Last Updated on August 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447
Shaw presents a pretty cynical view of England and its inhabitants in the early twentieth century in this play. In a world that seems to have gone mad—a world represented by a strange home where people who have been invited are not expected, where children who have been long absent are not welcomed, where no one is really who they seem to be—there are few people, if any, on whom one may rely.
The residents of the home—Captain Shotover, Hesione Hushabye, her husband Hector, and Nurse Guinness—are visited by Lady Utterword and her brother-in-law, Randall; Ellie Dunn and her father, Mazzini; as well as Boss Mangan, Ellie's fiance, and an uninvited burglar named Billy Dunn (who has no relation to Ellie and Mazzini, but is a former cohort of the Captain as well as husband of Nurse Guinness).
The Captain, at eighty-eight, is a remnant of a more solid and certain (though bygone) era. He is largely ignored or slighted by his daughters and servant. Hesione, despite wanting to save Ellie from a marriage without love, is hardly faithful or kind to her own husband, exposing her glaring hypocrisy.
Furthermore, Hector has actually invented a new identity for himself—Marcus Darnley, a man who was found in a chest with several hundred pounds sterling when he was a baby—and Ellie has fallen in love with this identity, unaware that he is the husband of her friend. Lady Utterword is elitist and beautiful, and both Hector and Randall (both of whom are related to her) fall in love with her. Nurse Guinness coddles her upper-class employers, while Mangan confesses himself to be completely lacking in scruples.
In the end, it is Boss Mangan and Billy Dunn, "the two practical men of business"—according to Lady Utterword—who do not survive. Although Hector has turned on every light in the house, as if to invite the pilots to drop their bombs on it, the planes drop their bombs on the gravel pit where Mangan and Dunn are hiding instead.
Ellie, however, is disappointed that the rest of the party are "Safe!" (a sentiment echoed by Hector and Hesione). She is "radiant at the prospect" of the airplanes returning for another round tomorrow night, and she lacks any regard for the men who have just been killed. Merely being around this family and their associates, with their excess of deception and manipulation, seems to have resulted in a complete loss of her humanity. The fact that she hopes to see further devastation, and is even delighted by the idea, is indicative of a callous frivolity that is portrayed through the upper-class characters in the play.