Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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.
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...
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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 despises rank, and has been in three revolutions fighting on the barricades.
MRS HUSHABYE: How can you sit there telling me such lies? You, Ellie, of all people! And I thought you were a perfectly simple, straightforward, good girl.
ELLIE [rising, dignified but very angry]: Do you mean you don't believe me?
MRS HUSHABYE: Of course I don't believe you. You're inventing every word of it. Do you take me for a fool?
One place the social critique combines with humor is through Hesione, who is upset with Mazzini, Ellie's father, because she believes he has coerced the young woman into marrying the much older Mangan out of financial considerations. As an elite woman with little practical experience, she is extremely critical of the pursuit of capital, considering it to be crass. When she chides Dunn about his motives, he tries to explain business to her:
MAZZINI: . . . What is your objection to poor Mangan, Mrs Hushabye? . . .
MRS HUSHABYE: Have you no heart? Have you no sense? Look at the brute! Think of poor weak innocent Ellie in the clutches of this slavedriver, who spends his life making thousands of rough violent workmen bend to his will and sweat for him: a man accustomed to have great masses of iron beaten into shape for him by steam-hammers! to fight with women and girls over a halfpenny an hour ruthlessly! a captain of industry, I think you call him, don't you? Are you going to fling your delicate, sweet, helpless child into such a beast's claws just because he will keep her in an expensive house and make her wear diamonds to show how rich he is?
MAZZINI [staring at her in wide-eyed amazement]: Bless you, dear Mrs Hushabye, what romantic ideas of business you have! Poor dear Mangan isn't a bit like that.
MRS HUSHABYE [scornfully]: Poor dear Mangan indeed!
MAZZINI: But he doesn't know anything about machinery. He never goes near the men: he couldn't manage them: he is afraid of them. I never can get him to take the least interest in the works: he hardly knows more about them than you do. People are cruelly unjust to Mangan.