Greg's Reviews > Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw
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's review
Jan 12, 2012

really liked it
Read from January 12 to 23, 2012

Heartbreak House is a good introduction to Shaw’s plays, boldly asserting his views. Although never subtle, Shaw became more skilled at the presentation of his ideas in later plays. Heartbreak House is in your face. The Preface is essentially a long editorial about World War I from a civilian’s perspective. Clearly this is an anti-war play:
Heartbreak house was far too lazy and shallow to extricate itself from this palace of evil enchantment. It rhapsodized about love; but it believed in cruelty. It was afraid of the cruel people; and it saw that cruelty was at least effective. (15)
Later, in anti-war statements, he remarks “The war did not change men’s minds in any such impossible way. What really happened was that the impact of physical death and destruction, the one reality that every fool can understand, tore off the masks of education, art, science, and religion from our ignorance and barbarism, and left us glorying grotesquely in the licence suddenly accorded to our vilest passions and most abject terrors.” (21) The house itself is in the shape of a ship symbolizing the transportation of Europe into the modern era, and the play is quite satirical in nature.

Shaw unabashedly devastates each character, breaking them down into their essential natures. Shaw’s anti-business political philosophy is particularly apparent when describing the businessman who can’t strip because he is already stripped of his morality. The interaction between Lady Utterword, who is visiting her father The Captain after many years of absence, is devastating as he does not recognize her and disengages himself from her affections. In response to her pleas base on the fact that she is his daughter, he responds, “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 of my absent daughter Ariadne a perfect fiend; so do not try to ingratiate yourself here by impersonating her.” (56) In short, absence makes the heart grow colder, and we don’t naturally want to be close to our family members. How sad this thought is.

The play tends toward the absurd, with the characters somewhat aware that they are stuck in a house that masks how bad reality really is. Ellie remarks later in her conversation with Mrs. Hushabye, “Theres something odd about this house, Hesione, and even about you. I dont know why I’m talking to you so calmly. I have a horrible fear that my heart is broken, but that heartbreak is not like what I thought it must be.” (72) The characters focus on individual sensibilities and ignore the larger reality of their situation. Captain Shotover, after justifying his pessimism to Hector and Mrs. Hushabye by explaining the disappointment in his daughter’s marriages, declines to turn on the light and expose his presence and states, “Give me deeper darkness. Money is not made in the light.” (91) Mangan notes that “the surest way to ruin a man who doesn’t know how to handle money is to give him some.” (95) Mangan responds to Lady Utterwood and Hector’s comments about his behavior by stating that there is something strange about this house, and that he is no better or worse in the house than in the city, but in the house he is made to look like a fool. Ellie responds, “Yes: this silly house, this strangely happy house, this agonizing house, this house without foundations. I shall call it Heartbreak House.” (151)

In the end, the novelty of the war presents itself as no mere novelty, but reality. Captain Shotover when confronted by the burglar, stands and says, “Stand by, all hands for judgment.” (158) Reality comes home to Heartbreak House.

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