Critical Context

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In content as well as form, Heartbreak House marks a turning point for George Bernard Shaw. Shaw did not abandon his earlier socialism as he abandoned, in his major productions, the well-made play, but he came to see, during the war years, that some essential changes had to take place within mankind itself before a socialist society could be realized. That is one of the themes of Back to Methuselah. Heartbreak House is a step in the evolution of this thought: A corrupt and shallow world has brought on its devastation, from which a new and quite different world must be born through the will of the life force speaking through Shotover’s wisdom and Ellie’s vitality.

Themes from earlier, primarily socialistic, plays remain. When Ellie proposes to marry Mangan for money, Shotover’s argument against it is based on Shaw’s belief, spelled out clearly in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (pb. 1898), that such a marriage is legalized prostitution. The burglar is the same kind of creation of capitalistic society as is the rent collector Lickcheese in Widowers’ Houses (pr. 1892) or Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion (pr. 1913).

Certain other themes have changed. In Arms and the Man (pr. 1894) and The Devil’s Disciple (pr. 1897), war is the subject of comedy or comic melodrama. In Major Barbara (pr. 1905), the future could be secured by bringing together the money of industrialist Andrew Undershaft with the culture of Adolphus Cusins, through the marriage of Barbara and Cusins. World War I made much of that impossible. Shaw was sensitive to the worldwide carnage, and he was aware, too, of the implications of aerial bombardment, which put the innocent in jeopardy as never before in history. By the time he completed Heartbreak House, he had seen the downing of a zeppelin and had been horrified at how he and other onlookers had felt satisfaction as the roasting bodies of the enemy sank to earth. Nor could industrialists so easily be idealized. If Andrew Undershaft is the model millionaire of utopian idealists, Boss Mangan, with his self-serving obstructionism, is the real thing, emerging to impede the English war effort.

Plays before Heartbreak House, then, trusted socialism to transform the world. Heartbreak House, born of the ashes of World War I, is a denial that political solutions alone can work; from that point on, while Shaw continued to be a socialist, the doctrine of creative evolutionism increasingly informed his drama. His later works manifest a greater mysticism, their forms a greater unconventionality.

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Critical Evaluation