Heartbreak House

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“The enormity of it [World War I] was quite beyond most of us,” writes George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in the preface to his extraordinary Heartbreak House, one of the playwright’s most important pieces. The play is the featured work this year at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Written and set immediately prior to the First World War, Heartbreak House is a quasi-Chekhovian dark comedy about a society on the edge of a precipice. Shaw delayed the production until the war’s end, out of a concern that it might demoralize the British population. “Truth telling is not compatible with defence of the realm,” the playwright wrote. “Comedy, though sorely tempted, had to be loyally silent; for the art of the dramatic poet knows no patriotism…and thus becomes in time of war a greater military danger than poison, steel, or trinitrotoluene [TNT]. That is why I had to withhold Heartbreak House from the footlights during the war; for the Germans might on any night have turned the last act [an air raid] from play into earnest, and even then might not have waited for their cues.”At the helm of “Heartbreak House,” an estate in southeast England, is the octogenarian Captain Shotover (Michael Ball), both a drunk and a sage. A young woman, Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis), has been invited to visit by the Captain’s daughter, Hesione Hushabye (Deborah Hay), whose intention is to terminate Ellie’s engagement to the dreadful businessman, Boss Mangan (Benedict Campbell).
Ellie is willing to marry for wealth, because every “woman who hasn’t any money is a matrimonial adventurer.” The desire to escape poverty trumps the fact that Mangan has financially destroyed her beloved father, Mazzini Dunn (Patrick McManus)—named after a leading figure of the aborted Italian national revolution. She accepts Mangan’s reasoning that “business is business; and I ruined him [Ellie’s father] as a matter of business.”
On the other hand, Hesione

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