In the Shadow of the First World War

Heartbreak House
in the Shadow of the First World War

By Elizabeth Williamson, Dramaturg

When World War I broke out, George Bernard Shaw’s immediate reaction was polemical: he published “Common Sense about the War,” a pamphlet in which he blamed Britain and her allies as much as Germany for the war, criticizing the underlying imperialist and capitalist causes which he thought had in fact led to a war he characterized as “civilization tearing itself to pieces.” Although he wasn’t a pacifist, Shaw (along with his friends Sidney and Beatrice Webb) was one of the most prominent and active members of the Fabian Society, a group committed to promoting gradual change towards Social Democracy.

George Bernard ShawAt that point in 1914 the national mood was still extremely patriotic and pro-war; there was a major campaign for volunteer recruitment, and communities were coming together to organize war support. Shaw was attacked from all sides – it would be several years before the war, with its immense casualties, began to be seriously and publically criticized (Siegfried Sassoon’s famous anti-war letter to the Times, for example, wasn’t written until 1917.) In the face of near-universal criticism, Shaw turned away from pamphleteering in order to set to work on a major new play.

As the war continued, Shaw wrote Heartbreak House, a comedy with dark undertones in which a cross-section of British society comes together for a country house weekend on the eve of disaster. While the war isn’t even alluded to until near the end of Act Three, the play nonetheless tackles the question of how Britain got to the brink. In his 1919 preface, Shaw writes “Heartbreak House is not merely the name of the play… It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” It is the world of the cultural elite, upper class intellectuals and artists who think, and read, and have nothing to do with politics. He compares them with their counterpart, the staid hunting and fishing upper classes whom he calls “Horseback Hall,” who have governed for generations. “In short, power and culture were in separate compartments. The barbarians were not only literally in the saddle, but on the front bench in the House of Commons, with nobody to correct their incredible ignorance of modern thought and political science but upstarts from the counting house, who had spent their lives furnishing pockets instead of their minds.” There are representatives of all three groups in the play.

Shaw’s Corner, Ayot St. Lawrence
Shaw’s Corner, Ayot St. Lawrence

Heartbreak House is set in a house that more nearly resembles a ship, in the countryside in Sussex. Both the house and its owner, Captain Shotover, were inspired by Shaw’s friend Lena Ashwell’s father, an aged sea captain who retired after numerous adventures around the world, to live in a ship he’d had converted to be more like a country house inside. Over the course of the play, Shaw develops the metaphor of the house as ship, and ship as state, to ask who is at the helm and where England should be going.

Shotover’s daughter Hesione and her husband, who live with him, are definitely denizens of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House.” They are left-leaning Bohemians who may be based to some degree on the Bloomsbury circle. Shaw wrote Virginia Woolf years later that he’d conceived of the play over the course of a weekend he spent mid-war in Sussex with her, her husband Leonard, and the Webbs; a weekend during which, he wrote, “I, of course, fell in love with you. I suppose every man did.” “Horseback Hall” is represented by Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne, who’s married to an upper class diplomat, and the capitalist Boss Mangan rounds out the potential leaders of the country. They are also joined for the party by Mazzini Dunn, an impoverished intellectual who used to write pamphlets and hope for social change, but has given all that up and thinks nothing will ever change, and his daughter, Ellie.

Shaw subtitled the play “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” and there’s a dreamlike quality to it: Ellie, our young heroine, falls asleep at the very beginning of the play; we then learn her hostess Hesione has been asleep upstairs; and Captain Shotover regularly dozes off. The characters’ names are allusive, too, with a sort of dream logic that implies multiple meanings but refuses to be pinned down: Hesione, Hector, and Ariadne seem to spring from Greek mythology; Hushabye conjures sleep; and Utterword, Dunn and Shotover all seem to suggest something which has missed its target, or is over and done with, the final word. While Shaw acknowledges Chekhov’s influence on the play in its subtitle, the fantastic mix of drawing room comedy, political allegory and something close to nihilism in the face of apocalypse is deeply Shavian.

The Zeppelins would explode in a fireball similar to the 1937 Hindenburg distaster.
The Zeppelins would explode in a fireball similar to the 1937 Hindenburg distaster.

Early experiences of the war on the home front were shocking and yet at times oddly exhilarating; on October 1, 1916, Shaw watched a Zeppelin fly directly over his house in Ayot St. Lawrence in Hertfordshire. The British attacked it from below, and it fell burning to the ground. He described it in a letter to the Webbs:

“What is hardly credible, but true, is that the sound of the Zepp’s engines was so fine, and its voyage through the stars so enchanting, that I positively caught myself hoping next night that there would be another raid. I grieve to add that after seeing the Zepp fall like a burning newspaper, with its human contents roasting for some minutes (it was frightfully slow) I went to bed and was comfortably asleep in ten minutes. One is so pleased at having seen the show that the destruction of a dozen people or so in hideous terror and torment does not count. “I didn’t half cheer, I tell you” said a damsel at the wreck. Pretty lot of animals we are.”

By the time Heartbreak House premiered in 1920, the early, eerie excitement for the war had a known and heavy cost: 17 million dead. In Act Three, one character demands of the rest what they can do about “this ship that we are all in? This soul’s prison we call England?” Although that question has resonated through every subsequent production, the play doesn’t offer any clear answers. Mary McCarthy lauded Heartbreak House for having an “extra dimension” she felt Shaw often lacked, writing that that “third element, by unsettling the other two – the comedy of morals, and the political allegory—has given the drama an interior tension, a sense of dubiety and disquietude. The brightness of the comedy and the grandeur of the allegory intensify this final anxious uncertainty and raise it to the level of tragic doubt.” In the end, the play refuses to point any moral, or suggest any clear solution.