Christopher James Hampton is outstanding as one of the modern British playwrights because of his linguistic skills, his ability to write original plays and adaptations from other works as well as translations, and his versatility of theme.
Hampton, the son of Bernard Patrick and Dorothy (Herrington) Hampton, was born in the Azores islands, where his father was an engineer. He spent his childhood in Aden and Alexandria, Egypt, as well as in Zanzibar. When he was ten years old, the Suez crisis erupted, and he and his mother were forced to flee from Egypt to England. Although he has traveled much since then, he makes his home in England. In 1971 he married Laura de Holesch, a social worker, and they had two daughters.
As a child living in Egypt Hampton saw his first stage play and was immediately enraptured by drama. At the age of eight, he wrote a short play as a school exercise. Later, in England, his love of drama increased as he was able to see performances and read plays, including those of Arthur Miller and John Osborne. He became acquainted with David Hare, also a future playwright.
Hampton’s first published play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, was written when he was only eighteen years old and performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1966, to excellent reviews. As he continued writing for the theater, he pursued his degree at Oxford. However, he took time out for a stint in Hamburg, Germany, where he improved his German. He also spent time in Brussels and Paris, where he worked on his French and studied the French poets, especially Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. During that time he worked as a translator and wrote his second play, Total Eclipse, which was also performed at the Royal Court, in 1968.
Hampton’s original plays have seen a large measure of success, but he is perhaps best known for his translations and adaptations of the works of others. His translations of Henrik Ibsen’s plays are widely accepted as the best translations in English and often used in performing these works. His translations of the works of Ödön von Horváth have made that Hungarian author writing in German known to many for the first time in English. Hampton’s best-known work is not a translation but an adaptation of a French novel by Cholderlos de Laclos called Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1781; Dangerous Acquaintances, 1784; better known as Dangerous Liaisons). Hampton also wrote the screenplay when this popular drama was made into the 1998 film Dangerous Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears.
Hampton’s style is that of the modern playwright who eschews the melodramatic and the overly romantic to portray incidents in the lives of the protagonists. His language is witty and cultured but never allowed to take the place of action and motivation. Although Hampton writes on a wide range of topics, including everything from captor and captive in Brazil in Savages to life in aristocratic France on the eve of the French Revolution to modern students at a British University, his work is always about the privileged of society, or at least those who have had society’s advantages. Language and language skills are not only valued in his works but also ridiculed, as in The Philanthropist. His connection to other writers, poets and playwrights especially, is part of the strength of his plays. In Total Eclipse he analyzes the love relationship between two poets, Rimbaud and Verlaine, and the effects of their relationship on their respective writings.
Hampton cannot be classified a social activist, but in his works he shows concern for social issues of the times, very obviously in plays such as Savages and less obviously in others such as Treats. His plays frequently start with visual metaphors which establish the theme and introduce the content. In The Secret Agent, he begins with a cab driver beating a weary horse and shows the characters of the others through this incident. In Dangerous Liaisons, the silhouette of a guillotine is seen through the window as the curtain closes on the end of the wasted lives of the aristocracy as the sun sets on the ancien régime, thus ending the play with a visual metaphor.
Awards have followed Hampton’s works, almost from the start. Included are the following: In 1970, he received the Evening Standard award for best comedy; in 1971, a Tony Award for best play and best author and was Variety’s Most Promising Playwright; in 1973, the Plays and Players London Theatre Critics’ Award for best play; in 1974, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award; in 1987, a Tony Award nomination; and in 1988, the Academy Award for best screenplay.
Colby, Douglas. As the Curtain Rises: On Contemporary British Drama, 1966-1976. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1978. Introduction develops the concept of drama as visual metaphor as well as devices used by modern dramatists. Hampton is one of the three dramatists whose work is analyzed in detail.
Free, William J. Christopher Hampton: An Introduction to His Plays. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1994. Overview of Hampton’s works and themes.
Glaap, Albert-Reiner. “Translating, Adapting, Re-writing: Three Facets of Christopher Hampton’s Works as a Playwright.” In Drama on Drama: Dimensions of Theatricality on the Contemporary British Stage, edited by Nicole Boireau. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Shows, with examples, the skills Hampton portrays in these three facets of his works.
Gross, Robert, ed. Christopher Hampton: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1990. Overview and analysis of a number of Hampton’s major plays up to the time this book was written.
Hollinger, Karen. “Losing the Feminist Drift: Adaptations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Literature/Film Quarterly 27, no. 3, (1996): 293-300. Analysis of Hampton’s adaptation of Laclos’s story into film and the change of emphasis.
Phillips, Gene D. “To Sup on Horrors: Christopher Hampton’s Film Version of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent.” Literature/Film Quarterly 27, no. 3 (1999): 173-177. Comparison of Conrad’s book with Hampton’s screenplay, showing how Hampton faithfully put this dark story to film.