Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1005
The Hasty Heart takes place in the convalescent ward of a makeshift British hospital behind the lines of the Assam/Burmese front in World War II. The bamboo hut, surrounded by jungle, houses six hospital beds, five of which are occupied by wounded soldiers of different nationalities. As the play opens, it is morning, and the British orderly awakes the men. As the men eat their breakfast, Yank, the putative leader of the group, reveals that he has an intense hatred of Scotsmen.
Soon after breakfast, the Colonel enters to announce that he is transferring a new patient to the ward to fill the empty bed. He has picked this ward because of the men’s reputation for friendliness and because the new patient is a sullen Scotsman with no family or friends. An operation has left the Scot with only one kidney, and this kidney will soon fail and cause his death. The Colonel has decided against telling the Scot of his fatal condition and asks the men of the ward to keep the man contented in his last days.
When Lachlen (or Lachie) arrives, he proves to be very unfriendly, refusing pleasantries, conversation, and even favors from Margaret and the men. He declares that he does not like to be indebted to anyone in any way and prefers to be left alone. Although the men attempt to be friendly, Lachie manages to insult them all. Only Margaret is able to break through some of his gruffness to discover one of his secrets—he has never had enough money to buy a kilt because he has been saving to buy land to farm after the war. When he confesses that in a couple of months he will have paid for his land, Margaret and the men realize that he will never get a chance to enjoy his farm. Lachie’s unfriendliness, however, has tried the men’s patience, and the first act ends with Yank angrily surrounding Lachie’s bed with screens so the Scot can live in the private world he claims to prefer.
Act 2 opens two weeks later. Lachie’s aggravating surliness has everyone on edge, but Margaret has one more plan for winning him over with kindness. This day is his birthday, and she has bought a kilt that the men will present to him. While Lachie is out of the ward, the men plan their presentation and raise a delicate issue: Does the kilt require underwear, or do Scots wear them au naturel? A lively round of betting on the question concludes just as Lachie returns.
The impromptu birthday party and presentation of the kilt has an unusual effect on Lachie. Genuinely moved, he thanks the men in his awkward way but wonders if he has a right to accept the gift. Lachie explains that taking it would obligate him to return a favor and that he has nothing to give back. He does not want to make a mistake, for “sorrow is born in the hasty heart.” However, Margaret persuades him to accept the gift, saying “For once in your life be hasty and risk a mistake.”
The only remaining problem is that Lachie does not intend to wear the kilt until he is called back to his regiment. The disappointed men still have not settled their bet about the underwear. As the first scene of act 2 closes, however, Lachie is trying to make conversation and is offering the other patients cigarettes in a genuine attempt to be friendly.
In the next scene, a few nights later, the audience learns that Lachie has become garrulous—he has been “talking steadily for a week”—and his wardmates have become a polite but wearied audience. He now confesses to Margaret that he regrets his misanthropy and unfriendliness toward the men; he wants to redeem himself by offering something in return, but he seems to have nothing to give. Since Yank is leaving the next day, Lachie agrees to wear his kilt in Yank’s honor instead of saving it for his return to the regiment. In this more sensitive mood, Lachie also reveals to Margaret that he loves her.
Act 3 opens the next afternoon, with the men lined up around Lachie to have their photograph taken. After the photography session, Lachie corners Yank and asks him how a man knows when he is in love. Lachie confesses that he wants to ask Margaret to be his wife. After Yank leaves, Lachie proposes to Margaret and she accepts, complicated as the situation is. Delighted, he goes behind a screen to change out of his kilt. The men crowd around the screen, trying to get a peek and to settle their bet.
The Colonel enters the ward, catching the men in their comic position on hands and knees around the screen. He dismisses them so that he can talk to Lachie alone. The Colonel informs Lachie that he has been able to arrange for Lachie to be flown home, and he finally tells Lachie that his condition is fatal. Lachie’s first response is anger at Margaret and the men, because he concludes that they have been nice to him only because they knew he was going to die soon. He then destroys the film from the camera and returns the kilt, retiring angrily behind the screen surrounding his bed.
The play’s last scene begins the following morning, with the screen put away and Lachie packing his bags. However, when Yank wonders rhetorically “what makes a man want to die despised and friendless,” Lachie meekly confesses that he does not want to die alone. He tells the men that he wants to stay with them rather than return to Scotland. They welcome him back, and he goes into Margaret’s office to change back into his hospital clothes. When he emerges, however, he is wearing his kilt. As they all gather for another photograph, one of the men peeks under the kilt and proclaims that he has the answer to the bet.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288
The main device Patrick uses to communicate his message is dramatic irony. With the Colonel’s entrance early in act 1, the audience is aware that Lachie has only six weeks to live. The men and Margaret know, the audience knows, but Lachie does not, so all the dialogue up until the Colonel’s appearance contains this irony as a subtext. Lachie clearly assumes a long future for himself, but others’ superior knowledge generates pathos for his plans to return to his regiment, his single-minded hoarding of money to purchase a farm, his love of his homeland, and his romantic attachment to Margaret. This pathos is a form of human concern, which exemplifies the theme of brotherhood.
The danger in the play, as Patrick seems well aware, is that the pathos might be construed as merely sentimental. Consequently, a very important complementary device in the play is the use of humor. Humor in the play is rich and consistent. Much of it is physical, as in the pursuit of the secret of the kilt, but the dialogue, too, is often quite amusing, especially when Lachie is abusing people verbally or when Yank is fighting to control his anger. Tommy has an especially humorous role, one written for a character actor who can communicate a Falstaffian zest for life. Humor, then, strikes a balance for the play, making the emotionalism seem more understated and less exaggerated.
Nevertheless, the pathos is an important dramatic device in itself, because a powerful emotional response to Lachie’s situation will make the audience care about him and his relationship with his friends. In this regard, the most effective moment in the play is probably Lachie’s climactic admission, “I dinna want tae die alone.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77
Sources for Further Study
Kienzle, Siegfried. Modern World Theater: A Guide to Productions in Europe and the United States Since 1945. New York: Ungar, 1970.
Leonard, William Torbert. “The Hasty Heart.” In Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981.
Moe, Christian H. “John Patrick.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James, 1988.
Rhodes, Russell, and Louis Kronenberger. “The Hasty Heart.” In Selected Theatre Criticism, edited by Anthony Slide. Vol. 3, 1931-1950. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1986.