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George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 play Heartbreak House is a comedic story with a dark soul. At the oddly-shaped home (the building is in the shape of a ship) of a of a retired naval commander, Captain Shotover, in which he lives with his daughter and her husband, Hesione and Hector Hushabye’s, Shaw’s characters blithely muddle about seemingly oblivious to the horrors to come. It is the eve of the first world war, a global conflagration the likes of which the world has never seen, and Shaw is angry. As frequently occurs with humorists whose world views take on evermore shades of disgust, the comedy is frequently sacrificed in favor of biting social and political commentary. The shabby furnishings, accompanied by the immediate introduction of a “womanservant,” suggests fading glory is the theme: Once upper-class society people pretending to a socioeconomic status that no longer exists. That Shaw intends his play to be an indictment of the British upper and middle classes is suggested by the play’s seldom-referenced subtitle: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. As Shaw was writing this play, the Russian aristocracy was being deposed and the role of interrelated monarchs among the war’s combatants was a well-known target of criticism by those who viewed the whole affair as a family feud by the rich at the expense of the poor. Shaw’s bitterness at the destructiveness and folly of what would later become known as World War One was well-established, as indicated by the following comments he associated with his play:
“When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to show their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues . . . For unless these things are mercilessly exposed they will hid under the mantle of the ideals on the stage just as they do in real life. . . Truth telling is not compatible with the defence of the realm.”
These are the ruminations, writing after the play had sat on his shelf pending the end of the war, of an angry person whose writings would be known for their caustic take on Britian’s elite. Consequently, when, well-into his play, Shaw introduces the character of Hector Hushabye, it is with the intent of reaffirming the pretentiousness of those who hold dinner parties while Europe inches closer to war:
A very handsome man of fifty, with mousquetaire moustaches, wearing a rather dandified curly brimmed hat, and carrying an elaborate walking-stick, comes into the room from the hall, and stops short at sight of the women on the sofa.
Shaw’s description of Hector, within the context of a play in which only the lower socioeconomic classes are possessed of class and integrity (Ellie Dunn: “I am proud to be able to say though my father has not been a successful man, nobody has ever had one word to say against him. I think my father is the best man I have ever known.”) is ironic insofar as Captain Shotover and his daughter and son-in-law are mere pretenders to class and integrity. As Ellie, the conscience of Shaw’s play, exclaims when expressing her confusion about how Hesione could remain with a liar such as Hector, “To be a boaster! a coward!” Hector is not wealthy. He lives among the trappings of the formerly wealthy, but is a mere pretender to class.
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