George Bernard Shaw -he later dropped the name George- was born in Dublin in 1856, the third and youngest child of an alcoholic father and an undomestic mother. He developed an interest in literature, music and painting at a very early age, but was never enabled to go to university. At the age of fifteen he became an apprentice and during he stay there he started writing short literary articles for newspapers and magazines, with little success. In 1876 he moved to London with his parents and tried to earn a living as a writer, but at times he still needed his parents’ financial support. During this period he wrote his first five novels, none of them very successful; the first one was never published and the other four were sold to periodicals, to be published as serials.
In 1884 he joined the Fabian Society, an utopian movement that was trying to establish a socialist society through co-operation with the ‘bourgeois’ classes. He wrote a great number of speeches, pamphlets and articles for the Fabians, and in 1889 he edited the Fabian Essays, an import document in the history of British socialism. His work with and for the Fabian Society continued until the end of his life, during which period he wrote a number of important socialist articles, such as the anti-war pamphlet ‘Common sense about the war’ in 1914 and the ‘Woman’s guide to Socialism and Capitalism’ in 1928.
Between 1885 and 1898 he wrote many critical reviews on literature, art and music for a number of important magazines. During this period he started writing his first play, ‘Widowers’ Houses’, inspired by the plays of the Norwegian playwright Hendrik Ibsen, whose social awareness and nonconformism appealed more to Shaw than the fashionable hypocritical drama of those days. In 1893 followed ‘The Philanderer’, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), and ‘Candida’ (1895), all published together in a collection of plays called ‘Plays Pleasant’ and ‘Plays Unpleasant’ in 1898, the year Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townshend.
Shaw’s second period started in 1898 and lasted until 1939. The period started when Shaw wrote three ‘Plays for Puritans’ and contains the highlights of his career. Shaw will always be known for plays such as ‘Pygmalion’, a play he wrote in 1912 for the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell – perhaps the play is best known for its film adaptation ‘My Fair Lady’, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn-, and ‘Heartbreak House’. George Bernard Shaw died in 1950.
Shaw wrote ‘Heartbreak House’ in 1913, on the eve of the First World War, but had to postpone the production of the play until after the war, in 1921. He gave the play the subtitle ‘A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes’, thus inviting comparison with the Russian playwright Chekhov.
The action takes place in Heartbreak House, in a room designed to recreate the interior of an old-fashioned ship. The captain speaks to Ellie of his daughters, whom he does not particularly like. Hesione, the eldest daughter, fears that Ellie is being driven by her father into a marriage for money with Mr. Mangan, even though Ellie in love with a mysterious man she met recently and who later turns out to be Hesione’s husband. Ellie therefore decides to go ahead with the marriage to Mr. Mangan. When Mangan decides to tell Ellie he was the one who ruined her father and that he is not a rich man, Ellie decides to marry the captain. The captain predicts shipwreck for England and at that moment an air raid starts, killing the burglar and Mr. Mangan, leaving the others to wait eagerly for the next one.
Captain Shotover, a white-bearded retired sea captain, the master of Heartbreak House. He is 88 years old, rather eccentric and represents England’s past glory. He presides over a household of characters like a monarch over his empire. He has two goals left in life: to learn how to explode dynamite with his mental powers, in order to be able to blow up all profiteers and exploiters; and to attain the perfect state of tranquillity he calls “the seventh degree of concentration”. The latter he achieves by drinking vast amounts of rum. “England”, he says , “is a ship with a drunken captain and a negligent crew; the crew must learn to navigate if the ship is not to go on the rocks.”
Lady Ariadne (Addy) Utterword, captain Shotover’s youngest daughter, age forty-two. Very pretty, blonde and disorganised on the outside, she turns out to be very competent. She is married to Sir Hastings Utterword, a character frequently mentioned but never seen in the play. They have been living overseas for more than twenty-three years, and when Ariadne returns home, she finds the house and its inhabitants haven’t changed during that period.
Mrs. Hesione (Hessy) Hushabye, captain Shotover’s eldest daughter, some two years older than Ariadne. Dark-haired, stunningly beautiful and statuesque. She was the one who invited Ellie Dunn to the house. Although she seems to represent the homely virtues, at the end of the play she rebels against the role of domestic hostess she had been forced to play for many years and exults in excitement when the bombs start falling, hoping they will continue to come.
Hector Hushabye, Hesione’s husband, in his fifties, somewhat of a dandy, a heroic but very shy man. He makes up stories about adventures, even though he has led a very adventurous life himself, of which he doesn’t like to boast. When the bombing starts, he rebels and defiantly starts turning on all the lights in the house.
Ellie Dunn, a young singer, in love with Marcus Darnley -who later turns out to be Hector Hushabye- but engaged to be married to M. Mangan. The discovery that Marcus is Hector destroys her romantic picture of the world and turns her into a ‘modern girl’. Her disappointment in men leads her to get engaged to the captain. Unhappy as she is, she welcomes the coming of the bombers. Mazzini Dunn, Ellie’s father, a little, earnest man with absolutely no business sense at all. He has spent his life in poverty and fought all those years for liberty. Now, he has resigned to his fate and has become the typical nineteenth century Liberal, the ineffectual good man.
Alfred (Boss) Mangan, fifty-five, businessman, engaged to be married to Ellie Dunn, he confesses to her that he is not in fact a rich man. He is killed during the air raid when he hides in the captain’s cave, where he has stored all his dynamite. Billy Dunn, no relation to Ellie or Mazzini, an ex-pirate now turned burglar. He is captured when he tries to rob Heartbreak House, and is offered a job by the captain. Billy gets killed during the air raid when he hides together with Mangan. Nurse Guiness, casual and impudent, she is the captain’s housekeeper and, as turns out later, Billy Dunn’s wife. Randall Utterword, the younger brother of Ariadne’s husband. He looks like a gentleman and is apparently well-mannered, but he later turns out to be untalented, peevish, and childish. He represents foolish aristocratic pride. He is in love with Ariadne, who in turn treats him like a small boy. Sir Hastings Utterword, Ariadne’s husband. He never appears but is often referred to.