SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 17-25
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Hostages of Heartbreak:
the Women of Heartbreak House
Poor Captain Shotover! Emotionally poked and prodded by the demon and vampire women in Shaw's Heartbreak House, 1 the old Captain's only remaining solace is his seventh degree of concentration—the rum bottle. As the patriarch of his dysfunctional family, Shotover is often considered the darling of this play because of the wonderfully quirky quips that turn him from the fool to the sage by the time the curtain drops. Similarly, Shotover's curious likeness to Shaw places this character in a privileged position, for we get the feeling that through Shotover, Shaw himself is presiding over the play. While these things may be true, they do not explain Shotover's hold over all the women in this play. In our need to love Shaw, and by extension Shotover, have we simply neglected to see the more ominous, paternal desolation that lies at the heart of the heartbreak in this play? While critics have contended that Captain Shotover is a wise, rum-soaked, doddering, and harmless old man, hen-pecked by the wiles of the dangerous women in the play, I believe a reevaluation of Shotover is in order. Indeed, if we refrain from the tendency to lionize Shotover and instead scrutinize his actions, we see that he is the most dangerous and destructive force of Heartbreak House, and his manipulative emotional games have kept all the women hostage to his desperate emotional needs.
How can this feeble, cantankerous octogenarian be the root of all evil? Surely, it is the women of this play who are evil—or so many critics have contended in their analyses of Heartbreak House. A. M. Gibbs, for example, in his book Heartbreak House: Preludes to Apocalypse 2 claims that "[t]he main paradigm of female-male relations in Heartbreak House is a pattern of female domination, involving mutual flirtation and sexual negotiation between male and female figures followed by exposure, humiliation and rejection of the male, and his reduction to abject states of frustration and childishness" (33-34). It would seem that the males (including Shotover) [End Page 17] are the victims of the dastardly whims of the women. Indeed, Gibbs further asserts that in the fictional world of Heartbreak House . . . the maternal sirens of the household are destructive and emasculating forces; as such, they resemble the character of Laura, the wife in Strindberg's The Father, who came into her husband's life as "his second mother" and who in the course of the play reduces him to tearful and impotent childishness and finally brings about his complete destruction (31).
It would seem, then, that Hesione and Ariadne turn men into simpering babies by sheer force of their personalities. Elsie Adams continues this theme in her general assessment of Shaw's female characters in her article "Feminism and Female Stereotypes in Shaw," 3 where she concludes that "[f]or the most part . . . the women in Shaw's plays do not threaten men through tigerish displays of temper; more characteristically they dominate through kittenish 'feminine wiles' (i.e., deceit and cunning)" (157). According to the critics mentioned above, it is the women, and certainly not Captain Shotover, who are the crux of the problem in this play.
And why would critics believe that Shotover is the problem? Most echo Sally Peters Vogt's claim in "Heartbreak House: Ship of Fools" that "[t]he audience is likely to be amused or puzzled, but not concerned, by the antics of an old man who runs onstage and offstage, in and out of conversations, blowing a whistle and worrying about tea" (271). 4 In Vogt's opinion, Shotover is simply the eccentric yet lovable head of the household. Later in her essay, Vogt even asserts that Shotover becomes a "[f]ish[er] for Ellie's soul," thereby arguing that the eccentric has become spiritual (281). Barbara Bellow Watson seems to agree with this notion of Shotover's spirituality, but she translates this...