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 contented--and happy."

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 retreats 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.


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 medicine themes.


Another title for the source of this play is The Year Book of the Drama in America. The author wrote screenplays for Three Coins in the Fountain (1954); Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955); and Tea House of the August Moon (1956). The latter (play) won him the Pulitzer Prize.

Primary Source

The Best Plays of 1944-45


Dodd, Mead

Place Published

New York




Mantle, Burns

Page Count