Many of George Bernard Shaw's plays are extended arguments — moral, sociological, political — but the argumentation in Heartbreak House, while familiar, is diffuse. The play explores the decadence of the English upper classes in September 1916, just before the German zeppelins began their bombing sorties, with the extended family of retired seaman Captain Shotover fiddling away merrily while Rome burns. Or rather flirting, teasing, seducing, holding forth, mocking and generally entertaining themselves. Comparisons have been made to Chekhov's The Three Sisters, which also explores the decay of a privileged class, but Shaw's characters are so jaundiced that when danger finally arrives, they welcome the diversion.
Shotover runs an eccentric household in a ship-shaped house with dusty corners. He peers into the surrounding countryside through a telescope, drinks rum all day, strives to reach the "seventh degree of concentration," and keeps a store of dynamite at hand. But though he's extremely dotty, he's also deeply wise. As the play opens, Ellie Dunn has arrived at the invitation of Shotover's daughter Hesione, who wants to talk her out of marrying Boss Mangan, the bloated capitalist her unsuccessful businessman father has selected for her. Although she needs money and security (the plight of women is one of Shaw's favorite themes), Ellie is half persuaded. She has recently fallen for an abundantly mustached teller of tall tales — at which point Hesione realizes Ellie is describing her own husband, Hector, and bursts into delighted laughter. Hesione likes to do a bit of seducing herself. As does Shotover's other daughter, Ariadne, a horsey, jolly-hockey-sticks colonialist visiting from South Africa.
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Eventually, Mangan himself turns up, along with Ellie's less-idealistic-than-she'd-thought father, Mazzini, Ariadne's effete brother-in-law Randall, and a petty thief who's come to rob the place — one of those entertaining working-class Shavian rascals whose profession is arguably no less principled and socially useful than Mangan's. Clearly, Shaw is making a point when he has both Mangan and the thief die together at the play's end, while the world-weary family survives — at least for the moment.
Heartbreak House doesn't quite hold together in terms of plot or emotional impact: Characters keep saying they're heartbroken, but they don't seem it — and if they are, you can't quite fathom why. But then, deep feeling isn't what you usually look for in Shaw. The joy of his work lies in language: the wit and brilliant aphorisms, the eloquence, the way he upends expectation and comes at convention sideways.
Shaw loved women and portrayed them amazingly. Almost all of the women in Heartbreak House are more interesting than the men — fantasizing Hector, plodding Mazzini, the so-easily-eviscerated Mangan, and Randall, a poetic, flute-playing soul who seems to exist only so that Shaw can parody the aesthetic movement and sister-in-law Ariadne can make fun of him. But Shotover is one of the most interesting characters in dramatic literature, and if the play does have a heart, it lies in the relationship between him and Ellie Dunn — who turns out to be far more complex and interesting than she at first appeared. Philip Pleasants, who plays Shotover, is wonderfully funny and astute as he charges and declaims his way through the play. But in the pivotal scene, in which he and Ellie arrive at something very like love, Pleasants is still declaiming emptily to the air rather than focusing on the breathing woman in front of him. While Sarah Nealis's Ellie is sweet and somewhat neutral, she is no match for the lively talents of Kathleen McCall as imperious Ariadne and Lise Bruneau, who brings charm, presence and wry intelligence to the role of Hesione. (In the program, Bruneau identifies herself as a Taffety Punk — and I had to look that up. Taffety Punk is a theater company named for a phrase in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well that means well-dressed whore.)
Overall, this well-executed and entertaining evening reminds us that Shaw's opinions are still entirely relevant and his brilliance indisputable; he remains one of the funniest playwrights ever — and his humor still draws drops of blood.