AFTER SEEING a production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, George Bernard Shaw said, "I feel as if I want to tear up all my plays and begin all over again." Soon afterwards he began writing Heartbreak House. Although he subtitled the remarkable work "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on an English Theme," the played turned out to be a quintessentially Shavian treatment of "cultured, leisured" British society before World War I.
In a drawingroom setting borrowed from Chekhov, Shaw's delightful but useless creatures engage in some of the master's most lively and trenchant prose. Not hampered by the limited arena of action, they spend quite an action-packed three hours on the stage. Yet their witty opinions sometimes seem a substitute for more complete characterization, and the constant action sometimes seems effected by too improbably contrivances. Though the atmosphere is consistent, the politics of the play are occasionally confused. It is perhaps this mixture of virtue and vices that have caused critics to make diametrically different judgments upon Heartbreak House. While some have pronounced it Shaw's best work, others have dismissed it as "tiresome."
Though the fantasia is perhaps not its author's best, it is hardly tiresome. The world of the play exudes an almost magical aura--one that is certain to attract critical attention, if not always praise. Casting the apocalytic spell, the Harvard Summer School Repertory Theater's rendition of Heartbreak House is unquestionably the Loeb's best production. The company seems to hit its stride with Shaw's difficult play. All the elements of theater--acting, directing, set and light and costume design--are functioning at their best in this third of three plays in repertory.
The acting is uniformly excellent, and, with a few exceptions, superior to that displayed by the same actors in the roles they take in the season's other two offerings. Darcy Pulliman, in the ingenue role of Ellie Dunn, performs most impressively. Unrecognizable from her competently giddy Minnie Fay in The Matchmaker, Pulliman's transformation here from sweet innocent girlhood to wise and willful womanhood is inspired. She comes to Captain Shotover's nautically decorated household to visit her friend Hesione, who schemes to save Ellie from marriage to a rich old industrialist. In the bargain she receives the heartbreaking knowledge that her hero of brief acquaintance, the swashbuckling Marcus Darnley, is really, and only, her friend's husband Hector. As Ellie's meddling friend Hesione and her sister Ariadne, two other Matchmaker women--Patricia Falkenhain and Joanne Hamlin respectively--are aptly bewitching, and more convincing than they were as Dolly Levi and Mrs. Molloy. Both emit what Hector calls the "diabolical family fascination," one with "Bohemian," the other with "respectable" playfulness.
THE MEN, led by Archie Smith as old Captain Shotover (father to Hesione and Ariadne), equal the women in skill, if not charm. Terrence Currier and Bernard Frawley, both excellent in Moon for the Misbegotten, are again assets to the production as the charming prevaricator Hector Hushabye and Ellie Dunn's mild-mannered, yet understanding father Mazzini. Really all the inhabitants of Heartbreak House--except the industrialist who may represent the type that is leading Europe over the brink of disaster--manage to make themselves, as Ellie's father describes them, "very charming people, most advanced, unprejudiced, frank, humane, unconventional, democratic, free-thinking, and everything that is delightful to thoughtful people." Yet as these ideal people in the final act enjoy the night air in the garden and idly talk of governmental forms an air raid black-out is announced by the housekeeper and bombs start falling from the sky, the first indications in the play of war. The scene is perfectly lit and staged: the actors languish about the terrace under Ellie and Captain Shotover who sit on a balcony above, and the stage is flooded with a relaxing, yet foreboding dim blue light. The mood has changed in this section: Shaw wrote it during the war, while the beginning of the play was written before the debacle began.
School children are taught that the fifty-year period before World War I represents the political and cultural triumph of liberalism in the climax of the modern phase of European civilization, an era marked by unprecedented industrial and material growth. They are then faced with the disharmonious fact that during this same period the arsenals and alliances were being created that made war inevitable. Reasons for this surface contradiction are bandied about in the last act of Heartbreak House. Hector suggests that the world has been neglected by people like themselves and entrusted to dangerously ignorant businessmen like Ellie's one-time fiancee, Boss Mangean. Ariadne thinks, less convincingly, that colonial autocrats like her husband ought to run the country with the same kind of free reign they have in the uncivilized wilds of the colonial empire. Coming perhaps closest to the truth, Shotover says that England is like a ship without moral navigation: "The captain is in his bunk, drinking bottled ditch-water; and the crew is gambling in the forecastle. She will strike and sink and split. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favor of England because you were born in it?"
The bombs that fall that evening happen to miss Heartbreak House. The historical questions are asked and left unanswered in both the play and the production. Simply providing excellent acting, staging, and technical accouterments, the artists at the Loeb let the fantasia take care of itself--which it does very nicely. -Elizabeth Samuets