The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1005 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.”


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.