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When St. John Ervine, a fellow playwright and future biographer of Shaw, was wounded by a shell and had to have a leg amputated, Shaw wrote to cheer him up. First he recounted to Ervine how he, Shaw, had once broken a leg and had to get around on crutches but found that he could do without his "leg just as easily as without eyes in the back of my head." Shaw then asserted that Ervine was actually better off than he himself was: "You will be in a stronger position. I had to feed and nurse the useless leg. You will have all the energy you hitherto spent on it to invest in the rest of your frame. For a man of your profession two legs are an extravagance." Shaw went on to enumerate other benefits to losing the leg, such as an increased pension, and no more going to the Front. Finally Shaw reached the logical conclusion: "The more the case is gone into the more it appears that you are an exceptionally happy and fortunate man, relieved of a limb to which you owed none of your fame, and which indeed was the cause of your conscription" (Collected Letters, vol. 3, pp. 550-501). Wit does not usually seem a humane weapon, but such a letter shows the same kind of comic courage Aristophanes exhibited when he condemned war by imagining women on a sex strike.
Heartbreak House was written in a context where one could consider writing such a letter, and the play's mixed tones show it. Shaw claimed that the play wrote itself. By turns whimsical, farcical, melancholy, tragi-comic, and visionary, Heartbreak House sometimes drifts and sometimes sails full speedahead—whithersoever. Shaw said that it represented the European elite before the war—by which he meant the people whose concerns should have been history, political economy, and government, but were instead sex, aesthetics, leisure activities, and money, and so people who let their countries blunder into war. Shaw arranges for various representative members of this society to gather for a weekend in the country in ancient Captain Shotover's house, which is designed to resemble a ship and therefore carries the metaphoric suggestion that it is the Ship of State. (People have been misled by Shaw's subtitle, "A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes," to see a strong resemblance to Chekhov's plays, but Heartbreak House is at least equally indebted to Tolstoy's The Fruits of Enlightenment or Gorky's The Lower Depths.)
Shaw claimed repeatedly that he did not know what his play meant, and indeed it is full of mystery. The play is launched with a young woman falling asleep while reading Othello, so that the rest of the play seems to be her dream, a bed-voyage. It begins and ends respectively with the averting of a small and a large destruction. In between, identities become confused and fluid as in dreams. The Captain insists on mistaking Mazzini Dunn for his old boatswain, Billy Dunn, though they do not look alike, and when the real Billy shows up unexpectedly, Shotover asks him, "Are there two of you?"—and gets one of the play's biggest laughs (in a play that has fewer laughs than almost any other of Shaw's plays). Billy explains to his Captain the confusion by noting that there were two branches of the Dunn family, the drinking Dunns and the thinking Dunns.
Captain Shotover as an inventor, adventurer, and architect succeeds Ridgeon and Higgins as a figure for the artist, but an artist who has gone slightly mad from disappointment with reality, whose heart was broken when his daughter rejected his ways and left home, and who himself has taken refuge in rum. To fill the void made by his daughter's desertion, he enters into a spiritual marriage with young Ellie Dunn, who had been in actuality planning herself to marry an older man, the crude capitalist Alfred Mangan. In that way, Shotover continues in the Shavian/Shakespearean line of spiritual affinities between fathers and daughters. In Major Barbara, Cusins says to Undershaft: "A father's love for a grown-up daughter is the most dangerous of all infatuations. I apologize for mentioning my own pale, coy, mistrustful fancy in the same breath with it". Like Undershaft, too, Shotover invents and keeps explosives.
To the play's contemporaries who lived through the World War I, Heartbreak House, however indirectly, expressed the feelings of sadness, futility, and madness the war provoked (T. E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, who became a great friend of Shaw, called it "the most blazing bit of genius in English literature"). The play never alludes explicitly to the context of the war, though. The closest it comes to doing so is at the end, when a zeppelin flies over the house during an air raid and bombs are dropped. The ghostly inhabitants of Heartbreak House are variously terrified and thrilled by the energy, sound, and destructive power of the air machines. At the end, Captain Shotover calls the raid Judgment Day, while the heroines, Ellie Dunn and Hesione Hushabye, hope that the zeppelin will return the next night. Does Shaw mean that these people, the failed leaders of the best society, are played out and long only for the world to be destroyed? Or is their thrilling to the wonder and raw energy of the sky machine a sign of their renewal? Their purgation? (Shaw had always bet on young women, like Ellie, to become "active verbs" and change the world.)