Places: Heartbreak House

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1919, in Heartbreak House, Great Catherine, and Playlets of the War

First produced: 1920

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Play of ideas

Time of work: 1913

Places DiscussedShotover’s house

Shotover’s Heartbreak Househouse. Sussex mansion of the eccentric and visionary Captain Shotover. Through the play’s first two acts, its characters seem completely unaware of the war in which Great Britain is engaged or their leadership responsibilities. Instead, they obsess over social niceties and their shallow affairs of the heart. Shaw’s satire of this aristocratic household culminates in the third act, in which Lady Utterword says that the only thing England needs to become quite comfortable, sensible, and healthy is for every country manor to have horses and proper stables.

Ellie Dunn dubs Shotover’s mansion “Heartbreak House” because of the many disappointed romances that surface there. However, George Bernard Shaw also implies that the name is appropriate because it represents the failure of the English ruling classes to lead England energetically and effectively through the turbulent war years.

Shotover’s garden

Shotover’s garden. Garden outside Shotover’s house that is the scene of the third act. The garden symbolizes the possibility that the characters might move out of the center of their paralysis and frivolity toward meaningful political action. In the garden, the characters cannot ignore the war because there are enemy airships flying overhead dropping bombs in the distance. However, their response to a bomb that nearly hits the house is only a bizarre disappointment that the attack is not more devastating and thus exciting enough to rouse them out of their lethargic boredom.

BibliographyBerst, Charles A. “Heartbreak House: Shavian Expressionism.” In Bernard Shaw and the Art of Drama. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. An unusual but very convincing interpretation of the play, which emphasizes its dreamlike atmosphere. Concludes that Shaw owed more to August Strindberg and Luigi Pirandello than to Anton Chekhov.Crompton, Louis. “Heartbreak House.” In Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. Concludes that Shaw’s play is simultaneously experimental and reactionary, experimental in its use of Chekhov a model and reactionary in its use of the ideas of the stern, English Victorian writer and social critic Thomas Carlyle.Gibbs, A. M. “Heartbreak House”: Preludes of Apocalypse. New York: Twayne, 1994. A book-length analysis of the play that includes literary, theatrical, historical, and biographical contexts for the play, as well as a sustained and focused interpretation of it. A number of very useful appendices. A perfect introduction for students.McDowell, Frederick P. W. “Technique, Symbol, the Theme in Heartbreak House.” PMLA 68, no. 3 (June, 1953): 335-356. After many years, still one of the most thorough and lucid short discussions of the play. McDowell shows how the characters are used as abstractions to create musical motifs.Weintraub, Stanley. Journey to Heartbreak: The Crucible Years of Bernard Shaw, 1914-1918. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1971. A sophisticated approach that uses Shaw’s life to show the genesis and development of the play. Weintraub places Heartbreak House in the context of World War I England, characterizing Shaw as an “embattled intellectual in wartime.”
Categories: Places