Bernard Shaw's 1919 play, "Heartbreak House," is a bitterly angry black comedy - a satire against a British imperial culture in the first two decades of the 20th century that gave rise to the excesses of the first World War, and which could (and would) do a lot worse if given the chance. Consciously drawing on a healthy and proud tradition of Irish satirists, including Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, Shaw brings us into a declining English country house, which seems to be run by no one in particular for a party of apocalyptic (in)significance. The house is home to the Shotover family, the eighty-eight year old patriarch Captain Shotover, his daughter, Hesione Hushabye, and her husband Hector. Over the course of three acts, Shaw explores the 'fascinating' qualities and inhabitants of the boat-like house, and its broader implications as a kind of ship of state.
The play opens as a young woman, Ellie Dunn, arrives at the house, ostensibly the guest of Hesione. With no one to greet her, and her bags left on the front porch of the house, Ellie finds her way into the boat-like drawing room, where she meets the indefatigable Nurse Guinness, and the inscrutable Captain Shotover, who is in the midst of his latest plan to usefully dispose of the hoard of dynamite he keeps in the garden. Gradually, the party fills out as Hesione, Hector, Lady Utterword (nee Shotover), Randall Utterword (the melancholy brother-in-law), Mazzini Dunn (soldier of freedom and Ellie's father), and Boss Mangan (capitalist and Ellie's intended) arrive at this bizarre house. Hesione plans to break off Ellie's engagement to the much older Mangan, and free her to follow the course of romance, while Utterwood and Hector variously pursue their sister-in-law. Of course, Shaw does not let his characters, nor his audience, off with a simple comedy of manners.
Shaw uses the play to expose the play of civilization, in which we all have a part, but with much more comic viciousness than Wilde, and with (possibly) more brute directness than Swift. The most explicit butt of Shaw's circuitous and rapid-fire dialogues is Mangan, whose gruff capitalist demeanor and pursuit of money and reputation is ultimately the guidepost of society as Shaw envisions it. As the lowest common denominator, Mangan's crudity reflects upwards at the socially climbing Ellie, the egregious nonchalance of Hesione, and the almost intentional insanity of Captain Shotover. Shaw implies that if Mangan and his ilk are running the show, then everyone who is not working to change it is complicit in its depredations. Listless bohemians, like Hesione and Hector, give the lie to their apparent graces, in an effort to maintain sanity in the midst of their perpetual confinement with each other. Lady Utterword's complaisance belies her loveless existence, and Mazzini Dunn's servility is the mark of an idealist who has given up his ideals in favor of subsistence. Is the refinement we everyday pretend to, nothing more than a thin veneer for the animal instincts that, if broached, would expose us as Swiftian Yahoos, as Shaw implies in his Preface, or as mere children, left in charge of ever more dangerous means of annihilating everyone and everything?
The tool of satire, in the hands of a master like Shaw, compels us to examine our own lives, and the ways we live them. Does Shaw call us to action, or merely to honest self-reflection? Either way, even at this late date, nearly a century later, we are still living in "Heartbreak House" - and Shaw's challenge to us is more urgent than ever. Ultimately, Shaw's message is that we are not dead yet - only asleep; can we awaken before it is too late? If we are monstrous enough to blow up the preacher's house, in the early 20th century or the early 21st, then each of us must be our own Savior - a notion which should be as empowering as it is horrifying.