Heartbreak House

Heartbreak House

Heartbreak House

By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Roda Theatre
August 31–October 14, 2007

Running time: 3 hours, including one 15-minute intermission

Artist, socialist, feminist, anti-war activist. Vegetarian, freethinker, street-corner orator and all-around raconteur…If there’s one playwright who belongs in Berkeley, it’s George Bernard Shaw. Maybe that’s why Shaw’s words have graced our stage more than any author except Shakespeare. In honor of the fiery classical tradition on which Berkeley Rep was founded, Les Waters stages Heartbreak House for our 40th birthday. In this comedic masterpiece, ridiculous aristocrats, eccentric suitors and iconoclastic women grapple with unlikely romance and ironic wordplay in a world on the brink of war. Shaw’s incisive wit and intellectual pyrotechnics light up the stage as his irascible characters challenge social conventions, sexual mores, moral hypocrisy and political folly. As with The Glass Menagerie, Waters’ sure touch on a classic text makes the script seem newly inked.

Creative team

George Bernard Shaw · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Annie Smart · Scenic Design
Anna R. Oliver · Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting Design
Obadiah Eaves · Original Composition and Sound Design
Lynne Soffer · Dialect and Text Coach
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Karen Szpaller · Assistant Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting Director
Janet Foster · New York Casting
Amy Lieberman · Los Angeles Casting

Cast

Chris Ayles · Burglar
Stephen Caffrey · Hector Hushabye
David Chandler · Boss Mangan
Matt Gottlieb · Mazzini Dunn
Michelle Morain · Hesione Hushabye
Lynne Soffer · Nurse Guinness
Allison Jean White · Ellie Dunn
Susan Wilder · Ariadne Utterword
Michael Winters · Captain Shotover
Michael Ray Wisely · Randall Utterword

“George Bernard Shaw’s eccentric characters and bracingly funny, still cogently penetrating wit come through brilliantly in Les Waters’ crisp, comedy of manners staging of the World War I masterpiece, about smart, capable people living idle lives as Europe descends into carnage…The sharply performed characters, sumptuous design and often hilarious comedy provide a good deal of entertaining enlightenment.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“[Director Les] Waters’ exquisitely bracing revival christens the Rep’s 40th anniversary season on a disquieting note, leaving the viewer simultaneously electrified and terrified…By turns brightly comic and intellectually rigorous, this Heartbreak House tickles the funny bone as keenly as the brain. The playwright’s condemnation of an apathetic generation smiling in the face of oblivion now seems more prophetic than ever.”—San Jose Mercury News

“The charm and sheer genius of Shaw’s play is that it serves up a delicious intellectual smorgasbord of notions…Fascinating characters and wildly funny situations…And all of that is presented hilariously, and painlessly to an audience that, with only a little bit of introspection, can see itself in the very characters being poked at in this saga of love, marriage, sex, money and warfare…Director Les Waters has infused the play with a delightful spirit of fun and high style.”—Contra Costa Times

“This social satire is beautifully performed by a carefully well-chosen, extremely talented cast of ten who provide a perfect evening of classic theatre. Besides glamorous costumes of the period, there is a beautiful set, which received applause when the curtain rose.”—KGO-AM

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

An anodyne to complacency

Ever since the hallowed and over-hyped sixties, (during which I myself played a hallowed and over-hyped role), I have found myself in any number of conversations about why the general population has become so complacent. Wars, economic downturns, the prevalence of violence, massive problems in health care and education…none of it seems to jar enough of us into any real form of sustained protest. Theories abound: we are too comfortable, too scared, too self-absorbed. We are too busy, too tired. We are more in love with the desire to hold onto the routine of our daily lives than to embrace the discomfort and risk of social change. We are terrified of being attacked, and have limited our focus to what we feel we can control. We prefer complaining and railing against our government while enjoying the delights of a great meal, a great movie, a great massage. We are too addicted to computers, too addicted to television, too addicted to food. We have been cajoled, persuaded and sold on the idea that it’s better to simply enjoy what we have until we can no longer enjoy it.

But because the traumas of the world are only a click away from our consciousness, because the next attack is a matter of when and not if, because our larger, collective worries lie just below the habits and distractions of our daily lives, we often feel a sense of unease or a disconnect between how we are living and what lies just outside our door. Relaxing, in this climate, is hard work, and we have to be very creative in our conversation and behavior in order to ward off a constant feeling of anxiety that the world is spinning out of control.

When Les Waters approached me about directing Heartbreak House, it seemed wildly appropriate. No other play that I know of speaks so directly to the situation at hand: a humorous depiction of a desperate class of people desperately working to prove that they are not desperate. We have produced this play more than any other play in the history of Berkeley Rep, simply because it speaks to our culture and our situation in a way few other plays do. It has all of Shaw’s distinctive trademarks: a relentless, scathing wit; a potpourri of fantastically entertaining characters; and a huge yearning on the part of the author to jar us out of our political complacency. It is a terrific way to start this, our 40th season: a great classic that continues to sustain us by putting the proverbial mirror up to nature with imagination, intelligence and charm.

Welcome to the new year at Berkeley Rep.

Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

Happy birthday—to all of us!

Forty years! It’s quite a milestone for a scrappy company that started in a storefront on College Avenue. In 1968, a handful of talented artists came together with the dream of producing adventurous work for an equally adventurous audience…and here we are! As we’ve planned this yearlong birthday party we’ve looked back on our history, drawing on our strengths as we unveil plans for the future. Berkeley Rep has always been an ambitious company, and I’m proud that we continue to look ahead.

It’s not just a pun to say that the world has changed dramatically in the past 40 years—and we’ve changed with it. Plays that were new and wonderfully unsettling to an intellectually and politically engaged audience in 1968 now often feel like period pieces. We’ve responded with an aggressive program to commission new scripts, supporting a generation of writers that speaks to who we are and what our world is about in the 21st century.

In the early seventies, the faces in our audience were mostly 25 to 50 years old. These folks have grown up with us, and many have joined the ranks of the retired—or hoping to retire! Today, many people in our audience work long hours and juggle extensive family obligations, and they have more entertainment choices than ever before. So we’ve introduced more flexible ticket packages, a variety of curtain times and other benefits that make it easier for those who purchase seats in advance.

Personally, I’m most excited about our latest transformation. To celebrate our birthday, we’ve substantially reduced prices for every performance in each of our theatres. We want to stay true to our roots and make sure that we’re accessible to anyone who loves and wants excellent, adventurous theatre. So share the gift! Bring your parents, your children, your neighbors, your teachers. Berkeley Rep is once again, the best value in town!

See all seven plays that Tony has thoughtfully selected for our 2007–08 season. Take full advantage of our Free Speech programs, like pre-show talks with our docents, post-show discussions with our artists, our new book club and the Liner Notes that our dramaturg sends out by email before each show. Enjoy the sweets and savories at our snack bar that, in true Berkeley tradition, now focus on local and seasonal delicacies. Or sample something from the rich menu of continuing education programs offered next door in our School of Theatre.

There are classes for adults—whether you’re a theatre enthusiast or a professional performer—and numerous activities for children and teens. That’s because, sadly, one of the other changes we’ve seen in the last 40 years is a decrease in funding for arts education in our schools. So, once again, Berkeley Rep has responded—with the most extensive school residency program of any institutional theatre in California.

So please, if you’re not already a member of our family, join the party. This year, we’re all singing happy birthday to you!

Susan Medak

Heartbreak House: Shaw’s response to The Great War

By Madeleine Oldham

“It is impossible to judge what proportion of us, in khaki or out of it, grasped the war and its political antecedents as a whole in the light of any philosophy of history or knowledge of what war is…But there can be no doubt that it was prodigiously outnumbered by the comparatively ignorant and childish.”—George Bernard Shaw

Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, George Bernard Shaw spoke often and extensively about the need for his fellow citizens to open their eyes to the world’s political situation. A man of unending appetite for ideological discourse, he produced a constant river of speeches, letters, essays, pamphlets, newspaper columns and magazine articles concerning the causes and evils of the war, and what should be done about it.

As a committed member of the Fabian Society (a segment of Socialism that advocated a slow and steady approach to change rather than revolution or overthrow), it made sense that the seemingly passive act of writing served as Shaw’s primary vessel for affecting the change for which he so passionately advocated. Shaw’s tactics centered on the premise that if a person’s thinking changed, then so would his or her actions. His goal was to get people to think. He did appear to understand that there exists a natural human difficulty in comprehending the scope and magnitude of such large-scale events, and he worked diligently to achieve a level of understanding for himself. In order to write with authority about the situation and to pen his seminal and controversial pamphlet Common Sense about the War, Shaw notes, “I had to slave for months getting the evidence…It makes me sick to recollect the drudgery of it all.”

He insisted that others had a duty to do the same, and what he saw instead distressed and enraged him. He railed against the blind nationalism that emerged in England after the war began, as well as the uninformed and oversimplified sentiment among the public that England was right and her enemies were wrong. In a letter to philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell, Shaw wrote, “It is our job to make people serious about the war. It is the monstrous triviality of the damned thing, and the vulgar frivolity of what we imagine to be patriotism, that gets at my temper.”

Shaw seemed to consider the leisured class the primary culprit. He saw their lack of concern for the war raging around them as potentially more dangerous than the war itself. He declared that the only people who had the ear of politicians powerful enough to change the course of the war were precisely the people who persisted in maintaining a blissful ignorance about anything to do with it. Groups such as “the Souls” (an aristocratic bunch devoted to a cultured life, and who would never allow a silly war to come between them and their dinner) and Bloomsbury (the set of London intellectuals which included Shaw’s friends Virginia and Leonard Woolf) represented to Shaw the collective and abominable evil of complacency. Heartbreak House was born in reaction to this.

Along with a number of other literary responses to the war, Heartbreak House is often considered to be one of the early 20th century’s great works of apocalyptic literature (that is, literature which envisions the coming of the end of the world or a particular catastrophic event; post-apocalyptic literature presents a view of life after a global disaster has already occurred). Other examples include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming and Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind. These works all have in common a depiction of a world that can’t continue on its current course.

But, much like the way individuals can have a hard time comprehending a war, how to translate such a huge idea to the page effectively poses a daunting challenge. Historian Jay Winter calls war “a conflict of dimensions so vast as to defy realistic description.” Winter offers that the apocalyptic imagination is one way to “bypass realistic representation” and convey the scope and scale of war in a written work. By exaggerating the responses of his characters to their impending doom, Shaw is able to drive his point home in an unsettling and powerful way. New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood describes it as “well-groomed humanity greeting its own destruction with an inviting smile,” continuing to posit that “Shaw surely meant it to shock his countrymen into an awareness of the possibly dire consequences of a continued political and moral paralysis.”

Though evidence suggests that it was completed in 1917, Shaw waited until 1919 to publish and 1920 to produce Heartbreak House. (He published no plays while the war was still going on.) The eagerly awaited print edition was poorly received in England, and roundly criticized for being verbose and incoherent. As a result, Shaw chose to premiere the play in New York, where it ran to favorable reviews and public acclaim.

Shaw’s surreal and unconventional heartbreakers

By Madeleine Oldham

Often called Shaw’s version of Chekhov, Heartbreak House owes a debt to The Cherry Orchard in particular, which has its own harrowing view of upper-middle-class ennui. Shaw saw a production of Chekhov’s masterpiece in 1911 and came away outraged that such a brilliant play and piece of social commentary had met with a lukewarm response in England. Shaw found inspiration in The Cherry Orchard, and even subtitled his play “a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes.” The two plays share a scathing indictment of the complacent leisured classes. Shaw declared them both full of “the same nice people, the same utter futility,” though he was quick to distinguish that his play directly referred to prewar Europe rather than turn-of-the-century Russia.

When Heartbreak House was only the beginning of an idea, Shaw’s original title was “The Studio in the Clouds,” revealing his early thinking about the play as one that dwells in a removed and ungrounded place, and literally has its head in the clouds. At first glance, the play seems a piece of realism about an eccentric upper-class family and their houseguests. Upon closer examination the realistic picture dissolves, opening up a portal to a peculiar and almost surreal landscape.

The characters drift along a strange flow of narrative that sometimes seems to float directionless, ambling from one thought to the next by association. Shaw dispenses with action prescribed by cause and effect, and allows his characters, and therefore the piece as a whole, to find their own logic. This lends the play its surrealistic quality, creating a dreamlike atmosphere where house and ship merge, social graces are turned on their heads and sleeping and waking have no regular schedule.

The language of metaphor plays a huge part in the play. Perhaps the most obvious metaphor Shaw employs is that of sleeping as a symbol for ignorance. There is much discussion of where characters will sleep (logistical details that in most houses would have been worked out well ahead of guests’ arrivals). As soon as we meet Hesione she reveals that she has just fallen asleep in the middle of trying to make up Ellie’s room, perhaps implying her inherent inability and unwillingness to execute even the slightest task that could be construed as work. (Shaw often expressed his disgust at the leisured classes’ lack of interest in anything they didn’t find enjoyable.) Other characters drift in and out of sleep, including Boss Mangan, who is hypnotized by Ellie, and Captain Shotover, who talks frequently of being too old to achieve the blissful ignorance of sleep, try as he might.

When “a sort of splendid drumming in the sky” is heard, Shaw is referring to the bomb-dropping zeppelins moving through the sky in the distance. He evokes the zeppelin as a symbol of society’s imminent destruction. (Here can be drawn another parallel with Chekhov: both use sound for mysterious and ominous effect. Alongside Shaw’s splendid drumming lies the distant sound of a string breaking in The Cherry Orchard that is thought to represent a break in time or the end of an era; both are sounds that resonate beyond, and transcend, their everyday origins.)

This apocalyptical vision positions itself alternately at odds or in sync with the shifting form of the play: it is sometimes a giddy farce, sometimes a comedy of manners and other times an elegiac lament. In keeping with Shaw’s Fabian leanings, his version of apocalypse was somewhat gentler than some of his counterparts like Eliot or Yeats, offering a picture not of the destruction of civilization as a whole, but rather of those he deemed too ignorant to survive. Shaw manifests this opinion in his characters; even their names point toward their demise. One study guide to Heartbreak House notes that “‘Dunn’ (done), ‘Utter’ (the ancient form meaning death), ‘Shot’ (as in tired), ‘over’ and ‘bye,’ all…suggest endings.”

What Shaw means by “heartbreak” differs from the common understanding of the word. He does not refer merely to a romance gone wrong, but rather to the breaking of a heart in a larger sense—a broken heart is one that is devoid of passion for life. Heartbreak denotes an irretrievably damaged spirit, one for which the only remedy is to be destroyed.