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.)