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Desmond Harding, Ph.D.

Department of English Language and Literature

Central Michigan University



“‘Tightening Hearts’: Heartbreak House and the Trauma of War”


            This paper argues that the synthesis of Shavian polemic embodied in the Preface as well as the dramaturgy that is Heartbreak House betray the lingering effects of traumatic history; in fact, the play endures as a remarkable account of cultural-historical trauma.  For Shaw the process of bearing witness to the slaughter of World War I provides a disturbing insight into the enigmatic relationship between trauma and survival at the violent nexus of modernity, one that is intended to elicit both sympathy and criticism.  As St. John Irvine recalls, “His [Shaw’s] attitude to Heartbreak House was entirely different from his attitude to the rest of his work.  He would discuss any play at length, but Heartbreak House very remarkably silenced him, not because he felt dubious about it, but because it stirred a reverence in him which he had never felt for anything else he had written.”  Taken together, both the Preface and dramatic text of Heartbreak House are paradigmatic examples of discursive trauma, mutually informing texts that enact a poetics of trauma in which it is not only the encounter with traumatic experience but also the experience of survival that constitutes the heartbreak of traumatic history.