chosen an immoral life, but had chosen one form of immorality over another, by choosing to live comfortably as a prostitute instead of starving and diseased in another occupation.
Shaw spells out his purpose behind writing the play here: to show that it is not the immorality of individual women that leads to prostitution, but the conditions these women face in society. He plans to show that the way society itself is structured is immoral, and even villainous. A woman like Mrs. Warren is not a fine example of morality, but neither can she be blamed for the problem of prostitution.
Another critic saw Reverend Gardner’s character as an attack on religion. Instead, Shaw explains, the depiction of the clergyman is an attack on the society that pushes men who aren’t suited to be clergymen into that profession. Shaw also means to highlight that Reverend Gardner produces a good-for-nothing as a son, while Mrs. Warren produces a hardworking, moral daughter. In this way, he hopes to point attention to the fact that to succeed as a brothel owner one must be intelligent and a good manager, while clergymen are selected based only on their social status and often have no moral authority whatsoever.
Although Shaw’s focus is on the lack of opportunity for poor women, he also critiques the other ways in which his society fails to be a real meritocracy. The play shows that barring talented, ambitious people like Liz and Kitty Warren from certain professions means they direct their energies in less socially useful ways. At the same time, the members of Reverend Gardner’s church are deprived of a talented clergyman, and Reverend Gardner is forced to be a hypocrite because he has been pushed into a profession he has no talent for.
Shaw finishes his “Apology” by thanking the actors and supporters who decided to buck the Censor and put on the play despite many difficulties. The play is full of difficult roles, because they go against the usual stereotypes. Both Vivie and Mrs. Warren are unusual as heroines because they are practical Englishwomen, not Italian prima donnas. The villain (Crofts) is completely indifferent to his own moral failings. The kind and romantic lover of art (Praed) is portrayed as a silly middle-aged man who has never confronted the world as it really is. And the clever children Vivie and Frank have no respect for their elders, which will make children who do respect their elders worry that they are not clever and older people uncomfortable at what the younger generation must think of them.
Shaw finishes his “Apology” by offering insight into how his characters should be interpreted. He hopes that these characters will make the audience squirm, because they are true to life and are all portrayed as having realistic weaknesses. Shaw hopes that the play will stir his audience members to think about their own place in society, about holding themselves accountable to moral standards, about kindness to those around them, and about being honest with themselves and others regarding the social problems they see.