Culture Shock: Random, plotless, dull. It’s just what George Bernard Shaw had in mind

The horrible thought that ‘Heartbreak House’, at the Abbey Theatre, pushes us towards is that there is no entertainment on stage because offstage, with the Great War, the world is preparing to entertain itself to death

Strange creation: Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Barbara Brennan, Marcus Lamb, Nick Dunning, Mark Lambert (seated), Chris McHallem, Kathy Kiera Clarke, Aislín McGuckin and Don Wycherley in Róisín McBrinn’s production. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Strange creation: Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Barbara Brennan, Marcus Lamb, Nick Dunning, Mark Lambert (seated), Chris McHallem, Kathy Kiera Clarke, Aislín McGuckin and Don Wycherley in Róisín McBrinn’s production. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


In Babbitt, a novel by Sinclair Lewis, a bumptious English visitor complains to some Americans about their image of Bernard Shaw. “How do you Yankees get the notion that writing chaps like Bernard Shaw . . . represent us? The real business England, we think those chaps are traitors.” The date of Babbitt’s publication is interesting: 1922. Ten years earlier, even a philistine Englishman would have been unlikely to call Shaw a traitor. “GBS”, the persona he had created and honed, was of course a pugnacious critic of the English establishment. But he was also the insider’s outsider, the acceptable face of radical ideas. His wit and playfulness had made him England’s licensed jester.

And then the licence was withdrawn. In November 1914, when ecstatic patriotism was not yet dampened by the horrors of the Great War, Shaw published Common Sense About the War, suggesting that the conflict had been fomented not just by German militarists but by English ones too. In taking this extraordinarily courageous public stand Shaw identified himself more strongly than ever as a foreigner in England: “I shall retain my Irish capacity for criticising England with something of the detachment of a foreigner.”

English society – even literary society – took up this invitation to see him as a foreigner. He was snubbed by many in his own circles; even the left-wing New Statesman, which he helped to finance, stopped publishing him. That isolation largely ended as the war ground on and perceptions of it grew more complex, but it was a rough experience for a man who revelled in the limelight. And Shaw’s trick of appearing at once deeply subversive and harmlessly entertaining would never work again.

Under this pressure Shaw wiped off his clown’s make-up and dropped the guise of the playful reformer who will keep you entertained while he’s hitting you with uncomfortable ideas. During the war years he wrote Heartbreak House, a play with a lot of the old Shavian devices and ideas but almost no interest in entertainment. It is an important work because it is one of the first by a major dramatist to try to deal with the aesthetic effects of the cataclysm. Shaw grapples with the consequences on his own art of the reality that everything has changed and that maybe well-made stories just don’t work any more. What makes Heartbreak House such a strange and intriguing piece is its basic proposition that the people we are seeing on stage no longer matter. It defies the first proposition of a drama: you should care about these people. Maybe, Shaw suggests, you shouldn’t; maybe their world has gone and everything they say and do is irrelevant.

“In this house,” the industrialist Mangan complains of Captain Shotover’s chaotic country villa, “a man’s mind might as well be a football.” But if the mind is indeed kicked around like a football here, there is no beautiful game. On the contrary, Heartbreak House is a consciously ill-made play. It has no real plot. Nobody is really motivated to do anything: inaction is much more salient than action. Entrances and exits are chaotic to the point of seeming almost random. The characters are either ludicrously trivial or, in the case of the captain, madly apocalyptic. There are flashes of wit, but the play is not really funny. Heartbreak House is not a tragedy. Not enough is at stake for that. It is an anti-comedy. It takes comic devices – mistaken identity, sudden exposure, instant falling in love, slapstick, even the inevitable wedding – and deliberately sucks the air out of them. Comedy gathers energy. Heartbreak House is all deflation.

At its heart is boredom. Shaw’s image of the Great War is that of a catastrophe that arises not from hatred or passion but from the malaise of sheer ennui. The society he wants to show is one searching vainly for an excitement that it will find only in mass destruction. The horrible thought he pushes us towards is that there is no entertainment on stage because offstage the world is preparing to entertain itself to death. But he doesn’t yet know how to create boredom without being boring. It will take another cataclysm and another Dubliner, Samuel Beckett, to find a way to fully represent meaninglessness on stage.

What we’re left with is an important play but a very awkward one. It poses the question of how to make this long (indeed overlong) anti-comedy seem urgent when the play is all about the absence of urgency. Róisín McBrinn’s intelligent production at the Abbey Theatre can’t quite crack this conundrum, but it has a lot of fun trying. McBrinn’s instincts are radical, if perhaps not radical enough. With the help of Alyson Cummins’s excellent sets, she imagines the house as an almost entirely symbolic space – the “almost” being the problem. It would have been better to go the whole hog and ditch the realistic detail of props and costumes that seek to anchor the play in the very Edwardian world whose collapse it marks. But McBrinn does go far enough to allow the performances, especially from Kathy Kiera Clarke and Aislín McGuckin, to push away from naturalistic acting and into the no-man’s-land of strangeness that Shaw is trying to map. The long periods of boredom are, aptly, punctuated by moments of great excitement. The play’s end, with its apocalyptic rapture, is terrible in the proper sense.

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