By Karen Isaacs
George Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece, Heartbreak House is getting a fine production at Hartford Stage through Sunday, June 11.
While many people equate Shaw with Pygmalion or its musical version, My Fair Lady, Shaw was at heart a political philosopher. You see that even in My Fair Lady with Professor Higgins’ determination to treat everyone alike, to preach how language was used to separate the classes, and more.
Shaw was also an ardent member of the social –democratic Fabian Society which questioned not only capitalism, religion and the idea of morality. His best plays raise serious ideas about these while at the same time providing audiences with interesting characters and witty dialogue. In his lesser works, it can become overlong and preachy.
Heartbreak House is one of his great plays, so it entertains you with eccentric characters while also challenging you to consider numerous ideas. It was finished in 1919, just following World War I which was devastating to Britain but was begun while the war was going on. It’s set in 1914, just before the outbreak of the war. As often happens at the beginning of wars, people are enthusiastic and almost exhilarated by the prospect.
The setting is the home of Captain Shotover, an aging, retired sea captain and inventor. He still uses nautical terms and blows a nautical whistle. In fact his home looks like a ship complete with the helm. Overseeing his house is his daughter Hesione who lives there with her husband, Hector Hushabye.
The household is disorderly in many ways. While it may look relatively grand, there isn’t a lot of money; income is dependent on Captain Shotover selling his various inventions. Hesione is not the organized lady of the house, nor her husband typical either. The house is totally disorganized. Occasionally Hector suggests he could work to help support the household, but his wife doesn’t want him to; she would not see him enough.
If the household is unconventional, so is their marriage, as we learn throughout the play.
The play opens with a young woman, Ellie Dunn, sitting reading a book and dozing off in the living room or poop deck as the Captain calls it. When the Captain discovers her, it turns out she had been invited to visit by Hesione but no one was there to greet her. It seems typical.
Why was she invited? Hesione is determined to dissuade her from marrying Boss Mangan, a much older tycoon. Ellie feels indebted to him for heling her father when his business went bankrupt. Hesione is horrified that the attractive young woman would yoke herself to this older, unattractive man.
Soon others have appear. Ariadne, the Captain’s younger daughter arrives. She is very proper having married a man her father calls a “numbskull” (Hastings Utterword) who has served around the Empire in high ranking government positions for the last 21 years. The Captain refuses to recognize to her.
Also arriving are Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn, who the Captain insists on confusing with a member of his crew who was a criminal. Mazzini is actually a mild-mannered man who made a mess of a business and now works for Boss Mangan, Mangan also arrives along with Randall Utterwood, Ariadne’s brother-in-law who is obviously smitten with her.
Mangan, Ellie and Mazzini have all been invited by Hesione in an effort to dissuade Ellie from marrying Boss Mangan. But while Ellie doesn’t love the Boss, she is a practical “modern woman” who views marriage much like a business deal – rich is better than poor. But she has become enamored of a gentleman she met at the National Gallery who seemed to have an adventuresome life. She is shocked to discover that he is, in fact, Hesione’s husband.
The drawing room comedy of the plot is fortunately overshadowed by the dialogue that covers everything from male-female relationships, to the way the world operates. Captain Shotover’s inventions of war and destruction earn him and the family much more than his inventions which help people.
Shaw is making many points here including that no-one is exactly what he or she seems. Ariadne seems the perfectly controlled lady but apparently has learned that if you act ladylike you can get away with almost any behavior. Hesione may seem the bohemian but is really in many ways conventional and Ellie may seem like a naïve young woman but is practical to the extreme. Even Boss Mangan and Mazzini are almost the opposites of what they appear to be.
Shaw subtitled this play “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes” and there is certainly shadows of Chekhov in it. But while Chekhov’s characters seem more remote from the world – lost in their own illusions, Shaw’s characters are more obviously political.
Darko Tresnjak, who directed the play, said in his notes that the last lines of the play (said by Hesione and Ellie) still haunt him. The lines, which you will need to see the play to understand to what they refer are: “But what a glorious expiereince1 I hope they’ll come again tomorrow night.” and “Oh, I hope so.”
Overall Tresnjak has directed this with a sure hand except for one decision. I did not mind that a very minor character, simply called the Burglar has been removed. (This character has been omitted in other productions.) The real error is how Tresnjak has decided to portray Boss Mangan. Mangan is a capitalist, not a member of the upper classes but a man who has made a reputation of ruthlessness and the accumulation of money. He expects to run government department. He has managed to appear generous while actually manipulating people to his own advantage. The error is that Andrew Long who plays the role has been directed to play him as a caricature of President Trump. His costume including an exaggerated blond “comb over” as well as facial expressions are those of the President. This creates a shock value of laughter at the beginning and some laughs at how well Long imitates the President. But it does a disservice to the play by deflecting our attention from Mangan’s lines.
It is as if Tresjnak underestimated the ability of the audience to see the connections between Mangan and Trump or Mangan and any ruthless industrialist. A more subtle approach would have worked better.
But that is the only misstep. From the casting to the magnificent scenic design by Colin McGurk to the period costumes of Ilona Somogyi, to Matthew Richard’s lighting design that effectively directs are attention to various aspects of the play to the sound design by Jane Shaw, each and everything contributes to our understanding and appreciation of this play.
The three main characters (Captain Shotover, Hesione and Ellie) are all excellent. Miles Anderson may not seem as physically imposing as some Shotovers, but he projects the authority and the conviction needed. Charlotte Parry’s Hesione combines Bohemianism with some very conventional ideas about love and marriage. She is flighty but both warm and thoughtful. Dani De Waal as Ellie may seem compliant but reveals a spine of steel. The entire cast is excellent including Tessa Auberjonois as the ladylike and somewhat rigid Lady Utterwood. Keith Reddin was excellent as Mazzini Dunn and Stephen Barker Turner gave us a Hector who was by turns romantic but almost pathetic.
Shaw has effectively used symbolism throughout this work from the names of the characters (Captain Shotover, Hushabye, etc) to metaphors of Heartbreak House as England and the ship motif as the ship of state. It subtly raises of issue of who will be at the helm of the ship of state? The old-time ruling elites or the modern industrial/capitalist elites? What will happen to the ship? It hints at the end of the British Empire.
As with many Shaw plays, you will the theater after seeing Heartbreak House with much to think about – not only ideas but also Shaw’s razor sharp wit.
It is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Harford, through Sunday, June 11. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.