Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2008
[The British public] just stared [at Anton Chekhov’s plays] and said, 'How Russian!' They did not strike me in that way. Just as Ibsen's intensely Norwegian plays exactly fitted every middle and professional class suburb in Europe, these intensely Russian plays fitted all the country houses in Europe in which the pleasures of music, art, literature, and the theatre had supplanted hunting, shooting, fishing, flirting, eating, and drinking. The same nice people, the same utter futility.
- George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), in the preface to Heartbreak House
Heartbreak House is both Shaw’s homage to Chekhov (the play is subtitled "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes") and his denunciation of the First World War, which changed British society forever. Shaw was four years older than Chekhov, but outlived him by nearly half a century. By the time Shaw started Heartbreak House Chekhov had been dead for nearly a decade, but only three of his four major plays were available to Shaw in English translations – the missing work being The Three Sisters.
Shaw wrote Heartbreak House between 1913 and 1916, the war raged from 1914-1918, and the play was published in 1919. So the play was written, and its action is set, during the conflict, but published after, in a volume along with Great Catherine and other Playlets of the War, and a 46-page preface (available online, along with the script, at Project Gutenberg) in which Shaw writes densely about his politics, state of the world, and how the former can solve all the problems of the latter. Shaw was 57 when he started work on the play and 63 when it was published, by which time he had been married to Charlotte Payne-Townshend for 21 years.
I start with all these facts and figures because they answer many of the questions I found myself pondering as I left Hubbard Hall the other night. Was the play written just before, during, or after the War? How old was Shaw when he wrote it and was he married at the time? How did Shaw and Chekhov’s lives overlap and intersect? How much of Chekhov’s work was available to Shaw? The answers to those questions do not spring readily to the mind of any but the most erudite of Shaw and/or Chekhov scholars, but knowing them will be of great assistance to you in making sense of this peculiar and erratic play.
As I watched the current production of Heartbreak House at Hubbard Hall, all I could think of were the lyrics to A Weekend in the Country, Stephen Sondheim’s captivating Act I finale to A Little Night Music.
A weekend in the country
So inactive that one has to lie down
A weekend in the country
Where we’re twice as upset as in town.
A Little Night Music is, of course, based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night and is set in turn-of-the 20th-century Sweden on the endless midsummer day when the sun never sets. I begin to see a pattern here, “The same nice people, the same utter futility.” Writers from more northerly climes, lands where the world is a harsher and winter is more isolating, tell this story better. Shaw connects to Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Ibsen. I think of Bergman. And you know, seeing/hearing/reading works by any of them would be far more entertaining than this frenetic drivel.
Heartbreak House is Bernard Shaw does Anton Chekhov – badly. Shaw’s failure to understand how Russian Chekhov’s work is becomes his downfall. Instead of writing his intended "Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes" he creates just the opposite – A Fantasia in the English Manner on Russian Themes – which doesn’t work at all. And where Chekhov writes characters who are heartbreakingly realistic, Shaw creates puppets with odd names to spout his outlandish rhetoric.
I can understand why director Kevin McGuire and the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall would want to stage Heartbreak House. He and two other actors here were involved in a superb production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, directed by Daisy Walker, a year ago, and the Company has produced many other works by Shaw and Chekhov. It is just too tempting to the true theatre-lover to have a chance to explore the parallels between the two writers and their works. This is why people start their own theatre companies – to delve deeper into the works that fascinate them – and as a true theatre-lover I went right along for the ride.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Heartbreak House concerns a group of upper- and middle-class British folks who gather for a September evening at the country home of the elderly Captain Shotover (Benjie White), now owned by the Captain’s elder daughter Hesione (Eileen Schuyler) and her husband Hector Hushabye (McGuire). First to arrive is the beautiful young Ellie Dunn (Katie Ann McDermott), daughter of mild-mannered Mazzini Dunn (Doug Ryan). The Dunns represent the middle class (everyone “represents” in Shaw, no one just is), and naturally Ellie has decided to marry the filthy rich businessman Alfred “Boss” Mangan (Tom Mattern), owner of the business at which her father toils, despite a large age difference, for purely practical reasons.
Hesione is quite determined to talk Ellie, Mazzini, and/or Mangan out of the wedding one way or another. She uses common sense on Ellie and her considerable feminine wiles on the men. In the meantime, her younger sister Ariadne, Lady Utterwood, (Stephanie Moffett Hynds) returns home, more than two decades after she eloped with Hastings Utterwood, a man her father consistently refers to as a nincompoop. We don’t get to meet Hastings and judge for ourselves, but we do meet his brother Randall “The Rotter” Utterwood (Richard Howe) who imagines himself in love with his sister-in-law.
There is also the requisite Shavian servant character, Nurse Guinness (Keelye St. John), who rattles about with tea trays saying hilarious things in a cockney accent.
While Hesione is after all the men, Hector is after all the women, and it is Ellie’s heart he breaks first, and she who christens the house Heartbreak House. For Captain Shotover, and for production designer Alley Morse, it is his ship. For Shaw it is, literally, the Ship of State, wildly adrift in a stormy sea with a drunken dotard at the helm. Mangan is the Captain of Industry, and the only one who tries to hide and save himself from the falling bombs of the aerial dogfight that breaks out over the house in the third act. And he is the only one who dies, leaving the ship rudderless and on the rocks.
At least that is what Shaw wants you to get out of this play. What I saw was a dizzying array of giddy and foolish cartoon characters, more outlandish than any in my soap opera, who didn’t talk but made Very Important and Witty Speeches, always about the same things and always in the same manner because they were all – old and young, rich and poor, male and female – George Bernard Shaw. Remember that Shaw, at 60-ish, was already a legend in his own mind and in the mind of literary society, the very small elite group he mocks here. If they hadn’t been rendered lively by such an attractive, talented, and appealing group of actors under McGuire’s fine direction, I would have found them insufferable. As it was, I quite enjoyed the time spent in their company.
This is a uniformly excellent cast. I could easily give them each their own paragraph but I am resisting the temptation to write as copiously about Shaw as he does about himself. They are great fun to watch and I encourage you to come and see them for yourself.
Morse has used the curvature of the Hubbard Hall balcony to form the curved wall/helm of Captain Shotover’s house/ship. Most of the action takes place on the floor in front of the balcony, with the two staircases leading up to it appearing as staircases in the home. The audience is seated in tiers with their backs to the stage, facing the balcony. Occasionally White clambers up the stairs to the large wooden ship’s wheel placed front and center on the balcony, in a desperate attempt to keep his ship on course.
Kellen Campbell, a fifth grader at Cambridge Central School, is credited with lights and sound, but I suspect that Morse designed them and Campbell is putting her design into effect. He does it completely professionally. I never would have guessed that a person of such tender years was running tech. In fact I have seen lights and sound operated by supposedly experienced adults that were embarrassingly bad in comparison.
No one gets the credit for the costumes, so I am again assuming they are part of Morse’s “Production Design.” They are very handsome and lots of fun. This is time and the place where the passing hours dictated an endless changing of clothes – certain fabrics and colors could only be worn at certain times of day or months of the year.
McGuire has made some cuts in the script and brings the show in at two hours and twenty minutes with two intermissions, which is just about as much feminist, pacifist, socialist Shavian rhetoric as the average 21st century American can stand. As an educated adult it requires some mental gymnastics to keep up with Shaw’s ever-flowing font of cleverness, I would not bring children under 14 or 15 for fear of boring them to tears and putting them off Shaw and/or the theatre for good.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of Heartbreak House runs through March 30 at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. Individual tickets are $20 for Hubbard Hall members, $24 for non-members, and $15 for students. TCHH also offers a group sales rate of $10 per ticket for blocks of 10+ tickets reserved in advance by non-profit organizations. For information and reservations, call 518-677-2495.
Child care will be available on Friday evening, March 14 beginning at 7:15 p.m. Cost is $5.00 per child. Each child should bring a sleeping bag and pillow. There will be Red Cross-certified babysitters under adult supervision with movies, music and reading. Each child should bring a sleeping bag and pillow. Reservations are required and space is limited to 20 children. Please call 518.677.2495 by 5:00.p.m. on Friday, March 14.
A pre-theatre symposium dedicated to the life and work of George Bernard Shaw hosted by TCHH artistic director Kevin McGuire, begins at 6:45 p.m. on Friday, March 21. The symposium is free; however, show tickets are required for admission. On Friday, March 28 audience members can join director McGuire and the cast and crew of Heartbreak House for a traditional theatre “talk-back” after the show ends to discuss the process of creating and presenting the production. Additional reservations are not required, only the tickets for that evening’s performance.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008