On the publication of the final volume of Michael Holroyd's brilliant three-part biography in 1992, several reviewers noted how unfortunate it was that the 15 years it had taken Holroyd to write the book had coincided with an irreversible decline in his subject's reputation. It would be hard, they insisted, to imagine a playwright more thoroughly out of fashion. Shaw was associated with an era of rational Fabianism which no longer spoke to the modern world. His plays, with their notorious long sentences and stagy attitudinising, embodied a fearful attitude to sex which our own more full-blooded age found spinsterish and immature. The characters were authorial mouthpieces - puppets, not people. The playwright once described as "the creator of modern consciousness" had become a victim of the fact that he had so completely dominated his own time. He had, in short, been superseded.
If these reviewers had looked a little harder, they would have found that their supposed reassessments of Shaw more truly reflected the doubts which some audiences had enjoyed about his work from the beginning. The character of Bernard Shaw himself often commanded an interest and authority far wider than any of the individual plays he actually wrote. If Heartbreak House is, as its author suggested, his Lear, then it has to be said that from the outset it has suffered a far more mixed press than Shakespeare's greatest masterpiece. Billed, perhaps misleadingly, as a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes, it played at the Royal Court in Shaw's own 1921 production at over four hours. Its length alone attracted a level of dismissive vituperation which Shaw's recent detractors could hardly hope to emulate. Shaw's attempts to mix high farce with divine tragedy, and to marble an apparent comedy of manners with grave presentiments of impending catastrophe have elicited an exasperation in some spectators which has never truly abated.
The purpose of reviving Heartbreak House just before the millennium (without altering or updating the text) is to take a timely look at the century's first and outstanding state-of-the-nation play, aware that it exhibits many of the characteristics of that extraordinary genre which has given modern British drama so much of its distinctive spirit. By gathering together a collection of Bloomsbury-like bohemians in a Sussex house, Shaw appears to set off in a familiar Chekhovian direction, analysing the destiny of a country by portraying the life and loves of a representative group of middle-class people. He looks ahead to the coming century and sees it as no friendly place for romantics or adventurers, but belonging instead to a narrow new class of depressing capitalists who are determined to reduce life to its lowest common denominator. Who can say he was wrong? Yet even in this overall scheme, so uncannily prophetic about the world we now live in - Captain Shotover, for instance, is working on Ronald Reagan's Star Wars strategy, the weapon which will destroy all other weapons - there is a wildness of texture, a sheer strangeness of vision which is often so personal and peculiar that we may almost rub our ears, in danger of disbelieving what we have heard.
Many critics have rightly drawn attention to the zaniness of Shaw's humour. His playfulness with theatre itself is taken to prefigure the arrival of absurdists like Beckett and Ionesco. But less noticed, it seems, is Shaw's underlying steel. Under the surface of the play - which shifts around in the manner of all great, elusive work - lies the disturbing contention that it is not useful to try and be happy; that happiness, indeed, may be only a failure and a lure. Using a method of reversal which is notably Brechtian, Shaw reveals how easily the wish to enjoy life may slip into a deadly infatuation with dreams.
No wonder this uncomfortable portrait of a society in which people are habitually distracted from their better purposes is one which theatregoers have sometimes found hard to contemplate. But they have also not been helped by a view of the play which emphasises its frivolity and rhetoric at the expense of its deeper feelings. Far from the governing tone being either light-hearted or elegiac, it is, on the contrary, full of the feverishness of genuine despair. Underneath the banter, underneath the central story of a young girl growing up in the course of a single evening, lies a sense of wasted passion that belies Shaw's reputation as a cold or cerebral writer. "It has more of the miracle, more of the mystic belief in it than any of my others," wrote the author of his own favourite play. It also, he might have added, has more of the heart.
David Hare's production of `Heartbreak House' is at the Almeida Theatre, London N1, from 3 Sept to 11 Oct, previewing from Thursday. Booking: 0171- 359 4404