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 temperament—involving the Russian power of enclosing the poetry of all experience in a single instance—and is partly accounted for by the fact that the haunted landscapes of Chekhov’s world have little in common with those aspects of British middle- and upper-class life that Shaw observed so shrewdly. Shaw’s people exist only in the light of his ethical and political values; Chekhov’s exist within the world of their own moral and spiritual blight. The sound of the axe echoing through the twilight at the end of The Cherry Orchard is more portentous than are the bombs that rain fire and death from the sky at the close of Heartbreak House.
The essential differences between the latter two plays are not altogether to Shaw’s disadvantage, for Heartbreak House, although it lacks the larger expressiveness of Chekhov’s theater, exhibits all the intellectual vigor and wild poetry, the clash of ideas and personalities, of disquisitory drama at its best. A thesis play, it is admitted as such in Shaw’s preface, where he states that “Heartbreak House” is more than a title: it names the Europe—or England—of culture and leisure in the period before World War I. As the alternative to Heartbreak House, he sees only Horseback Hall, peopled by those who have made sport a cult. In either case, there is no true leadership in this world of cross-purposes, futile desires, and idle talk. The people have courage of a sort, but they are able to do little more than clench their fists in gestures of defiance as the bombs drop from the sky.
The setting of the play is the Sussex home, built like a ship, of Captain Shotover, an eighty-eight-year-old eccentric and retired sea captain credited by hearsay with selling his soul to the devil in Zanzibar and with marriage to a black witch in the West Indies. Cranky, realistic, and fantastically wise, the captain drinks three bottles of rum a day, strives to attain the seventh degree of concentration, and spends his time tinkering with death-dealing inventions. To Ellie Dunn, a young singer arriving as the guest of the captain’s daughter, the atmosphere of the house seems as puzzling and unpredictable as its owner. No one bothers to greet visitors; members of the family are treated like strangers; strangers are welcomed like old friends. An elderly servant calls everyone “ducky.” When Lady Ariadne Utterword returns for a visit after twenty-three years in the colonies with Sir Hastings Utterword, her empire-building husband, neither her father nor her sister recognizes her. The captain persists in confusing Mazzini Dunn, Ellie’s father, with a rascally former pirate who had robbed him many years before. Arriving unexpectedly, Boss Mangan, the millionaire industrialist whom Ellie is to marry, is put to work in the captain’s garden.
From this opening scene of innocent, seemingly irresponsible, comedy, the play proceeds to more serious business, and by the end of the first act the characters have assumed their allegorical identities. Lady Ariadne is Empire, the prestige of foreign rule. Hesione Hushabye is Domesticity, the power of woman’s love and authority at home. Hector, her husband, is Heroism, a man capable of brave deeds but so tamed by feminine influence that his only escape is through romantic daydreams and Munchausen-like tales of derring-do. Mazzini Dunn is the nineteenth century Liberal, a believer in progress but too sentimental to be an intellectual force. He has consequently become the tool of Boss Mangan, a figure of capitalistic Exploitation. Randall Utterword, Lady Ariadne’s brother-in-law, is Pride, a Foreign Office official symbolically in love with his sister-in-law and filled with snobbish regard for caste.
Looming over all these figures is old Captain Shotover, the embodiment of Old England and its genius, no longer the captain of the great Ship of State but rather the half-cracked, drunken skipper of a house built like a ship, suggesting his own and his country’s maritime history. Captain Shotover is the triumph of the play. In spite of his allegorical significance, he is always superbly himself, larger than life and yet lifelike, reliving his past and creating his future in terms of his own fantastic logic.
The people in the play come together in twos and threes to speak in their own as well as in their allegorical characters. Childlike resentments, old grievances, brooding frustrations, impossible dreams, and unexpected disillusionments break through their masks in the heavily charged atmosphere that the play generates, but all this sound and fury leads nowhere. Heartbreak House is idleness dramatized, impotence of mind and will translated into speech and gesture. Ultimately, all criticism of Heartbreak House reduces itself to a single issue: Can comedy, even brilliantly presented, sustain a theme of tragic significance? As Shaw himself declared, he was only the writer. It is the readers and the playgoers who must answer this question.