Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House at the Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season has Bernard Shaw from all angles.  For light entertainment, there’s Candida; for Shaw set to music, there’s My Fair Lady.  For hardcore Shaw fans, there’s On the Rocks, a play that’s almost never performed.  And Shaw’s supposed “masterpiece,” Heartbreak House, which we saw in a sparsely attended performance in the Festival Theatre last weekend, is “difficult” Shaw.

The action of Heartbreak House covers a day and an evening during the first World War on the country estate of Captain Shotover (Michael Ball), who has remodeled his home along the lines of a sailing ship. (Designer Leslie Frankish has created a striking set that includes an undulating platform.) The 88-year old Captain supports the household by inventing weaponry gadgets that he sells to the British military.  

The other characters are as improbable as the Captain.  Young Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis), who comes to visit the Captain’s daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Deborah Hay), is engaged to a man twice her age who has swindled her father. She is also in love with a man who has given her a false name and who makes up stories about exotic adventures; in the third act she announces that her true love is the octogenarian Captain.  Mangan, the fiancé (Benedict Campbell), is a rich industrialist who actually owns nothing.  Ellie’s father (Patrick McManus) is a skilled business manager with a reputation for having no business sense.  It’s not a naturalistic play. 

Much of the play has to do with marriage, though none of the characters seem to think that sexual attraction and romance have any necessary connection to marriage. Hesione, for example, is blasé about the serial philanderering of her husband Hector (Blair Williams), and she herself is attracted to Mangan.

The frustrating aspects of this play are outweighed, barely, by Shaw’s scintillating dialogue, which includes some delicious paradoxes and a rare Shaw pun about “safety matches.” And in Captain Shotover Heartbreak House has one of Shaw’s most memorable characters: an old man who amuses himself and exasperates his relatives by feigning senility and pretending not to remember what he is told. Michael Ball is a delight in what is surely one of Shaw’s plum roles.

But none of the other characters seem quite real. We think Shaw created them that way on purpose, in the same way that Picasso and Modigliani were, around the same time, painting figures without distinct features.  We simply don’t understand these characters well enough to make sense of their quarrels and infatuations.  The women are touchy as the dickens, always flaring up at one another, but you never see it coming. The men are fragile and cry at the drop of a hat. Unable to anticipate the frequent emotional twists and turns, we kept feeling guiltily that we must not have been paying enough attention.

This is also a play with too many coincidences; we thought one was the standard.  In the first act, we learn that the man who has been romancing Ellie under the name of Marcus Darnley is actually the husband of Ellie’s hostess, Hesione.  This meets the quota for coincidence and creates dramatic interest — but then, in the second act, the house is invaded by a burglar who turns out to be an old shipmate whom Captain Shotover was talking about in the first act.  In the third act, this same burglar turns out to be the long-lost husband of Captain Shotover’s housekeeper.  It’s all dizzying and wearying.

None of this is the fault of director Christopher Newton, who was, after all, stuck with a script littered with such stage instructions as “MRS HUSHABYE (promptly losing her temper),” “MANGAN (depths of emotion suddenly welling up in him),” “MRS HUSHABYE (suddenly melting and half laughing),” and “RANDALL (a childishly plaintive note breaking into his huff).”  Allowing for the challenges of the script, this show is beautifully acted all around. We were again impressed with the dramatic range of Deborah Hay, whose Hesione couldn’t be further from the floozie she played in Born Yesterday. We did feel that Mr. Newton might have restrained the normally nuanced Patrick Galligan (as Hesione’s brother-in-law Randall) from over-acting during one of the meltdowns that Shaw prescribes for his characters.

This production left us feeling that Shaw’s play was largely a expression of bad temper. The playwright vents his spleen against marriage, capitalism, and the Church; after the news of the Russian revolution, Shaw had clearly lost patience with the pace of Britain’s progress toward radical socialism.  By 1919, when he finished the play, it had become painfully apparent to Shaw that thirty years of Fabian speeches and pamphleteering hadn’t much advanced the cause, as we learn from a speech by Ellie’s father. (Mazzini Dunn is exactly the sort of person a socialist paradise needs: a man of ability who is happy to work hard for no personal gain.) Mazzini discusses the state of things with Hector Hushabye:

HECTOR. Think! What’s the good of thinking about it? Why didn’t you do something?
MAZZINI. But I did. I joined societies and made speeches and wrote pamphlets. That was all I could do. But, you know, though the people in the societies thought they knew more than Mangan, most of them wouldn’t have joined if they had known as much. You see they had never had any money to handle or any men to manage. Every year I expected a revolution, or some frightful smash-up: it seemed impossible that we could blunder and muddle on any longer. But nothing happened, except, of course, the usual poverty and crime and drink that we are used to. Nothing ever does happen. It’s amazing how well we get along, all things considered.

In Heartbreak House Shaw was announcing that, as far as he was concerned, it was time to tear Britain down and start over.

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  1. […] same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw […]


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