Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1451
Heartbreak House has always held an equivocal place in the Shavian canon. Its many admirers categorize it among George Bernard Shaw’s best works, beside such acknowledged masterpieces as Man and Superman (pb. 1903, pr. 1905) and Saint Joan (pr. 1923, pb. 1924). Severer critics see it as an unsuccessful attempt to create a mood of Chekhovian melancholy and fatalism in a framework of political allegory and social satire—a mixture of comedy, tragedy, dialectic, and prophecy that never quite coalesces into unity of theme or structure.
Shaw himself was as much to blame as anyone for some of the misconceptions regarding his play. Usually ready, even eager, to instruct his public, in this instance he maintained an attitude of reticence toward his work and appeared hesitant to let it pass out of his hands. Although part of it had been written as early as 1913, and it was in its final form by 1916, the play was not published until three years later and was not performed until a year after that. Even then, Shaw apparently preferred to let his work speak for itself and without his mediation, for when asked on one occasion to interpret some of the lines, he answered brusquely that he was merely the author and therefore could not be expected to know the lines’ meaning.
Perhaps Shaw was still smarting from the abuse he had received following the publication of his pamphlet, Common Sense About the War (1915), which was read by the jingoistic wartime public as a piece of pacifist propaganda. This reception could explain his reluctance to present his most sweeping indictment of society as unable and unwilling to bring its moral judgments and political convictions into balance with its potential for destruction. War, Shaw seems to say, is no longer the trade of the professional soldier or the recreation of the feudal elite; all of humankind is now involved in the common catastrophe, and society must perish if it cannot realize its possibilities for good as opposed to its capacities for destruction.
Heartbreak House presents almost the whole range of Shaw’s thought, and few of his plays are more representative or more inclusive in the number of themes and motifs touched upon if not fully explored, including war, love, society, education, religion, politics, and science. The only element lacking is the Shavian principle of the Life Force. A drama of ideas, the work looks back to Shaw’s earlier plays and anticipates Saint Joan and The Apple Cart (pr. 1929, pb. 1930). As a comment on upper-class life, it continues and brings to a climax the themes Shaw presented in Getting Married (pr. 1908, pb. 1911) and Misalliance (pr. 1910, pb. 1914). Shaw himself is present in his various manifestations: as the recorder of that verbal interplay which in the Shavian drama often takes the place of conflict, as the playwright of ideas, as the master of comedy, as the maker of epigrams, and as the teacher, the critic, the philosopher, the parodist, the fabulist, and the poet.
A clue to the meaning of the play is provided in the subtitle: “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” Shaw had been studying the work of Anton Chekhov and seeing productions of his plays in London. In at least three, Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), Chayka (pr. 1896; revised pr. 1898; pb. 1904; The Seagull, 1909), and Dyadya Vanya (pb. 1897, pr. 1899; Uncle Vanya, 1914), he saw exempla of the theme he himself had in mind: the disintegration of a society from within and its final collapse in the face of forces it had previously ignored or denied. Shaw may have begun his play with a similarity of tone in mind—the atmosphere, he said, was the initial impulse—but he ends with effects quite different from those found in Chekhov.
The difference between Shaw and Chekhov is partly one of...
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