Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Practical Business Men

Schottische Scharfschützen auf Lauer (April 1918).

Scottish snipers in World War I, April 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Heartbreak House is not merely the name of a play,” wrote George Barnard Shaw in the preface to his masterpiece. “It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” The play was neither published nor performed until after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Shaw’s given reasons are clear:

War cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage. When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew [sic] their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots, the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war because it opens their prison doors, and sets them in the thrones of power and popularity. [1]

Soon after WWI, while “the earth [was] still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors,” Shaw recounted the history of the war “not in the field, but at home,” in one of his most scornful sallies against war: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.”

Re-reading the preface to Heartbreak House today (“Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall”) one is besieged by the eerie sensation produced by prophecy, by the startling notion that history may repeat itself once again, but in reverse order. In a section entitled “The Practical Business Men,” Shaw writes:

From the beginning [of WWI] the useless people set up a shriek for “practical business men.” By this they meant men who had become rich by placing their personal interests before those of the country, and measuring the success of every activity by the pecuniary profit it brought to them and to those on whom they depended on for their supplies of capital. The pitiable failure of some conspicuous samples from the first batch we tried of these poor devils helped to give the whole public side of the war an air of monstrous and hopeless farce. They proved not only that they were useless for public work, but that in a well-ordered nation they would never have been allowed to control private enterprise.


Promotional photograph of the Mercury Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, directed by Orson Welles. Production ran April 29–June 11, 1938, at the Mercury Theatre. Subjects of the photograph are Geraldine Fitzgerald as Ellie Dunn and Orson Welles as Captain Shotover. (Credit: Mercury Theatre, photograph by Lucas Pritchard Studio)

We have ensconced, in the halls of power of the United States, a coterie of “practical business men” to whom we have entrusted the reins of the nation. If at the turn of the 19th century in Britain, the crisis of WWI produced a demand by “useless people” for “practical business men,” might not the incapacity of such “poor devils” for public service land us, at the dawn of the 21st century in the US, in a predicament similar to that of England during WWI?

President Donald Trump’s proposed War Budget intends to move the US economy down the path of an increased war stance. To fight whom? The world which will not accommodate to America First.

When domestic problems prove insoluble, when public service proves intractable to people who only know how to make money for themselves, the preferred solution—as in fascist regimes—is always to wage war. The irony—as Shaw attests—is that the incapacity of “practical business men” follows them unrelieved into the abyss of armed conflict.

Until the “sensible people” take over, in the midst of “all [the] imbecility … deafening the heavens with its clamor and blotting out the sun with its dust.”


[1] All quotes are from George Bernard Shaw, “Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall,” preface to Heartbreak House (1919; New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 7-48.


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