Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Heartbreak House is the world of cultivated England before World War I. Its inhabitants are intelligent and cultivated, but they prefer selfish and hedonistic pleasures to the responsibilities of government. In his preface to Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw notes that the only alternative to Heartbreak House is Horseback Hall, represented in the play by Ariadne and Randall. Ariadne is concerned with prestige and propriety; Randall is incapable even of governing himself. It is because Heartbreak House refuses its responsibilities and Horseback Hall is incapable of anything more than mindless bureaucracy that the world is made safe for such unabashedly selfish industrial leaders as Mangan, whom Shaw modeled on grocery-czar Hudson Kearley, Lord Devonport, who briefly and unsuccessfully held a government post during the war.

Shotover, alone among the characters in the play, knows that Heartbreak House is a microcosm of England and that it is a ship headed toward the rocks. Shotover is old, but he is not in his dotage, although he tries to blind himself to the events he cannot control. At eighty-eight, he is an exhausted prophet-seer, representing the long Old Testament tradition that came down through Thomas Carlyle and Henrik Ibsen to Shaw himself. This tradition is without influence in the twentieth century; Shotover remains on the bridge, but he cannot steer. England needs him but does not want to hear what he has to say.


(The entire section is 498 words.)