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    Nearly exactly one hundred years ago, Heartbreak House, a very dark comedy by George Bernard Shaw, was written and performed. Shaw, one of the most well-known playwrights in the U.K, wrote it in 1919, just after WWI ended, and it was first performed at the Garrick Theatre in New York, on November 20, 1920. It is about the apathy, boredom, and self-absorption of Europe, which Shaw believed contributed to the war. In a quote from Wikipedia, A.C. Ward says:

The work argues that "cultured, leisured Europe" was drifting toward destruction, and that "Those in a position to guide Europe to safety failed to learn their proper business of political navigation."

    Here, on the first day of 2020, I find his commentary hauntingly applicable. This Dover edition includes a 32-page Preface by the author, and if you read this play, and you should, make sure your edition includes this Preface, as it is essential in understanding this very complex and confusing work. It is included in the Project Gutenberg digital edition.
    In addition to the above characteristics, the play is also about pretentiousness, fakery, lies, and of course money, which usually goes hand-in-hand—even more frighteningly familiar in present times. I took notes on the play, and even more on the Preface, where Shaw provides an excellent summary of the reality of life during the war, not the fake reality of patriotism and doing one's duty by getting killed in the trenches. The play provides a caustic portrait of life in Europe just before the war, because the first bomb does not drop until the end of the last Act, and even then, the people at Heartbreak House haven't a clue. It is easy, then and now, to blame the governments and military for these atrocities, but they would not happen, any of them, if the people didn't consent. And ignorance, apathy, and silence are all forms of consent. Remember, people should never fear the government. It is the government that should fear the people. And unless people remember that the government is under OUR employment and being paid to serve us, we are facing certain obliteration very soon. We have been doing things ass-backwards for centuries. Here in the U.S., the House of Representatives is just that—and they are being paid to represent the people's needs. Those who do not should not only be removed, but arrested for stealing taxpayer's money under false pretenses. This play is an excellent way to begin the New Year—a guide to what must be done, and quickly if we are to expect to remain on this planet much longer, as in, till the end of this year.
    I will first provide a summary of the play, then highlight certain parts of the Preface. It is set in the entrance of Heartbreak House, which is built in the shape of a ship. Shaw provides a detailed description of the set, and below is an example I found online, as I had a bit of difficulty picturing it in my mind. The play begins as an elderly servant, Nurse Guinness, enters the room (the ship) with three bottles of rum on a tray. She does not notice that there is a young lady dozing at a table until the book she was reading drops to the floor, awakening her and scaring the servant. The lady is Ellie Dunn, and she has been invited to dinner by Mrs. Hushabye (Hessy). She has been waiting a long time, and no one has greeted her. Captain Shotover, the owner of the house and Mrs. Hushabye's father who is outside, also then notices the lady. He at first seems quite senile, but, as with the other characters, we find none are as they seem at first. When the lady introduces herself as Ellie Dunn, the Captain confuses her father with his former boatswain who stole from him. Ellie tries to correct him, but it does no good. At the same time, another lady arrives. It is Mrs. Utterword (Addy), Hessy's sister, who married and left home long ago. This is the first time she has returned and the Captain, bitter with her for marrying a "numskull," pretends to not know her, or maybe he really does not. When Hessy finally makes her way into the room, she does not recognize her sister either, also apologizing to Ellie because she had fallen asleep.
    One of the underlying themes of the play is that Hessy is trying to prevent Ellie from marrying Boss Mangan. She believes Ellie does not love him, (which she doesn't), and that she is more or less being forced to marry him because he is rich and has given a great deal of money to Ellie's father, who is a very good man but a terrible business man. That is partly true, except that Ellie insists she is marrying him of her own free will. Ellie's father, Mazzini Dunn, also arrives, along with Mangan.
    When Hessy and Ellie are finally alone, Hessy prods her, believing she is in love, but not with Mangan. Ellie speaks dreamily of Marcus Darnley, whom she met at the National Gallery. He has told her all sort of romantic and fantastical stories about himself, and she has believed every word. Imagine her surprise when Hector Hushabye, Hessy's husband walks in, and Ellie recognizes him as Marcus. Hessy isn't jealous, nor surprised and maybe even amused. The fact is, she knows her husband is a liar and doesn't really care.
    The last person to arrive is Randall Utterword, Lady Utterword's brother-in-law. Later on, there is also a burglar, but I will leave him out. As this group of dysfunctional people get to know each other, the truth gradually comes out about them all, and none are what they seem. Ellie, who seems to be a meek and gentle young lady who adores her father, turns out to be filled with revenge. She has every intention of marrying Mangan because he is rich and she is tired of being poor. She cannot have the man she wants (Hector), or can she? So she settles for money rather than love. Though it seems Mangan is powerful and influential, he turns out to be otherwise, and I won't go any further with that. It also turns out that most everyone is in love with the person other than they are paired with, and nobody seems to care about that either. Lady Utterword doesn't really love anyone and may not even have a heart. The Captain and the Hushabyes are quite short on money, and the Captain, who is into metaphysical stuff, seeks to "attain the seventh degree of concentration," which left me puzzled. Wikipedia says that he wants to create a "psychic ray" that will destroy dynamite. And he has a whole pile of dynamite out back.
    It is in the very short Act III, when they are spending the evening outdoors and the truth about everyone is still coming out, when Hessy remarks that she hears "splendid drumming in the sky." This is shortly before the first bomb strikes. Mangan swears it is a train, but there are no trains running that late.

Hector: Heaven's threatening growl of disgust at us useless futile creatures. (Fiercely) I tell you, one of two things must happen. Either out of that darkness some new creation will come to supplant us as we have supplanted the animals, or the heavens will fall in thunder and destroy us.
Lady Utterword (in a cool instructive manner, wallowing comfortably in her hammock) We have not supplanted the animals, Hector. Why do you ask heaven to destroy this house, which could be made quite comfortable if Hesione had any notion of how to live? Don't you know what is wrong with it?
Hector: We are wrong with it. There is no sense in us. We are useless, dangerous, and ought to be abolished.

    Lady Utterword goes on to say that the problem is there are no horses, because to her, everything important has to do with comfort and self-indulgence, while Hector, of course, is speaking of the problem from the moral and ethical standpoint.
    And now I will mention a few points from the Preface, of which I have numerous, but will limit them. The first is from the section Hypochondria. Shaw speaks of all the horrible things doctors and surgeons were doing to human bodies.

Whatever part of a human being could be cut out without necessarily killing him they cut out; and he often died (unnecessarily of course) in consequence. From such trifles as uvulas and tonsils they went on to ovaries and appendices until at last no one's inside was safe. They explained that the human intestine was too long, and that nothing could make a child of Adam healthy except short circuiting the pylorus by cutting a length out of the lower intestine and fastening it directly to the stomach.

    He ends that section with: The Inquisition itself was a liberal institution compared to the General Medical Council. That's kind of happening today. I do not do doctors, but I know too many who do, that I am certain have been misdiagnosed and have been put through unnecessary medical torture.
    Shaw makes a strong point as to the waste of human life in war. This quote is from the section The Sufferings of the Sane.

It became necessary to give them a false value; to proclaim the young life worthily and gloriously sacrificed to redeem the liberty of mankind, instead of to expiate the heedlessness and folly of their fathers, and expiate it in vain. We had even to assume that the parents and not the children had made the sacrifice, until at last the comic papers were driven to satirize fat old men, sitting comfortably in club chairs, and boasting of the sons they had "given" to their country.

    And two more in the section, Evil in the Throne of Good.

Nevertheless, even when sitting at home in safety, it was not easy for those who had to write and speak about the war to throw away their highest conscience, and deliberately work to a standard of inevitable evil instead of to the ideal of life more abundant. I can answer for at least one person who found the change from the wisdom of Jesus and St. Francis to the morals of Richard III and the madness of Don Quixote extremely irksome. But that change had to be made; and we are all the worse for it, except those for whom it was not really a change at all, but only a relief from hypocrisy.
Hardly one of the epoch-making works of the human mind might not have been aborted or destroyed by taking their authors away from their natural work for four critical years. Not only were Shakespeares and Platos being killed outright; but many of the best harvests of the survivors had to be sown in the barren soil of the trenches. And this was no mere British consideration. To the truly civilized man, to the good European, the slaughter of the German youth was as disastrous as the slaughter of the English. Fools exulted in "German losses." They were our losses as well. Imagine exulting in the death of Beethoven because Bill Sykes dealt him his death blow!

    And even more on the delusion of serving your country, from the section Little Minds and Big Battles. Many of us today have become wise to the game, yet I still find people who believe they are serving their country by going to the Middle East and slaughtering innocent people because wealthy corporations have an oil interest there. Incomprehensible!

Remember that these people had to be stimulated to make the sacrifices demanded by the war, and that this could not be done by appeals to a knowledge which they did not possess, and a comprehension of which they were incapable. When the armistice at last set me free to tell the truth about the war at the following general election, a soldier said to a candidate whom I was supporting, "If I had known all that in 1914, they would never have got me into khaki." And that, of course, was precisely why it had been necessary to stuff him with a romance that any diplomatist would have laughed at. Thus the natural confusion of ignorance was increased by a deliberately propagated confusion of nursery bogey stories and melodramatic nonsense, which at last overreached itself and made it impossible to stop the war before we had not only achieved the triumph of vanquishing the German army and thereby overthrowing its militarist monarchy, but made the very serious mistake of ruining the centre of Europe, a thing that no sane European State could afford to do.

    This is the entire paragraph entitled The Practical Business Men.

From the beginning the useless people set up a shriek for "practical business men." By this they meant men who had become rich by placing their personal interests before those of the country, and measuring the success of every activity by the pecuniary profit it brought to them and to those on whom they depended for their supplies of capital. The pitiable failure of some conspicuous samples from the first batch we tried of these poor devils helped to give the whole public side of the war an air of monstrous and hopeless farce. They proved not only that they were useless for public work, but that in a well-ordered nation they would never have been allowed to control private enterprise.

    Does that certainly apply now, more than ever? The word useless comes up quite a bit here. And here's another. Does this not sound like current American politics? It is from the section, The Mad Election, and is all too familiar.

Happy were the fools and the thoughtless men of action in those days. The worst of it was that the fools were very strongly represented in parliament, as fool not only elect fools but can persuade men of action to elect them too. The election that immediately followed the armistice was perhaps the maddest that has ever taken place. Soldiers who had done voluntary and heroic service in the field were defeated by persons who had apparently never run a risk or spent a farthing that they could avoid, and who even had in the course of the election to apologize publicly for bawling Pacifist or Pro-German at their opponent. Party leaders seek such followers, who can always be depended on to walk tamely into the lobby at the party whip's orders, provided the leader will make their seats safe for them by the process which was called, in derisive reference to the war rationing system, "giving them the coupon."

    When I picked up this book to read next, I honestly did not know what it was about, but as often happens, the perfect choice falls into my lap. They say we should learn from history but we certainly have not up to this point. How much longer must this destructive mindset continue on this planet? Many of us believe the long-awaited awakening is arriving, and those of us who are at least much of the way there can accelerate our efforts to open the eyes of others. This is an excellent play to begin the New Year, with much food for thought and wise advice.
    Below is an image of the set of Heartbreak House from the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Scotland, taken on June 3, 2007. Here is the website.

Heartbreak House Stage Set

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