George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House as a Template for Analyzing 9/11 Discourse in Theresa Rebeck’s and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ Omnium Gatherum


Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros co-wrote Omnium Gatherum (published in 2003), a play not only dealing critically with the ideas and beliefs that made the events of that morning possible in the first place, but also offering moments of hope in order to move beyond it. Though inspired primarily by Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Read Death, Omnium Gatherum has most often been compared to George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 play Heartbreak  House, an allegory of “cultured, leisured Europe before the [first world] war.” (Heartbreak House, 7).

Ultimately, atrocities like World War I or September 11th can only be fully understood years later, after all of the historical data has been collected and painstakingly evaluated. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. Nonetheless, it is the role of the artist to navigate a course through the uncertain waters of their time, as Shaw does on the ship he calls “Heartbreak House” and as Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros do at the dinner table in Omnium Gatherum.

Both plays tackle similar social and moral dilemmas within their individual frameworks. However, whereas Rebeck and Gersten-Vassilaros felt compelled to have their play produced as an immediate response to contemporary events, Shaw realized that the inherent madness of wartime would distort the meaning and purpose of his play. As a result of the critical backlash, he withheld it from production in England until 1921:

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.

(Heartbreak House, 28)


Rebeck and Gersten-Vasillaros followed a different path than Shaw and, not surprisingly, few critics of Omnium Gatherum were able to move beyond their concerns that 2003 was simply too soon for a 9/11 play critical of its subject matter to be produced, thus preventing them from analyzing Omnium Gatherum on its own terms.

The 19th- and 20th-century poet George Santayana once said that “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” In the introduction to his play, Shaw wrote of the horrors of armed conflict and the inability of British society to cope with the casualties endured:

To British Centenarians who died in their beds in 1914, any dread of having to hide underground in London from the shells of an enemy seemed more remote and fantastic than a dread of the appearance of a colony of cobras and rattlesnakes in Kensington Gardens. In the prophetic works of Charles Dickens we were armed against many evils which have since come to pass; but of the evil of being slaughtered by a foreign foe on our own doorsteps there was no shadow. Nature gave us a very long credit; and we abused it to the utmost.

(Heartbreak House, 12)


Unfortunately, Shaw’s words still resonate today. In fact, certain anachronisms and historical specificities notwithstanding, most of Shaw’s introduction could be utilized to read the current events of September 11th and the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The play’s insights still offer as much wisdom as they once did because Shaw dug deeply enough into the human condition to excavate truths applicable, not just to his contemporaries, but to all of mankind, and it is because of this that his words still resonate today.

Therefore, rather than view Omnium Gatherum through contemporary lenses, this paper seeks to re-view it through the historical ones of Shaw’s Heartbreak House.  Perhaps by looking at the present through the eyes of the past we will gain a more rational understanding of the play, and by extension, our world.