Title: Idyll in the Garden: The Great War and Heartbreak House

Presenter: Jenna L. Kubly

Affiliation: Tufts University


The writing and art of the generation that endured the Great War, reflected in its art the shift from the idylls of the fin-de-siècle to the tortured loss of a generation and the passing of an age.  Most of the academic focus on the literature of this period has been on the memoirs, novels and poetry of the era: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Virginia Woolf, Radclyff Hall.  Though less remembered, theatre also documented the war experience, and there are two plays that also should be considered.  One, Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House has been studied frequently; the other, Dear Brutus, by J. M. Barrie, the author remembered for Peter Pan, has largely been forgotten.  The intriguing parallels between the way both Shaw and Barrie viewed British society, exploring the various perspectives on the changing times, during the Great War, have been little noted.  Both plays are built around the themes of the creation of an illusion and its subsequent loss, the constant search for identity and narrative, shifting definitions of continuity and change, and visions of the future. 


The 1921 première of Heartbreak House met mixed reviews; the play was called everything from dull and verbose to an exhilarating moving masterpiece.  Yet neither set of descriptors seems an appropriate reaction to a play that Shaw (and subsequent critics) consider to be both an indictment of the leisured class before the war and a tragically accurate prophecy of its end.  Heartbreak House, perhaps due its deceptive veneer of a country house “follies of the day” romantic farce, was viewed as comedy, instead of as an indictment of the society that in its illusion, created the moment for the First World War.


Similarly, Barrie’s play was considered in 1917 as nothing more than a light-hearted comedy (also set in a country house), though a subsequent reading reveals similarities to Shaw’s play, and suggests that Barrie, too, was portraying a society capable of perpetuating the war. 


It is through the exploration of the continual search for identities that both Shaw and Barrie reveal the danger of the illusions that lead to the war.   Ellie’s last line of “Oh I hope so!” and John Purdy’s realization that the “I haven’t the stuff in me to take warning” suggest that even the shattering of illusions is only momentary.  The sensation that nothing will be the same again contrasts paradoxically with the reality that nothing has really changed.