The subject of prostitution may not shock as it did a century ago, but the political and social issues that surround the world’s oldest profession continue to cause conflicts. Distinguished theatre scholar J. Ellen Gainor reflects on the enduring relevance of Shaw’s play.
"Rich men without conviction are more dangerous in modern society than poor women without chastity." – Bernard Shaw, Preface to Plays Unpleasant
Prostitution fascinates contemporary Americans; at the same time, most of us profess to abhor sexual behavior that violates dominant moral codes. In fact, we can chart our nation’s recent history, decade by decade, through its prostitution scandals and their attendant hypocrisies: Sydney Biddle Barrows (a.k.a. The Mayflower Madam) in the 1980s; Heidi Fleiss (a.k.a. The Hollywood Madam) in the 1990s; and, most recently, Ashley Dupré (a.k.a. Kristen), the Emperors Club VIP, and Elliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial imbroglio from which New Yorkers are still reeling.
Yet such “outrages” are far from new. The British, likewise, have been riveted by exposés of organized prostitution for at least a century, ever since the rapid rise of urban centers fostered the development of prostitution from cottage industry to big business. In 1885, British journalist William T. Stead thundered against what was then called the “white slave traffic” in his series of essays, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” published in the tony Pall Mall Gazette. The controversy surrounding these articles rocked London for months, and ultimately led Parliament to amend British laws regulating sexual conduct. In the United States, Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910 to prohibit white slavery and the transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes”—legislation once again familiar to us from the Spitzer debacle.
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2010-2011 Season, Mrs. Warren's Profession