Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840

David Hare’s The Blue Room has been ‘‘freely adapted’’ from Dr. Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, which in turn was based on a series of two-character sketches Schnitzler wrote in 1896 entitled Reigen . At the time, Schnitzler’s scenes were deemed near pornographic. The author claimed he never intended his...

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David Hare’s The Blue Room has been ‘‘freely adapted’’ from Dr. Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, which in turn was based on a series of two-character sketches Schnitzler wrote in 1896 entitled Reigen. At the time, Schnitzler’s scenes were deemed near pornographic. The author claimed he never intended his sketches to be performed publicly but simply to be shared among friends. When the vignettes were finally pulled together on the stage for the first time in Vienna in 1921, police closed the performance. The same year, in Berlin, actors performing the work were hauled into court and subjected to a trial on obscenity charges. In a social turnabout years later, director Max Ophuls’s 1950 film version of La Ronde, became a cult classic, an appealing blend of nostalgia, enchantment, and titillation.

Sex still sells, and when word went out in 1998 that the well-known screen siren Nicole Kidman was starring in The Blue Room, and that she would be naked, or nearly so, in almost every scene, the New York run of the play opened with $4 million in advance ticket sales. Scalped tickets sold for hundreds of dollars a seat, and much of the criticism leveled at the work in the popular press surrounded the production’s hype (and Kidman’s semi-clothed body) rather than the play’s literary worth.

For all its promise of sexual stimulation, though, review after review pointed out that one of the actual aims of the play seemed to be to illustrate how tawdry and unsatisfying sex often is. Charles Isherwood wrote in Variety, ‘‘For all the steamy sexual traffic onstage, watching the play is a chilly, empty experience.’’ In LI Business News, Richard Scholem noted ‘‘The point of Hare’s adaptation seems to be the vapidness and emptiness of often mechanical sex. That the anticipation and pursuit of sex, the precoital shadow boxing that takes place before consummation generates more excitement, hope and interest than the act itself, which is most often an empty disappointment, sometimes a comical fiasco.’’ In the New York Times Ben Brantley suggested Hare’s main point was that ‘‘sex would always have been better somewhere else, at some other time, with another person; erotic satisfaction is a chimera, the elusive quarry of an eternal and fruitless hunt.’’

In The Blue Room, the hunt is indeed everything, and most critics agreed the parade of characters who participate in the daisy chain of sexual affairs was one of the most appealing features of the play. As a playwright, Hare is particularly known for his intimate, multi-dimensional, sympathetic female characters. Many of his plays center around women with strong, forceful personalities (The Secret Rapture, Plenty, and Skylight are just three examples). Accordingly, a common note sounded by reviewers about the various characters in The Blue Room was that, in every instance, the female parts were much more varied and interesting than the male ones.

‘‘The Cab Driver, Student, Politician, Playwright and Aristocrat . . . are rather boorish, macho types,’’ Scholem observed, ‘‘not nearly as juicy, complex or even mysterious as the female parts.’’ Brantley wrote, ‘‘Mr. Glen [Iain Glen, who played all the male roles] has the harder row to hoe of the two stars, since the men of The Blue Room tend to be blind and fatuous, swaggering macho jokes with little redeeming self-consciousness.’’

While London critics raved about the sensuality and excitement of the play (one critic for the Daily Telegraph famously dubbed Nicole Kidman ‘‘pure theatrical Viagra’’), American reviewers were generally less impressed with the work. ‘‘A shrug, and an occasional worldly chuckle, is pretty much all that The Blue Room elicits,’’ lamented Brantley, ‘‘The entire evening is not unlike Ms. Kidman’s much-discussed body: smooth, pale and slender.’’ Also in the New York Times, Frank Rich complained, ‘‘The director, Sam Mendes, and adapter David Hare lent The Blue Room their cachet, but not their best efforts.’’ The Blue Room ‘‘is a lightweight piece by a heavyweight playwright,’’ proclaimed Scholem.

Perhaps seeking an excuse for why such a successful playwright might have floundered on this project, Rod Dreher suggested in the National Review that ‘‘this dreary, vapid, airless evening of theater is such a depressingly accurate reflection of our time.’’ To Dreher, audiences deserved what they got as a result of the society they had created. He continued:

I screw, therefore I am. Sex is certainly an ignoble basis for metaphysics, but who can deny that it’s the one most people these days seem to swear by? When a society becomes unmoored from traditional religious belief or moral idealism, and in the absence of social stigma as an external reinforcement of inwardly held virtue, it is no surprise that the sex instinct will assert its rule as if by divine right. And a society in which the cheap thrills of celebrity and quickie sex are sovereign is a society willing to pay anything for the chance to see a famous actress’s rear end in shallow, pseudo highbrow erotica which can’t even boast of a positive review in the Times.

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Essays and Criticism