Wednesday, December 12, 2018


There was an article in London’s Observer on September 28, 1919 that captured what George Bernard Shaw’s newest published play could achieve.
‘Heartbreak House,’ Mr. Shaw writes in his preface, ‘is cultured, leisured Europe
 before the war,’ and the play, which is much better than the preface, fits that
 description very neatly.  It is his thirty-first play, and I am near in mind to call
 it his best play.  It certainly is the most bitter and wildly comic piece he has
 composed. When, in due time, it is performed, it will, I am sure, fill the theatre
 with explosions of laughter as loud as the explosions of the bombs with which
 the piece concludes.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote Heartbreak House between March 4, 1916 and May 1917. His subtitle for this play is “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes.” Shaw admired Anton Chekov and utilized the country house setting for his play as did the Russian playwright. Shaw also desired to utilize similar character shortcomings employed by Chekov such as a character’s inability to achieve a desired goal as well as to hold a realistic view of a situation.

                                                               GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

In June 1919, Shaw wrote the preface for Heartbreak House just prior to its publication. His earlier political pamphlet (November 1914) titled “Common Sense About War” was controversial. His antiwar speeches were met with criticism. His next approach was to reveal his feelings about how the conditions leading to World War One were overlooked by the British cultured and governing classes partially due to their laxed attitudes about the world situation. These are the classes to which Shaw’s major Heartbreak House characters belong. Shaw presents this serious situation embedded in one of the most humorous plays written in the English language.

Act One takes place “on a fine evening at the end of September.” The time is six o’clock. The location is in the middle of northern Sussex. The countryside can be seen through the windows of a room “which has been built so as to resemble the after part of an old fashion high-pooped ship, with a stern gallery.” This home belongs to an old sea captain named Captain Shotover, who is the father of Hesione Hushabye and Lady Utterword. The latter daughter lives in Australia. Hesione has invited as her dinner guests young Ellie Dunn, her father and his employer Boss Mangan, who is engaged to Ellie. Hesione does not believe Ellie should marry Mangan who is much too old for her. Chaos ensues when Lady Utterwood arrives after not visiting her family for decades.

Act II is set after dinner that same evening. The setting is the same room as Act One. The act opens with a scene between Ellie and Mangan discussing their future marriage. Ellie is determined to marry Mangan even though each one is smitten with someone else. Mangan is in love with Hesione and Ellie is enamored with Mr. Hushabye, Hesione’s husband. After everyone drifts on stage, there is a commotion and a burglar is discovered in one of the bedrooms stealing jewelry.  Ellie’s father captures the burglar who is recognized by Captain Shotover and Nurse Guinness. None of the characters are what they each appear to be in the beginning, the burglar was once married to Nurse Guinness and had sailed with Captain Shotover. At the conclusion of the act, several of the male/female relationships have been altered and new alliances are forming.

Act Three is set in the garden. It is later that evening. The characters are enjoying the outdoor environment as well as their new pairings when “A dull distant explosion is heard.” The planes come closer and bombs are dropped in the garden. One bomb explodes in the area where Captain Shotover stores his dynamite. Unfortunately, Boss Mangan and the Burglar were hiding there. The play ends as Hesione states: “What a glorious experience!  I hope they’ll come again tomorrow night.”

Heartbreak House premiered in New York City on November 10, 1920 and it was produced by The Theatre Guild at the Garrick Theatre. The production was staged by Dudley Digges (1879-1947) who was born in Dublin and immigrated to the United States in 1904. He also played the role of Boss Mangan. This production was successful and ran for 125 performances.  All the New York reviews of this production were extremely positive.

Since its New York premier Heartbreak House has had four major revivals on Broadway—1938, 1959-60, 1983-84, and 2006.  It has had hundreds of productions in cities throughout the United States and it continues to this day to garner laughs as the actors usually dressed in their flapper era attire cavort on stage.

The second production of Heartbreak House opened at the Burg Theatre in Vienna on November 17, 1920.  I read an interesting account of the first night audience’s reaction to the drama.  It appeared in London’s Daily Herald on November 18, 1920 and was signed by Reuter. “The first act was applauded, but afterward the interest of the audience dwindled, and the later acts were hissed.” Reuter believed the irony of the play was apparently unappreciated or not understood.  Perhaps the length of the play also contributed to the lack of enthusiasm. In New York the Theatre Guild’s production ran nearly five hours before the final curtain.

The third international production opened in Stockholm before Heartbreak House was staged at the Court Theatre in London, where it opened on October 18, 1921.  The November 17, 1921 London Daily Herald ran an article titled “Brilliant Play Receives Inadequate Support.”  Heartbreak House regarded by sound judges as one of Shaw’s best plays, is by no means drawing record houses and the end of the run appears to be in sight.”  This production had a run of only seven weeks.

However, Heartbreak House, did become a popular play in England after its initial run and it has 

had many productions in Great Britain over the past ninety-seven years. Worldwide, it may be 

the most produced play from this period.

PHOTO: taken from cover of reprinted copy of HEARTBREAK HOUSE that I read.  There was no
acknowledgement of source.

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