Heartbreak House

George Bernard Shaw‘s Heartbreak House (1919), though first produced after the first world war, is set before it, in a vague Edwardian never-land. Subtitled a “fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes,” it (alone among Shaw’s plays) betrays the influence of Anton Chekhov. The guests at Shaw’s country estate, however, have an allegorical character, representing industry, the arts, idealism, feminism, and the aristocracy. The idealistic but practical young woman Ellie Dunn considers various suitors but falls in love with the aged Captain Shotover, modeled on Shaw himself. The play seems to represent pre-war life as a pathetic illusion dominated by materialism and narrow-mindedness. Shotover has been designing a weapon that will destroy half Europe. Shaw was a determined pacifist and was widely attacked for his antiwar pamphlet, Common Sense About the War (1914). Yet, in the final scene of Heartbreak House, when an air raid destroys the Captain’s stash of dynamite (and kills two minor characters), Shaw seems almost to be embracing the war as, in Marinetti’s words “sole hygiene of the world.”[1][2]

  1. ↑ Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidoe, eds. Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1998), p. 251.
  2. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 203.