Pre-Show Preparation, Questions for Discussion, and Activities

Note to Educators: Use the following assignments, questions, and activities to introduce your students to Mrs. Warren’s Profession its intellectual and artistic origins, context, and themes, as well as to engage their imaginations and creativity before they see the production.

    George Bernard Shaw is renowned by audiences, critics, and scholars of three centuries as a dramatist of great wit, remarkable intelligence, and, most importantly, “impassioned ideas.” Theme stands as the quintessential dramatic element in all of Shaw’s works, although his “plays of ideas” are engaging for more than just their intellectual and rhetorical content, mostly due to the relatable and often entertaining characters he creates to argue both sides of the issues he examines.

    The questions for discussion immediately below are designed for both teachers able to incorporate the reading of Mrs. Warren’s Profession (available online via Project Gutenberg) into their pre-performance curriculum (read Section A, then proceed to C), as well as for those whose students will not have the opportunity to read the play in advance of their experience of the performance (begin with Section B).


  1. After reading Mrs. Warren’s Profession either aloud as a class or individually, ask your students to brainstorm a list of themes central to the play. [See section B for a list of themes.].

  2. Set largely in a middle-class cottage in the British countryside, circa 1895, Mrs. Warren’s Profession centers young, recent Cambridge graduate Vivie Warren’s discovery that her mother’s wealth—and its obvious relationship to Vivie’s own material comforts, education, and station in life—is the product of a prostitution enterprise. The story of the play follows how Vivie’s discovery of her mother’s secret profession challenges and changes their relationship. In true Shavian fashion (see the article “Shaw’s Style; or What is Shavian?” in this resource guide) a plethora of themes, both personal and political pervade the play; they include: the potential of long-hidden secrets, once revealed, to test, confound, and potentially fracture families and individuals; the conflicts (both ordinary and extraordinary)that challenge mother-daughter/parent-child relationships; the failings of capitalism and the causes and consequences of poverty; patriarchy and the class system in relation to the status and socio-political oppression of women; and social and moral hypocrisy and the sexual double standard. Share these themes with your students.

  3. Ask your students if they find an intellectual or personal connection (either in relationship to their own experience, to someone that they know, or to events occurring in the current socio-political or global sphere) to any of the themes of Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Have them write/journal about one theme with which they personally connect. If appropriate, students may volunteer to share their thematic connection with the rest of the class for purposes of discussion.

  4. Ask your students to recall and make connections to other plays or works of literature they have read or studied with themes similar to those of Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

  1. IN CONTEXT: G. B. SHAW AND MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION. To prepare your students for Mrs. Warren’s Profession and to deepen their level of understanding of and appreciation for the life, work, interests, and influence of George Bernard Shaw, have your students research, either in groups or individually, the following topics:
    • George Bernard Shaw:
      • Biography
        • Childhood, Family, and Education
        • Early Career, 1871-1890 (Overview)
        • Later Career 1825-1950 (Overview)
    • Shaw as Critic
    • Shaw as Novelist
    • Shaw and Society/Politics (Overview)
    • The Fabian Society
    • Shaw and Henrik Ibsen
    • Mrs. Warren’s Profession related:
      • Rights and status of women in England, mid- to late-nineteenth century
    • The “New Woman,” c. 1890’s
    • Prostitution in England, mid- to late-nineteenth century
    • Prostitution Plays: La Dame aux camélias and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray
    • The Lord Chamberlain, Stage Licensing Act, and Theatre Censorship in England
    • Other major dramatic works:
      • Arms and the Man
      • Candida
      • Man and Superman
      • Major Barbara
      • Pygmalion
      • Heartbreak House
      • Saint Joan
    Have your students teach one another about their individual or group topics vial oral and illustrated (i.e., posters or PowerPoint) reports. Following the presentations ask your students to reflect upon their research process and discoveries.
  1. MRS. WARREN’S DESIGN PROJECT: COSTUME RESEARCH AND RENDERING.Theatrical visual designers, who create a play production’s scenery, costumes, makeup, and lights must find ways to communicate their design ideas to the director with whom they collaborate. The main form of visual communication between a costume designer and director is the costume rendering (sometimes referred to as sketch or design), which is a detailed drawing or painting in color intended to show what the character’s various costumes will look like when assembled/constructed and placed on stage.

    Project Information—A Quick Lesson in Costume Design
    Costume designers are concerned with what defines the character visually in terms of: the setting of the play (i.e., time, location, period, etc.); the age of the character; his or her class and rank or status in their society, community, etc.; individualized personality traits; and the changes the character goes through in the course of the play. Costume designers must also take into consideration the themes or ideas of the play, the director’s interpretation or conception of those ideas, and the overall mood or emotional feelings of the play and the director’s approach to the mood of the production. The elements of design foremost on the designers mind are:
    • Style—realistic or stylized, relative to the director’s concept. Questions for the designer: Is the play/production realistic or stylized (i.e., a deliberate departure from reality or the realistic)? Should the characters’ costumes look like “real” clothes or should they be stylized in some way (in relation to the other elements)?
    • Line and Silhouette—the outline of the body/costume; establishes the play’s period and location. Question for the designer: What are the traditional or conventional lines or silhouettes for the period in which the play/production is set?
    • Color—individual character pallet and overall color pallet: Questions for the designer: What colors are evoked by the overall mood or feeling of the play? What color or colors would my character(s) wear based upon those things that define character (above)? How could I show unity or diversity between characters in my color choices.
    • Scale—size relative to the norm. Questions for the designer: Are the size of my characters costumes/clothes realistic and in proportion (including do the characters clothes fit him or her well) to the period? If the production is stylized and intended to depart from reality or the norm, how could I use exaggerated scale (either smaller or larger) to define my character?
    • Texture—of materials or fabrics; smooth or rough, expensive or inexpensive, natural or synthetic, etc. Question for the designer: How can I use fabric choices to indicate my character’s personality, age, socio-economic status, etc.?

    Project Instructions
    • First, have your students read Mrs. Warren’s Profession (available online via Project Gutenberg) and ask them to take notes on every possible or useful reference pertaining to period and how each character is defined by the dramatist. Shaw’s stage directions are rife with details on character and even costume, and his dialogue is full of information. [If a reading of the play is not curricularly feasible, then have students consult the Character Profiles contained in this resource guide.]
    • Second, get your students to sit down for a production/design meeting with Emily Mann, director of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, by having them view/read the two entries on the McCarter Blog linked below:
    • Third, have students conduct a little online research about both costume renderings and whichever period you or they decide to pursue after consulting with Emily Mann. She offers two possible periods: the 1890s or the 1920s. You might allow students to choose either or prescribe one period upon which all designers should focus. The Costumer’s Manifesto is a wonderful site, developed by Tara Maginnis, Ph.D., which provides great information about costume design and has a plethora of useful and interesting links. Have students check out “Renderng Links” and (Costume) History sorted by Period”specifically to prepare for creating their renderings; the former provides models for proper rendering layout. Other useful search terms: “fashion past and present,” “Edwardian Fashion,” “Edwardian Era,” and “late-Victorian Fashion.” Students might also find the following video blog entry about the McCarter Costume Shop informational and interesting:
    • Fourth, students should be instructed to choose either one or two characters (per instructor) for whom to create costume renderings. They should reflect upon what defines their character (s), the themes or ideas of the play, and the elements of design as they pertain to their character(s). Students will need access to arts supplies (e.g., paper, colored pencils or magic markers or paints) for this project, although some might opt to use computer technology to create their renderings. Students should also be encouraged to utilize fabric swatches if they have access to them either at home or if the have the time and means to visit a fabric store.
    • After their renderings have been completed, students should be given time to show their finished designs to the class and to explain how they envisioned their character(s) and what choices they made in the creation of their costume rendering(s).
    • **Please send any noteworthy renderings to McCarter Theatre, Education Department, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540 (or submit them electronically to We would love to see them and put them on the McCarter Education web site!**
    In drama and literature, peripeteia is the term, borrowed from the Greek theater, to refer to a point in the plot when a sudden and unexpected change of fortune, a reversal in cirucumstances, or a turning of the tables occurs for one or more characters. Drama critic, author, and friend of Bernard Shaw, William Archer devotes an entire chapter to “peripety” in his book Playmaking: A Manual of Craftmanship. On its significance in modern plays he writes:
    I think, we may safely say: the dramatist is fortunate who finds in the development of his theme, without unnatural strain or too much preparation, opportunity for a great scene, highly-wrought, arresting, absorbing, wherein one or more of his characters shall experience a marked reversal either of inward soul-state or of outward fortune. The theory of the peripety, in short, practically resolves itself for us into the theory of the "great scene." Plays there are, many and excellent plays, in which some one scene stands out from all the rest, impressing itself with peculiar vividness on the spectator's mind; and, nine times out of ten, this scene will be found to involve a peripety.

    Archer goes on in Playmaking to identify and celebrate the “great scene” in his dear friend’s play:
    For a clearly-marked moral peripety we may turn to the great scene between Vivie and her mother in the second act of Mrs. Warren's Profession. Whatever may be thought of the matter of this scene, its movement is excellent. After a short, sharp opening, which reveals to Mrs. Warren the unfilial dispositions of her daughter, and reduces her to whimpering dismay, the following little passage occurs:
    MRS.WARREN. You're very rough with me, Vivie.
    VIVIE. Nonsense. What about bed? It's past ten.
    MRS.WARREN (passionately): What's the use of my going to bed? Do you think I could sleep?
    VIVIE. Why not? I shall.
    Then the mother turns upon the daughter's stony self-righteousness, and pours forth her sordid history in such a way as to throw a searchlight on the conditions which make such histories possible; until, exhausted by her outburst, she says, "Oh, dear! I do believe I am getting sleepy after all," and Vivie replies, "I believe it is I who will not be able to sleep now." Mr. Shaw, we see, is at pains to emphasize his peripety.
    Share the above information with your students and have them investigate the dramatic concept of peripeteia and the dramatic artistry of Bernard Shaw through scene study and presentation of the “great scene” between Vivie and Kitty Warren.
    • Break your class up into scene-study triads. Each triad should include two actors and a director; the actors will assume the roles of Vivie and Mrs. Warren and the director will run the rehearsal and stage the actors in the scene.
    • Students should prepare/rehearse their scene for a script-in-hand presentation for the class. (If your students haven’t or won’t be able to read the entire play, they can consult the “Character Profiles” in this resource guides to learn more about Vivie and Kitty Warren.)
    • Following scene presentations, lead students in a discussion of their experience rehearsing and performing Questions might include:
    • What are the pleasures and challenges of staging and performing Shaw’s “great scene?”
    • What insights regarding the characters of Vivie and Kitty Warren and their relationship or the concept of peripeteia did you gain from putting the scene on its feet?
    • Ask your students if they can think of any other examples of peripeteia from their play-going or play-reading experience.
  1. A THEATER REVIEWER PREPARES. A theater critic or reviewer is essentially a “professional audience member,” whose job is to report the news, in detail, of a play’s production and performance through active and descriptive language for a target audience of readers (e.g., their peers, their community, or those interested in the Arts). To prepare your students to write an accurate, insightful and compelling theater review following their attendance at McCarter Theatre’s production of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, prime them for the task by discussing the three basic elements of a theatrical review: reportage, analysis and judgment.
    • Reportage is concerned with the basic information of the production, or the journalist’s “four w’s” (i.e., who, what, where, when), as well as the elements of production, which include the text, setting, costumes, lighting, sound, acting and directing (see the “Theater Reviewer’s Checklist”). When reporting upon these observable phenomena of production, the reviewer’s approach should be factual, descriptive and objective; any reference to quality or effectiveness should be reserved for the analysis section of the review.
    • With analysis the theater reviewer segues into the realm of the subjective and attempts to interpret the artistic choices made by the director and designers and the effectiveness of these choices; specific moments, ideas and images from the production are considered in the analysis.
    • Judgment involves the reviewer’s opinion as to whether the director’s and designers’ intentions were realized, and if their collaborative, artistic endeavor was ultimately a worthwhile one. Theater reviewers always back up their opinions with reasons, evidence and details.
    Remind your students that the goal of a theater reviewer is “to see accurately, describe fully, think clearly, and then (and only then) to judge fairly the merits of the work” (Thaiss and Davis, Writing for the Theatre, 1999). Proper analytical preparation before the show and active listening and viewing during will result in the effective writing and crafting of their reviews.