ShawChicago’s HEARTBREAK HOUSE: Shaw’s Black Comedy

The Great War and its prelude flabbergasted Bernard Shaw more than any other event in his life.

In addition, the end of his relationship with Stella Campbell left him as close to heartbroken emotionally as he ever would be. The sobbing, humiliated, protesting, exposed, and unprepossessing character of Heartbreak House’s Boss Mangan reflects Shaw’s emotional state at the end of the famous affair.

He was severely depressed. He was, believe it or not, at a loss for words. And he didn’t know what to do. His disillusionment was almost total. Whatever peace he found was just this side of despair.

He turned to, what else, the theater, and began to write a new play, a play which reflects the heartbreak for both his soul and his land. He didn’t know if there should be a hero or not, and whether the hero should be more Prospero or King Lear. His wife Charlotte would come to hate the play more than any other he would write.

At the end of Heartbreak House a character concludes there is nothing real in the world. Another says all we can count on is rum. Another character looks forward to the death the next air attack might bring. The aura of pathos strives to choke everyone. Darkness, mystery, and poignancy are everywhere.

Shaw, the man of many ideas, stands naked and defeated. Shaw sees himself in the past tense; with Captain Shotover he declares, “I had my life.”

Heartbreak House is a beautiful portrait of failure.

Director Robert Scogin has given ShawChicago a production of Heartbreak House so good as to expose the play’s flaws. The play has, paradoxically, both too many and two few ideas. Characters no sooner express an opinion or conviction than they negate it with another opinion or conviction. The characters both want and hate relationships with other characters. No one knows what to do. All seem bored, and that boredom periodically threatens to spill into the audience. Shaw features too few of his famous head-to-head, mano a mano clashes, and when he does, their brilliance highlights their paucity in the rest of the play. The confrontation between Ellie Dunn ( wonderfully enacted by Allison Cooke who reveals new acting keys of steel for her characterization) and Hesione Hushabye (given a simply radiant performance by Barbara Zahora) is one of the production’s highlights. The other is the debate between Randall Underwood (one couldn’t hope for a finer interpretation than the one offered by Christian Gray) and Hector Hushabye ( Doug MacKechnie giving a bravura understated Robert Cummings/William Powell interpretation of a role that too often features merely bombast). The two scenes thrill the audience so much that the lack of more such engagements seems cruel and unusual punishment on the part of the playwright.

Shaw has populated his play with his usual types. Captain Shotover (Richard Henzel defines the role once and for all as Shaw-himself-gone-mad, even sporting Shaw’s infamous Jaeger suit!) is the rugged, rum-drinking patriarch, at a loss as to how to get everything back on course. He has come to believe the answer lies in the elusive cockamamie idea of a “seventh degree of concentration.” Ellie arrives looking for a goal for her life. She is the Sweet Young Thing of the future generation. In the course of the play, Ellie undergoes a crash course on the meaning of life, only to find the meaning not available. Hesione, Shotover’s romantically inclined Bohemian daughter, runs the house with flirtation and gossip. The Captain’s other daughter, Lady Utterword (played beautifully by Lydia Berger Gray) is the dame of Horseback Hall, the protectoress of all things conventional, though at a loss to name anything worth defending. She is married to Hastings, the eternal Englishman, the absent brother of the horny, but too present Randall. Hector, the dilettante adventurer, wants to escape the house but can’t. Boss Mangan (Jack Hickey now finely running the table of Shaw’s wealthy capitalists) wants a part of everything. Mazzini Dunn (Jonathan Nichols offering a fine voice of whatever reason may still be left), the ineffectual gullible intellectual wants to help everyone. Randall, the superb English gentlemen, is at heart a bundle of ragged nerves. Billy Dunn (Richard Marlatt outdoing his usual stunning portrayals with a performance which reignites the stage upon his entrance) upturns Heartbreak House by preying upon everyone. Nurse Guinness (essayed by Mary Michell who moves from her usual upstairs character to inhabit a feisty downstairs one) finds quiet brazenness the best approach to the household.

Heartbreak House has been said to present the most “charming people, most advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, free thinking, delightful”[i] adrift in a world they no longer understand or trust.

The late Mary McCarthy summed up the sadness of Heartbreak House:

To the pathos of the play’s lost people is added the terror of the play’s lost author, who could not, in conscience, make his story come out right or, indeed, come out at all. For this author as well as for the characters the apocalyptic air raid that finishes the play appears to come as a merciful release from striving.[ii]

Black comedy.

Monty Python specialized in it.

If you enjoy it, you’ll find the genre’s great uncle Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House just your cup of tea:

Always look on the bright side of death,
Just before you draw your terminal breath.
Life’s a piece of shit,
When you look at it.
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
You’ll see it’s all a show—
Keep ’em laughing as you go,
Just remember that the last laugh is on you!”[iii]




[i] George Bernard Shaw, Heartbreak House

[ii] Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962.

[iii] Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”

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