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
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:
Centenarians who died in their beds in 1914, any dread of having to hide
(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
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.