George Bernard Shaw’s legendary play about the gradual reveal of a family secret, the men who dance around its uncomfortable truths, and an epic mother-daughter showdown has sparked a good deal of introspection and discussion during the ongoing staging of Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Classic Theatre Festival in Perth.
The show, which finished its run on August 12, is centred in the Victorian era, a time when women had no right to vote or own property, and their status was described by John Stuart Mill as akin to slavery. It is against this backdrop that characters who have made certain choices for survival are challenged to justify their positions. As the show progresses, Festival audiences have found themselves debating during intermission and after the final curtain exactly what they think about Mrs. Warren, her daughter Vivie, and the men who are part of their world.
It’s exactly as Shaw would have liked it, given his penchant for a good debate and his interest in seeing changes to the vast social inequality that marked his age. Modern audiences arriving in Perth from as far away as Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, as well as U.S. destinations, are engaging with the play not only as an entertainment – it is certainly a compelling show that mixes drama and comedy – but also as a mirror held up to 2018, when sexual inequality still exists both in Canada and around the globe.
Indeed, a 2015 UN Human Rights report raised concerns about “the persisting inequalities between women and men” in Canada, including the “high level of the pay gap” and its disproportionate effect on low-income women, racialized women, and Indigenous women. Out of 34 countries in the OECD, Canada had the 7th highest gender wage gap in 2014.
And while there certainly have been improvements since the Victoria era, in Canada, the average amount earned by full-time working women in Canada for every dollar earned by men is 74 cents. Based on a wage gap of 31.5% in Ontario, it currently takes women an additional 14 years to earn the same pay collected by men by age 65. The Canadian Women’s Foundation notes that 80% of all lone-parent families are headed by women, while women who leave an abusive partner to raise children on their own are more than five times more likely to live in poverty.
“It’s against this backdrop that we can create a lens through which we view Mrs. Warren’s Profession and ask ourselves: is it her choice that we condemn, or is it the society that limits her choices to begin with that needs a closer examination,” says Matthew Behrens, the Classic Theatre Festival Associate Producer who discussed these issues during daily pre-show talks a half hour before the show.
“We are witnessing very spirited discussions, and people also leave the theatre with a sense of having taken a remarkable journey, which is another part of the theatrical experience,” he says.