Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw: Summary, Analysis & Characters

Instructor: Ashley Bishop
A comedy presented in three acts, Heartbreak House is an entertaining political commentary about what happens when socialites, tycoons and drifters collide in the pre-World War I British countryside.

Heartbreak House Overview

George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is a comedy about the deceptions and meaningless pursuits of England's ruling class. Though the play takes place on the the eve of World War I, the characters, too absorbed in their intrigues, are unaware that a war is about to begin. In this lesson, we will explore the setting, characters, and plot of one of Shaw's most notable plays.

Setting and Characters

Nestled in the English countryside, Captain Shotover's home is ample and easily accommodates the swell of guests arriving in Act I. The majority of the play takes place in the drawing room, which resembles the stern gallery of a ship with heavy timbering and curved walls.

The play opens with Ellie Dunn who is greeted by the servant, Nurse Guiness, and Captain Shotover. The nurse summons another resident of the house, Hesione, the Captain's striking middle-aged daughter, who is married to the dashing Hector.

More characters arrive, including Ellie's father, Mazzini Dunn, a failed businessman, and Boss Mangan, an entrepreneur. The Captain's second daughter, the practical and beautiful Ariadne, arrives at the house after a 23 year absence. She is followed by her lovesick brother-in-law, Randall. A final character, a burglar, intrudes late in Act II.

The play's characters can be broken into a few distinct categories. The Captain, Mangan, and Mazzini represent Britain's industry, riddled with incompetence and charlatanism. Ellie, Hesione, Ariadne, Hector, and Randall represent Britain's idle aristocracy and middle class, too distracted by dalliances and self-indulgence to take notice of the important matters of state. Nurse Guiness and the burglar represent Britain's working class, serving at the whim of the others and fighting for survival.

The plot comically weaves in and out of love triangles and greedy business contracts to end in catastrophe. Shaw's intentions for the audience to recognize the recklessness that led England into war are clear. By the end of the play, the characters care so little for England and for their own lives that they welcome death.

The Captain's Confusion

The Captain is on a quest for the 'seventh degree of concentration,' but by the end of the play we learn that this is nothing more than a rum-induced stupor.

At the beginning of the play, the Captain mistakes Ellie for the daughter of a pirate with whom he once sailed, a delusion to which he comically clings throughout most of the play. The Captain exclaims that Mazzini cannot be Ellie's father because he looks nothing like the pirate Dunn.

Later, Mazzini captures a burglar, who turns out to be the real pirate for whom the Captain mistook Mazzini, William Dunn. William robs wealthy houses with the intention of being caught, knowing that the aristocracy is too lazy to prosecute and will probably just pay him off, which turns out to be true!

Deception in Heartbreak House

Shaw was neither a fan of marriage nor money. The characters of Heartbreak House are engaged in a complex web of love triangles and business dealings, and employ deception and sexual power to gain the upper hand.

Ellie is betrothed to her father's benefactor, Mangan, but she is in love with another man, Marcus Darnley, who has enthralled her with his splendid tales of heroism. Hesione's husband, Hector, appears, and Ellie realizes that her beloved Marcus is actually Hector! Hector and Hesione meddle with vulnerable hearts. Determined that Ellie should not marry Mangan, Hesione sets out to enchant Mangan, and deploys Hector to enthrall Ellie.

Despite Hesione's efforts, Ellie intends to marry Mangan to secure her future, but admits to Mangan she does not love him. Outraged, Mangan reveals that he destroyed her father's business to take control of it, and he admits that he is in love with Hesione. Ellie professes her love for Hector. As the quarrel is spinning out of control, Ellie hypnotizes Mangan to sleep.

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