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Heartbreak house

by George Bernard Shaw (1856—1950)

" Heartbreak House" is one of the best plays of the greatest English satirical dramatist. The long list of his plays opens with the cycle of the Unpleasant Plays (1892), which marked the beginning of a new period in the history of English drama. G. B. Shaw revolutionized English drama in content and form. His plays are problem plays and discussion plays, where he raises the most urgent problems of his time. He exposes the vices of the society he lives in and condemns the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality, bring­ing to ridicule its false ideals of sham Christianity, sham virtue, sham patriotism, sham rorriance. The playwright rejects the art-for-art's-sake formula; with Bernard Shaw art exists only for life's sake.

G. B. Shaw's artistic method is scathing satire, and his favourite device is paradox which is a statement or a situation that at first sight seems absurd and contrary to accepted ideas. However, paradoxes of B. Shaw are always well-founded and help him reveal contradictory and incongruous sides of life. Bernard Shaw is a brilliant master of dialogue and monologue; as one of his critics puts it, " his words are always easy~on the actors' tongues, and therefore on the listeners' ears also".

" Heartbreak House" (1913—1919) was written during World War I. Shaw himself highly appreciated the play, and in his preface to it he disclosed the symbolic meaning of the title. " Heartbreak House", he wrote in his preface to the play, " is cultured, leisured Europe before the war". In the subtitle he called the play " A fantasia in the Rus­sian manner on English theme", thus acknowledging his relationship to Russian literature, especially to Chekhov, whose " intensely Russian plays fitted all the country-houses in Europe... The same nice people, the same fu­tility". Shaw sympathized with these people for their culture, sincerity, disgust for business, and at the same time he accused them of idleness, of hatred for politics, of being " helpless wasters of their inheritance like the people of Chekhov's " Cherry Orchard". [71]

The excerpt below presents the most essential part of the conversation between Ellie Dunn and Alfred Mangan, guests at Heartbreak House. The conversation opens the second act of the play. In the first act we are witnesses of how Ellie's heart is broken: the man she has romantically loved turns out to be a shallow story-teller, a petty deceiver.

Act II

Mangan. [He sits down in the wicker chair; and resigns him­self to allow her to lead the conversation].1 You were saying?

Ellie. Was I? 2 I forget.3 Tell me. Do you like this part of the country? I heard you ask Mr Hushabye* at dinner whether there are any nice houses to let down here.

Mangan. I like the place. The air suits me. I shouldn't be surprised4 if I settled down here.

Ellie. Nothing would please me better. The air suits me too. And I want to be near Hesione.

Mangan [with growing uneasiness]. The air may suit us; but the question is, should we suit one another? Have you thought about that?

Ellie. Mr. Mangan: we must be sensible, mustn't we? It's no use pretending that we are Romeo and Juliet.6 But we can go on very well together if we choose to make the best of it. Your kindness of heart will make it easy for me.

Mangan [leaning forward, with the beginning of something like deliberate unpleasantness in his voice]. Kindness of heart, eh? I ruined your father, didn't I?

Ellie. Oh, not intentionally.

Mangan. Yes I did. Ruined him on purpose.

Ellie. On purpose! 6

Mangan. Not out of ill-nature, you know. And you'll admit that I kept a job for him when I had finished with him. But business is business; and I ruined him as a matter of business.

Ellie. I don’t understand how that can be. Are you trying to make me feel that I need not be grateful to you, so that I may choose freely?

Mangan [rising aggressively]. No. I mean what, I say.

Ellie. But how could it possibly do you any good to ruin my father? The money he lost was yours.

Mangan [with a sour laugh]. Was mine! 7 It is mine, Miss Ellie, and all the money the other fellows lost too [He shoves his hands into his pockets and shows his teeth].** I just smoked them out like a hive of bees. What do you say to that? A bit of a shock, eh? [72]

Ellie. It would have been, this morning. Now! You cant think how little it matters. But it's quite interesting. Only, you must explain it to me. I don't understand it [Propping her elbows on the drawing-board and her chin on her hands, she composes herself to listen with a combination of conscious curiosity with unconscious con­tempt8 which provokes him to more and more unpleasantness, and an attempt at patronage of her ignorance].

Mangan. Of course you don't understand: what do you know about business? 9 You just listen and learn.10 Your father's business was a new business; and I don't start new businesses: I let other fellows start them. They put all their money and their friends' money into starting them. They wear out their souls and bodies trying to make a success of them. They're what you call enthusiasts. But the first dead lift* of the thing is too much for them; and they haven't enough financial experience. In a year or so they have either to let the whole show go bust.** or sell out to a new lot of fellows for a few deferred ordinary shares; 11 that is, if they're lucky enough to get anything at all. As likely as not the very same thing happens to the new lot. They ' put in more money and a couple of years more work; and then perhaps they have to sell out to a third lot. 12 If it's really a big thing the third lot will have to sell out too, and leave their work and their money behind them. And that’s where the real businessman comes in: where come in. But I'm cleverer than some; I don't mind dropping a little money to start the process. I took your father's measure. I saw that he had a sound idea, and that he would work himself silly for it13 if he got the chance. I saw that he was a child in business, and was dead, certain, to outrun his expenses and be in too great a hurry to wait for his market. I knew that the surest way to ruin a man who doesn't know how to handle money is to give him some. I explained my idea to some friends in the city, and they found the money; for I take no risks in ideas, even when they're my own. Your father, and the friends that ventured their money with him were no more to me than a heap of squeezed lemons. You've been wasting your gratitude: my kind heart is all rot. I'm sick of it. When I see your father beaming. at me with his moist, grateful eyes, regularly wallowing ingratitude, I sometimes feel I must tell him the truth or burst.14 What stops me is that I know he wouldn't believe me: He'd think it was my modesty, as you did just now. He'd think anything rather than the truth, which is that he's a blamed fool, and I am a man that knows how to take care of himself [He throws himself back into the big chair with large self -approval]. Now what do you think of me, Miss Ellie? Ellie [dropping her hands]. How strange! that my mother, who knew nothing at all about business, should have been quite right about, you! 15. She always said — not before papa, of course, but to us children— that you were just that sort of man. [73]

Mangan [sitting up, much hurt]. Oh! did she? And yet she'd have let you marry me.

E11ie. Well, you see, Mr. Mangan, my mother married a very good man—for whatever you may think of my father as a man of business, he is the soul of goodness—and she is not at all keen on my doing the same.

Mangan. Anyhow, you don't want to marry me now, do you?

E11ie [very calmly]. Oh, I think so. Why not?

Mangan [rising aghast]. Why not!

E11ie. I don't see why we shouldn't get on very well together.

Mangan. Well, but look here, you know—[he stops, quite at a loss].

E11ie [patiently]. Well?

Mangan. Well, I thought you were rather particular about people's characters.

E11ie. If we women were particular about men's characters, we should never get married at all, Mr. Mangan.

Mangan. A child like you talking of " we women"! What next! You're not in earnest?

E11ie. Yes I am.16 Aren't you?

Mangan. You mean to hold me to it?

El1ie. Do you wish to back put of it?

Mangan. Oh no. Not " exactly back out of it.

E11ie. Well?

[He has nothing to say. With a long whispered whistle, he drops into the wicker chair and stares before him like a beggared gambler. ]

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