The Mrs Warren quotation

Felicity Kendal, in a still from the 2010 production of Mrs Warren’s Profession

There’s a fairly famous quote by George Bernard Shaw that I came across recently. It is:

The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.

In the recent occurrence, the person quoting it was obviously approving and gave the source as “Mrs Warren.”

The quote is actually from Shaw’s 1893 play Mrs Warren’s Profession and is said by the character of Vivie, not Mrs Warren herself. Most of the rest of the scene following the quote is a repudiation of the sentiment expressed.

Let’s unpack it a little more:

The quote is famous and I first heard it during a speech at my high school graduation. I assume the speaker had gone through a book of quotations and picked it as fitting the message he wanted to convey. These days you would search for quotations online.

Sometimes a slightly longer version is given:

People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.

It was years after my high school graduation that I was in a theatre in London’s West End, watching a production of the play, and was astonished to hear the quote word for word. I hadn’t realised till then that it was by Shaw, hadn’t realised that it was from a play, and definitely hadn’t realised that it was expressing a character’s view and wasn’t necessarily Shaw’s opinion at all.

As it happens, what the character Vivie says in full is:

Everybody has some choice, mother. The poorest girl alive may not be able to choose between being Queen of England or Principal of Newnham; but she can choose between ragpicking and flowerselling, according to her taste. People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.

If you read or better still, watch the play, by this part of the scene you will have already learnt details about the character. She is a young woman and has grown up wealthy. She is also highly intelligent, having achieved equivalent grades to the third wrangler at Cambridge. That’s an obscure reference these days but it refers to the third highest scorer in the undergraduate maths degree at Cambridge. More than 125 years after the play was written it remains a benchmark for formidable intellectual achievement. Philippa Fawcett had achieved a higher mark than the first wrangler in 1890 and this is presumably where Shaw got the idea for the reference.

But like I said, the rest of the scene argues against what the character has just stated. The title of the play is “Mrs Warren’s Profession” and the reason for this title is the hidden scandal of how Mrs Warren makes a living: she is a former prostitute and now a brothel owner. The wealthy and middle-aged Mrs Warren was only able to climb out of poverty, to find or make the circumstances she wanted, by turning to this disreputable trade.

It’s not exactly the stuff of stirring quotations.

Of course, Shaw also explored wealth and class in his more famous play Pygmalion, which was adapted into the even more famous and popular musical My Fair Lady, the musical rather missing the point of the play. But in both plays, Shaw comes from a recognisably leftist position that the world is unfair to the poor and disadvantaged. In other words, his own opinion is presumably the opposite of the famous quotation.

One can easily reject Shaw’s views and to a certain extent one absolutely should. He was an anti-Semite and held other unpleasant beliefs. You can also argue quite convincingly that opportunities for women have improved somewhat since 1893. Nonetheless, given the context of the play, it really isn’t the best inspirational quotation.

The Melancholy Roman

Free Solo

I went to the cinema to see the documentary Free Solo. This is about Alex Honnold’s successful attempt to climb the Freerider route of El Capitan without ropes or assistance of any kind except his chalk bag and climbing shoes.

I throw in that term “Freerider” like I know something about climbing. I don’t. It’s accurate to say that I know about as much as the average person in the street. I’ve been to climbing gyms exactly three times in my life and the rest of my exposure comes via the internet and the odd report you see in mainstream media. Certainly, Australia’s 60 Minutes broadcast this piece about Catherine Destivelle when I was a kid:

Having said all that, I’ve blogged about Alex Honnold before. The reason is simple: what he does is jaw-dropping.

The attraction of Free Solo was learning about his climb in more detail. Teasers on YouTube hinted at astonishing footage and promotional interviews made it clear that there’d been a documentary team filming the whole attempt. Knowing that he survived made it seem like something I could enjoy watching. I wouldn’t normally pay money to watch rock climbing but this was something on a whole other level.

It’s also worth saying that Honnold is only one of three people to have even considered free soloing El Capitan. The other two are dead. John Bachar was badly injured in a car crash, continued free soloing, never really made a full recovery and fell to his death. Dean Potter was killed doing a wingsuit base jump.

What’s interesting watching the documentary is that none of his friends want him to do it. Tommy Caldwell was one half of the climbing team that made world headlines in January 2015 with the first ever free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. He was also Honnold’s hero when the latter was growing up. And he doesn’t want him to attempt the climb. Nor do his fellow climbers, his girlfriend, or even the documentary crew.

Indeed, the only person who seems to understand his ambition is another free soloist, Peter Croft. But even he’s 100% supportive of quitting if it doesn’t feel right.

Let’s be clear: they were against it because of the strong chance of Honnold getting killed. For the actual attempt there was a cameramen on the ground filming everything from afar. And despite doing his job he couldn’t enjoy it because he was convinced he might film his friend’s death. Eventually in the film he says “I’m done.” If Honnold had made another attempt someone else would’ve had to film it.

Actually, the only person who didn’t seem bothered by the thought of Honnold dying was Honnold himself. And while the documentary doesn’t say it explicitly, you come away with the uneasy feeling that he may have been deeply depressed.

In some ways, the documentary is not about climbing so much as about adulthood. It’s about achieving a dream but it’s also about the need to compromise. Honnold’s girlfriend is leading him towards a conventional life and we, the viewer, know that this is the right thing to do. At the end you feel that Honnold will retire from free soloing now that he’s achieved his life’s ambition. He probably won’t be added to the grim tally of prematurely dead free soloists.

With all the above, here’s my only criticism of the documentary: it spends too little time on the actual climb itself. We hardly see any of it. What we do see is genuinely suspenseful but there simply isn’t much footage in the final documentary. It’s almost as though the footage is being kept aside for something else.

I’ll make two other observations:

  • The cameraman on the ground may have been Tom Evans, and Evans has written up the climb, complete with excellent pictures, at

  • The guy in the unicorn suit is named Forest Altherr. If that reference means nothing to you, watch the documentary.

The Melancholy Roman