Heartbreak House

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Heartbreak House
George Bernard Shaw 1934-12-06.jpg
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered November 1920
Place premiered Garrick Theatre
Original language English
Subject A dinner party on the eve of World War 1
Genre Chekhovian tragicomedy
Setting England, World War I

Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes is a play written by George Bernard Shaw, first published in 1919 and first played at the Garrick Theatre in November 1920. According to A. C. Ward, the work argues that "cultured, leisured Europe" was drifting toward destruction, and that "Those in a position to guide Europe to safety failed to learn their proper business of political navigation". (p. 164)


  • Ellie Dunn
  • Nurse Guinness
  • Captain Shotover
  • Lady Utterword
  • Hesione Hushabye
  • Mazzini Dunn
  • Hector Hushabye
  • Boss Mangan
  • Randall Utterword
  • Burglar

Plot summary[edit]

On the eve of World War I, Ellie Dunn, her father, and her fiancé are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties, to be held at the house of the eccentric Captain Shotover, an inventor who is trying to create a "psychic ray" that will destroy dynamite. The house is built in the shape of the stern of a ship. Hesione says they are running out of money. He needs to invent a bomb, or some other weapon of mass destruction. His last invention, a lifeboat, did not bring in much cash. Ellie intends to marry businessman Boss Mangan, but she really loves a man she met in the National Gallery. Unfortunately, her fiancé is a scoundrel, her father’s a bumbling prig, and it turns out that the man she's in love with is Hector, Hesione’s husband, who spends his time telling romantic lies to women. Marriage to Mangan will be the sensible choice. Shotover laments that the younger generation have lost their romance. Ellie suggests that Shotover's 'romance' involves a black African wife he has abandoned.

A burglar is captured. They say they do not want to prosecute him, but he insists he will turn himself in unless they pay him not to. Lady Utterword says that everything wil be put to right if only they get some horses. Every English family should have horses. Mangan declares that he is to head a government department, but Ellie suddenly announces that she cannot marry him as is now Shotover's "white wife". Shotover predicts that ship of England will founder, as the captain is drunk and the crew are all gambling. An air-raid is announced. The lights are switched off, but Hector switches them back on. A bomb lands in the garden, blowing up Shotover's store of dynamite and killing Mangan and the burglar. When it is over everyone says how bored they are.

Major themes[edit]


The house could arguably be a metaphorical reference to a ship which must be guided capably, not only by its crew, but also its passengers. Each character in the house represents some facet of British society, Mangan being the nouveau riche capitalist, Hesione the flighty Bohemian, Ellie a struggling member of the lower class and so on.

Character traits[edit]

One of Shaw's most important and evident themes is reality versus appearances. By the end of the play, each character is revealed to be nothing like who they appeared to be in the beginning. Mangan, who was reported to be "a Napoleon of industry" is revealed in the third act to be virtually penniless and incapable of running his own businesses. It is in fact Mazzini who runs Mangan's businesses although he at first appears mild and incompetent.


Mazzini's belief in fate ruling his life reinforces his feeble ability to control his situation and according to the captain dooms the ship to destruction unless competent navigation can be learned:

Captain Shotover: "Navigation. Learn it and live; or leave it and be damned." (p. 141)

Play in Performance[edit]

Heartbreak House is not often performed due to its complex structure; however it is argued that the genius of the play cannot be fully appreciated without seeing it in performance. Its subject-matter is the ignorance and indifference exhibited by the upper and upper-middle classes to the First World War and its consequences. The self-indulgence and lack of understanding of the high-class characters are central issues in British society at the time that the play illuminates. A major Broadway revival was mounted in 1984, with an all star cast headed by Sir Rex Harrison as Shotover (a role for which he was nominated for a Tony), and featuring Amy Irving, Rosemary Harris, Dana Ivey, George N. Martin, and Tom Aldredge.

The play has been performed several times at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada: most notably in 1968 directed by Val Gielgud and with Jessica Tandy, Paxton Whitehead, Tony Van Bridge and Frances Hyland (this production was recorded and released by Caedmon Records [Caedmon TRS-335]); then in summer 2011 directed by Christopher Newton with Michael Ball as Captain Shotover, Blair Williams as Hector, Patrick McManus as Mazzini, Laurie Paton as Ariadne, Benedict Campbell as Mangan and Robin Evans Willis as Ellie. It also formed part of Chichester Festival Theatre's 50th Anniversary Season in 2012 and cast Derek Jacobi as Captain Shotover. The Denver Center Theatre Company staged it for a run March 30-April 29, 2012.

It is available on VHS based on the 1985 television version directed by Anthony Page, with Rex Harrison as Shotover, Amy Irving as Ellie, and Rosemary Harris as Hesione.[1] Also available on DVD is the 1977 BBC Play of the Month version directed by Cedric Messina, with John Gielgud as Shotover, Lesley-Anne Down as Ellie, and Siân Phillips as Hesione. [2]

The play was performed at Shaw's Corner 25–27 July 2014, produced by Michael Friend and by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin from 14 August-13 September 2014.


  • Shaw, Bernard. Heartbreak House, Great Catherine, and playlets about the war. New York, Brentano's (1919)
  • Shaw, Bernard. Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. With an Introduction and notes by Ward. A.C. London: Longmans Green and Co Ltd. 1961


  1. ^ Great Performances: Heartbreak House at the Internet Movie Database
  2. ^ BBC Play of the Month: Heartbreak House at the Internet Movie Database

External links[edit]