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"Heartbreak House", 100 Years Later

The cast of the 2017 revival of  Heartbreak House  at Hartford Stage, directed by Darko Tresnjak. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The cast of the 2017 revival of Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage, directed by Darko Tresnjak. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day—11/11/1918—I wrote a review of Heartbreak House, perhaps the most canonical English-language play to come out of the destruction of World War I.

Heartbreak HouseHeartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

George Bernard Shaw is notorious for writing lengthy prefaces to his plays, but all the same, I’m surprised that I enjoyed the preface to Heartbreak House more than the play itself. In the preface, Shaw excoriates the “war delirium” that took over the British public from 1914 to 1918, and gives me a better sense than I ever had before about what life was really like on the home front during World War I. (I had no idea there were German air raids on London in WWI – I thought that was only a WWII thing!) He is also chillingly prescient about the way that the harsh peace terms imposed on Germany would lead to future destruction and conflict.

But, wow, Heartbreak House is a bizarre play. (Sometimes my 3-star ratings mean “lukewarm appreciation,” sometimes they mean “I don’t know what to make of this”—this is an example of the latter.) It begins as an Edwardian comedy of manners, loosely centered around Ellie Dunn, a young woman who plans to marry for money after her plans to marry for love are thwarted. Oddly, while everyone thinks that twenty-something Ellie is much too young to marry a 55-year-old industrialist, no one thinks it’s strange that the man she originally fell in love with is himself 50 years old. In fact, it’s curious that there aren’t any young men in the play at all—the six male characters range in age from forty-something to 88. Is this supposed to be a commentary on how so many men of Ellie’s generation were killed in the war?

But somewhere in Act Two—around the time Ellie knocks out her fiancé with amateur hypnotism, and a burglar with a unique modus operandi breaks in upstairs—it becomes clear that this isn’t your conventional country-house comedy. And I’d be hard-pressed to think of any other comedies of manners that end with bombs raining down on the characters as they sit outside chatting in the garden after supper.

The play’s subtitle ("a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes") shows that Shaw modeled it after Anton Chekhov plays like The Cherry Orchard ; I also think it makes an interesting companion piece to Howards End , E.M. Forster’s novel from 1910, which also involves a liberal, cultured young woman marrying a conservative, middle-aged businessman. However, Chekhov and Forster draw their characters, particularly the women, with tenderness and empathy—whereas I’m not sure that Shaw likes any of the Heartbreakers. He despises the male characters for their weakness, and despises the female characters for the cold-hearted way they seduce and manipulate these weak men. Act Two ends with a character lamenting “Oh, women, women, women! Fall, fall and crush.” So when the bombs do fall in Act Three, how can we not interpret them as a response to his misogynistic prayer? Other critics describe this as a play about the charming and self-absorbed pre-WWI gentry, but I don’t see the charm, only the self-absorption.

If the country-house gentry are in decline, they are being superseded by the Boss Mangans of the world. This character is a businessman who has gone into politics, something that another character compares to “giving a torpedo to a badly-brought-up child to play at earthquakes with.” In 2018, lines like these do take on a chilling resonance. Still, I think that in order for the play to work, you’d need to feel a real sense of loss at the way the world of the cultured gentry is giving way to a world where power and force are the only things that matter. And, as I said, Shaw doesn’t seem to make the case that any of these characters are worth saving. You go into Heartbreak House thinking it may merely be a play about romantic disappointment—the conventional meaning of the word “heartbreak”—but leave it realizing that Shaw is using “heartbreak” in the sense of “the loss of all hope.”