A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 1 - Summer 2010

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Motherless Nature: The Implications of Landscape in Mrs. Warren’s Profession
by Molly O'Donnell

       The overt presence of nature in any piece of fiction can hardly be discounted as irrelevant given the West’s complex history of defining and redefining what nature means in relationship to humanity. From a Baconian perspective of observing nature for the purposes of control to a contemporary understanding that “nature pervades everything,” humankind’s fascination with the concept of nature is ceaseless (Tarnas 434). Given the significance of these conceptions of nature and their influence on literature past and present, explicit metaphor concerning nature cannot be disregarded. Fiction that has an overwhelming fixation on social problems can lead critics to overlook metaphor concerning the natural world. Examining these allusions and redefinitions of nature can ultimately shed light on the social issues dealt with in the work and the characters and action therein.

        Bernard Shaw is a prime candidate for such an examination because he came to prominence when Victorian concern over the natural in reaction to threatening progressiveness in areas such as science, art, and culture was at its apex. One of the most prolific writers of his time, Shaw exerted great energy on issues directly related to these anxieties concerning nature1, often fanning the flames of controversy along the way. A Fabian and feminist (perhaps, as Peters points out, in spite of himself), Shaw’s unique progressiveness can occasionally obscure his proclamation that his “business is to incarnate the Zeitgeist” (Letters 222). Nature and the natural were intrinsically intertwined with all facets of the fin de siècle Zeitgeist. Shaw’s personal interest in the natural is reflected in his fixation on matters of health: his vegetarianism, his teetotaling, his quirky attire (i.e., the Jaeger suit). The exception to this predisposition can be found in his disinclination toward sexual intercourse and resulting portrayal of women as sexually voracious. Because Shaw wished to escape the dominance of the body over the mind, his drama can be seen as often undermining what he sets up as the natural world, thematizing nature and denigrating the unmonitored natural as what Shaw characterized as a force of “Death and Degeneration” (Plays 661).

       Literalizing the theme he exploits more explicitly in plays like The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, Shaw’s social-issue play Mrs. Warren’s Profession reveals a complex use of metaphor as regards landscape and nature, imbuing them with something telling beyond the New Woman’s perceived predicament. Shaw’s overt presentation of both the hypocrisy of men’s sexual freedom and the economic roadblocks to women’s emancipation in Mrs. Warren’s Profession are so explicit as to warrant little further discussion. However, looking at the ways in which Shaw portrays nature in earlier plays like Mrs. Warren’s Profession, more subtle, still-burgeoning ideas related to the modern human world become apparent. Here the natural physical world is presented as the setting for the most unnatural matchmaking (prostitution, potential incest, general immorality), hinting at the degeneration of the species because of a lack of biological development and resulting intellectual development. What is also predicted by these bucolic aberrations is the natural world as a construct that extends into human behavior, something to be eschewed and substituted with manipulation in the more conducive, urban world.

       This association between the natural world, as manifested in landscape and rural setting, with all that will bring humankind to its end reflects the Shavian sentiment that “If Man will not serve, Nature will try another experiment” (qtd. in Peereboom 206). Although this is a doomsday scenario late Victorians would have been familiar with, Shaw’s disparagement of what had been considered transcendental inspiration in rural setting is unique. Even later plays in which Shaw seems to present a natural setting in some pseudo-utopian scenario are misleading. In Back to Methuselah, a sunlit glade of the future leads us back to the unfinished improvement of man where human intellectual intervention and work (intellectual and presumably urban) seem the only solutions.

       Shaw’s eugenic ideology was the next logical manifestation of attempts to improve on nature and make calculated decisions for the betterment of humanity. Far from believing that the emancipation of women was its own end, Shaw wished to harness society’s previously unguided natural predispositions toward intercourse to facilitate the evolution of the individual socially and intellectually through biological means. Shaw’s interest in eugenics and position on the future of idealized human reproduction can be discerned from his later plays and other writings on the matter (e.g., Man and Superman).2 His desire to adopt Creative Evolution to harness the Life Force and create an improved race of men was developed out of his sincere socialist convictions as well as occasionally misguided inspiration from the likes of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner, Lamarck, and Ibsen, the understanding being, “…biological progress must precede intellectual development” (Holroyd 78).3 The manifestation of this futurist vision results in the much-criticized dichotomy between men and women, where women are circumscribed to the heavy lifting for the species in bearing and rearing children, while men retire to intellectual pursuits. Although Shaw may have ultimately seen this process as the individual being used for a higher purpose, the fissures in egalitarianism seem obvious to a contemporary audience.

       Many critics when faced with these later conceptions concerning eugenics are left to explain away Vivie Warren’s apparent satisfaction with permanent singlehood at the close of Mrs. Warren’s Profession as ambiguous (especially given Shaw’s later conviction that celibacy would be ruinous for the species). Carpenter concludes that Vivie’s final actions, “convey an almost palpable sense of wasted vitality,” while Valency suggests she “remains mysterious throughout the play” (qtd. in Conolly 47). On the surface, it would appear that Vivie is a prime candidate for breeding. The text obsessively refers to her strength, vitality, intelligence, and morality, beginning with her introduction as “an attractive specimen of the sensible, able, highly-educated young middle-class Englishwoman…prompt, strong, confident, self-possessed” (emphasis added, 88). Despite her fitness, she seems to have no match. Frank is a self-confessed lout, toying with the idea of marrying her for money. The other male characters are so depraved or unfit for various reasons, they are hardly worth mentioning. So the explanation of her decision to avoid matrimony and motherhood seems logical given these sad options; however, allusions to nature throughout the play complicate this easily arrived at assumption.

       At the play’s start Vivie’s mind is seemingly made up about rejecting her mother and becoming an actuary in Chancery. Soon, because of her connection with Frank and revelations about her mother, we see that Vivie is not entirely to be believed. Her decisions have not been inexorably made, despite what she tells Praed and believes herself. The subtext of a woman on the verge of adulthood who is making major decisions concerning career, marriage, and motherhood are part of what make the play compelling on something other than a socio-economic level.
       Mrs. Warren’s Profession’s use of nature as a metaphor for sexuality, romance (or sentimentality about culture), and conventional femininity underscores Vivie’s ultimate decision to reject all three. Vivie’s retreat from nature, however, superficially belies a deep-seated conflict with Shaw’s understanding of her role in the progressive future. This seemingly makes Vivie’s life-like personality and actions contrast with her potential as a mother, leading to the contradiction that allows for a heretofore perceived ambiguous ending. Interestingly this conundrum foreshadows the Modernist concerns to come. However, this cannot simply be written off as a deferred ideal due to the unjust conventionality of the time, nor can it be seen merely in terms of pragmatism on the part of Vivie as a New Woman avoiding the fate of natural maternity.

       This was, however, the most persuasive argument against the New Woman’s (or her “creators”) position: Liberation of the any New Woman could be abruptly halted by Lady Jeune’s “inevitable Baby.” Jeune was not the only one to claim that the New Woman was in an “impossible and ridiculous position” in the face of inevitable motherhood (604). Allen’s The Woman Who Did and Chopin’s The Awakening are literary examples of the same phenomenon: Liberation squelched by maternity. This claim is somewhat unsurprising given the scarce availability of birth control and cultural emphasis on the importance of family. Given Shaw’s understanding of this argument of nature tripping up the New Woman and his later claims about the importance of eugenics, examining the places in Mrs. Warren’s Profession where references to nature occur becomes important to understanding the meaning of the play’s final scene.

       The first reference to nature occurs early in the first act at the arrival of Mrs. Warren’s friend Praed to Vivie’s country cottage. Vivie lies on a hammock engrossed in reading and notably shaded from the sun by a large umbrella. Vivie asks Praed, “Will you come indoors; or would you rather sit out here and talk?” Interestingly, her question privileges the indoors. When he replies, “It will be nicer out here, don’t you think?” Vivie does not directly answer. Instead she offers to get him a chair (89). She then launches into a shocking (to Praed) discussion about her position as an “ignorant barbarian,” cultureless due to her schooling (92). Her lack of remorse about this state of cultural depravity could not be more obvious. This blissful ignorance extends from Praed’s ideas of beauty and culture forward to romance and art in general. Throughout the play, nature is consistently used to represent and introduce elements of a female construct perpetuated in and expounded on during the Victorian era. Culture in the aesthetic sense introduced by Praed is the first. The notion of culture as a false construct that is inherently feminine is reinforced when Praed comments on Vivie’s schooling: “I felt at once that it meant destroying all that makes womanhood beautiful.” While this line may be a dig directed at Cambridge because “it denied women the educational opportunities offered to men,” the direct reference is to womanliness and a connection with culture, introduced with a metaphorical allusion to nature (Conolly 49).

       Later in the play the natural metaphors become more heavy-handed. At the start of Act II, Mrs. Warren enters the cottage after a long walk with Frank and exclaims, “O Lord! I don’t know which is the worst of the country, the walking or the sitting at home with nothing to do” (106). Mrs. Warren’s aversion to nature is introduced here and repeatedly emphasized in her later warnings to Vivie and comments from Frank. After she expresses this exasperation with the outdoors, Mrs. Warren demonstrates her perversion of what she sees as natural femininity by kissing Frank, both the son of her former lover and her daughter’s current lover. That she immediately admonishes herself is evidence of her belief in a conventional understanding of natural femininity that she has never practiced (as Vivie points out later).

       In the next place that Mrs. Warren reveals her aversion to the natural, she also betrays her fears of its newly planted hold on Vivie. After Vivie has heard her mother’s heroic tale, she is swayed to forgive and praise her for fortitude in the face of poverty. Vivie then goes to the window to “let in some fresh air.” When she sees “the landscape is…bathed in moonlight in the radiance of the harvest moon rising over Blackdown,” she exclaims, “What a beautiful night!” Mrs. Warren’s reaction is to warn, “take care you don’t catch your death of cold from the night air” (127). There is more to Kitty’s reaction than a personal aversion to conventional nature or overprotective mothering. Mrs. Warren has employed an inordinate amount of pathos to win Vivie’s heart, emphasizing the unfairness of her impoverished situation and the lack of an alternative to prostitution. When Vivie is seemingly won, her heart becomes open to nature both as it exists in the country setting and as the previously defined construct of the time (romance, sexuality, and conventional femininity). Mrs. Warren, realizing that perhaps her arguments may have been too persuasive and being no practitioner of the natural herself, attempts to warn her daughter of the unreality and danger of being a victim of this social construct. Kitty advises Vivie against her natural proclivities, or what Kitty thinks are her natural proclivities, as a woman, specifically emotion and weakness. A woman from this perspective is easy prey for a corrupt man to take advantage of sexually or financially.

       The fact that the moon in this scene is full emphasizes the allusion to nature as inherently feminine in the conventional sense. Full moons have been widely associated with menstrual cycles. The fact that a harvest moon usually appears to be red in hue (often mistakenly referred to as the blood moon) can only reinforce this connection with the construct of naturally frail femininity. This connection is also reinforced by associations of the bountiful harvest as emblematic of breeding, as well as the fecundity to which conventional thinking and Shaw’s later eugenics reduce women. Mrs. Warren’s concern that Vivie will get carried away with her newfound feminine empathy is evidence of how little she knows about her daughter. Shortly thereafter in the play we see Vivie’s affection for her mother (as well as a number of other “naturally” feminine traits) vanish as a result of revelations by Crofts and the waning effects of the full moon. Vivie’s feminine transformation is only temporary, relying on folklore that the full moon causes momentary insanity. The play uses this moon to draw attention to Vivie’s slippage into constructed nature as an aberration of personality. This is reinforced later in the play when Frank sarcastically criticizes Vivie’s “strong natural propensity” toward sentimentality and she responds that she was “sentimental for one moment…by moonlight…” (149-150). Had Crofts and Frank not interceded, perhaps Vivie would have been damned to a life of conventionality unfitting her very being. Thus the play sets up these constructions of natural womanliness as reflected in landscape as a wholesale package.

      Act III is introduced by yet another acknowledgement of Mrs. Warren’s unnaturalness. As Vivie enters arm in arm with her mother, Frank observes that the “quiet old rectory garden becomes [Kitty] perfectly” (132). No one, either in any audience or onstage, is naïve enough to assume this statement is sincere. Certainly the allusion to the rectory is meant to humorously contrast with what Frank explicitly states later about Kitty’s “thoroughly immoral” character (133). However, on a metaphorical level, the choice of a natural garden setting to contrast with Mrs. Warren’s character is further proof that her perception of herself as unnatural is valid from the perspectives of others as well. If the contrast between the morality of the church and Kitty was the sole motivation for the statement, it likely would have been better to set the scene inside the church, where Mrs. Warren ventures next.

       Vivie then argues with Frank about her mother’s role in her life. She is temporarily swayed to make peace with him by their “babes in the wood” game. This childish playfulness between Frank and Vivie takes on the affectation of naiveté, indicating Vivie’s interest in guilt- and consequence-free sexuality, which we only see after her conventional awakening. Vivie only exercises sexual proclivity through this nature game. This innocent foreplay also sets up a binary that is particularly interesting later considering Vivie’s unknown parentage and the implication that she and Frank share a father. That the game is inherently sexual is evidenced in Vivie’s reaction to Frank’s advances after hearing from Crofts that Frank might be her half-brother: “You make all my flesh creep” (142).        

       At this point, Vivie rejects not only conventional femininity and her mother’s hypocrisy, but sexuality and romantic sensibilities as represented by Frank and Praed, respectively, fleeing to the urban indoors from whence she came. It turns out the only thing needed to propel Vivie toward (and then away from) her constructed feminine nature (as passive, emotional, and romantically sentimental) and her physically constructed nature as a woman (that might manifest itself in sexuality and motherhood) is her mother’s continued lifestyle of prostitution. Despite the fact that Vivie and Kitty are similar in disposition (women of the world concerned with commerce and work), Vivie’s problem with Kitty is that she “lived one life and believed in another…a conventional woman at heart” (160). Vivie cannot live with this sort of “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy. Although she has been financially supported by her mother’s dishonest industry, her knowledge of the business makes it impossible for her to continue to benefit from it without becoming the hypocrite her mother is. In the end, her mother begrudgingly agrees that it is “the right thing” (161). 

       Vivie’s rejection of Frank is not just a reaction to possible incest, but a rejection of the conventional view of what is natural for a woman to do: marry, breed, and do little else. Vivie sees that if she takes on a life of child rearing and shopping, she would become as “worthless and vicious as the silliest woman could possibly want to be” (158). Vivie sees this idle life as even more reprehensible than her mother’s corruption of young women.

       This is a partial reflection of Shaw’s utopian vision as described by J. J. Peereboom. Although many (including Shaw) have pointed out, “Shaw was no Utopian,” his futurist tendencies both in drama and nonfiction betray something of a pseudo-utopian (Peters 9). Peereboom points out that Shaw:

proposed images of a better world, not just to provide standards for his denunciations in the Swiftian manner but as projects to be realized in the continuation of history…he just recommended increasingly drastic means to bring about the necessary improvements, and allowed longer and longer terms for them to take effect. (202)

In the interim what Shaw believed in was work. This ethos of work is where Shaw’s ideas seem to ring true for him personally as well as for Vivie. According to Peters, “He longed, like his Don Juan, to escape the tyranny of the flesh” and possessed “deep antipathies toward sex” (10-4). This ascetic, asexual bent in the author combined with his utopia as “being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one…being a force of Nature” seem to shed light on Vivie’s rejection of a constructed femininity represented by her contemporaries’ idea of her nature (qtd. in Peereboom 205).

       Before Shaw was driven to unjust conclusions, Vivie was invented as a celibate, urban person, content in her own world, much like Shaw. Peereboom initially sees Shaw’s utopia in “the beach in…Too Good To Be True…the garden…in Man and Superman…the south bank of the silver Loire in Saint Joan,” whereas in Mrs. Warren’s Profession the country is a thing best avoided while the diligence of life progresses for both mother and daughter in the city (208). The utopia found here is not as Peereboom initially observes in landscape, but as he later sees in Shaw’s characters. Characters like Vivie choose to live life “with the oppressive hazards of life removed” (209). As a woman at the turn of the century, Vivie would have needed this utopia of ascetic celibacy uncomplicated by the corporal more than Shaw. However, that does not mean that either he or she felt something missing in this lifestyle, especially given that nature is metaphorically presented as an artificial construct in the play, hypocrisy at best and an unproductive endeavor at worst.    

       Shaw’s later eugenic obligations are presented as perfunctory and unsatisfying, fittingly reflecting his own aversion toward sex (Peters 14). This is evidenced in the deferred larger conclusion for society in many of Shaw’s later plays. As is pointed out by Peereboom, Shaw’s vision of when a utopian future might arise seems to point to an incessant deferral in favor of endless joyful work with few messy human elements to complicate matters. In this way, Vivie has fulfilled his vision of the ideal present and foreseeable future. The fact that she will never reproduce is one sticking point in his later understanding of eugenic necessity. This future world is painted as an unpleasant obligation. If people like Shaw are forced under these later circumstances to engage in sex they find troublesome and Vivie forced to abandon her work in favor of motherhood, it is no wonder the deferral of these obligations seems optimal. In true Ibsenian fashion, Shaw believed woman should abandon “her womanliness, her duty to her husband, to her children, to society, to the law, and to everyone but herself” (qtd. in Peters 14). It is difficult to see how this perspective fits into the near [The] Handmaid’s Tale dystopia projected in Shaw’s later plays and writing. It is, however, easy to see how this perspective reflects on Vivie. She has abandoned every socially constructed role of her nature (reinforced in the metaphor to nature in dialogue and setting). She is a goddess in Shaw’s world of self-fulfillment and diligence.

       This understanding of Vivie as an idealized woman again rains disapproval on Shaw’s oft-criticized later propensity toward eugenics. Given Vivie’s questionable mother and unknown (though surely immoral) father, how are readers supposed to understand how a woman of the best breeding stock dropped out of a brothel? Further, how is her wasted, yet content, breeding potential supposed to affect an audience? Shavian perspective on the whole might make this an excellent didactic moment: Society should feel remorseful that Vivie’s motherhood will be “wasted.” However, her tendency toward work outside the home and propensity to be more content in the emotionally uncomplicated and unfeminine world of commerce reflects her mother’s, with the lackluster benefit of an unconventional lack of hypocrisy. This seems to defeat both Shaw’s ideas about a eugenically perfect future and Vivie’s contribution to that society. Certainly she feels as if she’s doing what she should. She is not embittered about the loss of any piece of romance, nature, sexual love, or conventionality. Her good nature and self-contained future seems to again contradict Shaw’s later philosophies.

       The New Woman literature and her presence in the popular press makes the looming prospect of maternity its primary focus. If Vivie does not refuse romance, she will have to come to terms with Jeune’s “inevitable Baby.” This would make Herminia Barton’s fate (Allen) seem almost merciful in comparison to a future of, say, five unwanted children. The material conditions of raising children were the conservative opposition’s last and most persuasive argument against New Womanism. They were also the stumbling block of the progressive. With material concern a nonissue for Vivie (her mother is rich and she has the potential to earn her own income, partnering with a likeminded man), her ultimate aversion to nature’s enticements contradicts the critical assumption that she is being “wasted” by anything other than her own free will. In rejecting the nature constructed for her in “womanliness,” reflected in her rural surroundings and represented by a triumvirate of characters (Praed, Mrs. Warren, Frank), she comes closer to both her idea of herself at the play’s opening (her self-made nature) and resembling a real and complete person.

       Vivie Warren’s existence challenges both Shaw’s later-espoused eugenic philosophies and his presentation of her as an element of subversion. A Cultural Materialist might view her satisfaction in solitude as subverting the call to constructed nature largely accepted by a Victorian audience. However, spinsterhood (whatever the reason) was also a generally accepted, though pitiable, practice. The choice and agency exerted by the practitioner are somewhat irrelevant from an outside perspective. Conversely, Vivie’s role can hardly be seen from a New Historicist’s perspective as containment because she does not kill herself and is content by play’s end. This seeming contradiction points to the less complex conclusion that Vivie is herself and not simply a mouthpiece of Shaw. Giving her the agency of an actual person, Shaw lends her his own idea of real happiness, free from the complications of duty and romance and steeped in self-fulfilling work.

       Interestingly Shaw uses nature to represent Vivie’s conventional alternative, a thoroughly Romantic idea, inspired by ancient and medieval thought and not a Modern perspective, where nature is divorced from and indifferent toward humanity (Tarnas 288). This Romantic fallacy allows the play to reflect the artificiality of femininity as connected to the natural world back on its perpetrators: the traditionally gendered landscape of Mother Nature, an idea of nature as feminized in beauty, untamed emotion, and unrefined intellect. Transferring this gendered nature back on to woman was a much-discussed topic at the time. As with Ibsen’s Nora and other New Woman archetypes, Mrs. Warren’s Profession’s aim is at first to make the New Woman into a real woman, with virtue and values above both her obviously corrupt mother and frivolous and conventional society. Hence, the question of Mother Nature drawing Vivie back into her fold through pregnancy, marriage, or familial feelings for her own mother is unthinkable.

       As critics often point out, Mrs. Warren’s Profession foreshadows the Modern Shaw, with its “open, muted ending” (Marker 121). Perhaps this conception has less to do with an ambiguous ending and more to do with that fact that it is not ambiguous. If Vivie is content in solitude, the Modernist message can be seen as uncomplicated by abandoned elements of constructed nature. Perhaps Vivie embodies “the inherent goodness of the individual…distorted [only] by excessive contact with others in groups and institutions” (Berlin 484). In this way it is her individualism and self-aware exploration that are the harbingers of Modernism, not her discomfiture with isolation. Vivie retires to industry as virtuous as she was at the play’s start. However, she is no longer rife with untested virtue. She can now withdraw as comfortably into celibacy as the Victorian idealized Elizabeth, a stone woman who does not bleed, an ascetic (aside from her smoking, to which interpretations from Freudians likely have much to say).

       If both Vivie and Shaw are content to say that work and utility are occupations of the satisfying individual life, then his pseudo-utopian ideals are realized in Vivie. This makes his assertions about breeding no more than tacked-on propositions based on the irrational fear that without intervention the species will be left in the hands of the less than supermen. If ambiguities about Vivie’s character are present at the play’s end, then perhaps their root has little to do with wasted genetic potential of sham womanliness. Vivie’s “delving into the great sheafs of paper on her desk in order to lose herself in her work” does not seem to signal despair and disillusionment to either the character herself or the author personally (Marker 121). These interpretations have more to do with scholarship that applies Shaw’s later theories retroactively to Vivie instead of vice versa. To say that Vivie is discontent and working to “lose herself” borders on paternalistic and sexist. Perhaps the end of the play is viewed as ambiguous merely because audiences are unaccustomed to a person rewarded for following the dictates of her own nature rather than those conventionally or eugenically prescribed at the time, prizing individual productivity and peace over romance or duty.

Works Cited
  • Allen, Grant. The Woman Who Did. 1895. New York: Oxford, 1995.
  • Berg, Fredric. “Structure and Philosophy in Man and Superman and Major Barbara.” Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. Ed. Christopher Innes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 144-61.
  • Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” College English 50 (1988): 477-93. Conolly, L. W. Introduction. Mrs. Warren’s Profession. By Bernard Shaw. 1898. Peterborough:  
           Broadview Press Ltd., 2005. 13-74.
  • Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw: The Pursuit of Power, 1889-1918. New York: Random House, 1989.
  • Innes, Christoper. A Sourcebook on Naturalist Theatre. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Jeune, Mary. “The New Woman and The Old: A Reply to Sarah Grand.”  The Lady’s Realm (1894): 600-4. 
  • Marker, Frederick. “Shaw’s Early Plays.” Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. Ed. Christopher Innes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 103-23.
  • Peereboom, J. J. “Shaw’s Own Utopia.” Between Dream and Nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia. Eds. Dominic Baker-Smith and C. Barfoot. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987. 198-210.
  • Peters, Sally. “Shaw’s Life: A Feminist in Spite of Himself.” Cambridge Companion to George Bernard Shaw. Ed. Christopher Innes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 3-24.
  • Shaw, Bernard. The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with Their Prefaces. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. 7 vols. London: Max Reinhardt, The Bodley Head, 1970-74.
    -----. Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. Vol. I. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965.
    -----. Mrs. Warren’s Profession. 1898. Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 2005.
  • Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. 1991. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.

1 In this examination, nature and the natural are not always disambiguated to draw attention to the late 18th- and 19th-century Romantic tendency, still unvanquished at the fin de siècle and today, to conflate conceptions of the two. This has particular salience to a historically British understanding that reference to nature reflects humanity. This is in addition to age-old ideas about nature as inherently feminine (e.g., Mother Nature, Great Mother Goddess). Naturalism as regards Mrs. Warren’s Profession is explored elsewhere (see Innes) and not addressed here.  

2 Shaw completed Man and Superman in the same year (1902) that Mrs. Warren’s Profession was first performed.  It is in Man and Superman and much of Shaw’s contemporaneous letters and criticism that his eugenic and social solution becomes more intelligible. Influenced not only by popular secularism of the day but by his own elusive mysticism, Shaw’s interest in human social evolution attempts to solve what he saw as the central problem of humanity. This problem, far from a diatribe attacking failed democracy and the economic causes of social decline, is manifested in the fact that “by the time the human mind begins to achieve its potential, the human body is ready for the dustbin” (Berg 144). Shaw labeled his philosophy Creative Evolution and found his solution to this problem in what he called the Life Force. Although Shaw did not believe in political intervention in biological improvement, he flirted with fascism (represented in his support of leaders like Stalin) and the notion of a need for intervention in the reproductive processes if only by the enlightened or instinctually superior individual. (Mrs. Warren’s Profession is a good example of where nature meets short-sighted selfishness to conspire against human evolution.) The mind/body divisions present in both Man and Superman and Major Barbara ultimately ascribe men to the former role and women to the latter in the greater interest of the species. Even though Man’s Ann instinctually knows she should serve the Life Force through manipulating, rearing, and breeding, she cannot defend or even articulate her position. Like Ann, “Barbara is the Superman of her earthly domain…[in] a world where true change can be effected, Barbara… is helpless and overwhelmed” (Berg 148). So, although Shaw’s eugenic aims are to defeat the dichotomy between mind and body, he ultimately arrives at a place where the division happens again on the level of the sexes, women with their good instincts and men with their freed-up intellect. Critics like Berg have argued that Shaw used his earlier plays to define and then refine his developing philosophies. The present work reveals there may be more of a direct, though subtler, connection in Shaw’s philosophy of social evolution in progress. This philosophy’s seeds are visible in Shaw’s uses of metaphorical nature and rural setting as representative of the failing status quo. “The battle between those who serve Creative Evolution…and those who unwittingly foil [its] progress…by defending…the conventional,” is as much alive in the rural/urban divisions of Mrs. Warren as it is in Man (Berg 145). In Mrs. Warren, Shaw presents nature as a construct that can be shed, but ultimately his philosophies bring him back to underscoring the very tenants of this construct, as in his attempts to present the rural as idyllic in Back to Methuselah. What is interesting to note is his discomfiture with these constructs and attempts to battle them, to be more long-sighted and facilitate the development of man using urban women as a catalyst. 

3 Shaw demonstrated in his work his belief that “There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough” (Preface to On the Rocks 602). Lamarck’s influence on Shavian eugenic/evolutionary philosophies is obvious in Shaw’s position that traditional interpretations of Darwin implied circumstantial selection, instead of natural. The idea of a dumb evolution beyond man’s control was anathema to Shaw, as was the idea that it was natural.