Heartbreak House:

People's Light & Theatre Company

June, 1998

Dramaturg's Note

Cary M. Mazer, University of Pennsylvania

Guest Dramaturg

If Heartbreak House seems to be different from other Shaw plays, it is not because hearts are broken. Characters--usually young women--have their hearts broken all the time in Shaw plays; it's how they, and we, learn.

These characters usually have their hearts broken not once but twice. The first time, the young woman discovers that all of the beliefs on which she had built her faith, all of the ways that she understood the world, are suddenly untenable. Then, feeling adrift, as though she has lost her faith and her sense of her profession, she faces the second heartbreak--an equally painful shock to her emotions, like the aftershock of an earthquake, when she now can begin to rebuild her life with new values, and can resume her life's work of rebuilding the world. "You have learnt something," Andrew Undershaft says to his daughter Barbara in Major Barbara; "That always feels at first as if you had lost something."

But Heartbreak House is different. In those other plays, there is a sense that the world can be changed, that we have been put on this planet (by what Shaw calls the "Life Force") in order to change it, and that we can be empowered do so if only we can open our eyes and see ourselves and world more clearly.

The World War changed all that. Shaw never wavered in his belief that the world can and should be changed. But he despaired of our ability to see clearly or to act on what we see. The war offered proof positive that current systems of government and finance had failed, just as an outbreak of deadly infection offers proof that a hospital has neglected its sanitation. But he couldn't make his contemporaries, friends and foes alike, see that their own belief systems and institutions had made the war inevitable; and he lost his faith that anyone could learn from the apocalypse to bring about a saner world order afterwards.

Heartbreak House is Shaw's play about the war, even though the war is never mentioned and (until late in the play) never makes its presence felt. He sets the play, not in the world of plutocrats and government ministers (though representatives from these worlds wander into the house), but among the educated, cultured, leisure classes, what one idealistic character admiringly identifies as "very charming people, most advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, democratic, free-thinking, and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people." The "Bohemians" who live in Heartbreak House aren't thinkers or artists; they're what the British call "amateurs," (literally "lovers"), people who pride themselves in knowing about, and being able to talk about, the latest idea and the latest work of art. They and their house guests flirt with one another and talk at prodigious length (as characters do in other Shaw plays). And they use all this talk to break one another's hearts--those among them, at least, who have hearts to break.

But, as the actors are discovering in rehearsal, it is unclear where the characters' emotional journeys lead them or how they come to understand the world as the long night comes to a close and the characters, in increasing states of physical and psychic undress, sit in the moonlight and talk. Like the characters in the plays by Chekhov (which served as Shaw's model for Heartbreak House, subtitled "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner of English Themes"), they ask questions about themselves that they don't have the tools to answer, singularly pursuing their hopes and aspirations and desperate emotional needs while the cataclysmic events of the world pass them by, like the rumble of distant thunder on the horizon.