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Why George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Heartbreak House’ is a play for today


It’s not so much ‘shock and awe.’ It’s more ‘shock – and/or?’ What a weird and modern and uncategorisable play is George Bernard Shaw’s 1916 comedy-drama Heartbreak House. And what a hypnotic one. It asks so many questions and doesn’t stay for an answer (unless you call Shaw’s customarily prolix 80-page preface to the play an ‘answer’). “What is war?”, “What is peace?”, “What is love?”, “What is social justice?”, “What are men?” “What are women?”   

It was first performed 103 years ago, four years after it was written. The writing took place in the middle of a maelstrom called the First World War. Shaw claimed he wrote it in 1914, but evidence points to 1916. Perhaps, in that earlier year, he first conceived the settings and characters. An idle, garrulous, medium-wealthy Sussex family, plus guests, enjoy a long late afternoon and evening of bons mots, philosophisings and flirtatious polyamory, topped off by a striptease of self-revelations. The place? A ship-like house owned by the cranky, slightly crackers ex-sea salt Captain Shotover.


In the first two acts there is no mention of an approaching war. But in Act 3, with barely a ‘how-do-you-do’, the bombs start falling, the wartime blackouts begin, and two characters are blown up.


At the Hampton Hill Theatre, where last year our newly formed Rhinoceros Theatre Company staged King Lear, I am directing this play and playing Shotover. And as with Lear we have a talented, first-rate cast and crew. It will be performed from May 31st to June 3rd. Like Lear, Heartbreak House is a piece in which a maddened character threatens to strip naked. It’s a Lear-ish piece in many other ways. An aged, patriarchal leader of men; two squabbling middle-aged daughters; and a bright girl of shining virtue and intelligence (Cordelia for the 20th century) who is taken into the clan, literally. By curtain-time she is betrothed to a family member.  

Whenever I re-read Act 3, and certainly whenever we have rehearsed it, I am flashed forward to those moments in our own century when the world has experienced the outbreak of war. We’ve had two conflicts that began, or whose broadcast outrages began, with the sky bursting over civilian heads. Iraq. Ukraine. In a place where people are at work and play, in a place fortified (we’d think) by time, habit and peaceful human interplay, everything is suddenly shock, terror, anguish and the unimaginable. Not only lives, homes and everyday existence are shattered. Morality and perception take on different hues. To stop Party A inflicting horror, horror must be inflicted back by Party B. Murder and violence are suddenly relativist. Atrocity is suddenly situational.



Shaw gets this. He not only gets it, he amplifies its cruel absurdism. Paradox and provocation were always his aces; here he has a serious card game in which to play them. Some characters in Act 3 welcome the bombs. (“What a glorious experience! I hope they’ll come again tomorrow night”). We understand what’s going on: these people have spent their preceding lives, crystallised in Acts 1 and 2, parading their almost knowingly obsolete values. After twitting each other with their wit, nihilism and social-apocalypse chat, these representatives of an epoch’s end – more than resembling (Shaw knew) Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard cast of characters - celebrate and partake in the formal immolation of all they have stood for. Possibly including themselves. No wonder GBS subtitled his play “a fantasia in the Russian manner”.

There is no real comparison of course – no conceivable one for thinking, feeling people – between Shaw’s characters experiencing their emblematic and ironised Armageddon and the limitless, pounding, nightmare barbarism experienced today by the people of Ukraine.

No playwright could capture or reflect that. It might even be insulting for him to try. Shaw was writing, though, with full knowledge of the First World War’s horrors, which now seem uncannily replicated in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Tank battles; trenches; the prodigal expenditure of fighting lives. He was writing too with knowledge of the monstrous folly of a ruling elite careless of its heroic human charge - “lions led by donkeys”. The Putin Factor. And it is that elite - a more insidiously amiable branch of it, found in an insidiously endearing Sussex mansion - on which he focuses in Heartbreak House. 


Nor is the play merely about posh folk getting a come-uppance. There is young Ellie, the family’s new protegee, who is clearly a New Woman, a crypto-suffragette, at least in my production, delivering her banner dialogue about a new world for woman and for good humans. And there is ‘Boss’ Mangan, her initial suitor, a nouveau riche fat cat who learns there is more than one way he can be skinned by his intellectual or ideological betters.

The star toff is the extraordinary Lady Utterword, younger of the mid-life sisters, coming ‘home’ after decades in the outer empire with her diplomat husband. She is witty, supercilious and above-it-all. But in one scene she has an emotional breakdown right there on stage. For the play’s first but not last time, we realise the titular ‘heartbreak’ is exactly what it says on the label. These people coming to this unstable, squall-tossed, schooner-like house, to be turned either into better, more feeling human beings or to be woken to the realisation that the only transformation is death. 

If this is a picture of war, it may be a privileged one. War as grandstanding metaphor rather than brute reality. Yet the dialogue, throughout Heartbreak House, hoovers up a vast number of subjects, from colonialism to capitalism, from territorialism to terrorism, from tribalist creeds to collective bigotries, that bear on the causes of war and make us realise that Act 3 is, after all, no gratuitous gear change. 

 If some of Shaw the playwright’s utterances don’t seem all that ‘woke’ today – there is stuff about ‘blacks’ rising up, about men finding redemption by marrying (and then seemingly abandoning) ‘negress’ wives – he seems awake to much in his day. 

The hardest historical nut to crack in addressing the question “Is colonialism good or bad?” may be the story of Lawrence of Arabia. Here was a wealthy, scholarly, privileged white man who motivated and mobilised Arabs, leading them to rise up for their own political good. It only went wrong because his wealthy, privileged white seniors, preferring their own good, welched on the deal Lawrence had made. 

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Can it really be coincidence that Shaw has a major character (Hector Hushabye, husband to Hesione) dress up in an Arab robe for two acts and swan about uttering threats of doom to his own kind? If Shaw couldn’t know the later upshot – or downfall – of Lawrence’s mission, he knew Lawrence himself and corresponded with him. (Lawrence appears as a character, barely disguised, in Shaw’s play Too True to Be Good.) They didn’t meet personally till 1922. But they knew of each other long before. And if the play was written in 1916, that happens to be the exact year Lawrence first donned his Arab robe to help a people wage a war. Much later, when he sought non-commissioned obscurity in the RAF, Shaw was one of the fictive names Lawrence used. 

A postscript? By a horrific yet also strangely Shavian coincidence, the motor bike on which Lawrence met his death in 1935 had been a gift of G B Shaw. 


Wheels within wheels, wheels within the juggernauts of moving history. And wheels within the ever-motile literary addressing of that history - and the protean perceptions we bring to it. Maybe the reason I love Heartbreak House, and believe it speaks to us today, is that it helps us understand, and bewail, much about war’s causes and beginnings – while joining us in the vast and helpless shrug that will always greet the questions “How can war be stopped?” and “Will it ever be?...     

The director Nigel Andrews

Cast in rehearsals


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