The premise is ingenious. An English lord with liberal ideas – he has a habit, wearying to his family and embarrassing to his domestic staff, of inviting the servants to tea – winds up shipwrecked on a desert island with his daughters, an indolent young member of the leisure class who is paying court to one of them, and a pair of servants, including his indispensable valet Crichton. Because only Crichton possesses the practical skills to keep them alive and thriving, he becomes the ruler of the island community and his employer, the Earl of Loam, is demoted to the position of servant – until they’re rescued and returned to England. Loam learns through experience what Crichton has been protesting all along: that class boundaries can’t be traversed, even though the make-up of the upper class may shift according to Darwinian dictates. (Except for Paradise Lagoon, the film versions don’t stick to Barrie’s high-comedy ending. We’re Not Dressing adopts romantic-comedy mode – Lombard is the snobby heiress who has to be brought down to earth by Crosby’s unpretentious sailor – and Swept Away, which is rather nasty, takes great pleasure in putting down the rich bitch, Mariangela Melato, by showing that she can’t resist the sad-eyed macho prole played by Giancarlo Giannini. Male and Female veers away from comedy of manners early on straight into melodrama.)
|Gloria Swanson in Male and Female (1919)|
|Steven Sutcliffe and Nicole Underbay|
– the ironic reversals, the high-comic use of language, the social satire. He subtitled it “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” and the Russian he was thinking of was certainly Chekhov, spokesman for the heartbroken, the emotionally disenfranchised: like Chekhov’s figures the characters in Shaw’s play keep falling in love with people they can’t have. So the play is more melancholy than Shaw generally got, though it’s considerably wittier and sprightlier than his Chekhov models. The specific Chekhov he must have been thinking of is The Cherry Orchard; both plays spotlight the way in which an aristocracy has set itself up for destruction. (Shaw wrote Heartbreak House during the First World War, though it wasn’t produced until 1919, and you can clearly see the influence of that cataclysmic event on his depiction of a doomed upper class.)
There is a conventional premise, but it’s quickly undermined. Ellie Dunn (Robin Evan Willis), the ingénue, is a poor girl who has decided to marry a man she doesn’t love, the industrial magnate Boss Mangan (Benedict Campbell), because she sees no practical alternative. Besides, she’s grateful to him for rescuing her father, Mazzini (Patrick McManus), after his business went south. We expect that, when Mangan admits that he actually bankrupted her father, she’ll refuse to go through with the engagement, but his confession only fascinates her; it doesn’t change her mind. She’s in love with someone else, a romantic adventurer named Marcus Darnley, but he turns out to be an extravagant liar whose name is really Hector Hushabye (Blair Williams) and who is married to her friend Hesione (Deborah Hay). Both of these revelations occur the day these and other characters assemble, high comedy-style, for a weekend at Hesione’s father’s house in Sussex. Aside from Hesione’s father, the retired antiquated seaman Captain Shotover (Michael Ball), an inventor whose creations keep the family from falling into ruin, we meet his other daughter Ariadne Utterword (Laurie Paton), who has returned to England after years abroad with the man her father warned her not to marry; her brother-in-law Randall (Patrick Galligan), who follows her around like a puppy dog and whom she treats like a pest; the housekeeper who raised the two children, Nurse Guinness (Patricia Hamilton); and her estranged husband, Billy Dunn (William Vickers) – no relation to Mazzini, though Shotover keeps confusing them. Billy is an inept thief who, like Ariadne, wanders back into this house from which he has been long absent.
|Deborah Hay and Michael Ball (photo by David Cooper)|
The play has an unorthodox shape; McCarthy argues that it’s a layer cake in which the top tier is about “a houseful of unhappy, articulate, rudderless English people of the upper middle class,” the middle tier an allegory of the downfall of that class (certainly the characters’ names prepare us for allegory), and the bottom tier a treatise on human nature. Here’s McCarthy again: “It is this third layer on which the play rests; yet it is a foundation neither fixed nor solid, and it keeps the other elements, superimposed upon it, in a kind of dizzying perpetual motion.” The top layer suggests a combination of melodrama, farce and comedy of manners. The second layer is where Shaw’s social and political focus comes into play. And the third makes a true allegory impossible: the characters can’t stand for anything because they keep shifting, and the play contains no moral.
|George Bernard Shaw|
|Rex Harrison & Amy Irving in the 80s|
|Director Christopher Newton|
The play is, I think, a sublime piece of work, more complex and surprising than anything else Shaw produced (even than Man and Superman and Major Barbara, his other two masterpieces), and a production as confidently directed and finely acted and imaginatively designed as Newton’s inspires gratitude, at least in this viewer. Everyone in it is terrific except for William Vickers, whose dullness in the role of Billy Dunn should possibly be blamed on Shaw himself. The brief interlude in which he appears is often cut in production for length; you wouldn’t expect the Shaw Festival, with its inclusive attitude, to leave him out, but his appearance around the mid-point of the show seems to unbalance it and it doesn’t recover until shortly before the second intermission.
Michael Ball is a light, puckish Captain Shotover. He doesn’t anchor the play as Rex Harrison once did (in a marvelous New York revival in the eighties that was shown on television); he’s too quicksilver, and you get the sense that his wisdom is irrelevant, though it enchants Ellie. The other wise man on the scene is Mazzini Dunn (played with ineffable sweetness by Patrick McManus), but he doesn’t have the practical skills to keep himself solvent. Meanwhile the practical man, Mangan, is reduced to a wailing baby by Ellie – who declares she’s going to make a domestic convenience of him and then uses some mesmerist’s skill she picked up to put him to sleep (or at any rate to silence) – and by Hesione, whose beauty incapacitates him in every other way. Benedict Campbell brings his amazing vocal technique to bear on Mangan’s driven-to-distraction speeches, and he’s such a bear of an actor that his character’s helplessness is almost painfully funny. The men sway in the wind in this production. Though Blair Williams gives Hector the declamatory power of a nineteenth-century matinee idol, his sad eyes reveal what Ellie learns – that he’s a sham. Patrick Galligan makes Randall sound like a wag used to holding court in an Edwardian drawing room, until Ariadne handles him with the roughness of an unsentimental nanny sending her charge off to bed. All these men – except for Shotover, who’s past desire – view the women with wonder or terror or some combination of the two, and indeed the women are formidable (including Patricia Hamilton’s Nurse Guinness, who quietly ignores everyone’s commands and always does what she thinks is best). But they’re not cruel. I’d say that in this production it’s Hesione who provides the ballast, because Deborah Hay brings a maternal warmth to the role as well as an element of sorrowful longing. Her performance is the main reason that this may be the most emotional Heartbreak House I’ve ever seen.
That directorial choice, however, doesn’t detract from its dottiness. I’ve sometimes thought that the Shotover sisters were reminiscent of the Red and White Queens in Alice Through the Looking Glass, but they’re not the only Lewis Carroll-like figures in this production: Ball’s inscrutable Shotover is a bit like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, and at different times Williams and McManus suggest the White Knight, Williams because of his woebegone air and McManus because of his dusty, fragile look. Frankish, who also designed the costumes, seems to have had a particularly grand time with the characters’ hairstyles, which are so extravagant and individualized that they play off each other. The production gets at Shaw’s peculiar brand of poetic fancy, which keeps Heartbreak House afloat. Mangan is thrown into a tizzy by this house, because he has no imagination and no poetry in his soul – he’s open to nothing. So he goes a little crazy in this exotic, uncorseted atmosphere, while the facades tumble about him and he can’t duck fast enough. Even the supposedly conventional Ariadne stays upright as the night winds on and the conversation becomes wilder; she was brought up in this house, and though she ran away from it she’s more than capable of holding her own when she returns to it. But Mangan whines pitifully that his head is splitting, and at the end of the play there’s nothing for him to do but get himself blown up. The apocalypse at the finish is the only way the play could possibly end after all the characters have been through, emotionally and philosophically, and after all that Shaw wants them to stand for. But it’s a joyous sort of apocalypse; it doesn’t spoil our good time, or theirs.
Ellie calls Heartbreak House “this silly house, this strangely happy house, this agonizing house, this house without foundations.” It’s a house where all absurdities are real, all emotions are played out, all opposites are possible. It is, of course, humanity.
- originally published on September 5, 2011 in Critics at Large.