Analysis

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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...

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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.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991

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 savagery of his punishment should he be convicted, and they also are aware of the bother that an arrest will mean for them. The burglar suggests that they simply take up a collection for him and send him on his way. He earns his living this way, since victims rarely want him arrested. Shotover recognizes the burglar as a former ship’s chandler, and Nurse Guinness recognizes him as her former husband. The burglar is sent to the kitchen, and Hesione announces that it is time for bed.

Ellie is left alone with Shotover, who tells her that she cannot marry Mangan; in doing so, she sells her soul. Ellie says that souls cost money; hers must be nourished on the beautiful things she cannot afford. They argue. Shotover, aged and weary, concedes, but again warns her that happiness and comfort are less important than the self-sufficiency and blessedness that come through action, endurance, and resistance. As they talk, Ellie recognizes that she is happier than she thought she ever would be after her heartbreak. They exit and are replaced by Randall, who reveals his childish petulance, and Hector, who postures.

The third act takes place in the garden outside the house. As the characters talk, they hear a distant drumming in the sky. Hector, disgusted with himself and Heartbreak House, says that it is the disgust of Heaven, which must destroy them all and replace them with some new creation. Ariadne argues that this is unnecessary, for all Heartbreak House needs is horses. England has only two classes, she explains: One rides horses, and the other cultivates its neuroses. Heartbreak House is the latter, but all would be well if it were the former. Conversation shifts to Ellie’s engagement, and Mangan confesses that he is a capitalist with paper power only, but he insists that he is useful in government. While he can do nothing himself, he does have the power to make it impossible for anyone else to do anything. It is through this power that he believes he can save England. Hector calls this government by madness; Shotover asks whether this is what God would choose; Hesione says that it does not matter, so long as men are governed by women.

Worn down by the stripping away of illusions, Mangan concedes that he will marry Ellie, but she tells him that it is too late. That night, she says, she has experienced a spiritual marriage with Captain Shotover; to marry Mangan would be bigamy. She has discovered, she tells him, that she needs life with a blessing, not life with money. Although she needs a purpose, the others are content to trust Divine Providence. Shotover warns them that captains who trust to Providence run on the rocks; such trust is, in fact, the reason England is running aground. Even as his speech concludes, an explosion is heard. Nurse Guinness enters to warn of a blackout.

Rather than turning off the lights, however, Hector runs from room to room turning them on. Guinness reports that the rectory has been destroyed; Shotover associates this with the breakup of the Church itself. Mangan and the burglar rush for safety to a cave in the garden where Shotover keeps dynamite. The rest wait expectantly for destruction, while Randall tries to play “Keep the Home Fires Burning” on his flute. The men in the cave are destroyed, but the aircraft pass over Heartbreak House. Hesione and Ellie express the hope that the bombers will return the next night, as the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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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), tenor (Hector), and bass (Shotover). The distant drumming that heralds the war is evocative of Ludwig van Beethoven; in comic contrast, Randall tries to cope with Gotterdammerun or Armageddon by ineptly attempting a sentimental favorite on his flute. Even the play’s title points to its musical nature, for a fantasia is a musical composition freed from the restrictions of formal organization. Heartbreak House is a fantasia upon the condition of England between the death of Queen Victoria and the Great War.

In the plays’ subtitle, too, Shaw points to the Chekhovian nature of his drama. In his preface, he specifically refers to Anton Chekvhov’s depictions, in such works as Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), of effete though charming people who drift idly toward disaster. Shaw was influenced by Chekhov in form as well as theme. Like Chekhov, he creates atmosphere instead of action in Heartbreak House; the formal plotting of the well-made play that characterizes Shaw’s early work is inappropriate for a group of people whose primary characteristic is their inability to act. Thus, like Chekhov’s work, his play is characterized by incidents, not action, and by a kaleidoscopic changing of relationships, the evanescence of which suggests the essential shallowness of Heartbreak House’s pleasures. The fragmentation and dreamlike quality mirror the disintegration of England.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246

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.”

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