David Hare’s creative work can be sorted into three categories: plays he wrote and directed himself, scripts written for film and television productions, and plays written in collaboration with Howard Brenton and others. In discussing Hare for the journal Modern Drama, C. W. E. Bigsby described the playwright as having been shaped by his times, the political turmoil and social upheaval of the student rebellions of 1968 and the growing dissent over Western policy in Southeast Asia. Bigsby also noted that 1968 was the year that “marked the beginnings of the theatrical fringe in London.” Active in fringe theater from the beginning of his dramatic career, Hare became one of the architects of the fringe movement.
Early in his career, for example, Hare became interested in dramatic collaboration, which later led to successful partnerships with Howard Brenton—Brassneck in 1973 and Pravda in 1985. At the Royal Court Theatre in 1971, Hare instigated an experiment in group collaboration that resulted in the play Lay By, a group effort of seven writers (Trevor Griffiths, Brian Clark, Stephen Poliakoff, Hugh Stoddard, and Snoo Wilson, along with Brenton and Hare), stimulated by a Sunday Times feature by Ludovic Kennedy, concerning an ambiguous rape case that might have resulted in an erroneous conviction. The Royal Court rejected the play, but Hare’s colleagues in the Portable Theatre Company mounted a production directed by Wilson in conjunction with the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Portable Theatre also produced another collective effort in which Hare was involved as a writer, England’s Ireland, in 1972.
The rationale for the Portable Theatre was political. The idea was to have a touring company that would address working-class audiences, an “antagonistic theatre,” as Brenton described it, designed for “people who have never seen the theatre before.” The plays produced were intended to be controversial in nature (Lay By was an exercise in sexual politics, for example, reconstructing a rape and interspersing the reconstruction with a pornographic photo session) and to challenge conventional assumptions and the traditional forms and methods of the established theater.
Hare has a particular genius for designing ingeniously constructed, unpredictable plots and strong, ambiguous characters that defy immediate classification and interpretation. The male characters tend to be flawed, either because they are infirm of purpose and self-deceived, or because they are all too purposeful and self-assured, in some instances even brutal. In Hare’s male characters, civilized behavior and even signals of basic decency can be signs of weakness. In Pravda, Andrew May’s apparently “good” qualities (bourgeois ambition, a dedication to the work ethic, a capacity for moral outrage) are in fact merely the product of an unthinking liberal idealism, which easily gives way to his monstrous hatred for Le Roux and his absolute thirst for vengeance. Brock, the diplomat in Plenty, is also misled by his emotions.
“Decent” people are not survivors in the kind of world Hare imagines, a world that requires intellectual toughness for survival. The idealist, like the sympathetic Darwin of Plenty, cannot stand a chance when countered by the unfeeling pragmatists who operate the machinery of state. Hare’s men, often dominated by career ambitions, gradually lose their integrity while serving the corrupt and corrupting establishment of government and big business. They give themselves to these enterprises and are transformed into cogs in the machinery of state, disposable and interchangeable parts. The career diplomat Darwin of Plenty, for example, has given a lifetime of loyal service to the Foreign Office but is betrayed by his superiors during the Suez Crisis. Determined to speak his mind and tell the truth, an honorable course of action, he is crushed and his career ruined. This is the sort of career from which Susan extricates her husband, but Brock, lacking her perspective, can only regret the career loss and resent Susan’s interference.
The male characters, then, are driven by ambition and the lure of professional success; their vision will be clouded and their integrity compromised. Brock is not a fool, but he will not conclude, as Susan apparently does, that a state bureau that will betray a career loyalist such as Darwin and make a scapegoat of him is not worthy of one’s service. In Pravda, with its broad, satiric distortions, Andrew can be seen as a fool because his self-betrayal is expanded to farcical proportions. In a more restrained context, Andrew might be seen as a parallel figure to Brock. In the end, Andrew’s integrity is compromised when he goes back to Le Roux to edit the sleaziest tabloid in England, but the man is so stupidly devoted to his profession that he hardly seems to care that he has lost his integrity and self-respect. Rebecca has attempted to clarify his decision and to explain the consequences, but to no avail. In a more subtle way, Susan performs a similar function for Brock in Plenty, but Brock is so ordinary, so average, and so typical in his ambition that audiences may miss the point.
Plenty may be mistaken for domestic melodrama (even though Susan is hardly a typical melodramatic heroine), but the movement is toward pathos and tragedy in the way men allow themselves to be transformed and corrupted into banality. The meaning of Pravda is the more easily recognized by its satiric approach and farcical distortions. Even so, Gavin Millar, in Sight and Sound, praised Plenty as “one of the few recent texts, in theatre or cinema, that undertakes an unpretentious but serious review of postwar Britain’s decline.”
The Great Exhibition
In this context, Hare may be regarded as a social critic functioning as a practicing dramatist with a flair for satire. His play The Great Exhibition is a political satire treating a Labour member of Parliament, Charles Hammett, swept into office during the great Labour victory of 1965 and swept out of office when the Conservative Party returned to power in 1970. Peter Ansorge has called the play a parody of “middle-class playwrights who have turned to working-class communities both for inspiration and as an escape from the more subtle dilemmas of their own environment and class.”
Hare’s interest in politics is also obvious in Fanshen, a play based on a book by William Hinton, an American who went to China “as a tractor technician,” as Hare has described him, “both to observe and help the great land reform programmes of the late 1940’s.” Hare felt “an obligation to portray Chinese peasants” of the village of Log Bow “in a way which was adequate to their suffering” but was “not interested in portraying the scenes of violence and brutality which marked the landlords’ regime and its overthrow.” After seeing the play, Hinton objected to Hare’s “liberal slant” and urged the playwright to revise the play so as to provide a clear Marxist emphasis, but Hare incorporated only a few of Hinton’s list of 110 suggested emendations. Fanshen (the title is translated as “to turn the body,” or, alternatively, “to turn over”) was written for the Joint Stock Company in 1974 and opened in Sheffield before moving on to the ICA Terrace Theatre in London in April of 1975.
Teeth ’n’ Smiles
As has been noted, Hare’s artistic sensibilities were no doubt influenced by the events of 1968, and his early work suggests a theater of political commitment and protest, carried into the 1970’s. His play Teeth ’n’ Smiles, produced in 1975 at the Royal Court Theatre, has been called “a metaphor for British society” and “an elegy for the vanished visions of the late Sixties” because of the way it treats rock music and popular culture.
The action is set at Cambridge on June 9, 1969, and centers on a performance of a rock band for the May Ball of Jesus College. This concert proves to be a disaster when Maggie, the lead singer of the group, gets drunk, insults the audience, and is finally sent to prison on a drug charge. The musicians regard their privileged audience with contempt: “Rich complacent self-loving self-regarding self-righteous phoney half-baked politically immature evil-minded little shits.” Interviewed about the play by Theatre Quarterly, Hare claimed it was intended to question “whether we have any chance of changing ourselves.”
In his survey British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment (1979), Ronald Hayman criticizes the play for setting up Cambridge as symbolizing a repressive capitalist system, concluding that “this kind of play bases its appeal on giving the audience a chance to believe that there is a common enemy which can be fought.” Hare’s targets in this play are self-delusion, class guilt, and class war, but the play mainly attacks the upscale educational establishment, represented by Cambridge (which Hare knew at firsthand), and has been regarded as an indictment of the detached university intellectuals.
The protagonist of Knuckle, which opened at London’s Comedy Theatre in March of 1974, is far removed from the privileged setting of Cambridge. He is a tough-minded vulgarian who is pragmatic and cynical about the hypocrisy of his world and his own family. Curly Delafield has returned to his home in Guildford seeking information about the disappearance of his sister Sarah, who had worked as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. Curly is a blunt and brutal man. He had not seen his sister in twelve years, but he is determined to discover what has happened to her.
Sarah’s overcoat was found on the beach at Eastbourne, famous for a ghastly murder that was committed there in the spring of 1924. Apparently Sarah either committed suicide or was murdered. The play therefore involves a process of detection, as those close to Sarah, a journalist named Max, her friend Jenny, and her father, are subjected to Curly’s relentless interrogation. The mystery of her disappearance is solved at the end, after a sordid story of scandal and blackmail has been brought to light.
Curly is extremely cynical, a man who has been involved in selling arms, and in this regard he resembles in his amoral outlook the character of Andrew Undershaft in George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara (1905). Curly is habitually skeptical of men and their motives, including his own father. His view of the world is revealed by his motto: “Every man has his own gun. That’s not a metaphor. That’s a fact.” In a mean world, Curly does not “pick fights” but merely provides weapons: “They’re going to kill each other with or without my help,” he claims. London is viewed as the corrupt center of a corrupt and fallen world, and the corruption has spread to Guildford. As Curly remarks at the end of the play, “In the mean square mile of the City of London they were making money. Back to my guns.” Nearly everyone in this play is contaminated by money.
Knuckle is experimental in the way it mixes genres. The play develops as an apparent murder mystery, a whodunit that leaves open the possibility of suicide but turns out to be merely a parody of a conventional thriller. The sleuth Curly is like a stripped-down, plain-spoken Andrew Undershaft wearing a Mike Hammer mask, a very private eye. In fact, however, the play is an allegory of family betrayal, capitalist greed, and corruption. Hare’s declared intention in writing it was “to subvert the form of the thriller to a serious end.”
Curly is not a likable character because he is so cynical and so crude, but his character, shaped by the world that has molded it, is at least redeemed by his brutal honesty. He is not self-deluded, as so many of Hare’s characters seem to be.
A Map of the World
One of Hare’s most ambitious plays that attempts to take on human delusion on a global scale is A Map of the World, first performed at London’s Lyttleton Theatre in January of 1983. The title comes from Oscar Wilde: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at . . . ,” and the central conflict is a philosophical argument between a Marxist idealist, Stephen Andrews, and a...
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