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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 26 (2006) 6-26

Bearing Witness:
Heartbreak House and the Poetics of Trauma
Desmond Harding

War will cure nothing. The business of war is to inflict wounds, not to heal them.

—Bernard Shaw, Everyman, 14 July 1916

I can never forget that the loss to Europe, and consequently to us all as Europeans, is the same whether the slaughtered man's name is John or Fritz or Beppo. . . .

—Bernard Shaw, Everybody's Political What's What? (1944)

Although reviewers censured Shaw's Heartbreak House as an artistic failure when it was published in 1919 and when it was first produced in London in 1921, the play endures as a remarkable—and even menacing—account of cultural-historical trauma precisely because, paradoxically, "little occurs except the end of civilization." 1 Shaw claims to have begun writing Heartbreak House before the outbreak of World War I; however, critical-textual evidence reveals that the play was in fact composed between March 1916 and May 1917, "the years of the Somme and Passchendale, of conscription, of the declaration by Germany of unrestricted submarine warfare . . . and Lloyd George's Business Government." 2 Moreover, as the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin and the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 attest, the war of attrition on the Western Front was being fought against an increasingly global background of catastrophe that, Shaw despaired, defied representation: "cataclysm . . . the crash of an epoch . . . mere writing cannot describe it." 3 Seen in this light, Heartbreak House belongs to the darkest years of World War I. If Shaw's dramatic text belongs to the most calamitous years of the war, the preface, which was completed in June 1919, belongs, ironically, to a bitter time of peace, "the bleak, rancorous, mean-spirited months separating the Armistice of 1918 and the [End Page 6] Treaty of Paris signed on 28 June 1919." 4 Indeed, while in military terms the armistice ended the Great War, the Allied blockade of Germany and Austria ensured that the war against civilian populations continued amid the worst global influenza epidemic in history.

Taken together the synthesis of Shavian polemic embodied in the preface as well as the dramaturgy that is Heartbreak House betrays the lingering effects of traumatic history, the resonances of which perturbed the playwright for the rest of his life. 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." 5 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. Product of the decentering impulse of aesthetic modernism, both the preface and the 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 constitute the heartbreak of traumatic history.


In our own time the concept of "cultural trauma" has emerged in the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences as a highly visible—and expanding—domain of discourses marked by deliberation, disagreement, and intervention for negotiating the great range of traumatogenic events that mark late-twentieth-century history. In point of fact, while the notion of trauma has no clear-cut definition, the multifarious interpretations and representations of trauma constitute an industry, and its literature is mountainous.

Among its numerous applications as a term in everyday use, trauma refers to the overwhelming impact of some violent or catastrophic event that produces psychological effects that are often insurmountable. Yet, as Graham Dawson notes, "[e]tymology reminds...


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