Heartbreak House. A fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes ... With an introduction and notes by A. C. Ward

by Bernard Shaw

Other authorsA. C. Ward (Introduction)
Hardcover, 1961






Longmans, Green & Co. in association with Constable & Co.: London, 1961.


On his Sussex estate Captain Shotover, an eccentric poet, retired seafarer and inventor, is reluctantly hosting a weekend house party for his two daughters and their bohemian friends.

Media reviews

The Reporter
I think we know pretty much what Shaw intended to do in Heartbreak House, yet what actually did he do in the play itself? For one thing, it is improvised work. Shaw admitted he made it up as he went along, not knowing from day to day what his characters would do or say or become... I am sure deep in his unconscious there lurked not the usual nightmare monsters of the rest of us but yards of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, all neatly labeled and filed. Yet in Heartbreak House Shaw's improvisatory genius breaks down; he keeps marching into conversational culs-de-sac... The characters, of course, are our old friends the Bernard Shaw Team of Fabian Debaters; we know each one of them already. But what are they doing in this peculiar Midsummer's Eve ambiance? They seem a bit puzzled, too. As they debate with their usual ease they tend nervously to eye the shrubbery: Are there elves at the bottom of that garden? Have we been booked into an allegory? Are we going to find out we're all dead or something? Steady, chaps, the old boy's got us into one of those plays. They rattle on bravely but they are clearly ill at ease, and so is the audience.
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London Review of Books
I must confess that I have recently, had much to make my life enjoyable Pre-eminent was Heartbreak House, which I saw at the Haymarket. I have little doubt that it is Shaw’s best play, certainly better than that overrated work Man and Superman. Who cares whether Ann Whitefield marries Jack Tanner or not? Heartbreak House has real people behaving as real people should. Critics have expressed some dissatisfaction with Rex Harrison as Captain Shotover. I thought he was perfect. A further merit about Heartbreak House is that it has no message. All Shaw’s plays are full of talk, but usually it has relevance to something. In Heartbreak House they just talk. The flaw in the play is the episode of the Zeppelin raid, which Shaw stuck in at the end to show he had written the play during the war – which he hadn’t. It is clear that he had no idea what a real air-raid was like. The play confirmed my opinion that Shaw is our greatest playwright since Shakespeare.

User reviews

LibraryThing member varwenea
Heartbreak House is a farce of a play that the reader can readily visualize all the comings and goings of the characters, the exaggerations, and a general nuttiness that’s silly and fun. However, it is in fact an allegory that examines the ignorance, indifference, and self-indulgence of the wealthy, at the eve of World War I. Though written from 1913 to 1916, its publication was pushed out to 1919, after the end of WWI in Nov of 1918.

This book has a LONG preface, where Mr. Shaw was quite clear of his searing feelings. I’ll admit guilt that I skimped it. The “Note” at the beginning served as an informative synopsis of the preface. If you’re highly allergic to spoilers, don’t read the “Note” until after you read the play.

Set in a country estate home of the retired Captain Shotover, built in the shape of the ship (the play uses starboard and port as stage directions), the Shavian wit has us examining the lives of the Shotover family and friends who by some unplanned coincidence descend on said estate one after the other. In these 3 acts, a mixed bag of truths are revealed where nothing is as it seems. Who’s using who? Who’s wealthy and who’s not? Who’s in love or not? It was amusing to read of the two daughters, Hesione Hushabe and Lady Ariadne Utterword, “fascinating” the men around them. Clearly, the women are the stronger sex here. These middle aged beauties bestowed their knowledge on the younger and less financially fortunate Ellie Dunn. Mayhem unfolds and reveals are surprisingly voluntary. The social classes and issues surface themselves in a subtle but recognizable way, many of which are still relevant today making this play all the more enjoyable.

If this play is ever produced locally, I’m going!

Two Quotes:

On being the owner of a business – I laughed:
“MRS HUSHABYE. Don’t cry; I can’t bear it. Have I broken your heart? I didn’t know you had one. How could I?
MANGAN. I’m a man ain’t I?
MRS HUSHABYE. (half coaxing, half rally, altogether tenderly) Oh no: not what I call a man. Only a Boss: just that and nothing else. What business has a Boss with a heart?”

On feeding the soul – I paused and thought about this one; there is some partial truth to it:
“CAPTAIN SHOTOVER. Is it? How much does your soul eat?
ELLIE. Oh, a lot. It eats music and pictures and books and mountains and lakes and beautiful things to wear and nice people to be with. In this country you can’t have them without lots of money: that is why our souls are horribly starved.”
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LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
I would have liked to see this play as a production, or even as a read through, rather than just reading it by myself. But it's an homage to Chekov, and a good Shavian sermon, as the movers and shakers of Western civilization get a dressing down for their handling of the end of WWI. The dialogue is crisp, and the characters are clearly drawn. I found it enjoyable, but I need another six people, who like Shaw, to do a reading.
Written in 1919.
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
A clever play with another wonderfully strong female character in Ellie. She is not dissuaded in the least to go after what she wants and what will make her happy. A strong cast of colorful characters.


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