Christopher Hampton Critical Essays

Hampton, Christopher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hampton, Christopher 1946–

An English dramatist, Hampton has written several successful plays and has adapted for contemporary productions plays by Babel, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Molière. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

It is probably unfair to fault Mr. Hampton for tedium, since he seems to have deliberately made tedium an element of ["Total Eclipse"], but three solid hours—episode after episode—of alcoholic bickering and teasing and fighting and coupling are too much…. There are no heroics, no sentimentality, no justifications in the script, but, unfortunately, there is no life, either, in its action or characters…. "Total Eclipse" also shares the weaknesses of most documentaries—those chunks of exposition wedged into the dialogue and the tyranny of chronology.

Edith Oliver, "Dropouts," in The New Yorker, March 11, 1974, pp. 102, 104.

Hampton … fares less than well with Total Eclipse, a play about Verlaine and Rimbaud…. It is perilous to put great writers on the stage because (a) the parts of the play in quotation marks tend to outstrip the author's verbiage; (b) the biographical facts are too familiar to civilized playgoers; and (c) the lives of great writers tend not to be all that interesting—it is their writings that matter, but these cannot readily become part of a play. To deal with "a," Hampton chose for his principals poets, and so could put their words not only into quotation marks, but also, as it were, into italics, and could assume that they and his prose were modes sufficiently apart to disinvite comparison. To deal with "b" and "c," he picked lives that are not all that well known to Anglo-American audiences, and that were quite unconventional and violent enough to provide dramatic excitement.

Shrewd strategy for a 22-year-old dramatist, [but] still the play—despite its earnestness, literacy, and rapid movement—fails to ignite…. And the very scrupulous sticking to known facts and utterances, alas, works against Hampton: enough is known about the subject to curb the fancy, but not enough to flesh out a three-act play. If only he had permitted himself some dramatic license, and invented! Finally, there is no contact, as Hampton presents them, between these poets' lives and their works. We would expect the poetry, if not to illuminate the lives, at least to become illuminated by them; but the two remain obdurately separate entities.

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), March 11, 1974, p. 84.

[The] documentation of the Rimbaud-Verlaine affair in Total Eclipse offers not much more than facts. And facts, as someone has said, are fools: they do not themselves reveal truth. If we know little about the background of this "Eclipse," we learn not much more from it than that certain famous French poets were insane wretches given to spoiling their own and other lives.

Quotations from various of Verlaine's and Rimbaud's writings are of no avail: they do not help shape the proceedings to a cogent meaning. Though there is some violence, along with dashes of acrid humor and some tints of local color, there is no genuine dramatic movement in the play.

Harold Clurman, in The Nation, March 16, 1974, p. 348.

Hampton's achievement [in Total Eclipse] is to remind us that the artist keeps reviewing his past and seeing more than an array of completed and incomplete works. He also sees a life that may, in retrospect, seem shapeless or unacceptable to him. Like it or not, he is engaged in the twofold creation of his art and himself. For Rimbaud, the extreme Symbolist, relying on dreams and the unconscious for inspiration, the poet cannot allow his life to accumulate by a series of accidents. He must mold it, and from this purposeful creation art will emerge naturally.

Verlaine, however, is temperamentally unable to lead the bold, unapologetic life Rimbaud tempts him with….

The material of this celebrated relationship is never less than fascinating. But Hampton's dramatic techniques do not seem consistently worthy of it. The play's structure is old-fashioned, if not commercial. It leans unnecessarily on quasi-documentary and explanatory effects, such as the announcement of each scene's place and time. Total Eclipse strikes one as being much more dated than, say, Baal, for which Brecht, in 1918, found an unorthodox dramatic form that superbly accommodated its Rimbaud-like hero.

Albert Bermel, in New Leader, April 1, 1974, p. 23.

[A] significant play by an important young writer … is [Savages, by] Christopher Hampton, one of the best of the young British playwrights. By taking as his theme the hair-raising genocide carried out on the Brazilian Indians of the upper Amazon, Hampton has risked a tricky chemical compound—mixing his gift for sophisticated, mordant irony with the stirrings of his social and political conscience.

If the result of this blend is unstable, it does not lack for power and theatrical effect. In "Savages" history is an obscene juggernaut—its characters are representatives of historical forces rather than real people, and all of them except the Indians come across as selfish, blind, helpless or homicidal….

Hampton attempts, with more success than might have been expected, to turn an act of political conscience into art.

Martin Kasindorf, "Killing Ground," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1974, p. 91.

What is most noteworthy about The Philanthropist is not its smooth and witty writing, nor the unexpected turns Hampton uses when excessive wordiness threatens to strain our attention, but the creation of a character who is usually accounted undramatically flaccid and who Hampton has nevertheless made entirely worth concern.

He is called Philip, a professor of philology, but no fool. The author is at ease with such folk and does not treat the type as an oddball. He neither reveres nor condescends to the man. Theatrically speaking, what is special about Philip is his mild nature, awkward but gracious, kindly without gush, good without self-consciousness; but he has one marked flaw: benevolence to the point of indecisiveness….

We are not urged to commiserate with him; we even laugh at him. Yet we do feel for him, seeing that he lives in the [contemporary] jungle in which his virtues are not apt to win even the most modest prizes of companionship or marriage.

Though constantly engaging, the play is yet immature in craftsmanship. It begins by way of a prologue with a funny but irrelevant coup de théâtre, and continues with reams of conversation, amusingly representative of smart talk in educated London circles. At first I thought that what I was to see was a sophisticated version of a Neil Simon comedy. But in the latter half of the play—particularly in the passages where Philip is confronted by the girl who has seduced him only to find him a dud—and then by the girl who gives him up because of his unassertiveness—the evening comes into happy focus. There is later some further over-discursive wobbling but the final moments are perceptive and touching.

Harold Clurman, "London" (1970) in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 238-42.