“I have a horrible fear that my heart is broken, but that heartbreak is not like what I thought it must be”: Ellie Dunn
Premiering in New York in 1920, Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, subtitled “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, was written in, and set during, the First World War, though there’s no mention of this in the play until near the very end, when the English country home where the action takes place is visited by a zeppelin air raid. The Russian reference is in praise of Chekhov generally and “The Cherry Orchard” in particular as regards its themes and style. However, this play is no Chekhovian pastiche.
There have been major revivals of the play to critical acclaim. The central character is Captain Shotover, for many years a mariner, a Conradian seadog, capricious inventor and now marinating in rum and in a philosophy of despair. Playing him has been an achievement of some great actors of the modern era: Sir John Gielgud in a 1977 BBC production, Sir Rex Harrison, who was nominated for a Toni Award in 1984 for a Broadway production and he also appeared in a television version that year, and Sir Derek Jacobi in 2012. The play has been performed at the Shaw Festival in Canada in 2011 and revived professionally to acclaim in the USA in 2012. It is a challenging work.
Shaw compared Shotover to Shakespeare’s Lear, and it’s at least true that of the play’s three principal women - Shaw loved women and wrote great parts for women - two are Shotover’s biological daughters, both opposites, both victims of heartbreak - Lady Ariadne Utterword and Hesione (rhymes with Hermione) Hushabye) - and the third, (Shaw’s Cordelia, Ellie Dunn) a kind of surrogate or spiritual offspring. There are the usual Shavian references to Greek mythology contained within names.
As a comedic tragedy the play portrays an image of a useless, used-up ruling class embracing its own merited destruction. "Heartbreak House" is a witty and weighty pleasure. The action unfolds “in the middle of the north edge of Sussex…on a fine evening at the end of September”, and with the play’s dream-like quality we are first lulled into a false sense of security. However, there are pointed observations with real currency about women and marriage, the tug of money and the hermetically sealed world of the intellectual class and elitists of all kinds. There are some unforgettable moments, for example, Hesione’s astonishing speech on the transfiguring power of love, Ellie’s discourse on the soul, and Shotover’s climactic diatribe against a narcoleptic nation heading inexorably to the rocks. It is a play with power and passion.
It is the pampered, the privileged and the powerful that are
separated from a heartbroken nation being torn apart in the charnel house of
Flanders and the Somme, just as all nations become broken hearted when they
send their young men and women off to fight and die waging war against a