Building the Modern World: The Architectural Spaces of Shaw’s Drama

Abstract for paper presented at ‘Shaw at Home: 2013 International Shaw Society Conference’ in Ayot St Lawrence, UK, June 2013

In spite of the recent renewed interest in literary representations of architecture the domestic spaces of modern drama have remained largely secondary concerns to critics.  Part of the cause of this is undoubtedly related to the nature of dramatic literature itself.  Although Brideshead Castle or the Ramsay’s summer home, for instance, remained forever attached to the page, the spaces of modernist dramatic literature must be continually redrawn for each successive production.  But there is a clear motivation for a study of Shaw’s dramatic portrayals of architecture, not only because of his sustained interest in architectural space but because of architecture’s implications in his complex relationship to the changing shape of the modern world.

This paper will examine the role of domestic architectural space in two of Shaw’s most architecturally motivated plays, Misalliance and Heartbreak House.  Both elegant Surrey estates, the family homes at the centre of these plays each face a cataclysmic or, perhaps, comical destruction.  When Captain Shotover’s boat-shaped home is ruined by modern technology and war, the debates on idealism and pragmatism rehearsed earlier in the play are complicated to the point of irrelevancy: the traditional image of an ark carrying humankind to salvation is first mocked and then destroyed.  But, in a characteristically Shavian way, the philosophical paradox is not a problem but, rather, a necessary conclusion.  Reading these plays alongside recent work on literary architectural space by Alain de Botton and Victoria Rosner, this paper will seek to explore precisely how Shaw is able to achieve what he sets out to do in the preface to Heartbreak House—that is, to make these ‘heartbreak houses’ not simply emblematic of changing social order, but necessarily implicated in and indistinguishable from these changes.

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