The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Ellie Dunn, desolate and forgotten, sits alone in a room that resembles part of an old-fashioned ship. Her plight is explained when Nurse Guinness, a servant, and Captain Shotover enter. Ellie was invited by Hesione Hushabye, who then forgot the invitation. Nurse Guinness explains this as normal for the bohemian Heartbreak House. As they talk, Ariadne arrives, returning home for her first visit in more than two decades; appalled by Heartbreak House’s disorder, she has married a conventional colonial administrator and cultivated propriety.

Hesione enters and explains that she invited Ellie in an effort to break off Ellie’s proposed marriage to Boss Mangan. Ellie reveals that, indeed, her real love is not for Mangan but for a mysterious Marcus Darnley, whom she met in London; he has won her as Othello won Desdemona, by enchanting her with stories of his own heroics. As Ellie describes him, Darnley enters and proves to be Hesione’s philandering husband, Hector. Ellie says that her heart is broken.

Boss Mangan enters, asserting his importance, and is followed by Randall Utterword; he begins flirting with Hesione, while Ariadne sulks until Hector returns and begins flirting with her. As the characters waste their time in these enchantments, Captain Shotover despairs. Hesione and Hector insist on the importance of romance, but Hesione also tells Shotover that he must invent a new deadly weapon if the household is to be maintained financially.

As the second act opens, Ellie and Mangan discuss their engagement. Ellie now is determined to marry Mangan, who is having second thoughts. Desperate for a way out, he reveals how he ruined Ellie’s father, but she still insists on the marriage; she is determined not to be poor. Outwitted by the girl, Mangan collapses, and Ellie soothes him into a hypnotic trance in which, helpless, he hears the other characters discuss him. Even Mazzini Dunn, Ellie’s father, points out that Mangan is competent only in the abstract world of finance and is utterly hopeless around people and machinery. Ellie explains to Hesione that her cynical desire to marry for money is the result of her heartbreak over Hector/Marcus.

Mangan awakes, furious. He, too, now knows heartbreak. As the characters talk, they hear a shot upstairs. Dunn calls for help, and the men bring down a burglar. The burglar plays on the sympathies of the other characters, reminding them of...

(The entire section is 991 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Heartbreak House is a drama of ideas, as are George Bernard Shaw’s earlier works, but it is more than this; in it, he employs techniques that have caused critics to link it with the highly symbolic drama of Maurice Maeterlinck. Most conspicuous of these devices is the use of the room shaped like a ship; in his other writings, Shaw makes it clear that this room is the handiwork not of a senile old man but of a sensible man—a man, it would seem, who perceives his life as symbolic and communicates that perception through his environment. To heighten this nonrealistic effect, Shaw employs in his lighting directions extremes of light and darkness. The effect is further intensified by tricks of rhetoric: Characters switch abruptly from prose to verse or from conversational English to a heightened and artificial diction. The play’s ending is also highly, if traditionally, symbolic: Hector rises above his posturing to the truly heroic; Hesione abandons romantic posturing for a romantic acceptance of life; Ellie grows up and becomes a powerful force for the future, while those who prey upon society and are concerned only with themselves (Mangan and the burglar) die as the result of their own selfish scurrying for safety.

In part, the effects of rhetoric are related to the musical effects for which Shaw always strove, raised here to new heights. Shaw staged his plays for operatic effect, here creating a quartet of soprano (Ellie), alto (Hesione),...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Shotover’s house

Shotover’s house. Sussex mansion of the eccentric and visionary Captain Shotover. Through the play’s first two acts, its characters seem completely unaware of the war in which Great Britain is engaged or their leadership responsibilities. Instead, they obsess over social niceties and their shallow affairs of the heart. Shaw’s satire of this aristocratic household culminates in the third act, in which Lady Utterword says that the only thing England needs to become quite comfortable, sensible, and healthy is for every country manor to have horses and proper stables.

Ellie Dunn dubs Shotover’s mansion “Heartbreak House” because of the many disappointed romances that surface there. However, George Bernard Shaw also implies that the name is appropriate because it represents the failure of the English ruling classes to lead England energetically and effectively through the turbulent war years.

Shotover’s garden

Shotover’s garden. Garden outside Shotover’s house that is the scene of the third act. The garden symbolizes the possibility that the characters might move out of the center of their paralysis and frivolity toward meaningful political action. In the garden, the characters cannot ignore the war because there are enemy airships flying overhead dropping bombs in the distance. However, their response to a bomb that nearly hits the house is only a bizarre disappointment that the attack is not more devastating and thus exciting enough to rouse them out of their lethargic boredom.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Berst, Charles A. “Heartbreak House: Shavian Expressionism.” In Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. An unusual but very convincing interpretation of the play, which emphasizes its dreamlike atmosphere. Concludes that Shaw owed more to August Strindberg and Luigi Pirandello than to Anton Chekhov.

Crompton, Louis. “Heartbreak House.” In Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. Concludes that Shaw’s play is simultaneously experimental and reactionary, experimental in its use of Chekhov a model and reactionary in its use of the ideas of the stern, English Victorian writer and social critic Thomas Carlyle.

Gibbs, A. M. “Heartbreak House”: Preludes of Apocalypse. New York: Twayne, 1994. A book-length analysis of the play that includes literary, theatrical, historical, and biographical contexts for the play, as well as a sustained and focused interpretation of it. A number of very useful appendices. A perfect introduction for students.

McDowell, Frederick P. W. “Technique, Symbol, the Theme in Heartbreak House.” PMLA 68, no. 3 (June, 1953): 335-356. After many years, still one of the most thorough and lucid short discussions of the play. McDowell shows how the characters are used as abstractions to create musical motifs.

Weintraub, Stanley. Journey to Heartbreak: The Crucible Years of Bernard Shaw, 1914-1918. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1971. A sophisticated approach that uses Shaw’s life to show the genesis and development of the play. Weintraub places Heartbreak House in the context of World War I England, characterizing Shaw as an “embattled intellectual in wartime.”