Written in 1944 and first staged on January 3, 1945 with Richard Basehart
and Anne Burr and Earl Jones as Basuto, The Hasty Heart grew out of the
playwright's experiences in an ambulance unit on the Burma front in World
War II. The play was made into a movie in 1949 (with Richard Todd and
Ronald Reagan) and was revived on Broadway in 1984.
The Hasty Heart concerns, initially, six characters in a British General Hospital
in the rear of the Assam-Burma front: a nurse (Sister Margaret--"Sister" is a
British term for a nurse; she is not a religious--and five Allied patients: Kiwi (a
New Zealander), Tommy (a Brit), Digger (an Australian), Yank (an American),
and Blossom (an indigenous Basuto) who understands and speaks no English,
an important fact for later developments in the play.
Patrick introduces us to Sister Margaret and the five original patients who are,
for all their good-natured bickering and nationally directed gibes, clearly a
cohesive unit characterized by the camaraderie of an in-patient ward with
residential patients. For instance, Tommy, who is chronically kidded about his
obesity, claims to be proud of it and accuses Digger of being jealous about
Sister Margaret's giving Tommy therapeutic back rubs.
Enter Colonel "Cobwebs," the medical officer. He solicits the group's help and
cooperation in keeping a new patient "contented." It seems the Colonel has
just successfully removed a patient's kidney damaged by shrapnel only to
discover that the soldier's remaining kidney is "defective." The wounded
soldier, Lachie, a Scottish Sergeant, will therefore die in only six weeks of
uremic poisoning. The Colonel has "decided against telling him" since
"[W]orry won't help him."
The Colonel tells the men and Sister Margaret that "The only help anyone can
give him now, [sic] will come from you." When Yank asks, "And he thinks
he's well, sir?" the Colonel replies, "In a sense--he is. But it would be criminal
to release him just to collapse up forward. Do what you can to keep him
With the arrival of Lachie, an incredibly difficult, abrasive and unfriendly Scot
with pathological chips on both shoulders, the scene is set for "an archetypal
story about friendship under fire." [Mell Gussow as quoted in a 1984 NY
Times review in the obituary above, op. cit.] Despite all their earnest attempts
at striking up a friendship, the other patients find themselves rebuffed, often
quite rudely, by Lachie. Eventually, at the insistent urging of Sister Margaret,
they are successful. A birthday gift of a complete Scottish highlander outfit
touches Lachie who admits that he's never had friends and is, to no reader's
deep surprise, a truly lonely man.
Near the end of the play, the Colonel, following orders, tells Lachie his
diagnosis and prognosis, and his superiors' desire for Lachie to return home,
despite his wishes to remain with his friends, in order to become a military
hero to be honored before his death. Lachie understandably rÍtreats into a
shell of resentment, blaming the men for treating him with pity instead of
friendship. Eventually things right themselves and the play ends happily.
Commentary This is a wonderful vehicle for discussing autonomy and, for
1944, a play that presciently antedates another Broadway play about
autonomy in health care, Whose Life Is It Anyway? (see film annotation) It
offers as well fertile material for discussion of pity versus true affection and
compassion and the blurry boundary for all involved that Graham Greene
explored so successfully in his novel, Brighton Rock.
Although this play is over 50 years old, it reads wonderfully well and its
central issues remain vitally current. It would lend itself, incidentally, to
staging by small groups interested in acting out important literature and
Source The Best Plays of 1944-45
Editors Mantle, Burns
Publisher Dodd, Mead (New York)