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Last Updated on August 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1005

George Bernard Shaw included a lengthy Preface in the published version of Hearbreak House, a play that he finished a shortly after Armistice Day and wrote over the course of World War I. In those years, the real prospect of aerial attack—as the estate endures at the play's end—was an entirely new phenomenon for England. The events of the play can be seen as a metaphor for the larger threat to traditional British society that Shaw perceived.

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The Preface lays out some fundamental tenets of his social critique and reveals his sense of connection to other European authors—especially the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who had explored similar themes. However, Shaw sought to convey similar themes using characters who were distinctly English:

Heartbreak House is not merely the name of the play which follows this preface. It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war. When the play was begun not a shot had been fired; and only the professional diplomatists and the very few amateurs whose hobby is foreign policy even knew that the guns were loaded. A Russian playwright, Tchekov, had produced four fascinating dramatic studies of Heartbreak House, of which three, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and The Seagull, had been performed in England….

[Chekhov's characters] did not wish to realize Utopia for the common people: they wished to realize their favorite fictions and poems in their own lives; and, when they could, they lived without scruple on incomes which they did nothing to earn. . . . They took the only part of our society in which there was leisure for high culture, and made it an economic, political and; as far as practicable, a moral vacuum.

Heartbreak House, despite Shaw's serious message, is a comedy with many elements of farce, most evident in the rapidly changing romantic entanglements and the exaggerated, borderline-stereotypical components of many characters. When Ariadne, Captain Shotover's daughter, returns home after twenty-three years away, her nostalgia soon evaporates as she recalls the household's many faults, which she had been glad to escape. She is wounded to realize that her own father does not recognize her:

LADY UTTERWORD [hysterically]: Papa, you can't have forgotten me. I am Ariadne. I'm little Paddy Patkins. Won't you kiss me? [She goes to him and throws her arms round his neck].

THE CAPTAIN [woodenly enduring her embrace]: How can you be Ariadne? You are a middle-aged woman: well preserved, madam, but no longer young.

LADY UTTERWORD: But think of all the years and years I have been away, Papa. I have had to grow old, like other people. . . . You haven't seen me for years.

THE CAPTAIN. So much the worse! When our relatives are at home, we have to think of all their good points or it would be impossible to endure them. But when they are away, we console ourselves for their absence by dwelling on their vices. That is how I have come to think my absent daughter Ariadne a perfect fiend; so do not try to ingratiate yourself here by impersonating her.

The humor generated by young Ellie Dunn, a guest invited by the captain's other daughter, Hesione Hushaby, is based in her endless, unbelievable naïveté. Although engaged to her father's boss, Mr. Mangan, she is also smitten with a noble hero she had once met. His story is so fantastic that Hesione accuses Ellie of making it up, not believing that her friend would be taken in by such outlandish notions:

ELLIE [innocently]: . . . His life has been one long romance. A tiger—

MRS HUSHABYE: Slain by his own hand?

ELLIE: Oh, no: nothing vulgar like that. He saved the life of the tiger from a hunting party: one of King Edward's hunting parties in India. The King was furious: that was why he never had his military services properly recognized. But he doesn't care. He is a Socialist and...

(The entire section contains 1005 words.)

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