Three Courtesans

By one of those strange co-incidences in the course of six days we saw three very different productions, in three different art forms (theatre, cinema and opera), in all of which courtesans were the central characters. This was certainly completely unplanned, but provides the chance for a blog which includes some reflections on the whole issue, which has been given contemporary relevance in the UK by the revelation of the identity of Belle de Jour.

First came a most rewarding visit to Birmingham Repertory Theatre to see a new production of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession with Felicity Kendall as the eponymous protagonist. How simple the ingredients for good theatre appear to be when you see them in action – a clear uncluttered production which enhances but never distracts from the drama, fine acting and, most importantly, an engrossing and well-constructed text. When put like this the wonder is just how infrequently they are encountered. One thing which I tend to forget about Shaw is just how good a technical playwright he is – how he shifts the mood from the comic to the serious, how he constructs his Acts so that they build to natural climaxes which always leave one wanting  more. It is a given that one is not going to see anything of great psychological depth or even deep emotional resonance (though this production managed to extract every last possible drop of the latter) but that is more than compensated by the force of his wit and the brilliance of the arguments. In the case of Mrs Warren’s Profession those remain astonishingly pertinent. Not only is Shaw’s exposure of hypocrisy, both sexual and commercial,  just as relevant today as it was in 1894 (when he wrote the play although it was not performed – because of censorship- until the 1920’s) but his central argument around the clash between circumstance and choice and the extent to which the latter is constrained by the former is of perennial fascination. The fact that Shaw tends towards favouring the will and the freedom and power of the will (as influenced by Nietzsche) does not detract from the interest. There is indeed an extent to which Shaw can, odd as it might seem, be thought of as an Existentialist – though in fairness his sardonic wit tends to undercut his own philosophising. The acting was of a high standard – Kendall has a peach of a role which she did full justice to, but the revelation of the night was Lucy Briggs-Owen taking on the much less rewarding role of Vivie; it is less rewarding because making high-mindedness seem likeable, let alone attractive, is a difficult task. But because she succeeded in this the play had a real dynamic tension. Of course it has weaknesses – Shaw’s absurd dismissal of the value of art which is just one of his provocative poses which tend to the risible – but the central core, the contention of mother and daughter, had a real force here and did indeed manage – despite what I said earlier – to pack a sizeable emotional, as well as intellectual, punch.

If Mrs Warren’s Profession represents to some extent a whitewashing of the realities of prostitution (and this is largely for ideological purposes) the film Cheri (2009) takes this much further and to absurd levels. The film is based on the novels of Colette and is directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton. This duo were also responsible for Dangerous Liaisons (1988) so it was even more disappointing that Cheri was such a poor and boring movie; I imagine this must point to the strength or otherwise of the source material as being a decisive factor. Certainly Frears’ direction, while achieving a certain biscuit-tin prettiness, had no distinction of any kind (it is perhaps only fair to say that watching this immediately after The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was perhaps bound to induce an unfavourable comparison!). However on top of these cinematic limitations was the fact that the story was radically tiresome. Whether a lot was lost in translation I do not know but certainly it left me with no wish at all to read Colette. Briefly the story is that of a rich prostitute (all the prostitutes in this film are fabulously wealthy) who falls in love with the son of another rich prostitute; the other rich prostitute makes him marry the daughter of (you guessed it!) another rich prostitute – much misery ensues. The film began and ended with a voice-over which I was not sure whether we were meant to take seriously or not, especially as it advanced the most ludicrous claims about the role of rich prostitutes in what was termed ‘La Belle Epoque’. The film studiously avoided of course showing any examples whatever of the realities of the prostitution which had made all these women so rich. Sex was mostly limited to that between the extremely photogenic heroine (played by the extremely photogenic Michelle Pfeiffer) and the extremely photogenic hero (played by the extremely photogenic Rupert Friend); there were certainly no shots of fat sweaty man atop young women. No-one got pregnant or picked up an STD. The most objectionable aspect of the movie was the way in which it dismissed the one character who had a genuine cause for complaint and misery, Edmee the daughter who is forced into an arranged marriage with a man who does not care for her at all; whether this dismissal has its source in Colette’s original or Hampton’s adaptation I cannot tell but it certainly left a sour taste. Overall however the film failed for me because in addition to a palpably obvious lack of any intellectual depth, I was completely uninvolved with emotionally with either of the main characters; all that was left was the biscuit-tin prettiness and the attraction of that soon waned.

The third courtesan was the archetype – Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. This was a new and splendid production from WNO (Welsh National Opera) in which the dominant motif was black and white – so in the first act the dresses were all black (or very dark grey), in the second all white and so on. It was in most ways a traditional production, with the only ‘modern’ element being provided by the fact that the floor of the stage was in fact Violetta’s gigantic head-stone – a motif which worked very well. The singing was all good but Katia Pellegrino as Violetta and Dario Solari as Germont were outstanding – only Alfie Boe as Alfredo was perhaps a little light-weight. The music is of course glorious.

However it is the question of the theme on which I wish to concentrate. In fact I might have said ‘four courtesans’ because there has been a great deal of publicity and comment  in the UK over the fact that ‘Belle de Jour’, author of Diary of a London Call Girl, has finally revealed herself as Dr Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist at Brunel University (there had been massive speculation for years over the identity of Belle de Jour which included the idea that they were actually a fictional account by a male ). A very interesting commentary on the reaction to this identification is to be found in a column written by India Knight who was the person to interview Magnanti at Knight makes two inter-linked points. First is the reluctance to accept that Magnanti’s experience was possible or believable – in other words that high-class escorts/prostitutes/courtesans/mistresses who have never been beaten-up, raped or coerced exist and, in addition, do not necessarily think that they have done anything morally wrong. Knight’s argument is empirical here – she does not attempt to deny that this is certainly not the experience of most workers in the sex industry – she merely says that such women do exist. To greater or lesser degrees Mrs Warren, Cheri and Violetta fall within this category (working from the greater to the lesser). Knight comments….

>>We’re still told there is no difference between a trafficked 15-year-old from Ukraine who’s kept in a basement and a 28-year-old old PhD student who contacts an escort agency of her own free will. Like, doh. Of course there’s a difference.

It is a morally perplexing difference, admittedly, but claiming it doesn’t exist is a piece of pig-headedness that does no one any favours.

However, the more interesting second point which she moves onto is what she calls the Scarlet Letter principle –  “all prostitutes are evil, prostitution is evil, anyone who has anything to do with it must be publicly humiliated”. Knight does not develop her thinking but a lot of the reaction to the Belle de Jour story has been discomfort that the woman has not been punished. There is a certain amount of nastiness going on here – the ‘victim’ of the sex industry escapes from any moral censure because she has – very overtly and obviously – been punished; classically she is indeed repentant. This victim/repentant/punished trope (and I do not for an instant deny the horror of the facts of this) is easy for those who are removed from it. But what of those who are not victims and are not repentant and have not been punished? Looking at our three courtesans the method of dealing with this is to ensure either that they repent or that they are punished in some way. The simplest is of course Violetta who falls ‘in love’ and therefore repents – so gaining audience sympathy – before being punished anyway by death, albeit death as a tragic heroine. Cheri is punished by losing the man she loves. Mrs Warren is punished by losing her daughter – although we are a little unclear as to how much this actually means to her – Shaw’s lack of emotional depth and prioritising of the puncturing and revealing of hypocrisies makes it hard to gauge.

It may seem that my own arguments are somewhat self-contradictory and hypocritical in that I have criticised Cheri for its failure to take any account of the realities of prostitution on the one-hand, while on the other I am accepting India Knight’s argument that claiming the successful unrepentant courtesan has not and does not exist is absurd. However I don’t think this is really so – even the most successful of courtesans are going to have to have gone through some unpleasant experiences and one does not have to over-dramatise them to make it so. Any account which suggests that a woman has really ‘enjoyed’ every sex act she has been paid to perform is simply pornography. And to entirely wash exploitation out of the picture in the way that Cheri does is a lie on a massive scale. But I do think that the urge for punishment – the ‘Scarlet Letter principle’ – is a strong and important one which needs to be tackled and brought to the surface whenever it may be perceived; the urge to punish needs deconstruction, to put it in a technical way. This is why Mrs Warren is still a massively relevant figure – Shaw does take this argument head-on and if even he evades it at the end he does not buckle under – Mrs Warren leaves the stage with her head still held highalthough we, as audience,  may no longer like her. As for Magnanti? Well she is now “a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology in a hospital research group in Bristol.” – but I wonder, is this not the 21st century equivalent of repentance or immuration in a nunnery? If so it is certainly a damned sight more useful!

4 thoughts on “Three Courtesans

  1. ellenandjim

    Dear Nick,

    Jim and I and Izzy saw Mrs Warren’s Profession a couple of summers ago and I found it superb. While it was about an upper class version of prostitution, it did not gloss over the emotional misery, and self-betrayals involved and I suppose it’s possible the woman was never physically abused. That’s hard to believe as it’s implicit in the work (so to speak).

    I also saw Cheri and had much the same reaction as you only did enjoy the beauty of the scenes. Nick, Colette is overrated. Her French (as a language to read) is evocative, and she is no fool and tries to be candid, but her understanding of things is amoral and she has this cloying tone.

    Traviata too is a falsification. Funny — like rape, it seems that what is preferred is falsifications because men don’t want to see themselves, and women neither. The music is lovely.

    I read about Belle du Jour too and had mixed feelings. We know there are such high class prostitutes and that women with other professions support themselves that way. Women have ever added to their income through selling sex. But it’s not common.

    I agree that the average person wants to punish them as the average person often has this urge to punish others, only here they have a “rationale.”


  2. ellenandjim

    Nick, if you don’t mind this morning I found the paragraphs I wrote on Mrs Warren’s Profession on my old blog and send them along for your perusal here:

    George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (1893, this time directed by Anders Cato) sets up an irreconcilable debate. With the financial help of Sir George Crofts (Walter Hudson), Mrs Kitty Warren (Lisa Banes) becomes a successful manageress of a string of brothels. Mrs Warren rose from prostitution. She had 3 sisters, and two took the other options: one married, had many children and now knows a life of endlessly drudgery and little money. While at first act Mrs Warren’s daughter, Vivie Warren (Xanthe Elbrick) will not accept under her roof such a sexually shameful pariah, gradually she is won over to condone her mother once she thinks that Mrs Warren’s profession has to come to an end. When she discovers her mother is still doing this work, she repudiates her: how that she no longer needs her mother’s money, she will not accept such “tainted” wealth.

    Shaw exposes realities. Mrs Warren has grown rich on the miseries of prostitutes (it’s not denied she drives them like beasts let’s say like cleaning companies do cleaning women today as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her Nickel and Dimed), the alternative was to live in misery herself. Her daughter’s fancy education and opportunities came from her mother’s earnings. The play sympathizes with and criticizes both women. I particularly loved Mrs Warren’s closing defiant speech where she declares she loves making a lot of money, loves living in luxury, and given her daughter’s disdain for her regrets not having brought her daughter up in the brothel, but rather turned her into a privileged ungrateful gentlewoman. The play attacks hypocrisy: the men include a fatuous conceited male ass, Frank Gardener (Randy Harrison) a reverend’s son, and the Rev. Samuel Gardener himself (Stephen Temperley), a hypocrite (he is probably Vivie’s father). Shaw also shows the hypocrisy is an attempt to cover up how readily family members and friends drop one another. The reverend’s son and Vivie turn away from one another though they supposed themselves in love; in her final speech Mrs Warren refuses to shake her daughter’s stretched-out hand as she leaves the stage: the girl is dropping her.

    In fact Mrs Warren grew rich on the miseries of other women, reminding me of women who hire others to clean their houses for little money, or to take care of their children or be their housekeepers for little money, and some seek out (not uncommon even) illegal immigrants.


  3. bob

    Thanks for writing this, as it’s made me re-consider some points I thought were settled in my mind.

    I was only dimly aware of Belle du Jour, having seen the TV program once or twice when I’ve traveled. (For good and ill both, I no longer have a working TV.) But, thanks to you, I’ve just read the Knight/Magnanti interview, which seems to me more interesting than anything the public knew about sex workers previously. What is striking is how healthy-minded and undefensive this woman seems to be. I can understand self-possession of this sort if there were no actual consequences, but everyone in her life will now treat her differently, many viewing her as strange if not immoral. I’d like to know if she can maintain her spirit in the face of what will happen. I hope she does.

  4. nick2209

    Many thanks for your comments Ellen and Bob and again apologies for the delay in responding.

    Thanks especially Ellen for reproducing your own summary of Mrs Warren’s Profession, which gave the narrative details which I had signally failed to include. The ending of the play is fascinating and I think both that it can be played in different ways and that much will depend on the individual’s attitudes as to where one’s sympathies finally lie. I will need to go back and check the text as Shaw is usually extremely, if not excessively, precise about his stage directions.

    In the production I saw I think that one’s sympathies were intended to be with Vivie for making the choice of hard and somewhat drudging work (in an office) and a solitary life against either the ease offered her mother, or the love offered by her suitor. Now it might be argued that the work is in fact not that hard compared with either factory work or prostitution and that is materially correct (although I know there are some who hate office work Ellen :)). However Shaw is still in my view commending her for her choices. This anyway is what the production I saw left me feeling – which had to powerfully conveyed as the audience’s natural sympathies would have been with Mrs Warren, given that she was played by Felicity Kendal who has something of a ‘national treasure’ status in the UK.

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