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Heartbreak House is a play written by George Bernard Shaw in 1917. According to A. C. Ward, the work argues that "cultured, leisured Europe" was drifting toward destruction, and that "Those in a position to guide Europe to safety failed to learn their proper business of political navigation". (p. 164)

Contents

Plot summary

On the eve of World War I, Ellie Dunn, her father, and her fiancé are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties. Unfortunately, her fiancé is a scoundrel, her father’s a bumbling prig, and she’s actually in love with Hector, Hesione’s husband. This bold mix of farce and tragedy lampoons British society as it blithely sinks towards disaster.

Major themes

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Society

The house could arguably be a metaphorical reference to a ship which must be guided capably, not only by its crew, but also its passengers. Shaw makes use of the contrast between Mazzini Dunn and his employer 'Boss' Mangan to illustrate society in England and Continental Europe followed the lead of those not capable of properly leading. (See the Platonic concept of Ship of state)

Character traits

The author contrasts Mazzini with his employer, Alfred Mangan, who is soon to marry Mazzini's daughter. Mangan represents the "so-called realists who knows that money is power, power that enables them to turn into profit for themselves the thoughts and ideas of the idealist". (p. 156)

Dunn is allowed opportunity to succeed in business by Mangan, who later bankrupts Dunn and eventually takes over the business once it becomes robust. The ideas and enthusiasm start with Dunn, but he lacks the knowledge and ability to apply them toward improving the business.

Mazzini appears kind hearted and munificent, but ineffectual. Mangan behaves in an egotistical and unscrupulous, yet influential manner. Shaw points out to us that "modern civilization tends to make well-meaning, generous, and scrupulous people futile, and mean-spirited; self-seeking, money worshipping people powerful". (p. 156)

Mazzini: "I often feel that there is a great deal to be said for the theory of an overruling providence, after all."
Captain Shotover: "Every drunken skipper trusts to providence. But one of the ways of providence with drunken skippers is to run them on the rocks." (p. 140)

Fate

Mazzini's belief in fate ruling his life reinforces his feeble ability to control his situation and according to the captain dooms the ship to destruction unless competent navigation can be learned:

Captain Shotover: "Navigation. Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned." (p. 141)

Play in Performance

Heartbreak House is not often performed due to its complex structure, however it is argued that the genius of the play cannot be fully appreciated without seeing it in performance. Its subject-matter is the ignorance and indifference exhibited by the upper and upper-middle classes to the First World War and its consequences. The self-indulgence and lack of understanding of the high-class characters are central issues in British society at the time that the play illuminates.

References

  • Shaw, Bernard. Heartbreak House, Great Catherine, and playlets about the war. New York, Brentano's (1919)
  • Shaw, Bernard. Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. With an Introduction and notes by Ward, A.C. London: Longmans Green and Co Ltd. 1961

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

Heartbreak House
by George Bernard Shaw
Written 1913-1919, first staged 1920, in NY
PD-icon.svg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain). Flag of the United States.svg

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