In an article he wrote for the Listener just before The Secret Rapture opened in London in October 1988, David Hare revealed the source of the play’s curious title. ‘‘In Catholic theology,’’ the playwright explained, ‘‘the ‘secret rapture’ is the moment when the nun will become the bride of Christ: so it means death, or love of death, or death under life.’’ True to its origins, the play is filled with images of death, from the opening scene, in which a young woman keeps a vigil over the body of her dead father, to the climax, in which that same young woman is murdered by her obsessed lover. In between is a family drama rich with the symbolism and topical social criticism for which Hare has become well known in more than three decades as one of Britain’s most popular playwrights.
Although the play’s characters and themes are rather complicated, its plot is quite simple. Isobel Glass is a humane, fairly successful small business owner. Her sister, Marion, is a self-centered, fastrising politician in Britain’s Conservative Party government in the 1980s. When their father dies, Isobel is forced to assume the responsibility for their young, reckless, alcoholic stepmother, Katherine. Because of her love and loyalty for her father, Isobel allows Katherine and the others in the play to take advantage of her, and she quickly loses her boyfriend, her business, and ultimately her life.
Hare wrote The Secret Rapture near the end of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s ten years in office. During that time, Hare suggests, the rich got much richer, while the rest suffered more and more. Still, the play is much less about politics than some of Hare’s earlier work. The relationships between the characters, and Isobel’s singular morality, are the real driving forces. The Secret Rapture is available in The Secret Rapture and Other Plays, by David Hare, published by Grove Press in 1998.
Act I, Scene i
The Secret Rapture begins in near darkness. Isobel Glass is seated quietly next to the deathbed of her father, Robert Glass, who died only a few hours before. Although the family has gathered together downstairs to mourn and to begin making funeral arrangements, Isobel decided she needed some peaceful time alone with her father and her thoughts.
Her calm is interrupted by her sister, Marion French, who has ventured up to Robert’s bedroom to retrieve a ring she had given him just before his death. In their first exchange, the differences between the two sisters are stark and obvious. Even though Robert was married (to a woman considerably younger than he), Isobel was there nursing him in his final days and hours and even dressed him after he passed away. Marion, on the other hand, had only come to visit a few times. Instead of offering her father companionship, she sought to express her love for him by buying him an expensive ring. She wants it back now, she claims, because she is afraid that Robert’s young wife, Katherine, will sell it, along with everything else in the house, to support her drinking habit.
Marion is clearly agitated—a state that defines her character. She is brusque, judgmental, and quick to anger. Isobel, on the other hand, seems all calmness and concern. She does not criticize Marion for taking the ring or for not being there when their father died. In fact, she goes out of her way to try to comfort her sister. Nevertheless, Marion thinks that Isobel must disapprove of her actions.
The two women are joined by Marion’s husband, Tom French, who has come to bring them back downstairs. Initially, Tom seems to play the part of the peacekeeper. He is extremely religious. He believes that Jesus watches over him, even going so far as to help him when he has car trouble. He tries to reassure the sisters by telling them their father is now ‘‘in the hands of the Lord.’’ As Marion’s anger at both Isobel and Katherine rises, he refuses to take sides, calmly telling them, ‘‘I’m sure you both must be right.’’ But Marion will not be calmed. Although Isobel has not raised her voice or said a single cross word against her sister, Marion insists that she makes her feel as if she is always in the wrong, and she storms out of the room.
Sensing that Tom is embarrassed by his wife’s actions, Isobel points out that it is probably part of Marion’s grieving process. Tom comments that Marion gets angry frequently, even though she seems to have everything she could want. She is a member of Britain’s successful Conservative Party government and is probably destined for a highlevel cabinet position. Since they seem to be making a meaningful personal connection, Isobel asks Tom for a favor. She explains that she cares about her sister very much and wants Tom to let her know if Marion should ever become seriously angry with her. Tom agrees, and the two leave together to join the rest of the family outside in the garden.
A few days later, Isobel, Marion, Tom, and Katherine are gathered on the late Robert Glass’s lawn, just after his funeral. Since Robert never attended church, Isobel had located a priest for the service who did not know him. Although she provided the man considerable information about her father, apparently he used very little of it and somehow got much of the rest wrong. None of the family members is happy with the service.
While they reflect on the afternoon, a number of Robert’s neighbors from the village stop by to pay their respects, but the family agrees they would prefer to be left alone. Isobel greets the mourners at the door to let them know the family’s wishes and suggests that they all go down to a nearby pub.
With the service ended and the guests ushered away, Marion launches a conversation about what the future holds for Katherine. They have all been wondering what she might do with herself and with the modest estate she has inherited from her husband. Katherine admits she has led a reckless and often irresponsible life. She has faced a drug problem, is suffering from alcoholism, and has never found a proper career or even held a job for long. However, she maintains that her time with Robert changed her and that she is ready to straighten up and face the future. She announces that she will go to work with Isobel.
Isobel is as surprised as any of the others to hear about Katherine’s plans. They had not discussed such an arrangement, and Isobel’s small graphic arts firm only employs three people with limited business. Katherine, though, has recognized a trait in Isobel that will not allow her to say no to someone in need. It is a trait that will eventually be her downfall.
Just as the conversation is getting serious, Marion’s cell phone rings, and she takes the call. Her action reveals important facets of her character: she is a borderline workaholic, more committed to her career than her family and not very sensitive to the feelings of those around her. Even Katherine complains about her rudeness. She says that she must tell everyone she meets that Marion is only her ‘‘stepdaughter’’ and that she has nothing to do with Marion’s awful connection to the politics and greed of the Conservative Party. The politics of the characters in The Secret Rapture are another way Hare compares and contrasts them with each other. Marion and Tom are successful ‘‘Tories,’’ members of Britain’s Conservative Party, which was in power throughout the 1980s under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To the extent that they are political at all, the other characters in the play, including Isobel and Katherine, seem to detest the Conservatives and their greed and may be more sympathetic to Britain’s Labour Party.
After Marion heads off into the house, the others discuss Katherine’s bombshell announcement that she intends to go to work with Isobel. Katherine is prepared to pack up and go to stay with Isobel that very night, but Isobel is unprepared to commit to offering Katherine a job. Isobel’s uncertainty brings out Katherine’s vulgar side. Dying for a drink and frustrated that she is not getting her way, Katherine curses Isobel and tells her she is a fraud for pretending she is decent and caring when she is really just like all the rest. Then she storms into the house.
A moment later, Marion appears, finished with her call. She tells Tom and Isobel that Katherine is inside with a bottle of liquor she had stashed under a floorboard, complaining that Isobel won’t give her a job. Tom goes inside to try to take the alcohol away, leaving the two sisters together.
Marion blames Isobel for Katherine’s tantrum and her return to drinking, telling her all she really had to do to help was pretend to go along with Katherine’s plans. Isobel objects that dishonesty is no way to help the situation and asks why Marion couldn’t offer her a position somewhere. Of course, Marion has an easy out. ‘‘Don’t be ridiculous,’’ she tells her sister. ‘‘I’m in the Conservative Party. We can’t just take on anyone at all.’’
As the women argue, Katherine returns, followed quickly by Tom. She is calmer and more contained now that she has had a few drinks, and she tells everyone the story of how she and Robert Glass met. She was in a bar in another town, drunk and trying to pick up men. She had been at it, she says, for weeks. Robert showed up and took her back to his house in Gloucestershire and let her stay in the spare room. They became fond of each other, and eventually she married the much older man. ‘‘People say I took advantage of his decency,’’ Katherine admits. ‘‘But what are good people for? They’re here to help the trashy people like me.’’
Again, Katherine’s words are prophetic—Isobel will soon go to work where her father left off. She relents and tells Katherine that she can come to London and start to work with her the next day.
The third scene begins a few weeks later in Isobel’s studio in London. Isobel and her partner, Irwin, are working on a new project: a book called the Encyclopedia of Murder. Irwin is trying to complete a graphic illustration of a gunshot wound. As they work and talk, a letter slides under the door. It is a letter of resignation from Gordon, the third employee in the firm. Irwin reveals that Gordon is resigning for a couple of reasons: he is secretly in love with Isobel and can no longer stand working so close to her, knowing he cannot have her; and he can’t stand Katherine’s abusive behavior in the workplace. In just a few short weeks, it seems, Katherine is already wreaking havoc in Isobel’s life.
Irwin is also in love with Isobel, though it is different for him, he claims, because, unlike Gor don, ‘‘I have you.’’ Later, Irwin’s possessiveness of Isobel will take on significant and serious meaning. For now, he just expresses a loyalty and a love that cause him to remain, in spite of Katherine, who may be ruining the company and their relationship.
Suddenly, Katherine appears with armfuls of flowers. Though she says she bought them from a man out front, predictably she has not paid him yet and dispatches Irwin to settle her bill. While he is gone, she announces to Isobel that she has sold Robert’s house and plans to use the money to buy a flat in London, just around the corner from the studio. On top of this ‘‘good news,’’ she says she has secured an exclusive eighteen-month contract to design the book covers for one of their publishers. All she had to do, she explains, was take the older man out to dinner and flirt...
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