Suzanne Moore (review date 9 June 1989)

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SOURCE: “Fatal Fantasies,” in New Statesman & Society, June 9, 1989, pp. 43-4.

[In the following unfavorable review of Paris by Night, Moore discusses Hare's portrayal of right-wing women and sexual difference.]

Democracy works in mysterious ways. So mysterious in fact that in the week that we are supposed to elect our EuroMPs, most of us don’t have a clue about which of this faceless bunch of bureaucrats is supposed to represent us. But if my EuroMP looked like Charlotte Rampling I think I’d remember her.

In David Hare’s new film Paris by Night she plays such a creature. As Clara Paige, up and coming darling of the right, she is an ambitious EuroMP who appears to have it all. Her political philosophy is as immaculate as her clothes. Her image is of a successful Tory career woman, a woman who instinctively knows about hard work, ambition and the need for order.

Typically the price of her brilliant career—even in the work of a right-on dramatist such as Hare—is a messy private life. Apart from a hopeless alcoholic husband, Gerald (the wonderful Michael Gambon), Clara is plagued by anonymous telephone calls. In the middle of the night, a male voice breathes down the line, “I know who you are. I know what you’re doing.” Could this be Michael Swanton, a one-time business partner ruined by Gerald, who is trying to blackmail her? Or someone else?

Clara escapes through her work to Paris, to a conference where her brisk, but charming, manner wins over not only her colleagues but a young industrial designer, Wallace (Iain Glenn). She has dinner with him at his brother-in-law’s house: this is where we see Hare’s impossibly romanticised view of an extended family: good food, agreeable argument, witty conversation and sweet French kids. The richness of this scene provides an overstated and oversimplified contrast to Clara’s own impoverished family life, yet seems characteristic of a film which, while appearing to be a sophisticated indictment of Thatcherism, relies almost entirely on sloppy sixties ideas.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of Rampling’s character. Clara Paige is duplicitous, not simply because that’s the nature of politics, but because that’s the nature of women. Thus, like our leaderine herself, Clara can be the best man for the job. The right-wing woman provides an excuse for the insidious misogyny so well practised by members of that protected species—the lefty playwright.

Hare also uses a form—that of the noirish thriller—in which it is almost compulsory for the strong female character to be obliterated. But Rampling must be used to being destroyed in just about every film she appears in. Paris provides a backdrop for her downfall, as visually stunning as Rampling’s face, shot for much of the time in dramatic close-up. But even this cannot compensate for some appalling dialogue which may well sound meaningful on stage but, as a film script, is awkwardly pretentious.

“I shall walk around Paris all night,” says Clara significantly after her date with Wallace. On her stroll she meets Swanton and pushes him in the Seine. Woman just can’t help acting on impulse even if it means murder. The plot, as you may have gathered, gets as bloated as the body that is fished out of the river. Clara loses her cool as she tries to rationalise what she has done. Only Wallace knows the truth, but after a couple of love scenes, he is not going to tell.

And we are back to that old chestnut—the difference between private lives and public morality, which has never struck me as...

(This entire section contains 942 words.)

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solely a problem for Tory politicians. What I object to, however, in this film is the way that this everyday conflict is played out through one-dimensional notions of sexual difference.

This successful working woman is successful because she represses traditionally feminine qualities. She says at one point that she hates shapelessness, promiscuity, softness. Her hardness, her relentless endorsement of the need for strong leadership and self-help is seen somehow as a denial of herself rather than as a consciously chosen worldview. It is only with Wallace that she reveals her other side.

For Hare this contradiction is what destroys her. And yet, as long as left-wing men such as Hare continue to articulate the machinations of conservative ideology and femininity in such a crass way, right-wing women will remain little more than fantasy figures. Conservatism is not some mutation from “natural” femininity or some kind of hormone imbalance that upsets the ability of women to vote Labour!

It goes without saying that right-wing women are much more than fantasies. They may well also, however, have a better understanding of the political nature of the fantasies constructed around power and gender than their critics. Fantasy has no problem at all with contradiction. Countless commentators have pointed out the inconsistencies in Thatcher’s public persona—but this has not diminished her position. She and her imitators seduce by denying sexual difference and promising an imaginary resolution of it by, as Bea Campbell, says uniting, “patriarchal and feminine discourses”.

In the limited and linear thought of certain parts of the left, this unity is a contradiction in terms and therefore not theoretically viable (as though contradiction is somehow an untenable and unliveable phenomenon). Practically, it sustains some of our most powerful politicians and popular fictions.

Maybe that’s why David Hare’s “heroine” ends up riddled with bullet holes, while both Mrs Thatcher and Alexis Colby/Dexter can wear a string of paradoxes around their necks as if they were pearls.


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David Hare 1947-

English dramatist, screenwriter, essayist, interviewer, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Hare's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 29 and 58.

Hare distinguished himself during the 1970s as a playwright concerned with contemporary social and political issues. Considered one of the most literate of his generation of British dramatists, his works often reveal his attraction to socialism and frequently address such concerns as post-imperial Britain and the destructive nature of Britain's class system. Hare's plays typically revolve around individuals who find themselves incapable of changing either society or themselves. As a playwright, Hare uses “subversive art” to compel audience members to examine their conventional beliefs. Highly regarded for their wit and technical construction, Hare's dramas are widely praised for the variety of subjects they address and for employing complex characterization to contrast aspects of social good and evil.

Biographical Information

Hare was born June 5, 1947, the second child of a passenger-ship purser and his wife, in St. Leonards, located in Sussex, England. The family later moved to the resort town of Bexhill-on-Sea. Hare was sent as a scholarship boarder to Lancing College, a public school (a British “public” school is equivalent to a “private” school in the United States). He then studied English at Cambridge University's Jesus College, receiving his M.A. degree with honors in 1968. That same year, Hare and Tony Bicat founded the Portable Theatre, an experimental touring group that performed in sites such as storefronts and gymnasiums. Several playwrights associated with the Portable Theatre are referred to as the “Fringe Playwrights” because they expressed their politically radical views in small London theaters. Hare and Bicat staged a one-act dramatization of Kafka's Diaries, which they called Inside Out (1968), as the Portable Theatre's first play. The following year, Hare was appointed literary manager at the Royal Court Theatre, which staged his first play, How Brophy Made Good (1969). During this time, Hare began directing plays by other writers, including Howard Brenton and David Mowat. Slag (1970), which opened at the Hampstead Theatre Club, earned Hare an Evening Standard drama award, as did Pravda (1985), which he co-wrote with Brenton. In 1970, Hare was named resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre. That same year, he married Margaret Matheson, with whom he shares three children; the couple divorced in 1980. After years of working in fringe theaters, Knuckle (1974), Hare's first play to open in the West End (London's equivalent of Broadway), premiered; it received the 1974 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was designated by the Times Literary Supplement as one of the best political plays of the new generation of writers. Also in 1974, Hare, together with playwright David Aukin and director Max Stafford-Clark, founded the Joint Stock Theatre Group, a company dedicated to uniting actors, writers, and directors in a spirit of creativity. One of Joint Stock's first productions was Fanshen (1975), which Hare adapted from a book by William Hinton. This play was followed by the televised production of Brassneck (1973), which Hare co-wrote with Brenton. Plenty (1978), Hare's breakthrough success in the United States, was performed in New York for the first time in 1982. In 1984, Hare began his long association with the National Theatre in London. In his third decade as a playwright, Hare released a trilogy on British institutions: Racing Demon (1990), Murmuring Judges (1991), and The Absence of War (1993). Following the spring Broadway opening of The Judas Kiss (1998), the 1998-99 Broadway theater season saw Hare accomplish the rare feat of opening three plays during the same season: The Blue Room (1998), Amy's View (1998), and Via Dolorosa (1998).

Major Works

Hare's writings consistently consider moral, ethical, and political issues. His first drama, How Brophy Made Good, offers a satirical look at the corruption that visits a left-wing intellectual after he finds success as a television personality. Slag (“gals” spelled backward), his next play, focuses on three female teachers at an English public school who challenge the institution's traditions and leadership to no avail. Through the decline of the school, Hare sought to represent the disintegration of British society. Inspired by the 1964 Labour government's failure to honor its campaign promises, The Great Exhibition (1972) explores the British political system. The play centers on a shallow politician who has been expelled from Parliament and subsequently spends his time exposing himself in a park. Knuckle, a parody of the thriller genre, involves an arms dealer investigating the disappearance of his sister. The drama explores the corruption of individuals by materialism and violence. Hare was inspired to write Plenty after reading M. R. D. Foot's book about Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents working behind enemy lines during World War II. The resulting play depicts the decline of a young woman, Susan Traherne, after she returns home from her work as an SOE agent. Disappointed by life in postwar Britain (“plenty” refers to the prosperity envisioned after the war), Susan suffers emotionally and wreaks havoc on the lives of those around her. The Secret Rapture (1988) describes the relationship between two sisters, a junior Tory Minister and a small-business owner. Following the death of their father, the latter sister is taken advantage of by her family, who strip her of her business. Hare's next drama, Racing Demon, begins a trilogy continued with Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War. The trilogy examines the deterioration of three British institutions—the Church of England, England's criminal justice system, and the Labour Party, respectively. In Racing Demon, the Reverend Lionel Espy, leader of an inner-city team ministry, faces removal by his bishop in favor of a less-liberal, more-evangelical priest. Murmuring Judges focuses on Gerard, a resident of Belfast who becomes a criminal in an effort to support his family. When Gerard is arrested on his first job, his accomplices are threatened with being framed by a detective on a drug charge. Taking as its starting point the Labour Party's loss of the 1992 election, The Absence of War, in turn, examines a desperate Labour election campaign. The party's leader, George Jones, however, is straitjacketed from presenting the qualities needed to win the election by the very image of reserved respectability that he has carefully built up. Hare published his research notes and behind-the-scenes interviews for the trilogy in Asking Around (1993). Hare's next play, Skylight (1995), contrasts self-interest and social commitment through the relationship of a wealthy restaurant owner and his former mistress, a schoolteacher, whom he pursues anew after the death of his wife. The Blue Room, one of the three Hare plays to open on Broadway during the 1998-99 season, is a loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, and revolves around the relationships of five sets of lovers. Amy's View depicts the decline of a theater star just as her daughter's vulgar husband finds success as a movie director. Taking the stage for the first time in decades, Hare himself performed in Via Dolorosa, a monologue in which the playwright considers the numerous contradictions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition to these works, Hare has adapted plays by Bertolt Brecht and Anton Chekhov and written screenplays for several films, including Paris By Night (1988), Strapless (1989), and Damage (1992). Hare has also published several prose works, including the essay collection Writing Left-Handed (1991) and the memoir Acting Up (1999).

Critical Reception

In a career spanning more than three decades, Hare has consistently managed to elicit the attention of critics due to the strong political and moral content of his plays and his great skill as a dramatist. During the 1990s, he firmly established himself as a dominant presence in contemporary British and American theater with a series of critical and commercial successes. Hare came to the attention of American audiences and critics with Plenty. In London, initial reviews of the play were mixed, but the play gradually began to capture the enthusiasm of audiences, a circumstance that Hare attributed to Kate Nelligan's performance in the leading role. Virtually every critic had something positive to say about Plenty when it moved to New York four years later, where it received a Tony award nomination for best play and a New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play. With The Secret Rapture, Hare was credited with bringing political discussion to the more intimate level of familial relationships. While the play was cited as being the author's most personal work to date, it was also criticized as melodramatic. Writing to the New York Times, Hare took the unusual step (although not the first time for him) of addressing one of his detractors, the drama critic Frank Rich. Both playwright and critic voiced their opinions in several contributions to the Times. The dramas of Hare's British-institution trilogy—Racing Demon,Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War—project Hare's power as a playwright to varying degrees of effectiveness. Critics generally agree that Racing Demon is the most successful of the trilogy, citing its humor and its craftsmanship, while Murmuring Judges is regarded as the least effective. The three plays that Hare opened on Broadway during the 1998-99 season also achieved widely different levels of success. Although audiences flocked to see The Blue Room (largely due to the publicity generated around a brief nude scene involving actress Nicole Kidman), it was the least popular with critics, who tended to feel that Hare was unable to draw enough humanity out of Schnitzler's work. While reviewers were more divided in their opinions of Via Dolorosa, critics overall found Amy's View convincing in its complex portrayal of conflicted individuals. When none of the these plays received a Tony Award nomination, a controversy arose on Broadway. In recognition of this neglect, the New York Drama Critics Circle presented Hare with a special award for his contributions to the theatrical season.

Gerald Weales (review date 1 December 1989)

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SOURCE: “Faulty Families,” in Commonweal, December 1, 1989, pp. 671, 676.

[In the following review, Weales discusses the problematic portrayal of the female protagonist in The Secret Rapture.]

The sound of shotguns can be heard offstage during the final scene of the first act of David Hare’s The Secret Rapture playing at the Barrymore Theatre in New York. When one of the characters grumbles that he had forgotten that country-house England spent its weekends slaughtering innocent animals, his remarks are more than an explanation of the sounds for the audience. The grumbler is a young artist who has just helped sacrifice his company and his boss—Isobel, the woman he loves—to money interests who will destroy the integrity of their design firm by smothering it in the platitudes of financial growth. He may not like to think so, but he has thus allied himself with the weekend hunters, as Isobel, the play’s protagonist, makes clear with the first-act curtain line. “The guns are getting nearer.” Add that the engulfing interests are represented by Isobel’s sister and her brother-in-law, and it becomes clear that The Secret Rapture is another mixture of the psychological and the political, recalling earlier Hare plays like Knuckle (1974), Plenty (1978), and A Map of the World (1983).

There is often a difficulty with Hare heroines. For example, is the protagonist of Plenty an idealist wrecked by society or simply a very destructive woman? In Rapture Hare wants to avoid that kind of ambiguity—as Benedict Nightingale indicates in an interview piece with the playwright (New York Times, October 22)—by insisting on Isobel’s goodness and concentrating on the way it is received. “I’ve noticed that goodness tends to make people shifty, and makes those with bad consciences feel judged even when they’re not being judged at all,” says Hare, who makes that point in Rapture—perhaps more often than necessary—by having the brittle sister, the alcoholic mother-in-law, and the rejected lover react to unvoiced criticism.

However tantalizing as a character, Isobel never achieves the force, the presence of those who surround her. Her desire to withdraw, to find a quiet place (the play begins with her sitting alone in her dead father’s bedroom), and the restraint which she brings to even her most assertive gestures make her a character for whom action is reaction. For this reason, a distance remains between Isobel and her family, her lover and, unfortunately, the audience. Not even Blair Brown’s attractive performance can quite bridge the empathetic divide.

We are to assume that Isobel, who seems a simple character, is in fact a complex one, one who recognizes that the connections among human beings are never easy to define. Her sister Marion has been confused and hurt by a world that she cannot understand—as she says late in the play—and she has chosen to reduce the intricacies of life to encompassing formulas. She has used anger and aggression to impose a bogus rationality on the irrationalities of life. Her choice is a political one. She is an official in the Conservative government and, as Frances Conroy wonderfully plays her, she dresses, speaks, and moves like Margaret Thatcher at her iciest. She is not a parody, but an evocation of the prime minister which gives a clear indication of Marion’s pretend sense of her self and what unquestioning assurance means to contemporary England. Her husband is a born-again Christian who talks of the comfort of Jesus, but whose Christian Industries embraces and then abandons Isobel and her company.

Nightingale says that Hare wants to “draw attention to the unpretentious private good which, he feels, has somehow managed to endure in an increasingly tough, predatory Britain.” Yet, does it endure? The character certainly does not, since Isobel is killed by her lover. At the end of the play, Marion has put aside her Thatcher suit for a gentler black dress of mourning and has restored her father’s living room as it was when he died. Perhaps Isobel’s goodness has broken through Marion’s shell. An invigorating martyrdom? The title describes the ecstasy of that moment when a nun is united with Christ; yet Hare tells Nightingale that he chose it “because it’s about death.” A religious element would be a surprise in Hare’s work unless it were metaphorical, a psychological or political discovery by Marion. Death? Or a living room? The brother-in-law, who says he has been out of touch with Jesus recently, describes the room as a copy of what it was, an uninspirited restoration. At the end, Marion cries out for her sister to come home, but the audience never knows whether or in what form there is an answer.

Principal Works

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How Brophy Made Good (drama) 1969

Slag (drama) 1970

What Happened to Blake (drama) 1970

The Great Exhibition (drama) 1972

Brassneck [with Howard Brenton] (drama) 1973

Knuckle (drama) 1974

Fanshen [adapted from William Hinton's book Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village] (drama) 1975

Teeth ‘n’ Smiles (drama) 1975

Licking Hitler (drama) 1978

Plenty (drama) 1978

Dreams of Leaving (screenplay) 1980

A Map of the World (drama) 1982

The History Plays [contains Knuckle,Licking Hitler, and a revised version of Plenty] (drama) 1984

Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy [with Howard Brenton] (drama) 1985

Wetherby (screenplay) 1985

The Asian Plays [contains Fanshen,Saigon: Year of the Cat, and a revised version of A Map of the World] (drama) 1986

The Bay at Nice and Wrecked Eggs (drama) 1986

Paris By Night (screenplay) 1988

The Secret Rapture (drama) 1988

Strapless (screenplay) 1989

Racing Demon (drama) 1990

Murmuring Judges (drama) 1991

Writing Left-Handed (essays) 1991

Damage (screenplay) 1992

The Early Plays [contains Slag,The Great Exhibition, and Teeth ‘n’ Smiles] (drama) 1992

The Absence of War (drama) 1993

Asking Around: Background to the David Hare Trilogy (interviews) 1993

Skylight (drama) 1995

Mother Courage and Her Children [adaptation of a play by Bertolt Brecht] (drama) 1996

Ivanov [adaptation of a play by Anton Chekhov] (drama) 1997

Amy's View (drama) 1998

The Blue Room: Freely Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde (drama) 1998

The Judas Kiss (drama) 1998

Via Dolorosa (drama) 1998

Acting Up: A Diary (memoir) 1999

John Morrone (review date 8 January 1990)

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SOURCE: “Women in Crisis,” in New Leader, January 8, 1990, pp. 22-3.

[In the following excerpt, Morrone offers an unfavorable assessment of Strapless, finding fault with the film's casting and characterizations.]

Four films concerning women that were presented at this fall’s New York Film Festival are now scheduled for general release. …

Strapless is playwright David Hare’s first film as writer-director to be shown in this country since Wetherby in 1985. The two films are so much alike, however, that you could call the new offering a clone of the earlier one.

Heroine Lillian (Blair Brown) is an American doctor who practices in London because she admires the orderliness of the Socialist medical system. A highly accomplished diagnostician, her respect for facts and procedures masks her dislike of emotionalism—she tends bodies with all the severity that Vanessa Redgrave’s schoolteacher educated minds in Wetherby. Indeed, Lillian’s hospital not only corresponds to Redgrave’s classroom, but the elusive, dishonest lover who enters her life also serves the same purpose as the suicidal visitor to Wetherby. In both movies Hare poises his self-possessed protagonist on the brink of a shocking disruption in her life.

Lillian’s troubles begin when she meets Raymond (Bruno Ganz) in a Portuguese church while on vacation. Quiet, polite, vaguely romantic, he brings off the feat of jolting her out of her chosen solitude and throwing her clearly ordered mind into a tumult. On the verge of being seduced, Lillian protests that she “doesn’t get” this Continental gentleman, yet she is tempted enough to investigate. In love, as in her professional devotion to her patients, she plans to “see it through.”

Lillian’s sister Amy (Bridget Fonda), is another threat to her tidily arranged existence. Brown and Fonda give arresting performances as sisters who just don’t click—one being a tight-lipped WASP, the second a reckless youngster. (The actresses actually do not seem to have much rapport, adding to the tension between their characters). Regrettably, Hare takes this dynamism and makes it schematic and predictable. Lillian gradually finds the nerve to warm up to the mysterious charms of her lover by adopting Amy’s style of meeting things head on. Meanwhile,—you guessed it—Amy finds herself pregnant and finally decides to shape up her wanton life and “see the pregnancy through.”

Little by little Hare robs Lillian of her defenses as neatly as Hitchcock stripped the jewelry from Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat. Her surrender to a different personality, the gamble on love she takes, bewilders her when she discovers that a relationship between a man and a woman is not an equal rational exchange of “giving and getting.” At the same time, the fallout from her romantic confusion affects her attitude toward her work. She finds she cannot give enough to “see through” a terminal patient gripped by pain, and thus feels robbed of the satisfaction she had always gotten in return for her dedication.

In tracking Lillian’s progress toward emotional maturity, Strapless can be literate and engrossing. But the viewer often pays dearly for Hare’s intelligence. The heroines’ parts are cluttered with meticulously cross-referenced Get-and-Give speeches and declarations about Seeing-It-Through that badly try one’s patience. And the casting seems perverse. Ganz’ Raymond is Germanic gloom personified—a huge distraction in this very Anglo-American drama. His slippery performance makes his character so unknowable that locating Raymond’s center ultimately becomes a pointless task. We give up on Lillian’s quest to understand him.

Finally, we give up on Blair Brown, too. For just as the labored turmoil felt by Strapless’ ensemble compares unfavorably to the dour but poignant complexities of Wetherby, Brown is unequal to Vanessa Redgrave in both depth of temperament and range of expression. Considering the film’s theme of accepting our emotional limitations as well as the unfathomable nature of others, the expression on her face is far too inflexible. She does not even rise to the occasion at the finale, when the two sisters appear in strapless evening gowns at a benefit for medical-care workers striking against hospital cutbacks. “Straplessness” is Hare’s metaphor for a woman’s courage to be herself without outside help, with “no visible means of support.” It is ultimately a lesson Lillian learns in spades (maybe she could tell us if her memory is in her shoulders), but Brown’s primness dogs her character. The clothes Lillian stands up in remain starched to the end.

Peter Hebblethwaite (review date 16 February 1990)

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SOURCE: “Pastoral Problems,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 16, 1990, p. 172.

[In the following review, Hebblethwaite offers a positive assessment of Racing Demon.]

God is not mocked, but the Church of England very frequently is. Its demise has often been confidently predicted. David Hare’s play [Racing Demon] presents an inner-city team ministry, across from Westminster, in a way that manages to be compassionate, unsparing and very funny.

This is where the real pastoral work is done. But if the idea is to fill the churches, it doesn’t succeed. Less than 1 per cent of Anglicans attend church on Sundays. The Reverend Lionel Espy, leader of the team, has the kind of resigned cheerfulness often found in such men. The silence of God begins to get him down. He defines a good priest as someone capable of soaking up anger without hitting back: the vicar as punch-bag. He doesn’t believe in cashing in on people’s misfortunes or ramming Jesus down their throats. You have to let people find Christ in their own way and their own time. To preach Christ at a bus-stop, as he once saw a black preacher doing, would be not him.

His Bishop, Southwark, a man of Catholic and dogmatic views, finds Lionel ineffectual. He has lost the old crowd, and there is no new crowd. For Southwark the job of a priest is to do the sacraments in such a way as to keep everyone happy. Lionel has failed this part of the job description.

Lionel’s two assistants, the good-hearted “Streaky” Bacon and the gay Harry Henderson, sense the Establishment at work and waylay the Bishop at the Savoy Grill. He has been got at. A Tory cabinet minister lives in a Georgian terrace in the parish and finds Lionel’s sermons on the poor too “leftie”.

Southwark was dining at the Savoy with Lionel’s new curate, Tony Ferris. Tony gives up sex with the post-Christian Frances Parnell as guilt interferes with his convert’s passion for evangelization. He find’s Lionel’s wetness intolerable, wanting strong convictions, the direct frontal, attack, Bible classes, Billy Graham, advertising campaigns, and all the other things at which public school Englishmen demur. The more supernatural the better: the Virgin Birth, corpses walking out of tombs, and a miraculous cure for AIDS in Kilburn. In the end there will be packed churches.

But the Church of England never chooses between such options. It avoids the crunch and, explains the suffragan Bishop of Kingston, “seeks the maximum of ambiguity combined with the minimum of offence”. The ordination of women puts this fudging under strain. Catholics and Evangelicals come together to oppose it.

For Southwark the ordination of a woman bishop is the last straw. His confrontation with Lionel comes on the day it happens. Southwark, played with pontifical zest by Richard Pasco, is vesting and adds more quivering indignation with each garment. His huge golden cope is outstretched like the wings of a great bird and the mitre finally seals his authority. Poised to lead the Church into schism, he confines himself to seething with anger on the brink, and sacks Lionel. Impotent on the wider level, he performs this act of authority on the one man he thinks won’t fight.

But Lionel puts up as much resistance to wrongful dismissal as he can. Nobody takes his side. Tony has already betrayed him. Kingston breaks a solemn undertaking. “Streaky” swallows his sense of injustice, while Harry retires to Malta after being unjustly accused by a Sunday tabloid of belonging to a “gay mafia”.

So Lionel accepts his fate, looks forward to maybe writing a book and rediscovers his wife, Heather, whom he had been neglecting through all the years of committees and bustle. Oliver Ford Davies brings his diffident charm vividly to life.

If decency were holiness Lionel would be a saint. In a candlelit game of chess Frances finds him a natural loser. The unbeliever has the last word: a sunset is a sunset, and doesn’t have to be claimed for God. Even if he did not agree, Lionel would understand. That is both the strength and weakness of the C of E.

Richard Eyre’s production makes such skilful use of the symbolic possibilities of a cruciform open stage that one wonders why anyone bothered to invent the proscenium arch.

Further Reading

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Gelb, Hal. “Theater.” Nation (2 November 1992): 518-20.

Offers a positive assessment of A Map of the World, though finds fault in the play's Los Angeles production.

Homden, Carol. “The Best Lack All Conviction.” Times Literary Supplement (15 October 1993): 16.

Offers an overview and analysis of Hare's trilogy—The Absence of War, Racing Demon, and Murmuring Judges.

King, Robert L. “Recent Drama.” Massachusetts Review XXXI, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1990): 273-86.

An unfavorable review of The Secret Rapture.

———. “Recent Drama.” Massachusetts Review XXXII, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 147-60.

A positive review of Racing Demon.

Kroll, Jack. “In a Land without Pity.” Newsweek (15 March 1999): 70.

A positive review of Via Dolorosa.

Miller, Barry X. Review of Acting Up.Library Journal (1 November 1999): 84.

Offers a positive assessment of Acting Up.

Morris, Frances. “Underpinnings.” Times Literary Supplement (30 March-5 April 1990): 347.

Offers an unfavorable assessment of Strapless.

Oliva, Judy Lee. Review of The Secret Rapture.Theatre Journal 43, No. 4 (December 1991): 535-36.

Offers a positive assessment of The Secret Rapture and the Chicago production of the play at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Steyn, Mark. “Oscar Nominations.” New Criterion 16, No. 10 (June 1998): 45-9.

Steyn comments on recent dramatizations of Oscar Wilde's life and offers a negative evaluation of The Judas Kiss.

Turner, John. “Ritual Confrontation.” Times Literary Supplement (9 June 1989): 638.

Offers a tempered approval for the film version of Paris by Night.

Wolf, Matt. “The Prime of David Hare.” American Theatre 16, No. 1 (January 1999): 64-6.

Discusses the critical and commercial success of Hare's plays during the 1990s.

Zeifman, Hersh, ed. David Hare: A Casebook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994, 254 p.

A book-length collection of critical essays on Hare's dramatic works.

Additional coverage of Hare's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 39, 91; Drama for Students, Vols. 4, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1.

Douglas Kennedy (review date 23 February 1990)

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SOURCE: “Born Again,” in New Statesman & Society, February 23, 1990, p. 44.

[In the following review, Kennedy cites Hare's Racing Demon as original for its focus on the search for vocation in a vacuous England.]

Jesus is back. Thanks to the wholesale revival of evangelical Christianity in recent years Jesus has been re-established in the public consciousness as one serious dude: a Messiah who offered believers the ultimate deal—a sense of spiritual purpose in temporal life, followed by the guarantee of eternal life in the world hereafter. And as most born again Christians readily admit, the most beguiling aspect of their spiritual rebirth was the fact that it offered them such a profound sense of certainty. The certainty of having a saviour in whom they could place responsibility for the course of their lives. The certainty of having His unconditional love. And, of course, the certainty of being afforded non-stop post-mortem service to the Kingdom of God.

Granted, such spiritual security was not acquired by merely asking Jesus to become their Lord and saviour. They also had to “walk the Christian walk and talk the Christian talk”. Or, to put it another way, they had to attempt to be Christly.

But what exactly is Christliness? To a born again fundamentalist, Jesus’s doctrines—as revealed in the Gospels—must be obeyed to the letter of the law as they are the one true ideology for mankind, and must be foisted upon the world in order to save it from eternal damnation. To a liberal theologian, on the other hand, Jesus’s essence can be found in the way that his teachings provide us with the supreme example of how we should ideally treat each other on the planet. Christliness, therefore, is expressed by the manner in which we conduct our day-to-day existence.

These two disparate interpretations of Jesus’s role in contemporary life have sparked off conflicts and schisms in just about every operative branch of the Christian faith. And it is these two opposing visions of Christliness which are at the thematic centre of David Hare’s remarkable new play, Racing Demon (currently showing at the National Theatre). But though Hare’s play ostensibly concerns itself with the Church of England’s struggle to rediscover some sense of relevance within society today, it ultimately addresses an even larger spiritual question: what, if anything, is the pertinence of the Christian message in late 20th-century life?

For the Reverend Lionel Espy—the central protagonist of Hare’s play—the answer to that question is straightforward: “Christ is in our actions”. To him, his work as an inner-city London priest is all about the pursuit of ethical decency in a harshly compromised world. But expressions of decency, as we all know, have largely fallen on deaf ears during the past ten years of British life, so it’s not at all surprising that Lionel’s bishop (a staunch traditionalist) looks upon him as the worst sort of nannyish liberal imaginable—wracked with self-doubt, disinterested in the sacramental side of his work, and clearly someone who no longer “has the Gospel in him”.

No wonder the bishop is scheming to sack Lionel from his parish. And no wonder he’s taken a shine to the Reverend Tony Ferris—Lionel’s young, evangelically overpowering curate. For Tony is a walking stick of pious gelignite. He’s someone who hasn’t simply adopted Jesus as a spiritual leader, but as his very own commandant in the sky. And, as one of his fellow priests points out, Tony has succumbed to the most dangerous of theological temptations—the illusion of action; the belief that a priest is a failure unless he essentially force-feeds the Gospel to anyone who strays across his path. Doubt, to his mind, is a major sin—so he naturally despises Lionel’s humanistic, anti-evangelical approach to parish work, seeing in it a troubling lack of certainty when it comes to recognising Jesus as the solution to all temporal problems. And he’s willing to destroy Lionel’s life in pursuit of his zealous view that “Christ came not to bring peace but a sword” … and that people must be forced to believe, in order to be saved.

Hare has set off on an expedition into the sort of doctrinal country that can be dramatically treacherous, not to mention long-winded. Yet what is so impressive about Racing Demon is not only its immaculate craftsmanship (for this is an exceedingly well-made play); rather, it is also Hare’s ability to grapple with questions like the need for doubt in religious faith, and turn it into the stuff of compelling theatre.

Then again, as he proved in The Secret Rapture, Mr Hare is exceedingly astute at investing plays-of-ideas with forceful dramatic energy. And in Racing Demon he has written a most original and potent examination of the search for “vocation” in an England that lost its own sense of mission so long ago it can’t remember what it was any more.

Richard Hornby (review date Spring 1990)

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SOURCE: “Political Drama,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 121-29.

[In the following excerpt, Hornby complains of Hare's confused politics and “bad aesthetics” in The Secret Rapture.]

David Hare is a playwright I wish I could like, but I can’t. There are far too few political playwrights in Britain or America these days; the smug conservatives who have run both countries for the past decade certainly need the challenge that Hare provides. As I am writing this, I can look out the window of my apartment and see a homeless person, sleeping or perhaps dead, lying under a few meager blankets to ward off the twenty-degree cold. In the past, there would have been popular dramatists like Brecht or Shaw, or Odets or Miller, to denounce this outrage, to make this person visible and human for us and our leaders. Instead, most playwrights today (especially those performed on Broadway) concern themselves with the personal angst of middle-class characters—Will Heidi get married? Will Johnny land a role in the new musical? Will father agree to go into a nursing home? The social background to these problems remains just that, a background, while politics do not exist.

Hare is a British writer whose plays, by contrast, are in the sociopolitical tradition of Brecht and Shaw. Hare’s latest, The Secret Rapture, is literally about a politician. One of the principal characters, Marion French, is a junior minister in Britain’s Tory government. Married to a born-again Christian, she is the perfect Thatcherite, self-satisfied, ambitious, a free-enterprise zealot, and uncompassionate. “God, I hate all this human stuff,” is one of her typical remarks.

The play begins at the funeral of her father, a humane and gentle bookseller. The other mourners include Marion’s sister, Isobel Glass, and their stepmother Katherine, a young woman the father married late in life. Isobel seems far more her father’s daughter than does Marion, both in her occupation and her attitudes; she runs a small design firm, and is unselfish, decent, and mildly left wing. Katherine, a foul-mouthed alcoholic who is amoral and manipulative, manages to embarrass Marion and to prey on Isobel, wrangling a job from her that the tiny firm can ill afford.

Marion’s husband Tom (president of “Christians in Business”!) talks Isobel into accepting a business deal to expand her firm, which, predictably, leads to its destruction. At the same time, Isobel’s principal designer, Irwin Posner, is desperately in love with her, constantly asking her to marry him. Although he seems a modest, pleasant chap with genuine artistic talent, Isobel finds his love neurotically cloying, and rejects him. In a climactic scene, she is living at her father’s house with Katherine. Afraid that Irwin might be pursuing her, Isobel instructs Katherine to keep the door bolted. Katherine secretly unbolts the door; Irwin walks in on Isobel a few moments later, and, after a bitter argument, takes a gun and shoots her dead. The play ends as it began, with a funeral, at which Marion, shattered and desperate, at last begins to question the sureties that have been guiding her.

The play seemed just as erratic and confused in performance as it does in the above outline. Nothing in Irwin’s behavior before the final scene suggests that he would ever carry a gun, much less kill anyone. And I could never figure out why Katherine unbolts the door; boozy and loutish though she may be, she is previously depicted as a savvy character rather than a fool. Does she do it maliciously? And why would Isobel live with her anyway?

The play’s political attitudes seem equally confused. Part of Isobel’s troubles certainly arise from the machinations of her sister and brother-in-law, and the laissez-faire philosophy that they espouse, but the immediate causes of her death are the actions of Katherine and Irwin, who are apolitical. A root problem with the play is that Isobel is such a passive character, forever having things done to her rather than taking action herself. The conflict between the humane values represented by Isobel and her dead father on the one hand, and the selfish acquisitiveness glorified by Marion and Tom on the other, never really coalesces. The bohemian Katherine and the artistic Irwin might have had important places in the conflict, but instead they seem to float around undefined, until Hare decides to use them to kill off his heroine. The climax ought to have been some kind of confrontation between Isobel and Marion (which would have been all the more effective because they are sisters), rather than this violent deus ex machina.

Such labored, manipulative writing is, alas, typical of Hare. He does a good job of depicting the vulgarity and anomie of Thatcher’s Britain. He is capable of writing an occasional good scene, and occasionally an individual character will come to life, like the Rupert Murdoch figure in Pravda, or the troubled, complex heroine in Plenty, but most of his scenes are dry and talky, while most of his characters are undermotivated or caricatured. During the intermission of the play, I ran into Eric Bentley, who, as usual, made an astute remark: No one would know, from this play, why anyone ever voted for Thatcher. A Brecht or a Shaw would have made Tom and Marion into engaging characters whose philosophy had a sly appeal: Hare makes them buffoons. Also, unlike Shaw or Brecht, he is humorless. Heavy irony, like the bit about “Christians in Business,” is the closest he ever comes to being funny. Laughter, the theorists of comedy tell us, is a social corrective; all the great social playwrights of the past knew how to evoke it. Even Odets and Miller have a good deal more comedy in their plays than is generally realized, but Hare is about as witty as an editorial writer for the Manchester Guardian.

The problems in the script were aggravated in the New York production by the fact that Hare himself directed. I hate to keep faulting him, but facts are facts: As I have noted in the past, he has a poor sense of space, creating awkward movements and meaningless stage pictures. In many instances, actors even covered one another from the audience’s view. Hare repeatedly used upstage center for the main entrance, which is the worst possible place for it to be. Coming in, an actor is thrust immediately into the middle of things, with no chance to “make an entrance”; going out, he or she must turn fully away from the audience. In the shooting scene, Isobel ran out the door up center, slamming it behind her, after which Irwin shot her through the door, an interesting idea, except that the actor was completely covering the door, and the gun, with his body.

The acting was similarly amateurish. Blair Brown did little besides pose and smile as Isobel. Frances Conroy as Marion was coifed and dressed to look like Margaret Thatcher, and spoke like her too. I assume that this was Hare’s idea—he would certainly have had to approve it—because it was typical of his heavy hand generally. It may be plausible that Marion would imitate the Prime Minister, her idol, but wouldn’t someone at least comment on the resemblance? Mary Beth Hurt and Michael Wincott were adequate in the thankless roles of Katherine and Irwin, while Stephen Vinovich played the born-again Tom like a nightclub comic doing a Jim Bakker imitation.

Frank Rich in his New York Times review compared the production unfavorably to the London one, directed by Howard Davies, and attacked the performance of Blair Brown (Hare’s girlfriend, to whom the play is dedicated) even more vigorously than I just did. Hare responded with an angry letter to the Times, and before long a critical free-for-all developed, which culminated in a critic on another publication being suspended! How sad that a play intended as an indictment of our political leaders should end instead in a squabble among critics. But good intentions alone do not a good play make; bad aesthetics are, ultimately, bad politics.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 28 May 1990)

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SOURCE: “Changes,” in New Republic, May 28, 1990, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Kauffmann argues that Hare's dramatic works have taken a change for the worse, especially as evident in Strapless.]

David Hare is going to the bad, which in his case means going to the good. Until recently, most of the work of this English playwright and screenwriter has been sharp, mordant, quietly outraged, intent on dramatizing laconically the compromises and hypocrisies of our time. Such plays as Slag and Plenty and Licking Hitler and A Map of the World, whatever their flaws, held Hare’s world to a rigorous grilling. He often directed his plays, with an imaginative terseness that matched his writing, and he directed his screenplay Wetherby in masterly fashion, a film that showed how a group of people were harrowed variously by a suicide in their midst. Up to now Hare’s very name has evoked an almost Pavlovian response: something by him would be terse, precisely written and directed, politically critical, socially angry.

This has changed. His last play to be seen here, The Secret Rapture, which starred the American actress Blair Brown, saluted the expected Hare qualities but had, for him, an unprecedented vein of pulpiness. His new film Strapless (Miramax), also starring Brown, nods once again to the past Hare, then ties up all its problems tidily in the best of all possible worlds and packages. Obviously an artist has every right to change, but in Hare’s case the change is peculiar. It’s as if he had applied rouge to his previously unadorned work. We can see the vestiges of the past, which make the rouge look all the more artificial.

Since The Secret Rapture and this film were evidently written for Brown and since it’s common knowledge that Hare and Brown have been companions, it’s difficult to avoid the inference that she has been a Good Influence on the forty-three-year-old man. Hare’s private life is, or ought to be, private; but it’s he who has made it public—through his work. His relationship with Brown has apparently impaired his purposes in writing and his judgment as a director. Brown is not nearly as fascinating a personality, as accomplished an actress as he finds her to be; to complete my nastiness, she’s not even as beautiful as his adoring camera implies.

When Hare set out to write a film for Brown, he presumably didn’t want to place it in a country he doesn’t know, her homeland, so he solved the problem easily by making her an American who lives—has lived for twelve years—in London. He wanted to give her an admirable occupation in a field that would help him to dramatize his anti-Thatcherism, so he made her a doctor in a hospital being crippled by governmental budget cuts. He wanted to make her a pillar of strength, so he gave her an irresponsible younger sister, played by Bridget Fonda, who is fiddling with a career is fashion design. He wanted to make her maturely attractive, so he ordained that a mature man, Bruno Ganz, fall in love with her at first sight.

If we add up all the factors, we find that they don’t add up. Many of the subordinate performances are good, and some of the writing is genuine Hare. (Brown goes to a young doctors’ party that’s getting wild and says: “Young doctors are always looking at each others’ genitals. You’d think they’d have had enough of that. I mean, fishmongers don’t come home and look at fish.”) A scene in which Brown visits the school that Ganz attended as a boy, a scene in which she visits his first wife and their twelve-year-old son, are as good as anything in Wetherby.

But these, and a few more moments, are the bits of fruit in a rather soggy pudding. The relationship between Brown and Ganz, who is rich and mysterious, is meant to be deep but is burdened with Ganz’s unlikely madcap gestures. He seems merely uncomfortable in a role to which he was meant to give dark resonance. Brown is reluctant to join a doctors’ protest at the hospital where she has worked for twelve years—ostensibly because she is a foreigner but really because Hare is saving her agreement for the film’s finale. Fonda, passable in her part, is a libidinous sloven who gets pregnant so that Brown will have a chance to blow her top at the news. The contrivances are capped at the end when Brown, for no pressing reason, changes her mind and leads the doctors’ protest; when the arcane Ganz, on his way to flee the country, suddenly changes his mind and returns to Brown; when Fonda suddenly pulls herself together to become a good mother and a successful designer. The film’s title comes from the fact that her gowns are strapless and stay up without visible support. This is repeated so that we get the symbolic point.

And that’s it. After all the deployment of character, all the momentous taciturnity, that symbol is meant to be the point of the picture. It doesn’t even track, let alone serve as a rationale for the upbeat ending.

Well, a new play of Hare’s has opened in London that is reportedly in his authentic vein. Brown isn’t in it. Here’s a hope for Hare’s happy private life and an equal hope that he can keep it separate from his work.

Liorah Anne Golomb (essay date December 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5588

SOURCE: “Saint Isobel: David Hare's The Secret Rapture as Christian Allegory,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, December, 1990, pp. 563-74.

[In the following essay, Golomb examines aspects of Christian religious parable in The Secret Rapture, particularly within the role of the female protagonist.]

If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

(John 15:19)

In his latest play, The Secret Rapture, David Hare has given us a central character, Isobel, who is distinctly not of the world. Even her name, a variant of Elizabeth, has as one of its meanings “consecrated to God.”1 Dramatically, Hare took a great risk in centering his play on Isobel. She is weak, pliable and abused (a stark contrast to Hare’s usual headstrong women such as Susan in Plenty or Peggy in A Map of the World), yet in order for the climax to have any impact, we must feel that something has been accomplished by her destruction, not that she has been one of life’s doormats who deserves what she gets. If Isobel were merely a good woman who could not exist in a corrupt world the necessary sense of loss at her death might not be evoked, but Hare has raised her to the level of saint and martyr. Her death has a purging effect on the other characters, so that while there is loss there is also hope.

Hare begins to establish Isobel’s spirituality in the first moments of the play. Isobel, sitting with the body of her recently deceased father, tells her sister Marion:

There’s actually a moment when you see the spirit depart from the body. I’ve always been told about it. And it’s true. (She is very quiet and still.) Like a bird.2

While Hare develops Isobel’s spiritual nature, he places in contrast to her several varieties of rather earth-bound sinners, each traveling down a different path in search of salvation. Marion, the elder sister, is a Tory junior minister entirely caught up in materialism and the exhilaration of power. It is by way of this character that Hare most directly voices his familiar political dissent. Marion is so extreme in her right-wing views that she needs no opposition to make her look the fool; she is quite capable of doing it herself, as when she proudly relates her retort to members of the Green Party who opposed her standpoint on nuclear energy: “‘Come back and see me when you’re glowing in the dark’” (p. 35).

As we meet Marion she is trying to recover a ring which she had given to her father. In justifying her actions to Isobel (who, significantly, in no way indicates that she requires justification), she explains:

For God’s sake, I mean, the ring is actually valuable. Actually no, that sounds horrid. I apologize. I’ll tell you the truth. I thought when I bought it—I just walked into this very expensive shop and I thought, this is one of the few really decent things I’ve done in my life. And it’s true. I spent, as it happens, a great deal of money, rather more … rather more than I had at the time. I went too far. I wanted something to express my love for my father. Something adequate.

(p. 3)

Marion cannot express her feelings emotionally; instead, she equates love with a valuable object. The speech also puts Isobel in the role of confessor. Marion is driven to confess by her own guilt—guilt which she experiences because she is in the presence of such goodness. Isobel never criticizes Marion, and even agrees that she should have the ring, yet later in the scene we find that Marion is still tormented by guilt:

MARION I’m not going to forgive you.


MARION You’ve tried to humiliate me.

ISOBEL Marion…

MARION You’ve made me feel awful. It’s not my fault about the ring. Or the way I feel about Katherine. You make me feel as if I’m always in the wrong.

ISOBEL Not at all.

MARION Oh, yes. Well, we can’t all be perfect. We do try. The rest of us are trying. So will you please stop this endless criticism? Because I honestly think it’s driving me mad.

(p. 6)

It is Marion who has been seeking forgiveness, indeed, absolution, of Isobel. When she senses that her sins have not been cleansed, she turns her guilt outward and blames the confessor. Saints, it appears, can be very difficult to live with.

The second sinner in Hare’s catalogue is Marion’s husband Tom, a born-again Christian and Chairman of a committee which strives “to do business the way Jesus would have done it” (p. 38). Tom is a rather comical example of one who uses scripture to his own advantage. The Lord has indeed moved in mysterious ways when Tom, in the first scene, explains to Isobel how the Lord Jesus delivered the exact automobile parts he needed in order to repair his car so that he could give Marion the news of her father’s death:

TOM [ … ] I go to the car. Won’t start. I open the bonnet. Spark-plug leads have perished. I can’t believe it. I think, what on earth am I going to do? Then I think, hey, six days ago an old mate called in and left, in a shopping bag, a whole load of spare parts he’d had to buy for his car. (He smiles in anticipation of the outcome.) And, you know, as I go in and look for it, I tell you this, I don’t have a doubt. As I move towards the bag. I’ve never looked inside it and yet I know. It’s got so I know. I know that inside that bag there is going to be a set of Ford Granada leads. And then you have to say, well, there you are, that’s it, that’s the Lord Jesus. He’s there when you need him. I am looked after.

(pp. 7–8)

In addition to exploiting his comic value, Hare uses Tom to highlight Isobel’s authentic Christian existence, which, interestingly, does not seem to include Christ. Isobel rather rejects Christian ideology at every turn. She is politely skeptical of Tom’s faith, but more significantly, she fights against being placed in the roles of saint, martyr and savior which the other characters in the play, particularly her lover Irwin, would have her take on. Her strongest denial of these roles occurs in her last scene as she rejects Irwin’s desperate effort to reinstate himself into her graces:

ISOBEL [ … ] And you have this idea that I can’t accept.

IRWIN What’s that? (She looks hard at him a moment).

ISOBEL You want to be saved through another person. (There’s a silence.)


ISOBEL It isn’t possible.

(pp. 76–77)

Despite her protestations, Isobel makes one deliberate choice during the action of the play, and that is to forsake her own well-being by taking upon herself a burden, a cross to bear; specifically, a soul to save. Until she makes this choice she is an inactive character playing no part in her own destiny—indeed, a doormat. The burden which Isobel chooses to take upon herself is Katherine, her father’s young widow. Katherine represents the Lost Soul and therefore the greatest challenge to those who would be saviors:

And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them.

But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?

And Jesus, answering, said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.

I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

(Luke 5:29–32)3

It is not the part of Jesus that Isobel has consciously chosen to play, but that of her father Robert. Katherine sets herself up as the soul in need of salvation, naming Robert as her benefactor and personal savior, and indirectly challenges Isobel to carry on for her father:

KATHERINE [ … ] I met your father first in the Vale of Evesham. Yeah, he stopped one night in a motel. It was appalling. I don’t know how I’d ended up there. I was working the bar. Trying to pick men up—not even for money, but because I was so unhappy with myself. I wanted something to happen. I don’t know how I thought these men might help me, they were travellers, small goods, that sort of thing, all with slack bellies and smelling of late-night curries. I can still smell them. I don’t know why. I’d been doing it for weeks. Then Robert came in. He said ‘I’ll drive you to Gloucestershire. It will give you some peace.’ He brought me here, to this house. He put fresh sheets in the spare room. Everything I did, before or since, he forgave. (She sits, tears in her eyes, quiet now.) People say I took advantage of his decency. But what are good people for? They’re here to help the trashy people like me.

(pp. 18–19)

A moment later, after a significant pause, Isobel decides to take Katherine into her home and into her graphic arts firm. That Katherine is an alcoholic, unqualified, unsocialized and irresponsible, are flaws which Isobel chooses to ignore, although she is well aware of them. Whereas Marion could only show her devotion to their father in materialistic terms, Isobel will show it through emulation of his good works. If Robert could unconditionally forgive all of Katherine’s sins, then Isobel will too, even if it leads to her own destruction.

From the moment of Isobel’s decision at the end of Scene 2, the action of The Secret Rapture roughly parallels that of the life of Jesus, with Isobel in the title role and Irwin playing the part of Judas. At the meeting in Robert’s house in Scene 4 Isobel is being persuaded to sign her business over to a board of directors headed by Tom. There is a great sense that Tom, Marion and Katherine have conspired against her, but she still has one ally, Irwin—or so she thinks. As Irwin walks into the living room he greets Isobel and Hare’s stage directions read: “He kisses her cheek before going to sit down” (p. 36). It is the kiss of Judas, of betrayal. Irwin, it is revealed a few pages later, has sided with the others in exchange for a doubled salary, the thirty pieces of silver of the modern world.

What follows is one of the more problematic aspects of the play. Isobel can easily refuse to sign the agreement; Tom, Marion, Katherine and Rhonda (Marion’s assistant) have even left the stage, thus removing the immediate pressure to sign. This is the moment when we must, in order to have compassion for Isobel, feel that when she signs the agreement she does so not because she is weak and resigned to the will of others, but because she accepts the destiny which has been written for her. Isobel here stands before an invisible Pilate and refuses to state her case and save her own life. The agreement which she will sign when the lights go down at the end of the act amounts to a renunciation of her creative and financial independence, a stripping away of both her earthly possessions and her worth as a human being. By signing, Isobel makes it convenient for the others to relegate her to the background and effect her metaphorical death.

In trying to justify his betrayal and gain Isobel’s forgiveness, Irwin points out Isobel’s own share of the blame, and by her silence, Isobel accepts not the blame but the futility of engaging in a struggle for self-preservation:

IRWIN Isobel, please. Just look at me. Please. (She doesn’t turn.) Things move on. You brought in Katherine. Be fair, it was you. It changed the nature of the firm. For better or worse. But it’s changed. And you did it. Not me. (There is silence.) I wouldn’t hurt you. You know that. I’d rather die than see you hurt. I love you. I want you. There’s not a moment when I don’t want you.

(pp. 42–43)

Irwin proceeds to suffer a fall from grace to which he will never be restored, and he undergoes an immediate character change. Suddenly he becomes obsessed with gaining love and approval from Isobel, and at the same time his sins multiply. It is as if he is competing with Katherine for Isobel’s love by trying to prove himself more needy, since he knows he is not worthy. The second act opens with Irwin, immediately after having made the above pledge of devotion, flirting with a skimpily-clad Rhonda. They are unmistakably on the verge of physical intimacy when Isobel walks in. Isobel recognizes Irwin’s action as a call for her attention but rather than oblige him, as she constantly obliges Katherine, she withdraws. Irwin then plays, as Hare puts it, his strong hand—he confronts Isobel with the truth about Katherine:

IRWIN I know, you think she’s just unhappy. She’s maladjusted. She hates herself. Well, she does. And she is. All these things are true. But also it’s true, Isobel, my dear, you must learn something else. That everyone knows except you. It’s time you were told. There’s such a thing as evil. You’re dealing with evil. (ISOBEL turns round, about to speak.) That’s right. And if you don’t admit it, then you can’t fight it. And if you don’t fight it, you’re going to lose.

(p. 57)

It is my sense that Isobel knows full well that she is going to lose to the force of evil as embodied in Katherine, but her need to sacrifice herself in the attempt to save Katherine’s soul overpowers any desire she might have to save her own skin. At this point in the play Katherine has already destroyed Isobel’s independence, her business, and her love affair; there is not much more she can take except Isobel’s life. Isobel must decide whether to give it to her or not, and in the next scene she reveals the decision she has made to Tom and Marion while on a meditative retreat to Lanzarote:

ISOBEL [ … ] You can’t get away. You think you can. You think you’ll fly out. Just leave. Damn the lot of you, and go. Then you think, here I am, stark naked, sky-blue sea, miles of sand—I’ve done it! I’m free! Then you think, yes, just remind me, what am I meant to do now? (She stands, a mile away in a world of her own.) In my case there’s only one answer. (She looks absently at them, as if they were not even present.) I must do what Dad would have wished. (She turns, as if this were self-evident.) That’s it.

(p. 69)

Whether or not one cares to extend the immediate meaning of “Dad” beyond Robert to God the Father, it is clear that Isobel has put herself in the same position in relation to her father that Jesus held in relation to the Holy Father: she intends to be his emissary on earth.

Irwin has sensed the sort of experience Isobel has had, and earlier in the scene he tells Marion that he believes Isobel has taken a vow. A parallel can certainly be drawn between Isobel’s escape to Lanzarote and the transfiguration of Jesus which occurred on his sojourn to the mountain; Jesus, too, is instructed by his heavenly father and given a clear sense of purpose, and while “his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow” (Mark 9:3), Hare brings Isobel into the scene with the direction “She is also changed. She wears a long dark blue overcoat and thin glasses” (p. 64). Indeed, Isobel does seem to have taken vows, not only to continue caring for Katherine, but in the sense that a novice takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The next scene finds her serving Katherine in a sparsely furnished flat and eating a simple meal of shepherd’s pie. Katherine rejects the food, saying: “Your cooking is unspeakable. It’s all good intentions. Fuck shepherd’s pie. It sums you up” (p. 71). On one level we have Isobel compared to a bland plate of mashed potatoes and ground meat, and as a surface appraisal of Isobel’s character, it is not far from the mark. Isobel lacks the volatility of Katherine, the outrageous single-mindedness of Marion, and the sensuality of Rhonda. She possesses instead a quiet strength, easily mistaken for banality. The additional comment about “good intentions,” however, invites a play on the word “shepherd.” Isobel, after all, has become Katherine’s shepherd, her caretaker, her guardian.

Marion’s reaction to the idea of a vow is both comic and revealing. That promises are things meant to be made, not kept, is evident in her response to Irwin:

MARION I don’t believe this. This is most peculiar. What is this? A vow? It’s outrageous. People making vows. What are vows? Nobody’s made vows since the nineteenth century.

(p. 63)

Surely Marion vowed a thing or two on her rise up the political ladder, but actual integrity is a concept quite foreign to her. We have seen in her speech about the ring just how many false passes she makes before she hits upon the truth, but a trait which may be merely an amusing character flaw in others is far more devastating in an influential politician.

It is worthwhile here to take a step back to the first scene in the play. Marion has asserted that Katherine took advantage of Robert’s kindness and love. Isobel responds: “Honestly, I don’t think it matters much. The great thing is to love. If you’re loved back then it’s a bonus” (p. 5).

A comparison of two translations of a familiar passage from the first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians provides some interesting insight into Isobel’s statement and into her decision to sacrifice herself to Katherine. The first is from the King James Version; the second, from the New American Bible:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. [ … ]

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

(I Cor. 13:4–7, 13)

Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not jealous, it does not put on airs, it is not snobbish. Love is never rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not prone to anger; neither does it brood over injuries. Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure. [ … ]

There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.

(NAB 1 Cor. 13:4–7, 13)

The retranslation of the term “charity” as “love” in the second passage clearly expresses Isobel’s attitude towards Katherine. Her love is unconditional and charitable and fulfills all of the conditions set forth by Paul. The more difficult Katherine makes it to be loved, the more Isobel must love her; her forbearance is truly limitless. Irwin’s love for Isobel, on the other hand, is self-centered and self-serving; it lacks the quality of charity. He loves Isobel because she is good, but unless he can love that which is not good, his love is without meaning. In his last scene with Isobel, Irwin in his desperation has strayed so far from the true definition of love that he mistakes it for sex and begs Isobel to sleep with him. Isobel, however, continues to refuse him the salvation he seeks:

ISOBEL Force me. You can force me if you like. Why not? You can take me here. On the bed. On the floor. You can fuck me till the morning. You can fuck me all tomorrow. Then the whole week. At the end you can shoot me and hold my heart in your hand. You still won’t have what you want. (Her gaze does not wander.) The bit that you want I’m not giving you.

(p. 75)

The Sacred Heart imagery in this speech is not accidental. Isobel is playing out the final moments of her drama, and as she notes with some amusement when her hour has come, “I haven’t got shoes. Still you can’t have everything” (p. 78). The belief that Jesus walked to his crucifixion without shoes, although not specified in the gospels, is common; for example, note this passage from Waiting for Godot:

ESTRAGON (turning to look at the boots.) I’m leaving them there. (Pause.)

Another will come, just as … as … as me, but with smaller feet, and they’ll make him happy.

VLADIMIR But you can’t go barefoot!

ESTRAGON Christ did.

VLADIMIR Christ! What has Christ got to do with it? You’re not going to compare yourself to Christ!

ESTRAGON All my life I’ve compared myself to him.4

Christian teaching demands that each of its followers compare himself to Christ and re-enact, throughout his life and at various times of the year, certain of the events of Jesus’ life. Isobel, while never making the comparison between Christ and herself, has led a truly Christian existence. That she must be destroyed while Katherine, the sinner, goes free is an indication that spiritual goodness cannot coexist with the material world. Her death becomes sacrificial, as the crucifixion of Jesus is felt to have been: it is the blood of the lamb which whitens the robes (Rev. 7:14).

Irwin’s reaction immediately after he shoots Isobel is perplexing: “It’s over. Thank God” (p. 78). After spending the past two scenes virtually deranged because he can’t have the woman he professes to love, it seems odd that he should be relieved by her death. Perhaps he has destroyed his only means of salvation, as he views Isobel to be. But he has released his burden as well. His cross—trying to live up to Isobel’s standards—has been a hard one to bear. “I have no worth,” he tells Isobel at his most desperate moment. “I can’t feel my worth. When I was with you, it was there” (p. 76). Isobel in fact brought happiness to no one during her life. The pain of impossible love suffered by the offstage character Gordon is one manifestation of this. As Marion tells her:

MARION [ … ] Everywhere you go, there are arguments. God, how I hate all this human stuff. Wherever you go, you cause misery. People crying, people not talking. It overwhelms me. Because you can’t just live. Why can’t you live, like other people?

(pp. 68–69)

Alternatively or perhaps additionally, Irwin’s ejaculation may be an expression of relief because Isobel has been released from her trials and been made, finally, pure spirit. Gospel text of Jesus’ final words on the cross vary widely. Matthew and Mark record the very human plea, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34), while that set down in Luke lacks desperation but still betrays human concerns: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). John, however, provides the simplest and perhaps most spiritual report of the last words spoken by Jesus before the resurrection: “It is finished” (John 19:30). In accordance with the dramatic motif of the Gospel of John which will be discussed below, these words end the action of Jesus’ life on earth, but they signify the joy of being freed of the corporal as well. When asked about the meaning of the title of the play David Hare responded. “It’s that moment at which a nun expects to be united with Christ. In other words, it’s death.”5 Placed in the context of Christianity death becomes a blissful experience, the happy reward for a life of suffering, and Irwin’s strange gratitude makes sense.

Although her presence on earth created division and misery, Isobel’s death has ironically had a cleansing effect on the other characters. Once she is gone a certain peace does take hold of them. It seems that, despite her declaration to Irwin that one could not be saved through another person, salvation does indeed take place. In the last scene Tom, Marion and Katherine restore Robert’s house as though it were a shrine to him and Isobel. In a manner reminiscent of the walk to Calvary, the villagers, we are informed, want to walk to the funeral en masse. Marion and Katherine, heretofore bitter enemies or worse, self-serving allies joined against Isobel, share a closeness which they had never before experienced, and while Tom declares, “I’ve slightly lost touch with the Lord Jesus” (p. 81), we know it is only Jesus the Businessman he is abandoning. Passion, too, is restored to Marion and Tom as they reaffirm a love and desire for one another that has not been evident before the final moments of the play. Overall there is a sense of health, of well-being. At last Isobel’s worth is recognized, and as the play closes Marion attempts to resurrect her sister: “Isobel. We’re just beginning. Isobel, where are you? (She waits a moment.) Isobel, why don’t you come home?” (p. 82).

Hare ends the text of the play here, but interestingly, in the National Theatre of Great Britain production directed by Howard Davies, Isobel is successfully resurrected. She appears upstage on a diagonal from Marion, and both sisters have their arms outstretched and are moving towards one another. Davies’s addition leaves one with a very strong sense that Isobel has in fact experienced the Secret Rapture.

Thematically, The Secret Rapture marks something of a departure for Hare. He has seldom failed to include politics in his work, and overt references to England’s economy do exist in the play; for example, the question of the ethics behind investments is raised, and Scene 6 largely concerns Isobel’s realization that her business has been used as a tax write-off. A strictly political interpretation, however, yields rather unsatisfying results. One theatre monthly ironically titled its cover story preceding the New York production, “A Kinder, Gentler David Hare,”6 and we may well wonder what sort of socio-political statement the playwright intended to make. This is not to say that Hare needs to provide answers in his plays, nor has it been his practice to do so. His preferred style has been to present the problem and allow the audience to draw the conclusions. A Map of the World (1982) intelligently presents a dialectic on poverty in developing countries while at the same time allowing the cracks in both sides to be seen. Fanshen (1976) tells of both fine intentions and resultant failure during economic reform in China. But The Secret Rapture is politically a one-sided play, pitting Isobel’s innocence and goodness against Marion as quintessential Tory capitalist, and it works thematically only until the last scene. It is one thing to destroy the last vestige of pre-Thatcher England and quite another to depict the hawk as turning vegetarian after it has had its chicken dinner. The political dimension here seems almost obligatory; Hare knows that the best arguments give some credence to the opposition, and Marion is too much of a caricature to be taken seriously. True, greed, short-sightedness and the perverse passion for “clambering on the back [of the gravy train] and joining in the fun” (p. 39) are the elements which caused the corruption of Irwin and the destruction of Isobel. But Isobel, eternally passive, might have been taken down by much weaker forces. The Good Individual is rarely suffered to exist, and Jesus is but one example from history of this phenomenon; several others come from the realm of public service. Yet Marion’s remorse makes Hare’s ending, if taken politically, seem naïvely optimistic. Surely we are not to conclude that the loss of an individual will shake the conscience of the oppressors, or that passive resistance will eventually win the war. Hare explains his new concerns in The Secret Rapture this way:

[I]t became clear that personal character is more important to me than ideology. My anger about what’s happened to English society didn’t change. The difficulty of changing people became more clear. I’m bored by propaganda, either from the left or right. But goodness makes me weep. I see Isobel that way. So I said, Why don’t I write about goodness? Why be a smartass?7

Although some have suggested that Hare titled his play more for its cryptic resonance than with intent to suggest a parable,8 these words, taken together with the title, make it difficult to ignore the validity of the analysis given here. In choosing to write about goodness, Hare could find no parallel with which his audience would be more familiar than the drama of Jesus.

It is not inappropriate to discuss the life of Jesus in dramatic terms as I have done here. The Gospel According to John introduces the concept that Jesus’ betrayal was divinely scripted:

I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me. [ … ]

Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.

He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.

And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. [ … ]

He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.

Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.

(John 13:18, 24–27, 30–31)

John differs from the synoptic gospels in that here Jesus purposely places Satan into the body of Judas in order to fulfill the predetermined terms of the Scriptures; that is, so that the drama can unfold as written. The Secret Rapture is of course a drama, but in addition to the usual dictates of characters fulfilling roles, we have Isobel’s choice to enact a specific part leading towards a specific and predestined end. We can question, as with Jerry in Albee’s The Zoo Story, whether or not Isobel has knowingly moved towards her own demise. The answer in Hare’s play is that it can at least be said of Isobel that she does nothing to rewrite the script. The play opens with Isobel as a figure of goodness and she remains so throughout, significantly, while everything around her changes. She comes to a crossroads where she has the option to abandon her destiny, yet she chooses to follow the path laid out for her by some Divine Playwright, ostensibly her father. It is her devotion to her role and her refusal to accommodate her own worldly needs that entitle Isobel to the status of saint.


  1. Flora Haines Loughead, Dictionary of Given Names, 2nd ed. (Glendale, CA, 1958), p. 154.

  2. David Hare, The Secret Rapture (London, 1988; rev. 1989), p. 1. All further references to the play will be cited in my essay. In the original National Theatre of Great Britain production (first performed at the Lyttelton Theatre, 4 October 1988), the suggestion of Isobel’s “other-worldliness” (a term later used by Katherine to describe Robert) is made even earlier. The audience enters to see an enshrouded body lying on a bed in a simple room. There is a blackout, Marion enters, and the room is lit from the offstage hallway behind the flat. After another quick blackout Isobel addresses Mario and startles not only her sister but the audience as well; Isobel has truly appeared from nowhere.

  3. References to the New Testament are from the King James version, unless specified “NAB,” which refers to the New American (Catholic) Bible of 1970.

  4. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York, 1954), p. 34b.

  5. Anne Busby, interview with David Hare. From the National Theatre of Great Britain program for The Secret Rapture, undated.

  6. Michael Bloom, American Theatre, November 1989.

  7. Quoted by Jack Kroll in “The Women of Thatcherland,” Newsweek, 13 November 1989.

  8. Of this opinion is Frank Nealon, Staff Director for the Davies production (in conversation, June 1989). See also Clive Barnes, “There’s little joy in N.Y. ‘Rapture’”: “The original London production [ … ] almost made Hare’s heroine a saint, perhaps by taking too seriously the nunlike hint of the title.” New York Post, 27 October 1989. Instead, Mr. Barnes found the play to be “a comedy about death.”

Duncan Wu (review date 21 June 1991)

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SOURCE: “In the Air,” in New Statesman & Society, June 21, 1991, p. 45.

[In the following review, Wu admires the traditional dramatic ideas of Writing Left-Handed.]

David Hare’s introduction to this collection of prose pieces written since 1978 is characteristically apologetic: “I am more at ease working through invented characters,” he admits. Writing Left-Handed is distinguished by its author’s fearless, and sometimes painful, desire to own up. In his student days, he was a “precocious and shallow young man”; discussing his relationship with his theatre audiences he admits that “it is our fault, not theirs, if we do not reach them with the things we have to say”; and the final essay confesses that: “I could not save my own life by plausibly acting one single scene.” Other pieces describe the various humiliations suffered by “one who is at home with risk. It makes me unafraid of being passionate.”

This commitment to emotional honesty goes back to Hare’s time as literary manager at the Royal Court Theatre during the late 1960s. There, he tells us, he shared the contempt felt by the Court’s mandarins for a literary establishment “which was frightened of feeling”. He dislikes plays that reduce their characters “to their so-called points of view”, and commends the ability of great drama in which ideas are given “voluptuous expression”.

Typically, Hare admits the disparate nature of these essays at the outset, suggesting that they are held together by “an autobiographical thread”. In fact, the volume is more interesting than that. Though he comments perceptively on subjects as diverse as America, Australia, the British film industry, censorship, and Woody Allen, everything is incorporated into a quest for poetic truth. Typical of this is the statement that his play The Secret Rapture, “originated and developed inside my imagination. It is the most dangerous place to go for any story, but it has always been my source, and I am too old to change.”

His fidelity to feeling, and the imagination, recalls Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and its similarly provoking definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Here lies the key to Hare’s work: though concerned with political issues, his plays reject ideology in favour of the emotional and imaginative impulses behind it.

Hare’s notions about drama are reassuringly traditional, and confirm his preeminence less as a political playwright than as a practical man of the theatre, whose subject-matter tends to be political. I can’t think of a better account of how theatre works than Hare’s observation that: “A play is not actors, a play is not a text; a play is what happens between the stage and the audience … The play is in the air.”

David Papineau (review date 18 October 1991)

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SOURCE: “Turning to Crime,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 18, 1991, p. 17.

[In the following review, Papineau calls Murmuring Judges mere “easy entertainment.”]

Few things are more unacceptable than the long-term imprisonment of an innocent person. Yet the British criminal justice system seems to find these hideous mistakes easy to make and almost impossible to correct. Under pressure to secure convictions, the police are tempted to concoct cases out of bogus confessions and forged evidence. And, even after the error becomes clear, the victims can languish for years in gaol, because the judicial system has no effective safeguard against police corruption.

The advance publicity for David Hare’s new play, Murmuring Judges, may have led theatregoers to expect some engagement with the implications of such miscarriages of justice: if so, they will be disappointed. Far from offering an analysis of the unhappy symbiosis between imaginative policemen and unimaginative judges, Hare gives us a toothless tale with all the bite of a 1950s police film starring Jack Warner.

The plot of Murmuring Judges centres on Gerard, a likeable chump from Belfast who turns to crime to support his family and handicapped child. He is arrested on his first job, and goes to prison along with his more experienced accomplices. Later, it turns out that the arresting detective, Barry, had threatened to frame the accomplices on an additional drugs charge, in order to extract some information about an impending armed robbery. This causes some agitation, and a lot of speechifying, both from the idealistic young woman barrister who takes an interest in Gerard’s case, and the idealistic young woman constable, who is having an affair with Barry. But in the end neither of them is able to help Gerard.

Perhaps Hare chose this relatively humdrum story in order to avoid easy targets. The trouble is that he doesn’t find any hard targets either. For example, we are clearly supposed to view Barry’s sharp practice as the work of a rotten apple. But Barry doesn’t actually frame Gerard’s accomplices, he only says he will, and thereby prevents an armed robbery. This seems to me a clever piece of police work. Moreover, the notion, integral to Hare’s plot, that Barry’s career will be ruined if the girlfriend tells the Detective Superintendent about his trickery, is risible. Equally implausible is the idea, also integral to the plot, that Gerard would succeed in an appeal if only the drugs story could be proved. Exactly why the appeal court should be interested is unexplained, as indeed are a number of other details of the plot.

There is a similar lack of focus about Hare’s treatment of the law-related professions. One could easily get the impression from this play that the most important failing in barristers and judges is their excessive fondness for prep-school nicknames, banqueting traditions and the Royal Opera House. Hare is entitled to be irritated by such things, but what matters is whether judges do their job properly, not what they call each other. The only substantial criticism that Hare makes of judges is the length of the sentences they hand down. But the responsibility for this surely rests as much with Parliament and the Home Office as with the judiciary.

He is even feebler on the police than on the judges. His researches seem to have yielded the information that quite a lot of the police are really quite decent chaps. This is something worth saying, if scarcely news to most people, but the play’s attempts at conveying his discovery are embarrassing. There must be better ways of showing that constables can be intelligent and humane than having them joke about Proust and discuss the incidence of ethnic prejudice among the judiciary. Even stranger are the prison scenes. The only warder we meet is a lovable Sergeant-Major figure, straight out of Kipling, who offers much avuncular advice and worries when Gerard misses his tea.

This warming tale may well prove popular with National Theatre audiences. There are plenty of jokes, the acting is of a high standard, the staging is imaginative, and there is a real text in the opera scene. But it is disturbing to see all these resources devoted to an easy entertainment about a subject that cries out for something more.

Andy Lavender (review date 25 October 1991)

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SOURCE: “Murmurs of Dissent,” in New Statesman & Society, October 25, 1991, pp. 31-2.

[In the following excerpt, Lavender compares the work of Arthur Miller and Hare, and offers praise for the Greek influence apparent in Murmuring Judges.]

The love affair between Arthur Miller and Britain has been a long one. Recent years have seen major productions here of After the Fall, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge and Two-Way Mirror, while in turn Miller has made clear his respect for the “creative relaxation” of the British theatre scene. To prove it, his latest play, The Ride Down Mt Morgan, had its world premiere this week at Wyndham’s Theatre.

The timing allows comparison with an English playwright also held in high favour, who treads similar ethical territory. David Hare’s Murmuring Judges, the second in a proposed trilogy about British institutions, has just opened at the National Theatre. Both playwrights have shifted with the times. …

There is plenty of rage, on the other hand, in David Hare’s Murmuring Judges. This is a pleasant surprise, for there were signs that, after a wolfish start, Hare’s drama might become a sheep in designer clothing. Certainly he, of all the angry young socialists of the 1970s, most successfully negotiated the past few years, with a polished naturalism so fair that you felt you could stroke it.

Murmuring Judges is about the English legal system, and cuts across three tiers: the QCs and judges of the legal establishment; the police, represented by a station reception desk peopled by office-coppers; and prison, represented by a naive and quickly banged-up Irishman. Hare again proves that no other British writer, with the exception of Alan Bennett, has quite his measure of the upper échelons of society. When he steps outside the ambits of power, though, it’s a different story, and a different style.

Alphonsia Emmanuel plays a young black lawyer of radical tendencies given to principled declamation. The police have a blokeish bonhomie that doesn’t quite convince. And Robert Patterson as Gerard McKinnon is so doe-eyed and innocent that he all but wears a placard saying Victim of English Society. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the effect is surprising.

Previous plays such as Plenty,The Secret Rapture and even Racing Demon, Hare’s scalpelling of the Church of England, had a more even-handed tone. In Murmuring Judges his brand of realism is unquestionably polemical, and it’s as if only a sense of Englishness prevents him and director Richard Eyre from using projections packed with statistics, or songs about injustice. Even so, the curious fact is that Murmuring Judges is ten times more vigorous than the show it alternates with on the Olivier stage, Brecht’s Arturo Ui. Outrage, eroded or not, is best when it is contemporary.

Both Brecht and Arthur Miller expressed a healthy respect for Greek drama, but it is Hare’s play that currently has the most naked Greek ambition, for it strides into a large space and whips up a public debate. Miller once talked of the “coolness” of modern culture, a “terror of being caught with your feelings hanging out”. Lyman lets just about everything hang out in The Ride Down Mt Morgan, but so, in a different way, does Hare. In that respect neither play is cool. After some of the theatre of the past few years, that’s something to be thankful for.

Nicholas Lezard (review date 12 February 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Damage, in Times Literary Supplement, February 12, 1993, p. 17.

[In the following review, Lezard offers an unfavorable assessment of the film Damage. ]

On paper, the film Damage has everything going for it: directed by Louis Malle, starring Jeremy Irons and Miranda Richardson, screenplay by David Hare, based on a trashy novel by Josephine Hart. What could, possibly go wrong? And yet, as it turns out, Malle has produced something that at times is worse than his source material.

The plot of Damage is simple. Stephen Fleming, a doctor-turned-politician (Jeremy Irons) meets, and instantly falls for, Anna Barton, his son’s fiancée (Juliette Binoche). She falls for him. They have not so much an affair as a succession of steamy liaisons, the last of which Fleming’s son Martyn (Rupert Graves) bursts in on; shocked, he falls down a stairwell and dies. Fleming Senior resigns, his wife leaves him, he goes off to live in some Mediterranean hideaway. The End. Hart’s novel tries to give this story depth by means of unlikely dialogue and wildly portentous prose. If ever there was a book you wanted a screenwriter to take liberties with, this was it.

Unfortunately, the film just cruises by on automatic. Whereas Hart’s novel, for better or for worse, and usually for worse, tried to give the characters some history and context, the film ambles through a string of visual tropes which wouldn’t be beyond the tyro waiting to unzip his pencil-case on his first day of film school.

It begins with the public-school Gothic of the House of Commons lobby, with Irons, stiff and aged in his Trinity tie, being marked for future success. Within fifteen minutes he has (a) pecked his wife Ingrid (Miranda Richardson) lovelessly on the cheek, (b) fiddled with a silver trophy on the mantelpiece while a single violin rises above the orchestra to give us a high, plaintive note, and (c) met and bedded his son’s girlfriend. Falling in love means a seven-second stare exchanged by Irons and Binoche, during which Irons looks like a gentleman who has seen something funny in his soup, and Binoche looks like a precocious girl with a crush on her maths teacher. Little more is asked of the two; later on, Irons gets to look haggard and haunted, and Binoche squeezes out the odd tear. Her character is an enigma, not only to us, but, you feel, to Binoche and Malle themselves. Everything is so grounded in unreality that it makes Basic Instinct look profound (the sex scenes are laughable).

There are only two moments when the film delivers any charge: Fleming, tortured by his son’s announcement that he is to marry Anna, bawls out some civil servants for supplying him with false information (a fine, but brief, study in therapeutic indignation); and when Ingrid confronts her husband after their son’s death. There’s a line near the end of the film which claims that we are all unknowable, except, perhaps, through love; by the time we hear it, it sounds more like an excuse for the characters’ shallowness than a philosophical position.

A film constructed around the talents of Malle, Irons, Richardson and Hare should express at least some of their exquisite insight, subtlety and craft. Instead, the film disengages itself from its responsibilities and relies on the audience’s reactions to do its work for it. Only your own unease about near-incest, or the plot’s muddled inversion of the Oedipus myth, will supply any sustainable frisson; but if you have to bring your own tension into the cinema along with your popcorn, you might as well spend the time wondering if you’ve left the iron on at home. The Irons on the screen is safely unplugged.

Kirsty Milne (review date 8 October 1993)

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SOURCE: “A Small Party,” in New Statesman & Society, October 8, 1993, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Milne views The Absence of War as less interesting than the earlier two plays in Hare's trilogy.]

Once upon a time, there was a Labour leader who lost. He had one chance to win an election, and he lost. In private, this leader was warm and witty, a man of culture and integrity. In public, he was a windbag with a shaky grasp of policy. TV interviewers tripped him up. Shadow cabinet colleagues put him down. Rumour had it that he wasn’t up to the job.

Staff in the leader’s private office shielded, chivvied and cosseted him. They lived in a state of perpetual vigilance, poised to preempt potential gaffes. The man who should have been his party’s greatest asset was treated as its greatest liability.

Old hands have rushed to condemn The Absence of War, David Hare’s portrayal of a panicky Labour election campaign. They might pause to consider the implied compliment when a writer accords Labour the status of a great British institution. The Absence of War completes a trilogy that brackets Her Majesty’s loyal opposition with the Church of England (Racing Demon) and the criminal justice system (Murmuring Judges). Eminent stablemates for an upstart that did not see the light of day until 1906.

Besides, here is none of the viciousness and chauvinism depicted in recent dramas of the left (see Alan Bleasdale’s GBH, or the recent BBC2 series Love and Reason). Hare’s apparatchiks are well-intentioned people who have lost the courage of their convictions. Power can only be won, they believe, with a manifesto and a leader as bland as processed cheese. But the pungent reality they have to work with is George Jones (John Thaw, discarding his sardonic Morse manner), an affable south London socialist with a liking for Shakespeare but no Oxbridge degree.

Like Neil Kinnock, like David Hare himself, Jones is a child of the 1940s, and heir to a postwar loss of nerve. The war is a watershed in Hare’s work (most painfully in Plenty). After it comes accidie. The best lack all conviction. The Absence of War starts and ends at the Whitehall Cenotaph, as Jones worries “Could we have done more?”

The Hare trilogy grew out of the author’s belief that: “What’s interesting now is how groups of people live together.” The theatre had seen heroes followed by anti-heroes; it was time to look at institutions. In the 1970s, Hare had written and directed for small, radical companies such as Joint Stock. Now he turned to the vast Olivier stage at the (Royal) National Theatre. The establishment saw itself anatomised as Hare faced down the insistent individualism of the 1980s.

He has acquired a reputation as an earnest moralist—a label that stuck after The Secret Rapture examined the topic of goodness. Yet the trilogy’s comedy quotient is pleasingly high; if this is 19th-century naturalism, it is George Eliot rather than Zola. Racing Demon contains an immortal scene in which clerics go on the razzle, downing tequila sunrises in the Savoy. In Murmuring Judges, a High Court grandee (the marvellous Michael Bryant) describes to a hungry Home Secretary how that evening’s venison will be served—in such detail that the politician’s gastric juices can almost be heard to churn.

Of the three plays, the most ambitious is Murmuring Judges, which shows how courts, prisons and police co-exist in a state of mutual incomprehension. The script sometimes sounds like a research briefing: a detective announces that the average policeman witnesses one crime every ten years, and a QC reminds his junior that three-quarters of all cases come to the barrister the night before trial. The Home Secretary tackles his host on prison overcrowding, citing with approval the German trend towards non-custodial sentences. With Michael Howard in post, these lines sound implausibly liberal.

Murmuring Judges bears witness to Hare’s passion for portraying women as keepers of conscience. An Irish victim of crooked police work is befriended by a black barrister (Alphonsia Emmanuel), while his case also troubles a high-flying young policewoman (Katrina Levon, a disappointing substitute for the original Lesley Sharp). Both rebel against the professional injunction “Don’t get emotionally involved”. You could argue that it is fitting for the whistleblowers to be female: as outsiders, women are better placed to see flaws in the system. But burden an actress with virtue, and she may be reduced to a cipher whose function is to do the right thing.

Racing Demon will hold up better. It is funnier and less schematic: the liberal’s and reformer’s instincts are apportioned to two different characters, and the audience’s sympathy is not so obviously skewed. The tolerant Anglican rector (convincingly played by Oliver Ford Davies) is ineffectual in his inner-city parish; the zealous evangelical (Adam Kotz) is the one who gets things done.

In the wake of these big plays on big canvases, The Absence of War seems oddly limited. Despite huge slide-projections of Westminster, the characters are a small gang in a goldfish bowl. We see little of the shadow cabinet. The trade unions get scarcely a mention. No NEC, no mods and trads: no sense of the wider party. But Richard Eyre’s production bears the stigmata of the 1992 campaign trail. Smart-suited women service their leader with shirts, cigarettes and whisky; ersatz drama erupts in darkened TV studios.

Authentic, yes; engrossing, no. There can never be much suspense about the election result, but the play also lacks the crises of conscience, the moments of revelation or betrayal that electrify parts one and two. In Racing Demon, the curate’s girlfriend (Saskia Wickham) has to watch as his humanity loses out to his faith. In Murmuring Judges, there is the policewoman’s growing suspicion that the detective she looks up to is “bent”.

The Absence of War offers a different kind of dilemma: a battle over how to approach the electorate. Intriguingly, the people who damp Jones’ exuberance are not rose-touting PR men like Peter Mandelson (who came to the first night). They are the leader’s crack troops from his own private office (with Oliver Ford Davies bizarrely cast as a Charles Clarke figure). Jones is kept off topics such as defence or northern Ireland. Frustrated, he wails: “Why can’t I speak of what I believe?”

It is the ad-woman from the outside world (Clare Higgins) who urges the leader to rediscover his real personality. “Be yourself,” she advises. But when Jones tries to address a rally without prepared notes, he breaks down before his audience. He cannot recover his past spontaneous form or remember how to “be himself”. The question is left hanging: would it have worked? Do you offer the electorate what they say they want—or what you think they should have?

Francis Wheen (review date 6 November 1993)

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SOURCE: “Holding the Mirror up to Nature,” in Spectator, November 6, 1993, pp. 53-4.

[In the following review, Wheen criticizes Hare's Asking Around for merely being the notes and “workings” of real-life politics.]

In the days before pocket calculators and computers, pupils sitting maths exam papers would be requested to ‘show your workings’. David Hare has now shown us his, by publishing the notes he took while researching his State of the Nation trilogy for the National Theatre. For Racing Demon, a play about the Church of England, he visited the General Synod and inner-city vicarages; for Murmuring Judges, he spoke to police officers, lawyers and prison governors. His notes on all this are quite interesting, but not quite interesting enough, since they cover ground that has already been well-trodden by many a journalist and sociologist. Anyone who wants to know what the police have to say for themselves, for instance, would be better advised to read Roger Graef’s book Talking Blues.

In the third section of Asking Around, however, Hare delivers a scoop. During last year’s general election Neil Kinnock ‘offered me access even beyond that I had asked for’, in effect handing him an unrestricted backstage pass. Watching the Fourth Estate in action at the start of the campaign, Hare ‘found myself envying journalists their extraordinary privileges’, but no journalist was half so privileged as the playwright: while the hacks were sitting around waiting for a press conference to start, Hare would be behind the scenes listening to the unguarded remarks of Kinnock and his colleagues as they made their last-minute preparations. He was even allowed to attend meetings of Labour’s campaign committee.

Several reviewers have assumed that the play Hare subsequently wrote about an election-losing Labour Party leader, The Absence of War, is in fact about Neil Kinnock and his gang. Hare is irritated by the suggestion. He writes in Asking Around:

It is essential to stress at the very beginning of this book of research, that the plays which flowed from it are, in so far as anything is, pure works of fiction. I am not a great fan of works of art whose chief aim is to imitate reality. I think the British cinema is chiefly debilitated by its insistence on stealing its stories from newspapers. I distrust faction … At no point in the trilogy did I seek to put any of the people in this book in my plays.

If he wanted us to believe him, he shouldn’t have shown us his workings. For, after reading Asking Around and The Absence of War, one cannot but conclude that his fictional Labour leader, George Jones, is indeed Neil Kinnock, mutatis mutandis, and that Jones’s attendant lords and spear-carriers bear a more than passing resemblance to the real-life denizens of the leader’s office and shadow cabinet. Even the details are unaltered. In Asking Around, one of Kinnock’s ‘closest advisers’ mentions to Hare that, ‘I’ve done a lot of transactional analysis’ (a form of game-playing psycho-nonsense); in Act 2 Scene 6 of The Absence of War, one of Jones’s closest advisers is seen carrying an American business book on transactional analysis’. Jones’s marketing whizz, Lindsay Fontaine, is said to have advised the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (‘That’s great,’ somebody remarks. ‘They lost.’) Neil Kinnock’s marketing whizz, Philip Gould, did indeed advise Daniel Ortega during his unsuccessful election campaign.

Or take the comment made to Hare by one of Kinnock’s minders, Neil Stewart, after the election defeat last April:

I don’t recall hearing many of the politicians around him, except Hattersley, ever talk Neil’s leadership up in public. Roy is an old-fashioned Labour loyalist, disciplined to talk up and support the party leader. He understood that you have to build the leadership. The others were too mean to do it.

Now listen to the speech towards the end of The Absence of War in which George Jones castigates his shadow Chancellor:

Why is there only one man in the shadow cabinet who’s going round the country doing what I really need? There’s one man among you who never fails to talk my leadership up. Yes. Bryden Thomas. And why does he do it? Because it’s what good soldiers do. That’s right. He belongs to a certain generation. He’s older than you are. He understands. You give it everything. You do your duty.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Bryden Thomas is the deputy leader, just as Hattersley was.

David Hare’s conclusion about Kinnock/Jones is that he was a noble figure who was betrayed by his comrades—not only by shadow ministers who neglected to talk him up but also by the spin-doctors, policy-tweakers and gimmick-mongers who forced him to suppress his natural good humour and openness. He seems unwilling to contemplate the possibility that the greatest betrayal of all was committed by the leader himself. Kinnock admitted recently that he jettisoned some of his most cherished beliefs—that of unilateral nuclear disarmament, for instance—not because he ceased to hold them but because his market research showed that they were unattractive to certain voters. For all its many and obvious faults, the old Labour Party used to be an institution that enjoyed arguing about ideas: it was noisy, messy but honest. Under Kinnock’s bullying, centralised direction, anyone who tried to start such an argument was promptly convicted of ‘vanity’ and ‘self-indulgence’. Gaining power became the party’s sole object. ‘The Red Flag’ was dropped as the party song and replaced by Queen’s nauseating anthem, ‘We Are The Champions’, whose chorus includes the lines, ‘No time for losers, cos we are the champions of the world. …’ The process reached its nadir at the Sheffield rally, which was widely and rightly denounced as a gruesome exercise in triumphalism.

David Hare, however, still insists that the Sheffield rally was a splendid occasion. He looks at the Labour Party from such a privileged perch that his perspective is hopelessly askew. The voices we hear in both Asking Around and The Absence of War are those of the leader and his smart-alec staff: there is not even a cameo role for any of the thousands of ordinary party members, who spend their Wednesday evenings at branch meetings in bleak community halls and who do not wear red roses in their buttonholes or shoulder-pads in their jackets. Had he bothered to listen to these people—or, better still, to the many despairing souls who resigned from the party during the Kinnock era—he might have written a very different play, and a better one. In the closing words of The Absence of War, the defeated George Jones asks a series of questions to which, he thinks, there is ‘no easy answer’: ‘Could we have done more? Was it possible? And how shall we know?’ Actually the answer is perfectly simple, and is to be found in the verse from Gray’s ‘Elegy’ which ought to serve as an epitaph for Neil Kinnock and his fictional alter-ego:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Ruby Cohn (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Rare Hare, Liking Women,” in David Hare: A Casebook, edited by Hersh Zeifman, Garland Publishing, 1994, pp. 23-43.

[In the following essay, Cohn examines the portrayal of women in Hare's dramas and films, noting the strengths and weaknesses of the female characters in light of harsh feminist criticism of Hare's work.]

“Raymond loved women. … It’s very rare,” says a wise woman in Strapless (70), and one might extend the statement to embrace the author/director of that film, David Hare. More than any other living male dramatist, Hare has given voice to women—on stage, film, and television. With that introduction, I sound as though I am setting Hare up only to knock him down, in a predictable feminist fashion.1 Hare’s treatment of women characters is not, however, invariant, and I hope to unveil its nuances.

A graduate of public school and Cambridge University, Hare has drawn most of his characters—female and male—from his own middle class. More often than not, Hare’s men accommodate to their privileged position in an immoral society—usually in England—but his women are less complacent. From the schoolteachers of Slag (1970) to the black barrister of Murmuring Judges (1991), Hare’s women tend to fit badly into a bad society, and a few of his heroines “struggle … against a deceitful and emotionally stultified class…” (Introduction, History 15).

Hare believes “that I didn’t write until I wrote Knuckle [1974]. … Up till then I was writing purely satirical work” (Oliva 165). It is therefore unkind to begin this examination with a “purely satirical work,” but Slag is too heraldic to ignore. The very title prophesies other witty, enigmatic Hare titles—The Great Exhibition,Knuckle,Teeth ‘n’ Smiles,Plenty,The Secret Rapture,Racing Demon,Murmuring Judges. Never actually mentioned in the play of that name, “slag” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a piece of refuse matter separated from a metal in the process of smelting”; presumably by extension, slag is British slang for cheap “refuse matter” sex, as in Hare’s “I own up to the slag I want” (Brophy 99) or “Couple of slags here say anyone fancy a blow-job?” (Teeth ‘n’ Smiles 14) or Pinter’s Max to Ruth: “You think you’re just going to get that big slag all the time?” (The Homecoming 80–81).

As the title Slag reverses the letters of “gals,” Hare’s play reverses the sexes of Love’s Labor’s Lost but borrows its basic situation. Shakespeare’s male scholars forswear intercourse with the opposite sex, and Hare’s female teachers forswear intercourse with their opposites, and thus lose all the girls of their private boarding school. Disingenuously, Hare in 1975 defended his early play: “[T]he point is that [Slag is] really a play about institutions, not about women at all. … It’s about every institution I had known—… ever more baroque discussions about ever dwindling subjects. But it happens to be peopled with women, partly because it was the sort of play that I thought I would enjoy going to see—women on the stage, represented as I thought more roundly and comprehensively than was then usual” (Itzin and Trussler 110–11). Hare’s own uncertainty of tone—a play “not about women at all,” who are nevertheless well-rounded characters—is reflected in uncertainty of critical interpretation, even though Slag won him an award as the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright. Although we see only a hint of the institutional school, Hare’s preoccupation with institutions predicts his trilogy of the 1990s.

The “baroque discussions” of Slag emanate mainly from Joanne, the militant feminist and Marxist film critic, but it is also she who brays obscenities, which were still titillating in 1970—fuck, bugger, crap, clit, wank, cunt, arse, fartarse, and the succinct sentence: “[Women] bang like shithouse doors” (24). On her failed suicide attempts, Joanne ruminates: “You’ve heard of haemophiliacs, well I’m a haemophobiac, couldn’t keep the wretched stuff flowing” (70). With her versatile lexicon, Joanne is at once rebellious and ridiculous. The loner of the pedagogic trio in the elite boarding school—inept at games, contemptuous of her colleagues, scornful of titled pupils, sexually inexperienced—Joanne closes the play in the lack of closure to which Hare became partial.

Ann and Elise are less clearly delineated. Thirty-two years of age—“She’s old” (40)—Ann, the school’s owner, is at once snobbish, realistic, and communitarian: “But my experience of men is what makes me a woman” (49). As her school disintegrates, Ann keeps a stiff upper lip in her lying letters to her mother: “It is a constant struggle to keep in tune with new ideas. However, a new cricket pavilion will go some way. … [Joanne and Elise] are a constant source of help to me” (68). Finally, Ann hopes to resuscitate the school: “Circulate Burke’s Peerage for new pupils” (77).

If Joanne is a satirized feminist, and Ann a satirized patrician, Elise lies in some nebulous terrain between the two. She spends much of her stage time knitting for her unborn son, father unknown. Of the three, Elise alone is unrepentantly female, even baring her breasts on stage. She accuses her colleagues: “You’ve lived so long on other people’s behalf you’ve ceased to recognize yourselves” (76). But Elise is in no position to accuse, since her pregnancy is a graphic lie finally deflated in “a great wet fart” (77).

Although Slag reads today like the witty, misogynistic romp of a clever young man, it does announce Hare’s serious theme of living with lies, since that is what his English female trio do. Ann’s lie is a facade of community, Elise’s is her fantasy pregnancy, but the most blatant lie is Joanne’s intransigent feminism. Although the trio may undertake to rebuild their all-girls’ school, Hare’s implied norm is harmonious heterosexuality. Yet Hare gives his Elise a disarming line, which may be turned against him: “This is not the way women speak together, it’s not the way they live. It doesn’t ring true” (74).

As Hare’s dramaturgy grew in assurance, some of his women ring more true and less strident. Hare’s wit gains focus in his recurrent critique of middle-class professional women, but he also portrays women who are themselves critical of their—and his—class. Sometimes at the center and sometimes on the sidelines of their respective plays, these women are burdened with a conscience often lacking to men. A conscience who smokes, drinks, and runs a shady night club, Jenny Wilbur is only a secondary character in Hare’s first West End production and favorite play, Knuckle.2 Hare once described Jenny as “the most admirable person I’ve ever drawn” (Itzin and Trussler 114), but drama thrives on less admirable persons. Hare himself realized: “Jenny sees bad things done and condemns them, but she herself is not much changed” (Introduction, History 13). She bewilders the gun-running protagonist Curly, who sketches her in two conflicting verbal portraits: “White-knickered do-good cock-shrivelling cow” (72) and “…the hard, bright, glistening girl” (85).

Before Curly expresses these polar views of her, Jenny herself delivers a distinctive monologue:

Young women in Guildford must expect to be threatened. Men here lead ugly lives and girls are the only touchstones left. Cars cruise beside you as you walk down the pavement. I have twice been attacked at the country club, the man in the house opposite has a telephoto lens, my breasts are often touched on commuter trains, my body is covered with random thumbprints, the doctor says he needs to undress me completely to vaccinate my arm, men often spill drinks in my lap, or brush cigarettes against my bottom, very old men bump into me and clutch at my legs as they fall. I have been offered drinks, money, social advancement and once an editorial position on the Financial Times. I expect to be bumped, bruised, followed, assaulted, stared at and propositioned for the rest of my life, while at the same time offering sanctuary, purity, reassurance, prestige—the only point of loveliness in men’s ever-darkening lives.


Jenny’s account of indignities makes up in energy what it lacks in proportion. Three men are obsessed with Jenny: one threatens her with a knife, another commits suicide and leaves her a bar, and a third, Curly, announces: “I’m propositioning you” (52). She of the “incandescent vagina” (41) taunts Curly to uncover the truth about his sister’s disappearance, and he finds that his father is the rankest culprit in the moral sewer of Guildford. The self-styled “point of loveliness” for three men, Jenny Wilbur is a strong secondary character, but she remains subsidiary to the investigation of the “business practice” of father and son—that venerable theme of realistic drama.3

Some fifteen years later, Frances Parnell functions comparably in Hare’s Racing Demon (1990). A sophisticated Londoner from an ecclesiastical family, Frances lacks Jenny’s colorful language, but she too is aware of providing “the only point of loveliness in men’s ever-darkening lives”—specifically, in the lives of two men, both Anglican clergymen. Frances withdraws her sexual favors from young Tony when she is aware of his ruthless ambition, and she withdraws her comforting presence from middle-aged Lionel when she is aware of “Letting [him] imagine” (61). A minor character, Frances inherits Jenny’s moral rectitude in a play about insidious business in the Anglican Church (which scants the controversial Church problem of female clergymen). Like the males in Racing Demon, Frances directly addresses God, but she alone is selflessly accusatory, for Hare has endowed her with little self, beyond her appeal to two clergymen in conflict.

Two other subsidiary women are neatly balanced in Racing Demon—Heather, the neglected wife of the humanistic clergyman, and Stella, an abused black woman evangelized by the unscrupulous clergyman. Ignorant of the central conflict within the Church, these two auxiliary women are victimized by that conflict, the one losing her sanity and the other her freedom, but Frances retains both qualities as she flies away from an increasingly hypocritical England, to close this first play of Hare’s projected trilogy on British institutions.

Between Knuckle and Racing Demon, Hare conceived other supportive and conscience-carrying women who are on the sidelines of masculine matters in their respective plays.4 The ambitious male journalist of his television play Dreams of Leaving (1980) is teased by an enigmatic beauty who challenges his accommodation with a crooked system. A Map of the World (1982) and Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) trace Hare’s emergence from English insularity to a broader canvas. The intricate plot of the former winds around a movie based on a novel, based on events into which I will not digress. All three genres—movie, novel, “real event”—pivot on an erotic triangle: an Indian novelist and an English journalist, political opponents, are also rivals for the sexual favors of Peggy, an American actress. A minor character, Peggy has no connection with the world conference on hunger, the reason for the encounters of the other characters. The Indian novelist, whom Peggy marries, summarizes his fiction: “The actress questions her easy promiscuity and is made to realize adulthood will involve choice” (222). In Hare’s play, however, we have only his word for it, telling instead of showing Peggy’s maturation.5

The teleplay Saigon offers a less secondary and more moral woman, who nevertheless is sheltered from the world of men. At the end of the Vietnam War English Barbara, a blonde “almost 50” bank official (85), engages in a love affair with a CIA agent who is half her age, while panic replaces orderly withdrawal from Saigon. The play provides little confirmation of CIA Bob’s confession to Barbara: “Every time I saw you, you made me feel guilty. … That’s why I stopped coming to see you” (140). Still, that little marks Barbara as another Englishwoman of conscience. Unlike her sporadic lover, she shows concern for her subordinates, including the Vietnamese. Bob forgets to destroy the files of the Vietnamese who have worked for the Americans, and, leaving, he mumbles: “God forgive us” (151). But Barbara utters no such prayer. Like Jenny before her in Hare’s work, like Frances after her, Barbara is cleanly on the sidelines of the dirty world of men.

In Pravda, Hare’s 1985 play co-written with Howard Brenton, Rebecca Foley has a degree in investigative journalism, but she serves mainly to support her crusading journalist husband, and finally to condemn his acquiescence to a powerful publisher. Rebecca’s husband is an incidental victim of a megalomaniacal newspaper tycoon, and she is even more incidental—as Hare himself recognized: “The character of the wife is just the worst-written part” (Oliva 173). A year later, in 1986, Hare created a pair of non-English, morally sound women for each of his one-acters about an imperiled marriage—The Bay at Nice, set in Soviet Russia, and Wrecked Eggs, set in the United States. Written for the actress Blair Brown, in admiration of her “sense of everyday” (Oliva 176), the plays are slight vehicles with decidedly uneveryday situations. In these plays of moral women on the sidelines or in slight plays, one can argue that Hare faithfully depicts the sexism of contemporary society.

When women are leading characters in plays based in that same society—from Teeth ‘n’ Smiles (1975) to Murmuring Judges (1991)—Hare’s attitude varies. Occasionally, the women are in the Slag lineage of living lies, but at least as often they are imbued with the moral fervor of the sideliners. Hare himself has insisted: “Women are characteristically the conscience of my plays” (Nightingale 6). Moreover, conscience is enhanced by consciousness of the cost of morality in a period of greed.

Teeth ‘n’ Smiles is unique in Hare’s oeuvre, uncandidly autobiographical, enfolding rock songs, and almost allegorizing the decline of England after the hopeful revolutions of 1968. Set in 1969 at the Cambridge May Ball, the play was originally “to be all about Maggie, but actually she is only on the stage for about forty-five minutes” (Kerensky 186). During that time, however, Maggie rises from an alcoholic stupor to martyrdom.

Through an energetic exposition we learn that Maggie met Arthur when she was a seventeen-year-old folk singer and he was a Cambridge student—writing songs for her, shaping her persona, and claiming to love her: “[Arthur] invents me” (38). Apparently disillusioned that their popular music inspired no revolution, Maggie rejected happiness along with Arthur, substituting drink, self-pity, easy sexuality, and easier deconstruction. She is scornful of Arthur’s (verbal) idealism: “It’s all gotta mean something … that’s childish, Arthur. It don’t mean anything” (52). And equally scornful of her manager’s cynicism. When one of the band members conceals his drugs in her bag, Maggie accepts arrest: “O.K. Try prison for a while, why not?” (72).

In the original production Helen Mirren’s Maggie commanded the theatre with flair. Even before she sets foot on stage, Maggie’s drunken condition is on everyone’s lips: “She starts drinking at breakfast, she passes out after lunch, then she’s up for supper, ready for the show” (12). The first set and the first scene close on Maggie’s song “Passing Through,” which confirms what we have heard about her: “If you don’t scream honey/How do they know you’re there” (30). In one way or another, Maggie screams, and we know she is there. She makes mincemeat of her Cambridge student interviewer (a young Antony Sher) as she derides his sexual fumbling. In the second set Maggie insults the Cambridge audience instead of singing, and she is punished beyond measure. In swift succession her manager fires her and announces Arthur’s new love. Maggie accepts the band’s betrayal and disappears during their third set.

But she returns in style, setting fire to the concert tent, excoriating her manager, bestowing Arthur on her rival, and finally turning her back on us: “Remember, I’m nobody’s excuse. If you love me, keep on the move” (85). Maggie may not spark a revolution, but “on the move” she threatens Cambridge with conflagration: “Police. Ambulance. Fire brigade. You just got to score the air-sea rescue service and you got a full house” (79). Arthur may have molded her art, but Maggie alone has the will to fail when the world around her is driving toward success. Onstage, Maggie’s mobility resonates in a whiskey-voiced nobility that refutes failure.

More subdued and elegant than Mirren’s Maggie, Kate Nelligan shoulders the burden of conscience in Hare’s works of the late 1970s. A teenage heroine of World War II is common to the teleplay Licking Hitler and the stage play Plenty (both 1978). The very title Licking Hitler puns on the success and subservience of a British Political Warfare Unit, whose mission is to undermine German morale by broadcasting seemingly casual conversations between far-flung Germans during the war. Formed to lick or vanquish fascism, the unit adopts or licks up the tactics of fascism. Archie Maclean from the Red Clyde is “one of our most gifted writers” (123), or inventor of scurrilous lies about citizens of the Third Reich. Anna Seaton, later designated by Hare as “the conscience of the play” (Introduction, History 13), translates Archie’s defamations into German, a language she learned during summers in a family Schloss on the Rhine.

Lonely and young enough to sleep with her teddy bear, upper-class English Anna at first protects herself from working-class Glaswegian Archie by jamming a chair under the door-handle of her bedroom. After she removes it, Archie rapes her. Anna nurses her wounds in silence, and they begin an affair: “I don’t know what he thinks about anything. We’ve never had a conversation. We just have a thing” (120). Humiliating Anna during working hours, Archie finally terminates the “thing” by reporting to his superior that Anna has “tried unsuccessfully to get him to sleep with [her].” In spite of her protests—“But it’s not true” (124)—she is forced to resign.

In a much criticized conclusion Hare resorts to anonymous voice-over to trace the postwar careers of the unit. Archie filmed documentaries, and then Hollywood potboilers. Anna spent ten years in advertising before rejecting its lies; marriage, adultery, and promiscuity were punctuated by a hysterectomy. Having traced these trajectories, with no communication between them, Anna sees Archie’s latest film and writes him “complaining of the falseness of his films, the way they sentimentalized what she knew to be his appalling childhood and lamenting, in sum, the films’ lack of political direction” (127). Sentimentalizing herself, Anna closes her letter: “I have remembered the one lie you told to make me go away. And I now at last have come to understand why you told it.” She then declares her love for Archie, but: “He never replied” (128).

Hare has conceded that the voice-over is clumsy, but he is silent about its untruth. On the one hand, he acknowledges that “both Anna Seaton and Archie Maclean are trapped in myths about their own past from which they seem unwilling to escape” (Introduction, History 13). Anna’s myth inflates a “thing” into love, and Archie mythologizes his working-class roots, but we see the play’s events through Anna’s eyes, and since she and Archie “never have a conversation,” how does she recognize “the falseness of his films”? We have only her word that Archie sensed the “corrosive national habit of lying” (128), and although she claims to understand what she calls his “one lie,” we are not made privy to that understanding.

Feminists have criticized Hare for Anna’s post-rape affair with Archie, and the playwright has pleaded that “such things do regrettably happen” (Introduction, History 13), but the play itself does not grapple with why they happen. Does Anna submit to Archie through fear? sexual attraction? self-deception? If Anna is, as Hare claims, the conscience of the play, she should not be trapped in a myth about her past, including the myth of a meaningful love affair with Archie.

In Plenty, a wittier and less submissive Kate Nelligan enacts Susan Traherne, who spends World War II in France as a subversive agent and peacetime in Britain as an equally subversive agent.6 Hare has described Plenty as “a play about the cost of spending your whole life in dissent” (Introduction, History 14). He has also claimed that people can “go clinically mad if what they believe bears no relation to how they live” (Myerson 28). What enthralls in the theatre is the ambiguity of whether Susan Traherne’s behavior is dissent or madness. Clear, however, is the mounting desperation of Hare’s most resonant heroine.

The play opens on a naked man in a nearly bare house—the obverse of plenty. Susan Traherne is on the point of leaving her husband and giving their Knightsbridge home to a longtime woman friend. The next scene flashes us back twenty years to wartime France where a teenaged Susan greets a British airman who has just parachuted down. Susan soon reveals her fear, and it is the man who saves their supplies from a rival claimant in the French Resistance: “Gestapo nothing, it’s the bloody French” (139). After the war Susan is restless and supercilious about “people who stayed behind” (146), so that her future husband Raymond Brock asks: “You don’t think you wear your suffering a little heavily? This smart club of people you belong to who had a very bad war…” (147).

Hare shades Susan’s dialogue, however, not with overt suffering but with cutting deflation of an increasingly prosperous Britain. She abandons her export job and office “mating dance” (152) to seek impregnation by a working-class stranger: “Deep down I’d do the whole damn thing by myself. But there we are. You’re second-best” (164). After eighteen sterile months, Susan abandons that project, and when the young man appeals to her emotions, she shoots at him, but guns are not her forte. We next see Susan right after the Suez “blunder or folly or fiasco” (173), married to the diplomat Brock, and scathing about the diplomatic corps. Susan imperils Brock’s career by refusing to return to Iran with him, and yet she threatens a senior diplomatic officer with suicide if Brock is not promoted: “I think you have destroyed my husband, you see” (194). But it is Susan who proceeds to destroy Brock, after destroying their common property: “A universe of things. … What are these godforsaken bloody awful things?” (199). A few weeks after Susan abandons Brock, she shares a tawdry hotel room with the nameless pilot whom she rescued during the war. When he leaves her, she slips into a drug-induced fantasy of the Resistance, where she responds radiantly to a Frenchman’s welcome: “There will be days and days and days like this” (207).7

Earlier, a perceptive Brock has charged: “When you talk longingly about the war … some deception usually follows” (159). But longing talk about the war is itself deception for Susan, denying its danger and Anglo-French rivalry. Susan Traherne’s dissent is oblique: she is contemptuous of the English pride in plenty, of the hypocrisies of the British diplomatic corps, of the resolution with which individuals pursue their selfish goals. She confesses to the erstwhile pilot: “I have a weakness. I like to lose control” (203). Like Anna Seaton in Licking Hitler, Susan Traherne is trapped in a myth about her past, a myth she does not wish to control.

Until Plenty Hare’s protagonists tend to be loners, but Susan is not only married; she also has a woman friend, who lounges in and out of love until she feels old enough “to do good” (197) to unmarried mothers. Although Brock reclaims his Knightsbridge house from that friend, she can presumably continue the good deeds, which never cross Susan’s mind. Caustic, violent, and only intermittently scrupulous, Susan Traherne does, as Hare claimed, dissent, but it is a self-indulgent dissent that serves no social purpose. Except for stimulating theatre.

When Hare shifted from the stage to film, he refocused on women without conscience, but they are no longer satirized, as in Slag. Visual beauty replaces verbal wit. Wetherby (1985) seems to be warmly affectionate to its protagonist because of the luminous presence of Vanessa Redgrave, but also because, fifteen years after Slag, Hare was less sanguine about middle-class schoolteachers with repressed sexuality. Deftly interweaving his Jean Travers as mature woman (Redgrave) and as student in love (Joely Richardson, Redgrave’s daughter), Hare titles his film for a Yorkshire town where feelings smoulder unexpressed. Hare’s Jean Travers traverses class boundaries when, as a teenager, she falls in love with a working-class airman. By the end of Wetherby a mature Jean Travers, sharing a drink (and perhaps a bed?) with her best friend’s husband, has been shaded as an unwitting murderer; suppressing her own emotions, she has effectively killed two passionate men. As a teenager, Jean is unable to articulate her need of the young airman she loves, so he departs for the Orient where he is killed in a gambling den. As a middle-aged teacher, Jean refuses to confess her emotions to a stranger, so he challenges her repression by shooting himself before her very eyes.8

Jean’s responsibility for these two deaths is never flatly stated in the film, but it is implied when three repetitions of the young airman’s violent death are enclosed within clips of the suicide of the young stranger. And yet responsibility does not mean blame—“Was it your fault?” (118). The double violence teaches the teacher Jean to free her own feelings. Not only do she and the investigating policeman make love, “all the tension going out of them” (130), but Jean and her best friend’s husband approve of her student who leaves Wetherby to live in London with her boyfriend: “Good luck to her. … To all our escapes” (132). Neither an escapee nor a rebel against repression, Jean Travers has nevertheless learned the power of passion.

We see a harder woman in Paris by Night, the movie Hare scripted soon after Wetherby. This time the repressed and professional woman (Charlotte Rampling) is an efficient political Conservative. The overriding ambition of Clara Paige has driven her husband to drink, and their child to loneliness. Before entering politics, husband and wife shared a business with Michael Swanton, who went to prison for crooked dealings in which the three were accomplices. Free but disgraced, Swanton begs Clara for money but is refused.

Paris by night resembles Wetherby as a site of unmoored passion for a usually inhibited Englishwoman. Startled by a mysterious telephone caller—“I know who you are” (5)—Clara Paige abruptly leaves London for her Paris mission, but on impulse she abandons her post to enjoy the French capital with a handsome young stranger, Wallace Sharp. Another impulse dictates a tender parting so that she can walk alone, but she is suddenly confronted with Michael Swanton on the Pont des Arts. Believing herself followed by him, she gives vent to still another—but far more violent—impulse: she pushes Swanton off the bridge into the Seine below. By morning, Clara is back at work—a lone but admired female figure in a world of men.

In London Clara’s son has undergone an emergency appendectomy. Promising to leave Paris at once, she suddenly recognizes Swanton’s distraught daughter, and the once cool English Tory turns again to Wallace, to spend a passionate night: “Small howls of pain from CLARA, as if WALLACE were trying to get the truth out of her” (61). But Clara’s life congeals in lies.

Back in England Clara resumes political business as usual, while her husband and her lover in their separate cities read of the discovery of Swanton’s body. The lover seeks her out in England, and she confesses the murder, but promises him a divorce and a new life: “If we’re honest, we can make a fresh start” (78). It is an insuperable “if.” In London Clara’s husband, gun in hand, accuses her of killing Swanton, and of having a lover. Clara counteraccuses her husband of incriminating them to Swanton, whereupon he lifts the gun and fires five shots: “CLARA slumps to the ground, dead” (83).

“You’re my first naked Tory” (59), Clara’s lover informs her during their Paris night, and that is true of Hare as well. Bright, ruthless, and seductive, Clara Paige preaches morality while practicing hypocrisy, but the film gradually undresses her. Hare himself has claimed that “Clara Paige is not such a terrible person,” and that, in filming, “We simply did not know what our response to Clara was” (Introduction, Paris vii, ix). Some of us, however, do know our response to murder, however inadvertent, a response guided in the film by the hard light on and hard lines of Charlotte Rampling’s resolution.

Clara’s lover assures her that she has a softer side, and Hare’s The Secret Rapture (1988) dramatizes a (metaphorically) naked Tory as Marion, and her soft-sided sister as Isobel.9 The critic Philip French has summarized the resemblances between the play and the film: “…a female Thatcherite politician with a weak husband, financial chicanery visited upon the innocent by unscrupulous entrepreneurs, a woman shot … at point-blank range by a desperate man. …” However, Clara is shot by her wronged husband, and her last words are a spiteful accusation. Isobel is shot by the lover who wronged her, and her last words are humorously self-effacing: “I haven’t got shoes [on]. Still you can’t have everything” (78).

In The Secret Rapture Hare seems fascinated by both sisters—the energetic evil of Tory Marion, who is first seen removing a valuable ring from her dead father; and the subdued tolerance of Isobel, who is last seen as a radiant ghost (in the original production, although not in either version of the published text). Drawing its title from Catholic theology—the moment when the nun becomes the bride of Christ, or death—The Secret Rapture is Manichean, with its satanic and angelic sisters, whose dialogue is at times so arch that the play has to be enlivened by their father’s alcoholic widow Katherine. In performance reprehensible Marion was a satirized Conservative, but Hare groomed virtuous Isobel for tragedy. Although it was lavishly praised, the play seems to me to confirm the improbability of binary divisions.

Hare’s film Strapless (1990) avoids that dramatic error. As in the play The Secret Rapture, we view two contrasting sisters, but in the film they are Americans living in England. Dr. Lillian Hempel (Blair Brown), in her mid-thirties, is a physician at a National Health Service London hospital, and her feckless younger sister (Bridget Fonda) has vague aspirations toward becoming a designer. Wooed and wedded in a whirlwind romance, Lillian assumes political responsibility only when she is abandoned by her seductive but shifty husband. Lillian’s sister Amy, having indulged freely in sex and drugs, finds herself pregnant but refuses an abortion. In the film’s final sequences both sisters coo over newborn Mary, and both sisters wear black strapless evening gowns for a hospital fund-raising ball: “They shouldn’t stand up. But they do” (85). As do the two sisters, in their respective careers, while the evanescent lover smiles enigmatically, perhaps in memory of his brief marriage, perhaps in desire for another woman.

In Strapless a man—Raymond Forbes—is dedicated to plenty. An entrepreneur who buys and sells, he showers Lillian with expensive gifts before he runs afoul of the law and disappears from her life. Cool and suave, he is not a naked Tory, but an international speculator, for whom the fun is in the chase, as he acknowledges in a sexual pun: “I love that feeling of soon she will come” (36). But in spite of two close-up kisses, we witness no passion between Lillian and Raymond; rather, she is almost hypnotized by his pursuit.10

The most passionate scene in the film is one of reciprocal fury between the two sisters. Doctor Lillian turns on Amy: “Have a child? Are you nuts? … What will you do? Go to college? They don’t give diplomas for dreaming. Let alone diplomas for fucking!” Amy countercharges: “Oh, you’re always so kind. So patient. So tolerant. And in that kindness, doctor, there’s such condescension” (43–44). By the end of the film, all condescension spent, Lillian acknowledges her arrogance: “You have certain feelings. And then you must pick up the bill. … You’ve always known that. But it’s taken me time” (79). “Pick up the bill” seems a curiously monetary image for a National Health doctor with a social conscience.

Hare’s irresponsible sister of the 1960s behavior and his professional sister of the selfish 1980s learn to blend private tenderness and public responsibility. A scene of birth—Amy’s baby—is followed by a scene of death—Lillian’s cancer patient. Lillian has lost a husband, and yet he sends her a gift—a tiny silver horse in the script, a toy jockey on a horse in the film. In Strapless no one is killed, no blow is struck, and women finally emerge independent of men. The film devotes more footage to women’s professional skills than Hare’s other two films. After Dr. Lillian Hempel agrees to chair the hospital protest committee, Strapless concludes upon a fashion show in a worthy cause; we watch from behind as each strapless, seductive woman’s back parts the curtain to face an audience.

For all his good intentions, however, and divergent sisters, Hare’s metaphor rings false. The naked breasts of Slag are absent, but Amy exults about her strapless designs—“Let them stand up on their own” (80). Hare may intend to embrace all independent women, but the metaphor is inaccurate, for strapless gowns preserve the proprieties not by means of women’s breasts—“on their own”—but because of strategically placed supports. And the strategically placed supports in most Hare plays are men.

On the sidelines, or front and center, Hare’s women of principle tend to depend upon men. In Knuckle,Wetherby,Licking Hitler, and The Secret Rapture, women are assaulted by men, and in the three films women need particular men, however unable to articulate that need. As early as Knuckle Jenny rejects liaisons, but she thrives as a talismanic symbol in a bar frequented by men. Maggie’s art is as sexual as Madonna’s, and Anna Seaton sentimentalizes her erotic “thing.” Susan sheds a husband for a nameless lover. Only in Strapless do both sisters weather affairs with men; Amy dismisses the faraway Argentinean father of her baby, whereas the protagonist Lillian is nostalgic about the man who bigamously married her, only to vanish. Yet the film itself recalls him to our view. Still, Strapless is the first Hare drama to close on independent professional women “on their own,” however inapt the metaphor.

Murmuring Judges (1991) pursues professional women—on the stage. Having relegated women to the periphery of Racing Demon, the first play of his projected trilogy about British institutions, Hare in his second play sets two women front and center—Police Constable Sandra Bingham and junior barrister Irina Platt. Deftly shifting between their respective worlds in contemporary London—the police station and the law court—and the prison that shades both worlds, Hare dramatizes British justice as an oxymoron: the overworked police cannot begin to contain crime, the prison is governed by its own brutal laws, and the legal eagles fly by their own rarefied codes.

Although Sandra has had an affair with a seasoned detective, and Irina has known love in her native Antigua, Hare focuses on the professional lives of the two women—in a patriarchal context. Sandra, who has been brought up as a boy by her policeman father, is ambitious to rise in the force; Irina, who serves as the black female token of a prominent jurist, is ambitious to defend the innocent. Separately, both women are advised that they are members of “a team,” but conscience as well as sex distinguishes them from their colleagues.

Reviewers faulted Hare for the intricacy and/or improbability of his plot, in which the two professional women separately pierce to the lies that victimize an Irish laborer. Reviewers also complained of Hare’s lectures in the mouths of Sandra and Irina—in Irving Wardle’s phrase, “a pair of young puritans” (1282). And indeed both smart young women wear their conscience a little heavily, particularly black Irina haranguing her silver-haired benefactor on English prison and English privilege: “It seems so obvious to an outsider. Do you really not know? All this behaviour, the honours, the huge sums of money, the buildings, the absurd dressing-up. They do have a purpose. It’s anaesthetic. It’s to render you incapable of imagining life the other way round” (91).

To his credit, Hare expands his own ability to imagine life the other way round. Murmuring Judges is not a Manichean reduction: the victimized prisoner is guilty, and the police show humor and humanity. The higher echelons of the judiciary are men of culture who admit a black woman—provided she abides by their rules. Despite reviewers’ contradictory complaints—on the one hand, that Hare was parading his research; on the other, that he was saying nothing new about judicial corruption—the playwright is theatrically informed and informative about the judiciary.

Hare’s dramatic problem is his conscience-carrying women protagonists. Although one is black and the other white, they are both colorless on stage. In the theatre the villain steals the show, so that a playwright presents a virtuous protagonist at his or her own peril. Dipsomaniacal Maggie of Teeth ‘n’ Smiles and hysterical Susan of Plenty may accomplish nothing constructive in the world, but they seethe with theatrical life. In Murmuring Judges Sandra appreciates the rough masculine humor of the force, whereas Irina is impassive before the sophisticated wit of the leading members of the judiciary, but both are pale figures in their respective worlds; small wonder that they are puzzled about “when it’s time to say no” (98).

Boldly, Hare gives the two women a scene together, in which a casually dressed Irina appeals to Sandra, out of uniform, to help her imprisoned client by incriminating the police: “You’ve chosen a woman. … You thought I’d be easier. I sort of resent that.” But since “both smile” (95), the resentment dissolves into mutual sympathy—a sympathy that is so wholly dependent on their sex that Hare bolsters it with scenic directions: “IRINA picks up on [SANDRA’s] tone.… IRINA [is] confident she has SANDRA’s interest.… IRINA waits, knowing [SANDRA] is hooked.…IRINA makes a slight movement towards [SANDRA] with a card. … [There is] a real warmth suddenly between the two women. … They both smile together, joined by the thought” (96–98). The thought is Sandra’s remark that Irina’s alternative bar has no counterpart in the constabulary: “…there’s nothing called the alternative police” (98). Nevertheless, Murmuring Judges closes on Sandra’s decision to act as though there were, or eventually might be. Sandra does not telephone Irina with the crucial evidence; she keeps it within the constabulary. In Hare’s last scene a panoramic sweep against the prison background finally narrows on Sandra, who steps downstage center: “I want the Chief Superintendent. (She waits.) I wonder. Could I have a word?” (109).

During the course of Murmuring Judges Sandra has too many words, and Irina even more. Yet it is not so much the quantity as the quality of his heroines’ words that is sometimes so dispiriting—unfailingly earnest, without the silky wit of the judges or the rough humor of the policemen (and women). It would, however, be well worth the wait if Hare could, in the third play of his “institutional” trilogy, create a female protagonist who can dispense with dotting her i’s and crossing her ethical t’s.11


  1. See, for example, Michelene Wandor, Look Back in Gender: Sexuality and the Family in Post-war British Drama (London: Methuen, 1987), or June Schlueter, ed., Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989). Contrary to (my) expectation, there is no mention of Hare in Susan Carlson, Women and Comedy: Rewriting the British Theatrical Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991).

  2. Knuckle’s inclusion in The History Plays is puzzling, since Teeth ‘n’ Smiles would seem more suitable. Jenny’s position is so secondary that Bull barely mentions her in his astute analysis of Knuckle (70–73).

  3. Nightingale comments on Hare’s surprise at receiving letters of thanks for the father-son subject “he thought not central to it at all” (1).

  4. Chronologically, the women of Fanshen (1975) belong in this group, but since the play is an adaptation of an account I have not read, and, more importantly, since the play is so atypical of Hare, I do not discuss it. However, see Cave for a view of the importance of Fanshen for Hare’s later work, since it “charged overt theatricality … with a powerful sense of purpose” (203).

  5. The bare-bones situation resembles Stoppard’s Night and Day, where a woman in Africa (rather than Asia) is erotically involved with two journalists. See Cave for a much more sympathetic view of Peggy (208–9).

  6. The film of Plenty displaced Kate Nelligan with the (film) star Meryl Streep, and the flashback with conventional chronology. In short, a conventional film.

  7. Hare’s direction preserved the ambiguity between Susan’s memory and drug-induced fantasy. See, for example, Gussow’s review (20).

  8. The disturbed young man is named Morgan, like the madman in the Karel Reisz movie of that name written by David Mercer. Morgan’s suicide resembles the opening scene of Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist.

  9. The London production of The Secret Rapture titillated by its Edwina Currie details, whereas the New York production leaned on Margaret Thatcher. The latter version was the occasion of Hare’s heated diatribe against the New York Times reviewer, Frank Rich.

  10. I ignore Hare’s several statements about the powerful love story in the film, preferring to focus on what the film actually contains. Like most playwrights, Hare is not his own most acute critic, but then playwrights have more important things to do.

  11. The harshest judgment of Hare’s women charges: “Essentially Hare does not write about women at all but rather as blanks on which he can imprint an external, male pressure; and to such pressure they respond only with pain or madness or, if they are secondary characters, with baffled dismay” (Chambers and Prior 186). It is true that Hare’s women all suffer male pressure, but that pressure elicits scorn for the established verities. It is also true that secondary women characters are often dismayed, but they are rarely baffled. I have tried to trace Hare’s gradually growing respect for professional women—Maggie Frisby, Susan Traherne, Jean Travers, and Dr. Lillian Hempel; three endearing scenes reveal Jean Travers’s rapport with her pupils; nurses, doctors, and patients reveal high regard for Dr. Lillian Hempel’s medical skills. Perhaps Hare’s next heroine will have no need at all of masculine succor.

Works Cited

Brenton, Howard and David Hare. Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1986.

Bull, John. New British Political Dramatists: Howard Brenton, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths and David Edgar. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Cave, Richard Allen. New British Drama in Performance on the London Stage: 1970 to 1985. Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1987.

Chambers, Colin and Mike Prior. Playwrights’ Progress: Patterns of Postwar British Drama. Oxford: Amber Lane, 1987.

French, Philip. “Hare and the Tortoise.” The Observer 4 June 1989. Excerpted in File on Hare. Comp. Malcolm Page. London: Methuen, 1990. 78.

Gussow, Mel. “Two Sparkling Performances Light Up the West End.” New York Times 30 July 1978, sec. 2: 4+.

Hare, David. The Bay at Nice and Wrecked Eggs. London: Faber, 1986.

———. Dreams of Leaving. Heading Home, Wetherby and Dreams of Leaving. London: Faber, 1991.

———. How Brophy Made Good. Gambit 5.17 (1971): 83–125.

———. Introduction. The History Plays. London: Faber, 1984. 9–16.

———. Introduction. Paris by Night. London: Faber, 1988. v–x.

———. Knuckle. The History Plays. London: Faber, 1984.

———. Licking Hitler. The History Plays. London: Faber, 1984.

———. A Map of the World. The Asian Plays. London: Faber, 1986.

———. Murmuring Judges. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1993.

———. Paris by Night. London: Faber, 1988.

———. Plenty. The History Plays. London: Faber, 1984.

———. Racing Demon. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1991.

———. Saigon: Year of the Cat. The Asian Plays. London: Faber, 1986.

———. The Secret Rapture. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1989.

———. Slag. London: Faber, 1971.

———. Strapless. London: Faber, 1989.

———. Teeth ‘n’ Smiles. London: Faber, 1976.

———. Wetherby. Heading Home, Wetherby and Dreams of Leaving. London: Faber, 1991.

Itzin, Catherine and Simon Trussler. “From Portable Theatre to Joint Stock … via Shaftesbury Avenue.” Interview with Hare. Theatre Quarterly 5.20 (1975–76): 108–15.

Kerensky, Oleg. The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights since Osborne and Pinter. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Myerson, Jonathan. “David Hare: Fringe Graduate.” Drama 149 (1983): 26–28.

Nightingale, Benedict. “An Angry Young Man of the Eighties Brings His Play to New York.” New York Times 17 Oct. 1982, sec. 2: 1+.

Oliva, Judy Lee. David Hare: Theatricalizing Politics. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990.

Pinter, Harold. The Homecoming. London: Methuen, 1965.

Wardle, Irving. Review of Murmuring Judges. Independent on Sunday 13 Oct. 1991. Rpt. in Theatre Record 11 (1991): 1282–83.

Lane A. Glenn (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7068

SOURCE: “Playwright of Popular Dissent: David Hare and the Trilogy,” in David Hare: A Casebook, edited by Hersh Zeifman, Garland Publishing, 1994, pp. 217-35

[In the following essay, Glenn provides an overview of the political themes, staging, and critical reception of Hare's trilogy—Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War.]

As one of Britain’s most successful playwright-polemicists, David Hare has been lauded for his ability to attract largely mainstream, middle-class audiences to productions that often tear at the very fabric of bourgeois English life. For the last fifteen years he has been assisted in his efforts by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, where he is an associate director: since 1978, Hare has launched nine plays from the National’s three stages, including Plenty,A Map of the World,Pravda (written with Howard Brenton), The Bay at Nice and Wrecked Eggs, and The Secret Rapture. His most ambitious work to date, however, involves not just one play but an entire trilogy examining British institutions. What Hare and Brenton began with their 1985 satire of the Fleet Street press, Pravda, has been continued in the halls of Britain’s National Theatre with Hare’s solo efforts: Racing Demon,Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War. The plays examine the Church of England, the British legal system, and English party politics respectively, and they provide a revealing look at the evolution of a creative process involving a playwright, director, and theatre—David Hare, Richard Eyre, and the National’s Olivier stage.

The man critics have labeled Britain’s leading dissident playwright did not set out to create a dramatic investigation of such an epic sweep. It all began with a single play: the genesis of the trilogy lies in Hare’s curiosity about and gentle prodding of the venerable Church of England, an institution some feel is mired in dogma and hopelessly behind the times, stuck performing mundane social work while longing to provide spiritual fulfillment. His friend of more than twenty years, Director of the National Theatre Richard Eyre, then set him along the path that led to Racing Demon. “I was able to put him in contact with a vicar who had been fired from his church,” Eyre has stated. “It was something that was making the news quite a bit at the time.” The substance of this meeting became one of the central issues of the play: the function of the individual conscience within the Church, and the Church’s role in a decidedly secular community. As Hare has noted, he then “put the research on one side and wrote a work of pure fiction.”1 The result was a triumph for both Hare and the National Theatre: Racing Demon, a tale of four London clergymen battling faith, bureaucracy, hierarchy, and tradition, garnered four Best Play awards, as well as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor recognitions for two of its company. It entered the repertoire of the Cottesloe Theatre on 8 February 1990, transferred to the larger Olivier stage in August of that year, and returned the following autumn to the Lyttelton before touring the United Kingdom—possibly the only production in the National’s history to perform on all three of its stages.

Hare did not have to wait for critical kudos to realize he had come upon a formula for success: “I had the idea, during the rehearsals of Racing Demon, that we should try and do three plays rather than just one. I wanted eventually to put three plays together in one day—the Church, the Law and the State.” After a very public fracas with Frank Rich of the New York Times over his directorial skill in the American production of The Secret Rapture, however, Hare was hesitant to oversee such a project himself; this was the reason he turned to Richard Eyre as the director for Racing Demon, and continued the alliance for the next two plays. For his part, Eyre was ready to rise to the challenge. “Both of us enjoyed working on Racing Demon,” the director has commented, “and we felt strongly the value of an ensemble and continuity. At the same time I was keen to find a project that was very ambitious—a grand folly—and this seemed to be the idea. If you run a theatre you need those landmarks in your life and in the life of the theatre. This challenges everyone involved.” Thus the David Hare Trilogy was conceived.

Theatrical works on this grand scale are rare in modern drama. Wagner’s Ring cycle, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata rival Hare’s trilogy in terms of epic length, a quality the playwright praises. “I love long days in the theatre,” he has said. “When they work, they do make you more open and receptive. There is a wonderful stage you go through at about the seventh or eighth hour at which all your critical faculties are gone and all your resistance is gone and you become more open and you simply accept.” And August Wilson’s chronicle of African-American experience in different decades of the twentieth century—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,Fences,Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running—compares in terms of extended narratives around a broad central theme. None of these works, however, assumes the authority in wide-ranging subjects that Hare’s plays do.

On a socio-political level, Racing Demon found its admirers and detractors among the London press, clergy, and theatre-going public. Few refute the despairing statistics offered by the play—English clergy are largely overworked and underpaid, parish church attendance on most Sundays is less than 1 percent, and the Church finds itself desperately behind the times, clinging to doctrines that are often irrelevant and ineffective in their present environment. Some, however, argue that there are important facets to the crisis-of-faith issue within the Church that Hare has not presented. A few even point to what seems an obvious agnostic bias on Hare’s part as a barrier to effective judgement of religious issues. At the human level, though, Racing Demon is one of Hare’s most effective plays to date. It combines humor with pathos while doing what Hare does best: exploring vital public issues in intensely personal realms. He had created for himself a hard act to follow.

The second play in the trilogy, Murmuring Judges, was not greeted as warmly when it first appeared at the National’s Olivier Theatre in October of 1991. Taking to task English law—the prisons, the bar and bench, and the police—Hare attempts to prove the futility of a system that actually treats less than 2 percent of the crimes in Britain, convicts even fewer criminals, then recycles them in jails that prove training grounds for further misdeeds. The intertwining plots of Murmuring Judges reflect the three levels of the law as Hare perceives them. At the constabulary level are DC Barry Hopper, a semi-corrupt officer who will stop at nothing to nab his culprits, including planting false evidence, and PC Sandra Bingham, his sometime lover caught in a moral dilemma: whether to reveal the truth about her rising-star detective boyfriend or observe esprit de corps and turn a blind eye. At the bar and bench are Sir Peter Edgecombe QC, head of a law firm and prone to taking on attractive female barristers fresh from law school to handle his criminal cases and act as dinner and opera escorts, and Justice Cuddeford, a career judge enamored of the roast venison and fine wines in the dining halls of the Inns of Court but averse to actual contact with the public or the prison system he administers. As is common in many of Hare’s plays, the voice of goodness and moral indignation belongs to a woman: balancing these unscrupulous characters is Irina Platt, Sir Peter’s most recent acquisition. A native Antiguan, Irina is an outsider to her profession in terms of both her gender and race, facts which do not prevent her from becoming a cunning legal crusader and ostensibly the play’s hero.

Running the gamut through the police, the courts, and into the prisons is Gerard McKinnon. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, McKinnon is a product of hard times; desperate to support his family (which includes a handicapped child), he agrees to accompany a pair of more seasoned criminals on a heist and is caught after his first larcenous act. He is given an extremely harsh sentence (presumably because he is Irish) and sent to prison where, because of overcrowding, he is housed in the wing for serious offenders. The main dramatic action of the play focuses on the obstacles Irina faces in her attempts to secure a lighter sentence for McKinnon, obstacles erected by an overburdened, uncaring, sometimes corrupt legal system.

In addition to being chronologically the center of the trilogy, Murmuring Judges may be seen as a kind of fulcrum for the entire project, balancing what came before, Racing Demon, and what was to follow, The Absence of War. This involves both benefits and drawbacks. While the script itself is flawed in many respects compared to its companions, the production style literally set the stage for the future production of the entire trilogy. Structurally, Murmuring Judges is the weakest of the three plays. Initial complaints from London critics focused on Hare’s overabundance of research and overzealous lecturing in unfolding his story line. A few were plainly (and somewhat comically) puzzled. “We know from Pravda that critics are dolts with drinking problems,” wrote Benedict Nightingale, “but when we are found in a tiny cluster after curtain-down, debating the plot’s essentials, something needs clarifying” (“Hare Brained”). The difficulty Hare seemingly encountered in Murmuring Judges was balancing the issues of the play with a well-constructed, compelling plot and believable, empathetic characters, something Racing Demon had done so well. Instead of a Shavian weighing of ideas against a backdrop of personal turmoil, the play provides iconographic mouthpieces and dialogue that occasionally seem more akin to agit-prop drama than Hare’s usual brand of contemporary realism.

In Racing Demon, Lionel Espy and Harry Henderson, the persecuted vicars, are fully-fleshed human beings, likeable in their earnestness but not without their faults. One of them has difficulty caring for his wife the way he cares for himself and others, and experiences a crisis in faith so severe that many of his parishioners feel he is unable to lead them; the other is a withdrawn homosexual, reticent about admitting his sexual orientation and publicly recognizing his lover. Even their conservative adversary, Tony Ferris, an upstart curate of missionary zeal, is given equitable treatment: behind his evangelical religious fervor lie a tragic childhood and the guilt of a recent love affair.

No such balance is struck, however, with the characters in Murmuring Judges. Though the crises they encounter are rarely obvious black-and-white ones, the forces of good and evil represented by the police, lawyers, judges, prison wardens, and criminals are clearly aligned, with little gray area between them. Sir Peter, for example, takes advantage of women, prefers high-paying and exciting civil court cases to standard-fare, run-of-the-mill criminal ones, and cares little for the truth. “You know what’s so boring about criminal law?” he asks barrister Irina Platt. “…[Y]ou have to establish the facts. … That’s why I also like libel cases. Because so often they’re a matter of opinion. You’re arguing about things which no one can prove. You’re juggling with air, pure and simple” (85). At an Inns of Court dinner, Justice Cuddeford, a minor but important character representing the judiciary, is equally unconcerned and malicious. He avoids discussing with the Home Secretary the practical dilemmas of convicting and sentencing criminals, preferring instead to dwell on the fine menu for the evening and some of the more archaic customs of the Inns. When he is finally cornered he reveals what Hare presumably thinks is one of the larger failings of the judiciary. “[I]f for one single moment, when I’m at work in my court,” Cuddeford tells his companion, “if I begin to consider … if I ever consider what prison is now like … then I cannot fairly administer justice. Because my head is full of what we may call failings of society. … Which are truly not my concern” (57).

The crusading lawyer Irina Platt, on the other hand, certainly has the forces of right and reason on her side. Her client, McKinnon, is guilty, but he was apprehended improperly and punished too severely by a prejudiced, unsympathetic court; her appeal for leniency is justifiable. Finally, however, her unceasing idealism and wholesomeness seem somewhat naive. In her climactic confrontation with Sir Peter, she attacks his apathy toward the downtrodden and his interest in personal gain. “All this behaviour, the honours, the huge sums of money, the buildings, the absurd dressing-up. They do have a purpose,” she tells him. “It’s anaesthetic. It’s to render you incapable of imagining life the other way round” (91). While her feeling is sincere and her point valid, the issue is one that already has been raised in the play several times; thus, rather than startling the audience, it seems merely redundant.

Other characters in the play have the similar problem of establishing three-dimensional identities beyond their roles as informers or moralizers. The problem is especially acute in scenes involving the police, who seem to have extraordinary memories for abysmal job-related statistics. DC Barry Hopper, frustrated at the amount of paperwork necessary to charge someone with abstracting electricity, “the most boring crime of all time,” tells his charge room cohorts: “I read this statistic. If you take all the crime, all of it, every single bit, in money it doesn’t add up to what’s lost every year in tax evasion. … And yet look at us!… One hundred and thirty thousand policemen. Twenty-eight thousand in London alone. … To collect a sum of money—at incredible expense—which is actually less than the government happily lets rich bastards get up and walk away with every year” (66).

Manufacturing scenes for relaying this kind of information is something Hare did not need to do in Racing Demon. The real-life problems reflected in the play are better integrated with the action of the plot, and characters who may reveal important facts and statistics are motivated to do so for more personal reasons. For Barry, tax dollars and thousands of uniformed police across London are things he has merely read about; alarming news seems somehow more urgent when it more immediately involves the characters. For example, in Racing Demon Tony tells his fellow clergymen: “We feel we’ve had a good Sunday if between us we attract one per cent. One per cent of our whole catchment area. … I want a full church. Is that so disgraceful?” (16). And rather than simply throwing out poverty statistics, the playwright allows the experience of the characters to tell the tale; thus Lionel explains his dual role as minister and social worker by saying, “I don’t think anyone from the outside quite understands what the job is. Mostly it’s just listening to the anger. One reason or another. Lately it’s the change in the DSS rules. If you’re young, setting up home, you can no longer get a loan for a stove, unless you can prove you’ll be able to pay the money back. I’ve had three couples in the last week. They need somewhere to go to express their frustration. Everyone does” (31). Instead of being told what the extent of the problem is, the audience is presented with one small piece of it—a handful of concerned but confused vicars. From this it must extrapolate the larger societal concerns.

The problems Murmuring Judges has with realistic character and theme development seem to stem from Hare’s working method on the project. After thoroughly investigating his subject, rather than laying aside his research to “write a pure work of fiction,” as he did with Racing Demon, he frequently allowed his findings to take precedence over literary technique. What the play lacks on the page, however, it attempts to compensate for in production. While its forerunner began on a bare, crucifix-shaped stage in the much smaller Cottesloe Theatre and only later transferred to the cavernous Olivier, Murmuring Judges was written with the 1,100–seat grand stage in mind. According to both the playwright and the director, writing for the Olivier carries with it a certain weight of responsibility, and requires particular qualities from the play that is to be performed there. First of all, the play must hold a large sense of importance for the audience. As Hare has stated: “The audience know that it would be wrong to have something called the ‘National Theatre’ and then present new plays only in the smaller auditoria. It seems to me important to put big public subjects on this stage, which reflect the audience’s own lives.”

Additionally, the Olivier space is not conducive to an intimately styled play. While some smaller-cast plays can pull it off (Racing Demon contains only eleven speaking parts), larger ones are the more usual bill of fare (Murmuring Judges has a cast of nearly thirty, plus extras, while The Absence of War uses a company of at least twenty-six). “The production has to have a bit of muscularity to it,” according to Richard Eyre. “It’s got to be robust. [The Olivier] can’t take fragile writing—you have to make bold statements. They can be complex but they have to be bold—visually and in their acting as well. And, of course, it’s got to have a public face to it. A theatre where people are sat in a 130 degree arc—the acting has to turn out, not in. Plays with direct address work better in there.” A big public subject, robustness, and a strong visual flair, no matter the flatness of some characters and a few script problems, are certainly things Murmuring Judges has going for it. Almost to a reviewer London critics responded favorably to Richard Eyre’s staging and Bob Crowley’s design for the play, which proved to be the inspiration for the whole trilogy when it was remounted.

Of course, the production team had to work from the playwright’s model, and in this respect Hare’s fifteen years as an occasional film director and screenwriter profited him. Murmuring Judges, like many of Hare’s plays, prescribes certain visual elements and production techniques. There is a cinematic structure to the play—close-up, crowd scene, montage, fadeout—that translates into a varied and compelling stage presentation. Hare describes the first scene of the play this way: “An empty stage. Then suddenly from nowhere they’re all there—the judge, the jury, the battery of lawyers in wigs, the public, the police, the press, the ushers, the guards, and at the centre of the forward-facing court, the defendants. The entire company of the law has appeared in the blinking of an eye” (1). Such theatre magic is facilitated by the Olivier: with its enormous upstage and wing space, and rows of vomitoriums leading through the audience to the stage, a large company can be assembled in a matter of seconds. Once the characters are onstage, the fluidity of their movements and the film-like qualities of the production continue. A spotlight separates the defendant, McKinnon, from the courtroom as his thoughts are presented simultaneously with the reading of the verdict. When the court disbands, the setting is immediately replaced by a new one. “The court at once melds into the incoming scene,” Hare directs, “led by the defence counsel, who walk from the court towards us” (3). The effect is that of a rapid dissolve, one image replaced by another.

This technique, which continues throughout the play, was assisted in production by a triptych of enormous screens, onto which were flashed slide-projection images appropriate to each setting. In the charge room, images of fingerprint sheets, a giant wall of clipboards, and mile-high piles of file baskets stretched from the stage floor up into the fly gallery. Exterior scenes were accompanied by cloudless skies or leafy trees, while the barristers’ offices sat in front of immense library shelves, crammed with legal briefs and texts. The tri-screen approach also allowed the stage to be split into separate, alternating scenes, the live equivalent of a series of cinematic dissolves into different locales. Hare employs this effect to its fullest at the close of Act 1: onstage are Barry Hopper and his partner in the darkened police station, McKinnon in his prison cell, and Irina and Sir Peter at the Royal Opera House. The juxtaposition of images and characters—the policemen leaving for a drink at the end of a long day, the criminal stewing in his cold steel cell, and the upper-crust lawyers out on the town—speaks volumes more than some of the play’s antiseptic statistics. As Mozart’s The Magic Flute crashes into life and the prison warders call “Lights out!” (49), the play becomes truly thought-provoking and meaningful.

A further benefit of the rear-wall projections was that they allowed for a relatively uncluttered floor plan. This served the first play in the trilogy especially well: clearing the stage of unnecessary settings and props focused attention on the actors and the text. Comparisons were made between Racing Demon and some of Bertolt Brecht’s works, particularly Galileo. One reviewer was prompted to write: “Richard Eyre’s production makes such skillful use of the symbolic possibilities of a cruciform open stage that one wonders why anyone bothered to invent the proscenium arch” (Hebblethwaite). Of course, this effect was easier to manage in a smaller theatre. As Eyre has pointed out, “Racing Demon started in the Cottesloe. It was very intimate. The audience sat around a cruciform stage and no one was further than ten feet from the actors. The problem has been trying to preserve the virtues of the production, the delicacy of the acting. It’s been amplified and technically adapted to the new space [at the Olivier] and to the trilogy. The idea we followed throughout, though, remains a minimalist one. Nothing appears on stage that is decorative or gratuitous, nothing that is not functional and necessary.” In order to revive Racing Demon as part of the trilogy, this meant taking a few cues from Murmuring Judges and enhancing the visual elements. What began as a bare horizontal crucifix laid across the stage now stretched vertically as well, in a mirror-like image toward the rear of the acting area. The center of the upright cross became the projection screen for this play, still a simpler effect than the giant images flashed on the walls in the next two productions, but enough to provide visual unity.

Murmuring Judges, then, borrowed research techniques, thematic ideas and, of course, impetus from its predecessor while returning visual flair. Racing Demon, with its understated lessons and simple concurrent plots all revolving around a small coterie of churchfolk, carries more weight than its more complicated and didactic follower. It seems, finally, far more universal and enduring, much more likely to withstand what Hare has referred to as “the ten-year test,” being equally accessible a decade from now.

The final play in the trilogy, The Absence of War, is an attempt to combine the best elements of the first two. Visually as grand and cinematic as Murmuring Judges, it nonetheless maintains a simple, single plot line, reminiscent of Racing Demon. Hare was somewhat evasive while planning the trilogy’s concluding play. During a discussion with Eyre following a production of Murmuring Judges, the writer was asked if his next play would be about politicians. “Yes,” he responded. “In Western democracies, politicians and those around them are currently held in such low regard that I was fascinated by the prospect of trying to look at the world from their point of view. More than that, at the moment, I don’t want to say.” The playwright’s hesitation may be quite understandable given the task he had chosen. The Absence of War is not just a play about politicians in Britain. More specifically, it is about the Labour Party and its attempt to win power in the general election of 1992. While his research for Racing Demon and Murmuring Judges involved shadowing and interviewing parish vicars, policemen, lawyers, and judges, his subjects were mostly low-profile professionals whose personalities, even if duplicated on the stage, were not likely to be recognized or slandered. An up-to-the-minute description of the Labour Party’s inner workings, however, would likely produce events and characters immediately recognizable to a politically conscious theatre-going public.

In actuality, there was some friction. Hare has been a supporter, albeit a critical one, of the Labour Party for years, and even developed a friendship with then Labour Leader Neil Kinnock. In the early writing stages of the play, Kinnock gave Hare access to his campaign team and made him privy to behind-the-scenes meetings. He was allowed to conduct interviews with important Labour figures and record all that he saw and heard. It wasn’t until the play was announced, along with publication of a book by Hare that chronicles his research methods, Asking Around, that Labourites became suspicious and defensive. Suddenly there was concern that the Party’s support for the project might be withdrawn, a prospect that, while not damning for Hare the playwright and his artistic creation, could be messy for a heavily subsidized theatre and a company made up largely of Labour supporters. The Evening Standard reported one Party insider as saying, “I knew he was researching a play but I didn’t know he was going to repeat whole conversations in a book. He would not have been allowed that sort of access from the start if we had known about the book” (Hooberman and Robertshaw). The issue was apparently resolved when the playwright presented his work to Kinnock, not for censoring but for reassurance. “David has battled with the Labour Party all summer,” his publisher was quoted as saying, “but Neil Kinnock likes the play, and everything seems to be hunky-dory now with the high command” (De Jongh).

While the play does bear many similarities to recent political events in Britain, and certainly aims its share of broadsides at both leading political parties, it still generally transcends simple immediacy. Certainly Hare’s depiction of a struggling Labour Party, inches away from capturing the top seat in government during a drastic financial crisis only to fumble once again and cede to Conservative sensibilities, is familiar to anyone who voted in the last British election. But the play is also about larger issues: The Absence of War raises perennial and universal questions about the relationship between the governors and the governed, the ethics of politicking, the integrity of belief, and more. What Hare hopes the play offers that no others before have offered is an honest look at the people who legislate our lives. Rather than devoting itself exclusively to celebrating or satirizing a particular figure or group of people, it attempts a balanced assessment of the pros and cons of politics. And, indeed, most of the characters in The Absence of War are much better defined than the legal caricatures of Murmuring Judges; they are at least as dimensional as the clergy in Racing Demon.

While both Hare’s earlier attempts involved three or more simultaneous stories, this one revolves around a single person and a single event: the Right Honorable George Jones MP, leader of the opposition Labour Party, and his attempt to become Prime Minister. The other characters of the play—Labour Party officials, campaign workers, reporters, and political adversaries—all contribute somehow to the saga of the rise and fall of Jones’s ambition. The beginning of the play finds them all sharing an emotional moment during a ritual sure to engage immediately the minds of British audiences: the Memorial Day ceremony at the Cenotaph. The leaders of the major political parties, along with their retinues, have gathered at the monument to pay their respects to their countrymen who have fallen in battle. A reverent narrator conducts the service as the men lay wreaths in memory of Britain’s heroes. The scene allows for some quick exposition. While the observance proceeds in the background, Andrew Buchan, Jones’s assistant, explains to the audience the hectic nature of politicians’ work and the significance of the play’s title:

Why these hours? Why these ridiculous schedules? Up and out of our beds at six every day. Read the papers. When you know already what the papers will say. … [T]hen the first meeting of the day. Seven o’clock and I’m there. And outside that meeting another meeting, already beating, bulging, pressing against the door. … What is this for? This madness? … I have a theory. People of my age, we did not fight in a war. If you fight in a war, you have some sense of personal worth. So now we seek it by keeping busy. We work and hope we will feel we do good.


Mingled in Andrew’s speech are Hare’s grudging acknowledgement of the way war can mold lives and a sort of existential longing to fill a void in one’s sense of self-worth. Within the first few lines of the play a character with human contradictions, needs, and motivations has already been established.

The technique of rapid scene changing and character/action montage that Hare employed in Murmuring Judges is duplicated in The Absence of War: characters move from one locale to the next in an artfully flowing liaison of scenes. The Cenotaph ceremony quickly dissolves into the House of Commons lobby, represented by rear projections of marbled statuary and long corridors and a few carefully chosen set pieces. A meeting of the House provides a convenient way to introduce the other personalities of the play as well as establish a rhythm for the production. Jones’s office staff arrive one at a time to await their eccentric leader’s late appearance. Gwenda Aaron, Jones’s diary secretary, and Mary Housego, his press secretary, frantically scour the halls searching for their missing leader while the Members of Parliament, including Jones’s Shadow Chancellor, Malcolm Pryce, begin to assemble. A hasty meeting is conducted between Andrew and Lindsay Fontaine, a public relations guru who hopes to become the Labour Party’s new imagemaker.

The excitement and confusion prior to Jones’s actual arrival lend a sense of anticipation to the moment: when he finally appears (though he feigns an air of unassuming innocence), his importance is obvious. Hare has managed to create in Jones a unique (fictional) political figure. He is not a man of straw, designed to be propped up and knocked down for his ideological bent, nor is he a mythological hero, lionized like Churchill or Lord Nelson, but rather a multi-faceted human being. Very quickly Jones’s political convictions are presented in a speech to the House of Commons. From his position on the floor the Leader harangues his Conservative opposition, accusing them of running down the country with ineffective policy and taking advantage of their constituencies. Yet his rhetoric reveals a politician with a sense of humor and human foibles. He compares the Tories to “a lonely drunk wandering through the streets at four-thirty in the morning, muttering to itself, blaming its misfortunes on others and desperately searching, scrabbling through the early morning trashcans for any political ideas it might still be able to lift” (11). Jones’s colorful dialogue and fanciful ideas are a product of his upbringing and affiliation: like many Labour Party members, he comes from a working-class background. He reveals that it was his father, a laborer and unionist, who helped produce his rhetorical skill, encouraging him to “speak, just speak from the heart” (93). It is Jones’s sincerity, his ability to “speak from the heart,” that catapulted him to his preeminent position.

The Leader’s laurel is not one he wears comfortably, however. He continues to indulge in activities that seem frivolous given his position, being especially fond of unaccompanied walks in the park where he can admire the lives of “ordinary” people, and trips to the theatre, where he derives inspiration for his life and career. When Oliver Dix, his political consultant, fears that Jones may be losing his nerve, the Leader responds:

GEORGE: Go to the theatre, I keep telling you. Brutus has qualms.

OLIVER: What does that mean?

GEORGE: There’s a scene in a tent. Before battle. All leaders have them. In plays, the leader always has a quiet crisis.

OLIVER: Then? Then what happens?

GEORGE: Oh then. …

OLIVER: Come on, tell me. I didn’t read English. …

GEORGE: It’s all right, Oliver. Then they always murder their doubts.

OLIVER: Thank God for that.


George Jones’s blend of charisma, creativity, and simple straightforwardness gains him a minor cult following among Labour insiders; the Old Guard and many of the young idealists revere him for his idealism and leadership ability. His popularity with the public, however, is lukewarm, and some of the moderate Labourites and career politicians fear that, while the party gains momentum, Jones might slow them down. Foremost among the dissenters is Jones’s second-in-command, Malcolm Pryce. Pryce’s Iagoesque characteristics are noticeable almost immediately. While the Leader is given to taking walks in the park and sneaking out for cigarettes unattended, visiting the theatre religiously and kibitzing with his constituency, all the while keeping his staff on pins and needles, Malcolm is constantly accompanied by Bruce, his “minder.” His days are ordered, he meets with the right people, dresses for the occasion, and is ever mindful of the Party line—in short, the “perfect” politician. Bound to support his superior, he is nevertheless inexorably drawn by his ambition.

Lindsay Fontaine, Jones’s new PR agent, becomes one of the most important secondary figures in the play. Like nearly all of Hare’s female characters, Lindsay is a self-made, savvy professional who poses some of the play’s trickiest questions and often seems to act as the audience’s representative on the stage, seeking answers that have troubled us all. She becomes involved with Jones’s campaign seemingly out of occupational interest; he poses a challenge to her. As she explains to Andrew, “[Y]ou meet George, you think: ‘this man is dynamite.’ So then you ask the next question. Why on earth does this never quite come across?” (4). It is Lindsay who, at the time of the most severe crisis in Jones’s campaign, suggests a return to his roots as a remedy. After being humiliated on national television, thanks in part to information leaked by Pryce, Jones and his party begin to falter in the polls. The hopeful politician is scheduled to address a large Labour convention and his remarks will be carried to the entire country. Rather than stick to a prepared, carefully edited speech, Lindsay encourages Jones to follow his father’s advice and speak from the heart.

The following scenes are the most dramatic in the play. The MP steels himself, steps to the lectern, and launches into what begins as an inspiring speech, reminiscent of his younger days. “It is said to me: there is no longer hope in our future,” he addresses the attentive crowd. “No sense of potential. No sense of possibility. In our own lifetime, a whole generation has been effectively abandoned and dispossessed. They have been told to fend for themselves. … Comrades, my socialism is the socialism that says these people must not be let go” (95). It is not long, though, before the orator falters, his eloquence escaping him, and he must rely on his adequate, if less passionate, prepared speech. Following the convention debacle, as Jones and his staff are beginning to realize the election is lost, he fumes about the way politics has made him impotent. In a passage designed to show the playwright’s contempt for the homogeneity of politics, the Leader rants:

I got up there, I thought all the things I truly care about … Northern Ireland. What can you say? You can’t say anything. Not publicly. The whole bloody country’s been bleeding for years. … It’s been dying and we can’t speak, we can’t say anything, you’re not allowed to say anything.… I thought, you know, out there I was thinking, Northern Ireland, it’s “above politics.” That’s what we say. Well what sort of politics is it which says that certain things are too important to be spoken of?… We can’t speak of history, you can’t say Britain happens to be trapped in historical decline. You can’t even say that. But it’s true. … Defence! Abandoning nuclear weapons, which everyone knows we should do, I could make a great speech about that. My God! If only I could! But of course if I say it, that’s fifty thousand jobs. …


In the end the election is lost and there is genuine pity for George Jones and his supporters. His hubris was his idealism—believing fervently that his goals and the goals of his party were what the country needed and wanted, while ignoring some of the realities of modern politics. Unlike the idealism of Irina in Murmuring Judges, however, which seems childishly naive, Jones’s convictions seem more plausible because they are given a chance to become reality. Additionally, Hare uses Jones’s failure as a model for politicians and a message for the voting public. During the campaign Jones could have distanced himself from Pryce and the damage he was causing, perhaps even ejected him from the Leader’s office. Such a response, though, would have caused a rift in the Party at a time when Labour’s popularity was at its highest peak in many years. Instead, he sacrificed personal pursuits for the good of the Party and its ideals, preparing his followers to be led by the very man who had betrayed him. It is a sacrifice that Hare and presumably all conscientious voters expect their leaders to make if the time comes, yet one which is quite rare in modern politics.

Though it follows the Labour Party so attentively, The Absence of War is not a liberally biased play. Perhaps surprisingly, considering some of Hare’s earlier works, there is little discussion of the merits of any particular party. Crusading would, of course, detract from more important issues. For England, some of those issues are: What does it mean to be a socialist? How has the definition changed over time? What are the dangers of an ostensibly multi-party system combining into a like mind? On an even larger scale, the play suggests dangers inherent in “the age of communication,” when the media control so many parts of public life and truth is held captive by image. As the culmination of Hare’s efforts, then, The Absence of War draws effectively on its predecessors, continuing the production style trend set by Murmuring Judges while reaching back to Racing Demon for depth of character and theme.

But what of the trilogy as a whole? The plays were never meant to function like Aeschylus’s Oresteia: they don’t tell a single story. Their importance may lie rather in their very existence. As London critics indicated, Hare may be the only playwright of his time able, or at least willing, to attempt to place his fingers on the pulse of his nation in this way. Admirers and detractors of Hare’s past work seemed to share a healthy respect for his enthusiasm about the project. In his review for The Times, Benedict Nightingale, who expressed certain reservations about the individual plays, nevertheless admitted that “the overall achievement is considerable. What other dramatist is inspecting the inner workings of our country at all, let alone doing so in such a determined, systematic way?” (“Dogged Hare’s”).

Furthermore, though many of its criticisms are harsh and simple solutions don’t seem easy to come by, Hare’s trilogy may provide some hope for Britain’s ailing institutions. The playwright does not suggest that trends are irreversible and crises unmanageable; the tradition of socialist writing, of which Hare is a part, believes otherwise. As D. Keith Peacock has pointed out: “Typically, bourgeois history may perhaps best be represented in terms of discrete historical moments which are held forever in amber. … Marxist and Socialist history, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with change. For both Socialist historians and writers, history—even when it has involved set-backs for the working class—is viewed as fundamentally a record of a long journey towards an inevitable utopia” (15). Perhaps Hare had in mind such a utopia when he delivered his speech at King’s College, Cambridge, nearly fifteen years before the trilogy was produced. In that 1978 lecture, the man who was to become Britain’s leading playwright of popular dissent said: “[I]f you write about now, just today and nothing else, then you seem to be confronting only stasis; but if you begin to describe the movement of history, if you write plays that cover passages of time, then you begin to find a sense of movement, of social change, if you like; and the facile hopelessness that comes from confronting the day and only the day, the room and only the room, begins to disappear and in its place the writer can offer a record of movement and change” (66).


  1. Unless otherwise attributed, all quotations from David Hare are from the Platform Discussion at the National Theatre, London, 1 Oct. 1991.

Works Cited

De Jongh, Nicholas. “An Outsider Looks In.” Evening Standard 9 Sept. 1993: 31.

Eyre, Richard. Personal Interview. 22 Sept. 1993.

Hare, David. The Absence of War. London: Faber, 1993.

———. “A Lecture Given at King’s College, Cambridge, March 5 1978.” Licking Hitler. London: Faber, 1978, 57–71.

———. Murmuring Judges. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1993.

———. Platform Discussion at the National Theatre, London. 1 Oct. 1991.

———. Racing Demon. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1991.

Hebblethwaite, Peter. “Pastoral Problems.” Times Literary Supplement 16 Feb. 1990: 172.

Hooberman, Matthew and Emma Robertshaw. “Lefties v. Luvvies.” Evening Standard 13 Sept. 1993: 11.

Nightingale, Benedict. “Dogged Hare’s Anatomy of Britain.” The Times 4 Oct. 1993: 33.

———. “Hare Brained Confusion.” The Times 11 Oct. 1991: 12.

Peacock, D. Keith. Radical Stages: Alternative History in Modern British Drama. Westport: Greenwood, 1991.

Robert L. King (review date January-February 1994)

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SOURCE: “Big Names and Prize Winners,” in North American Review, Vol. 279, No. 1, January-February, 1994, pp. 14-9.

[In the following review, King offers a positive evaluation of Hare's trilogy—Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War.]

Throughout his prolific career as author of stage, screen and television plays, David Hare, an avowed secularist, has dramatized characters making moral choices in an amoral world. The characters are not always morally aware, much less sensitive to the values that their words evoke and their actions create, but Hare surely is. He deliberately displays people in ambiguous situations in Plenty (1978), asks the audience “to make up its own mind” and to “learn something about its own values.” In the film Wetherby, a suicide laments the loss of the “good old words” that had “a sort of conviction which all this modern apparatus of language now lacks.” In most of his works and in various ways, Hare dramatizes that loss without indulging in sentimentality or nostalgia. To him, language—for all its elusiveness—remains our only common means to suggest aspirations for a better life; when it falls short of the values we proclaim, its ironies, ambiguities and deceptions pervade and sometimes infect all of society. Hare addressed his own society directly in his recently completed trilogy on British institutions; at the National Theatre, he had the director (Richard Eyre), the cast and venue that his great achievement merited.

Racing Demon (1990) is about the Church; Murmuring Judges (1991), the Law, and The Absence of War (1993), the State. Each of the plays can stand alone, but seeing them all in one day, as I did last November, accentuated their distinctive artistic merits, their common concerns and Hare’s power as a dramatist. Nearly twelve hours after the first play began (and into the eighth hour of playing time), twelve-hundred people listened enthralled as two men argued politics on the huge, virtually bare stage of the Olivier theater. Many of us had been there for all three plays; what’s more, Hare involved us in the working of ideas, not in their sensational surfaces, and he kept discussion in service to drama. The final dramatic image of Racing Demon comes from a bank of bulbs, harshly bright for an audience accustomed to a darkened theater. The bright light is ironic punctuation for three speeches delivered as prayer-like soliloquies by the play’s central characters. Their words summon up no clarity to correspond with the technical illumination; transcendence is mechanical at best, for as Racing Demon has shown, the old verities of the Anglican Church cannot call together and enfold a community when its own clergy are muddled on the questions of the day: abortion, social change, homosexuality, sin, women’s rights. No voice is more worthy than another; we must listen to them all.

Hare calls himself “lucky” to have “the device of prayer” to allow for direct address to the audience in Racing Demon. He had trouble finding a “structure to accommodate the different worlds” of Murmuring Judges: “Prison, the Bar and the Bench, and the Police.” He was happy to find that “the triangular structure of the play was reflected” in the similar structure of The Magic Flute; the musical structure—he doubts whether it will be noticed—authorizes how speeches are delivered, as parallel to ensemble, duet and aria. The three worlds also intersect most tellingly at the juncture of an offstage lie. Barry, a savvy policeman, not only gets some “scum” convicted, he pressures them with a lie into giving him a useful tip on more dangerous criminals. These tactics, putting “on a good act” in his words, give him the “power” that the bureaucratic system denies the police. His lover/colleague. Sandra, questions the tactics, and Irina, a black lawyer, is disturbed by the long sentence given Gerard, not so low as “scum” but caught up in the power of the lie. To give Gerard justice means exposing Barry and the system he cynically exploits to good effect; it means diverting successful lawyers from lucrative civil cases to a criminal one with only intangible rewards. Like Sandra, Irina cares about “real human beings,” while her superior in the law office, Sir Peter, keeps his eye on “facts.” To advance in the law, Irina is expected to play the role Peter assigns her; he wears her as a social ornament when he attends opera. Because she visits Gerard in prison, he is beaten by other inmates as a warning not to expose the deal that Barry has arranged. New to their respective systems, both women are vulnerable; their principles and feelings set them on dangerous, possible self-destructive courses. They challenge the brusque efficiency of Barry and Peter with the play’s central term, “lie,” while the men claim to have a practiced, unerring instinct for the right course. Sandra forces the conclusion of Barry’s thinking (“So you lied?”) and Irina cuts through the trappings of Peter’s world:

You sit there—what?—a Knight Commander of the British Empire. (She laughs.) You’re conspiring in a lie. It’s a lie. What British Empire? Hasn’t word reached you? It no longer exists.

The Absence of War is more about politics in general than about the Neil Kinnock-John Major election that it openly alludes to. With subtlety and clarity, without posturing or preaching, Hare examines the core problem of our political rhetoric—frustratingly apparent in Reagan, vexing in retrospect with JFK, increasingly troubling in Clinton—the split between personal character and public voice. Hare turns the question on its head, however; style and charm do not cover a darker nature. George Jones, leader of the Labour party, would win the general election if only he could express his true, fundamentally decent character. A cordon of managers has prevented such open disclosure out of fear that his wordy candor will damage him as it has before. The Labour party itself is content to be trapped in a dead end strategy that prohibits telling the truth lest they appear to be talking down Britain. Personal ethos is so thoroughly stifled that the leaders’ statements are not only scripted, they are repeated verbatim by other MPs so as to avoid charges of disunity. Public perceptions as determined by polls dictate behavior. All this should sound numbingly familiar; The Absence of War, firmly rooted in British politics, would find understanding, receptive audiences here.

The play begins and ends with an institutional ritual, the November memorial for England’s war dead. One of George’s managers, Andrew, relishes the two-minute silence and, in words that Hare himself uses elsewhere, glosses the play’s title:

I have a theory. People of my age, we did not fight in a war. If you fight in a war, you have some sense of personal worth. So now we seek it by keeping busy. We work and hope we will feel we do good.

For the political professional, war shuts off reflection, it renders skepticism and doubt unpatriotic; decisive action is an unquestioned good. Hare does not suggest, I believe, that “personal worth” is earned by violence, rather that the moral clarity of wartime simplifies issues and makes it easier for people to connect effects to admirable motives. In the absence of war, power is contested between and within political parties; in those struggles, blunt speech and direct action are liabilities.

Yet the silences in a long dialogue George has with his Shadow Minister, Malcolm Pryce, testified to Hare’s ability to create an audience for serious talk. Malcolm has unconsciously betrayed George and the Party by disclosing their plan to abolish mortgage tax relief if elected, but the men quickly put that matter behind them and argue loyalty, character—being “good soldiers” like the old line Labourites. Richard Pasco, strong in all three plays, matched Thaw in projecting a compromised conviction; good did not oppose evil, the flawed disputed with the flawed. Demanding blind loyalty, George bitterly condemns members of his own party “who all think their own special reasons, their own special reasoning, their own bloody consciences are so much more important than delivering their vote.” The play’s best example of a man of character who censures his followers for his own virtue.

Hare’s plays demand and reward reflection; summary strips them of their pitch and tone. Despite its serious subjects, Murmuring Judges has something of the “buoyant” tone Hare wanted; lines that are isolated in a critical review are casually and naturally at home in dramatic contexts. One such line occurs when a relaxed George explains to advisor Lindsay Fontaine that politicians always pretend to be unsurprised by developments: “It’s why I dislike us.” In five words almost thrown away in performance, Hare compresses a central point about the split between the public and private selves, and he provides an insight about the conflict within George as well. At the end of The Absence of War, we revisit the memorial ceremony; a year has passed. The costumes and the actions, institutional symbols, are constant, but Malcolm has supplanted the defeated George as Leader of the Opposition. George comes through the crowd, reminds us again of his middle class origins and, referring to his own career, to the political tableau behind him and probably to the play itself, asks: “Is this history? Is everything history? Could we have done more? Was it possible? And how shall we know?” The questions, like the Cenotaph itself and the institutions that Hare’s trilogy has dramatized, finally will not go away.

Andy Lavender (review date 25 February 1994)

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SOURCE: “Courage and Compromise,” in New Statesman & Society, February 25, 1994, pp. 35-6.

[In the following review, Lavender favorably assesses Hare's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo.]

“It is treason to use Brecht without criticising him,” the east German writer Heiner Müller once said. The very business of making a version of somebody else’s play constitutes an act of criticism. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that in his version of Brecht’s The Life of Galileo at the Almeida Theatre, David Hare has treated the original with such sensitivity (not that the Brecht estate would allow anybody to do a Brecht on Brecht). Perhaps it’s doubly surprising, given the comments Hare made about Brecht in his book Writing Left-Handed, where he accused the German of doctrinaire tediousness.

Many have shared that opinion, which helps explain why the history of Brecht’s plays in Britain is so vexed. Ever since the Berliner Ensemble’s famous visit to London in 1956, directors have fought variously to make the plays more or less “Brechtian”, according to personal valuation of the term. Most recently, the National Theatre presented an Arturo Ui that seemed bombastic rather than brutal. This tendency was exaggerated in the RSC’s 1984 production of Mother Courage, resplendent with plentiful dry ice and a wagon moved by a motor. The big venues, it seems, have never managed to catch the artful rawness that characterise Brecht’s own productions of his plays.

Galileo is probably Brecht’s most popular work. It certainly consumed its writer. Brecht started the first of three versions in 1938; collaborated with Charles Laughton on the American production of 1947; and was directing a new production in East Berlin when he died in 1956. It was a play he could never finish with.

All that is history, but the general opinion is that Brecht somehow sidestepped his own materialism and produced a transcendent work of art. Hare’s version has no placards, announcements or any other caricatural Brechtian devices. It strips out the plague scene. The ballad singer becomes a fairground puppet show. What emerges is the clean narrative of a history play, which tells of Galileo’s passion for calling things as they are and his subsequent capitulation in the face of the Inquisition.

Every now and then, Hare buffs the language to suggest the play’s contemporary resonances. Galileo is fully aware that his knowledge is subject to the laws of a “free market”; and not averse to suggesting that the Medicis might lend their name to the stars he has discovered, “like a sponsorship”. But in all other respects, Hare is spare, following Brecht. And it is true that the core of the play depends on more than the transient politics of the moment. Its discussion of responsibility and betrayal has a power that speaks beyond the 20th century and Brecht’s concerns with Nazism, and then with the looming horrors of the nuclear age.

It’s nonetheless strange to see the play in production. Tobias Hoheisel’s set consists of full-height hinged walls, made of clean slats of wood, which swing into different configurations of rooms and corridors. It is a pliable, if monolithic, concept, so it is the greater shame that the production was not ready on opening night.

Lines were lost and performers stepped around each other as they entered and exited. Presumably the director, Jonathan Kent, would have been grateful for the kind of conditions Brecht enjoyed towards the end of his life. Massive subsidy from the East German government meant that by the time his production of Galileo opened in 1957, it had been over a year in rehearsal.

Those days are gone, and the British theatre must make do with ludicrously short rehearsal periods; so it’s not surprising if there is something lumpy about the proceedings. You do not have to be a crop-headed communist to yearn for the aesthetic purity that, by all accounts, Brecht’s own productions were founded on.

There is a profitable lightness, however, in Richard Griffiths’ soft-edged Galileo, a man quite apt to take the easy life but for the damnable nuisance of being unable to resist research, like a gambler beating a path to the betting shop. The effect, then, is of a production still settling in, but of a play that has a massive confidence and complexity. In a typically neat decision, Hare cuts the entire closing scene—in which Andrea smuggles Galileo’s Discorsi out of Italy—except for two short lines.

This makes for a concentrated coda, and the play ends with Galileo still on stage, nearly blind, a leftover of the previous scene in which his abject compromise and his passion for the truth have come to joint fullness. It is a beautiful closing image, an emblem for the play’s savagely complex dignity.

Galileo’s famous contradictions do not please everybody. In an interesting reading in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Brecht, Darko Suvin notes wryly that these make the play “palatable to bourgeois audiences, from liberals to post-modernists”. Wherever you align yourself on this axis, you should take the opportunity of being part of that audience.

Production values aside, it seems obvious that this is a profoundly political text and its resonance is still contemporary. “I’ve fathered a race of inventive dwarves who can be hired for anything,” Galileo doomily asserts. Three hundred years later, plus ça change.

David Jays (review date 12 May 1995)

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SOURCE: “Romancing the Political,” in New Statesman & Society, May 12, 1995, pp. 32-3.

[In the following review, Jays describes Skylight as “obvious and inconsistent.”]

I love my love with an S, because it is secret. It feeds on silence and its name is Skylight.

What do you tell about your love? Does your heart trumpet emotions, hallooing to the reverberate hills? Or do you nestle your love close, keep it hushed? Pre-publicity for David Hare’s new play was coy about the subject matter. Unlike his recent trilogy for the National Theatre, a weave of leader-column debates on church, law and government, Skylight slips into the National in shades and a headscarf, head down, lips sealed. Skylight, you see, is a love story.

For six years, Kyra and Tom were lovers. They were 20 years apart in age, he a married restaurateur-entrepreneur, her boss. She split when his wife Alice found out: Alice has died and, in the depths of winter, Tom comes to Kyra, now a teacher, to win her back. The past stands between them, cluttering the atmosphere as much as the books, pans and spider plants of her cramped north London flat. Romance is a genre framed to look back—to times when things were better, easier, to accepted truths and direct emotions. Kyra admits she only watches old movies. “Those you like because they’re romantic,” Tom suggests. “You can hardly deny it,” she answers. “They have something we lack.”

What they offer is certainty, a faith in their own narrative myths. Intensity of emotion seems undiminished by postmodern questioning. Happy-ending marriage was a social glue and apparent guarantor of bliss. Now, of course, we know that marriages increasingly buckle, that the traditional family is a political icon in which fewer and fewer of us actually live. Independent women, reluctant patriarchs, gay men and lesbians; all are more visible, and marriage can’t accommodate them. We may not dare to share past romantic certainties, but perhaps we are ashamed of their attraction, abashed by our need. Tom’s teenage son, asked if he has a girlfriend, splutters: “All that stuff’s finished. Relationships. Permanence. It’s out of date, I think.”

If Hare draws on any romantic archetype, it is the tale of Orpheus and Euridice. Tom journeys from the post-Thatcherite land of plenty, the plush lawns of Wimbledon, where money buys everything but—well, you can guess. Michael Gambon’s face deflates in misery from taut, ruddy assurance to a flabby papier-mâché blank. He arrives in a dank underworld, Kyra’s icy flat, offering to conduct her to a realm where grief can be stilled, a Yellow Pages land that delivers up builders, roses, parmesan cheese. The condition, of course, is that they don’t speak, don’t really gaze at each others’ lives and values, for, when they do, relaxed banter scatters in rage and incomprehension.

“Tom, don’t you think I’ve got enough memories?” Kyra asks when he first appears. “Why should I want any more?” Like the misty midnight saxophone that plays between scenes, Hare’s writing twinges with sadness, with a sorrow so poignant it must be love. Lia Williams’ voice is warm, like wool wrapped around her feelings. Recalling the first steps of the affair, Williams speaks with the delicate rue of an old sweet song: “I realised then: here we go. I thought, hold on. This is it.” Kyra and Tom are kept apart not only by turmoil past, but by politics present. This is no surprise: lovers blow bubbles to keep out of the world, but their choices are complicity in wider society. Let us name the names of intimacy, let us count its degrees: whether you sneak out before breakfast, leaving a false number on the pillow, or arrive with a suitcase on the second date, the objects of your passions, the ways you chose to integrate them in your life, are telling.

Words keep the lovers worlds apart. Gold coins spill across Tom’s tie: he speaks for bullish prosperity, while Kyra, teaching in a deprived school, nurtures disregarded potential. She lambastes the “self-pity of the rich!”; he snipes, “If I could be reborn as anyone, I’m not sure Julie Andrews would be my first choice.” Williams’ demagogic finger conducts her rhetoric of lives lying fallow. It’s stirring, but there’s something uneasy about her defence of “people”, kept offstage for the middle-class heroine’s peroration. Victims of a polarised society, they still don’t qualify for dramatic treatment, as was largely the case with Hare’s trilogy. That patrician pet, the man on the Clapham Omnibus is resurrected, as Kyra reports her top deck eavesdropping. “People discriminate. It’s quite extraordinary. You listen, and they have bullshit detectors working full time.” Though Hare admits some critique of Kyra’s eulogy (“Of course you love them. Because in three minutes you can get off.”), I suspect Hare doesn’t always notice the bullshit detector beginning to flash.

The trouble with Hare’s women is that they are born Siamese-twinned with meaning. They might be outsider-Cassandras (Susan in Plenty), telling fractured truths; or crisp Tories hoist on their own moral certainties (Clara Paige in Paris by Night), or like Isobel in The Secret Rapture and Kyra, they are near-saints. Unlike men, women in Hare’s drama cannot simply be: they emerge as a chorus to a masculine agenda. Hare falters when he tries to imagine what else they might have to talk about.

Just as he offers the bus as a hotline to the disenfranchised, so Kyra gushes about her friends, “There’s Adele. She’s from Zimbabwe. Another works in a shop.” Just fancy—Kyra uses public transport and knows a black person. I’d like to think that her brownie-badge earnestness was being sent up, but it feels embarrassingly like Hare bringing news from the multi-cultural, financially insecure street where most of us already live. Hare argues his case for the citizen’s entitlement to respect, opportunity, from too lordly a distance.

Politically, Skylight, is obvious and inconsistent, it works best as a sad romance. Kyra and Tom are like fitfully inspired aerialists. When their act works, it’s blithe, dizzyingly. For the most part, their midnight colloquy is full of fumbled connections, misread signals. Love is not simple, it is not silent. In Skylight, it chatters, it argues, it cries.

Patrick O'Connor (review date 24 November 1995)

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SOURCE: “Haggle with Mother,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 24, 1995, p. 21.

[In the following review, O'Connor offers a tempered evaluation of Hare's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play Mother Courage and Her Children.]

What a long road it seems, since the first National Theatre production of Brecht’s Mother Courage, thirty years ago at the Old Vic, when Kenneth Tynan had to bargain with the Lord Chamberlain’s office over W. H. Auden’s use of the word “balls” in his translation of one of the songs. David Hare’s “new version” of [Mother Courage and Her Children,] is liberal in its use of colloquialisms. As a foreword to his introduction to the published text, Hare quotes Ruth Berlau’s opinion that if it keeps too close to the original, the translation will not be good: “They try to copy the play in their own language. They want to be as faithful as possible—and then nothing comes of it.” Perhaps the greatest difficulty facing the translator and adaptor of Brecht’s plays and poetry is to find an equivalent for his humour. At this first night, there was a good deal of laughter, so on that level the version can be said to succeed.

Although Hare has not altered the shape of the play, or the order of the scenes, by using very modern English idiomatic phrases—“I told him to stuff his rotten inn”, “market forces”, “I’ll smash your face in”—he has moved the dialogue perilously close to that of a television sit-com. This might work better in a rougher production, but Jonathan Kent’s highly stylized staging moves the whole thing closer to a revue. This softening impact is aided by Jonathan Dove’s music, with its echoes of Kander and Ebb and Sondheim. Though pleasant in itself, and particularly well suited to Dame Diana Rigg’s singing style, it has none of the harshness of Dessau’s score for the Berlin première in 1949, nor indeed of George Fenton’s rock-influenced music for Howard Davies’s production of Hanif Kureishi’s version at the Barbican in 1984.

Paul Bond’s set uses the Olivier space in the most positive way. A semi-circular wall completely fills the back of the stage, making the performing area into a circular floor. The crumbling stucco has various doors and windows which open, sometimes to reveal a landscape, most effectively in the scene in which peace is declared, with avenues of autumn trees stretching into a deep false perspective. The costume and props are of the First World War, rather than the 1620s, for instance when the sex worker Yvette reappears as a colonel’s widow with fox-fur tippet, ankle-length hobble skirt and button-boots. In the pauses between scenes, a huge bird of prey circles above the stage, caught in the beam of a searchlight.

Diana Rigg plays the title role in a somewhat restrained manner. As suggested by John Willett in his official translation, she uses a North Country accent, but, dressed in a pink turban, and in one scene in the plundered fur coat, she resembles Gracie Fields in Sing As We Go. I say this not to denigrate her performance, which is full of pathos and fine detail, but to point out the appropriateness of the vaudevillian manner. Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, both admired Ethel Merman and wanted her to create the role in the United States (she didn’t). It has been said that Weigel’s famous “silent scream” in the Berliner Ensemble production was inspired by one of Ethel Merman’s facial expressions in Annie Get Your Gun. Rigg carries off the moment of denial before the corpse of her son with fierce, quiet intensity. Otherwise, the production is dominated by Lesley Sharp’s incandescent performance as Kattrin, the mute daughter. Her pale face, staring out into the darkness, and the frustration and rage she conveys go some way to balancing the kitsch effect of some of the staging.

Both Brett Fancy as Eilif and Bohdan Poraj as Swiss Cheese, the two sons of Mother Courage, establish their characters, the one recklessly heroic, the other innocent. Doon Mackichan is very funny as the “rich” Yvette; “I love shopping”, she says, as the haggles with Mother Courage over the purchase of the old cart. Neither David Bradley’s Chaplain nor Geoffrey Hutchings’s Cook really suggests the split personalities of the characters. Brecht wrote that Cook “is a good man in good times and a bad man in bad times, generous when he has money, anxious and ruthless when broke”. For the songs, the players need to move a bit more obviously outside their roles, to establish a Brechtian rapport with the audience. He called it the alienation effect, but what he was really looking for was a more direct communication. Only Hutchings, with his “Solomon Song”, really brought it off.

Since the play is given on a single set, and the characters do not age noticeably (except Yvette, who appears with a walking stick, and the cart itself, which is stripped bare by the end), one misses the sense of Mother Courage’s long journeys, and the passing of twelve years. In his introduction, Hare compares Mother Courage as a character with Brecht’s Galileo—both “extremely clever people”—and proposes an alternative title for the play, The Silencing of Mother Courage. She is, he writes, a character who has an answer for everything until the end, when, completely isolated and alone, “everyone else sings and she is at last silent”.

John Simon (review date 4 December 1995)

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SOURCE: “Hare's Breadth,” in New York, December 4, 1995, pp. 134, 136.

[In the following review, Simon praises the direction, writing, and acting in Racing Demon.]

Lincoln Center Theater finally has a winner in Racing Demon. If the late, unlamented Sacrilege showed us how not to write a controversial play about church and religion, David Hare’s Shavian spellbinder is an exemplary how-to. For this internecine combat of contrasting Christianities in the arena of the Church of England is as riveting as a boxing match and as intellectually stimulating as an Oxford Union debate. Also theater so damned good that Hare in the hereafter will be consigned to hell, where—as we hear—conversation is infinitely livelier than in the other place. There are four artfully interwoven problems: What to do about a clergyman whose socialist leanings and religious doubts make him a potential liability? What to do about another ecclesiastic, whom a yellow journalist exposes as a homosexual? What to do about a marriage wherein the pastoral displaces the connubial? And above all, how to handle a driven, lower-class curate whose demonic zeal proves as ruinous to the public-school coziness of his fellow churchmen as to the love a spirited and sensible young woman bears him? The play has humor, suspense, exuberance, and pathos; though placed in an Anglican framework, it is more pope’s nose than curate’s egg.

When you glimpse the Spartanly pared-down but enormously suggestive scenery by Bob Crowley, the poetic projections by Wendall K. Harrington, the incisive lighting by Mark Henderson, and breathtaking direction by Richard Eyre, you worry about a sprawling cast’s and potentially parochial text’s ability to keep up. Rest assured: All fears are promptly allayed.

What is exhilarating about the writing is that every character in this vast array is a human being, foolish and fallible, but believable and pardonable. Side with whomever you choose: all but the journalist have a portion of justice and heaps of humanity going for them. In their clashes, theater catches life on the wing, whether soaring or broken. Miss it at a peril to your entertainment as a theatergoer, your education as an existential learner, your soul as a sentient and rational being.

I am at a loss, though, about how to describe this large, flawless cast. I’ve no space to analyze each individual excellence, and a mere litany of names wearies the reader. Let me say that when often irritating actors such as Josef Sommer and Michael Cumpsty, and ever delightful ones such as Brian Murray and George N. Martin, merge in magnificence, something has happened that, from Broadway to Canterbury, can pass for a miracle.

Karen DeVinney (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Transmitting the Bildungsroman to the Small Screen: David Hare's Dreams of Leaving and Heading Home,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1996, pp. 92-8.

[In the following essay, DeVinney examines elements of bildungsroman and individual states of social and political consciousness in the television versions of Dreams of Leaving and Heading Home.]

David Hare and his play writing colleagues, weaned on 1960s British university radicalism, have continued the expression of chronic social discontent begun so scathingly by John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger. But in an effort to spread their message to a broader audience, these writers have been working increasingly in the mechanical media. The primary distinguishing characteristic of Hare’s films and plays lies in his insistence on linking political and ethical decline to his characters’ personal lives. To understand how Hare accomplishes this connection onscreen, it is necessary to look closely at his habit of placing his characters in recognizable genres; they operate as psychologically-rounded people and as types. The nostalgia inherent in using established genres—and often American ones at that—is a sign both of Hare’s willingness to break from the leftist pack and of his increasing frustration with the ineffectiveness of sixties-style radicalism in the face of England’s political reactionism. Tracing his use of genre is an important first step to understanding Hare’s aesthetic and philosophical development.

All but two of Hare’s films exploit cinematic genres. The narratives of two of Hare’s television films, Dreams of Leaving (1980) and Heading Home (1991), however, are based on the literary genre of the Bildungsroman—the novel of development.1 The Bildungsroman form allows Hare to link personal decision-making with political possibilities, because the idealism of his youthful characters corresponds to that of their eras. Although the genre originated in a cultural philosophy which assumed the desirability of the maturing individual’s incorporation into social institutions. Martin Swales has convincingly argued that from the beginning it also questioned such incorporation through ironized endings.

Hare employs the genre, but in the ironic way described by Swales. Both films follow the stories of young people newly-arrived in the big city of London. William in Dreams of Leaving and Janetta in Heading Home are searching for fulfilling careers and personal relationships and face climactic choices in their lives, but neither finds a satisfying vocation as a result of his or her decisions. Both drift into compromise and unhappiness, their maturity marked by greater age but not greater knowledge. Looking back over the results of his youthful decisions, William expresses a despair that is deeply felt but finally incurable: “Our lives dismay us. We know no comfort. … We have dreams of leaving. Everyone I know” (41). Janetta Wheatland similarly guides us through her past from the viewpoint of 1988 and expresses the same bewildered sadness about the central relationship in her life: “I understand to this day that people like Leonard do not speak their feelings. But I still to this day am not wholly sure why” (65).

While this genre allows Hare to link his characters’ lack of development to his society’s, the central problem Hare faces when working with a genre that was originally literary is that its narrative convention approaches first-person even if it is literally third-person. This makes social criticism difficult since such criticism will always be seen as rooted in the perhaps-idiosyncratic protagonist’s mind and not in an objective material condition. As Franco Moretti notes in his study of the Bildungsroman in Western culture, this focus can be frustrating.

As a rule, the classical Bildungroman has the reader perceive the text through the eyes of the protagonist. … The reader’s vision hinges then on that of the protagonist: he identifies with the hero, sharing the partiality and individuality of his reactions. But—at a certain point—he wishes to free himself from this position, because he discovers that the protagonist’s viewpoint, contrary to his hopes, does not allow him to see, or not enough, since it is too often mistaken.


Hare transfers a literary narrative to a new form—film—but he also uses the particular premises of the mechanical media to transform this genre, by simultaneously suggesting and refining this focus on a single character’s mind. Using film rather than the stage, Hare can exploit the intermediary and directed nature of the camera. Both these works are filmed from the point of view of their main characters, yet the camera inevitably includes the world outside the protagonists’ psyches. As Thomas Schatz remarks in his discussion of Lady in the Lake (1946), because it is simultaneously personal and public, a subjective camera is uniquely qualified to respond to the frustrations of the first-person fictional narrator as expressed by Moretti:

While this technique clearly is designed to draw the viewer into the closest possible identification with the [hero] and his attitude, its ultimate effect is essentially the opposite. Instead of strengthening our empathy for the hero, it serves to further distance us from him, repeatedly reminding us that his perceptions are radically different from ours.


In Hare’s use of the subjective camera and voice-overs, the perceptions that are thus distanced concern English political history: both films are set during periods important to Hare’s generation and to England as a whole. In Dreams of Leaving, the flashback is set in 1971, and the framing “present” is 1980. William was born the same year as Hare himself, 1947, and speaks for the generation that was caught up by the political promise of the 1960s, which began to turn into disillusionment in the succeeding decade. Nineteen-eighty, the framing year, was one year after Margaret Thatcher’s first government, an event representing for Hare and his playwriting colleagues the metaphorical, if not the actual, nadir in English political morality. In Heading Home, Janetta is 23 when she arrives in London in the winter of 1946–1947, two years after the election of the post-war Labour government that was expected to institute a variety of social reforms based on the Beveridge Report.2 From the perspective of 1988, by which time Thatcher was in her ninth year as Prime Minister, Janetta sees both her life and England in the post-war years as idyllic but also doomed. Her youth, like William’s, corresponded to a period in English history which held great potential for change, but which ultimately led to disillusionment and cynicism.

The problems faced by William and Janetta, and by extension progressive England, derive precisely from that aspect of their personalities which can be actualized on film but only described and suggested in a novel: the way they see their societies and other people. Through the subjective camera lens as guided by voice-over, we see as they see, but not completely; the camera always picks up figures on the fringe which are not quite incorporated into the protagonists’ subjective viewpoints. We are led to look for their development through the narrative’s evocation of the typical Bildungroman, but when this development fails to materialize, we begin to reconsider the accuracy of their viewpoints. William’s attitude toward his profession and Caroline, the object of this obsessed gaze, is revealed to be superficial and self-serving. Janetta’s view of Leonard and Ian, her lovers, and the spaces they represent and which in turn represent post-war England, plainly has been informed by her misguided desire for simple choices and clearcut rules for behavior. Both mistaken viewpoints are linked to mistaken social attitudes by the dual action of the subjective camera. While these films are deeply personal and individual, as is appropriate for Bildungromane, they resonate within the terms the camera dictates to apply to their respective historical periods as well.


Dreams of Leaving was broadcast as a BBC TV “Play for Today” in January, 1980. A young university-educated journalist, William, comes to London from Wolverhampton to make it big and meets Caroline, a stunning, “classless” young woman of shifting occupations (13). William is immediately attracted to Caroline after watching her across an empty nighttime newsroom, and the main part of the plot concerns his ardent pursuit and her manipulative and unexplained refusal to sleep with him. Like the typical Bildungsroman protagonist, William begins his adventures with naive and misguided hopes: “at the time I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know if it was breakfast or lunch” (11). In voice-overs at the beginning and end of the film, he reminisces regretfully about the summer with Caroline, concluding finally that her seeming emotional independence was actually masking a vague fear which he was too naive to see, and implicitly linking her fears and eventual madness with the “dismay” he sees in the lives of “everyone” around him. Just what she was afraid of, and what causes the dismay, he cannot articulate. While William does progress from a state of innocence to a state of experience, his experience only brings him despair and compromise, not self-knowledge. He sees himself, and we see him, as happier when be was innocent. William is unable to learn from his experiences with Caroline and with his profession because of the way that his society has taught him to see. Instead, he succumbs to the moral and emotional malaise around him; he “sells out.”

Hare uses a subjective camera and voice-over both to suggest the narrow focus on a single character of the typical Bildungsroman and to reveal the way society, and William, see women. The non-naturalistic style, on the other hand, prevents us from accepting the film’s viewpoint as documentary truth. The claustrophobic feeling of this film, which drove many of its reviewers to irritable reactions, is due to the way the camera mimics William’s obsessed gaze.3 Our awareness of the camera as representing a charged viewpoint accomplishes the filmic equivalent of the Alienation Effect, as we realize that this particular viewpoint is not the only one possible.4

One way Hare denaturalizes his camera work is by exploiting the decreased sense of depth onscreen to create specifically aestheticized visual tableaux. In Scene 17, for instance, Caroline shows William the Viewing Room at the gallery where she has her first job. They enter a small, velvet-curtained room with an easel and three chairs in its center. She walks in first “and stands by the easel” (16). She points out to William how the room works: “The customer sits down. He’s alone with the painting. … Once he sits down it takes nerve to get up” (16). In the small vignette she narrates, her position near the easel makes her stand in the place of the object of art which the customer, significantly called “he,” has come to see. In the next scene, in which they are looking at the gallery’s store, Caroline “pulls out a canvas on a long rail, disappearing behind it” (16). Onscreen, this has the striking effect of turning the actress, Kate Nelligan, into a painting with legs. Visually, she becomes the equivalent of an object d’art.

William’s artificial viewpoint is firmly contextualized and plainly typical. The clearest example of this contextualization occurs in Scene 68. Four men are playing poker under an Anglepoise lamp: William, his neighbor Andrew, his coworker Xan, and a newcomer named Robert. Hare uses focused overhead lighting to concentrate our attention on his characters’ faces and to imply an emptiness beyond. The air is cloudy with cigarette smoke and the game is intense; it is a stereotypically masculine scene. In revenge for losing a close hand to William, Robert turns the conversation to Caroline, with whom he had been involved. “Everyone always used to say she was ruthless. But I never minded. She was so good in bed,” he asserts, puffing on the rather unsubtly-Freudian cheroot in his mouth (33). In response, William suggests they raise the stakes: “Why don’t we play for a bit more this time?” (33). The strutting of the poker game represents a particularly retrograde maleness still operating in Hare’s society. It reminds us that William participates in this degrading attitude toward women, in which their sexual abilities are used as coins in a poker game. Significantly, this attitude is invisible to William himself, who cannot see beyond Robert’s insult to his own masculinity.

Hare also contextualizes William’s viewpoint by making William a journalist. The irony of William’s artificial gaze resides in the fact that he has as his professional goal the transparent description of events, yet his primary impulse is to mold the experiences he witnesses into culturally endorsed artifacts. His complaint against his own profession, sparked by and linked with his developing (non)relationship with Caroline, is precisely that it does not wrestle vigorously enough with its subject. In crisis, William tells the assembled staff of his newspaper:

I walk down Fleet Street, I look, I go into the bars. There you’ll find … the retreat into alcohol … the smell of bad conscience heavy in the air. [Pause] Why do journalists all become cynics? Is it really the things that they see? Isn’t it more likely … the cause of their unhappiness … is something to do with a loss in themselves?5


The expectations that viewers bring to the Bildungsroman, which the film has worked to arouse up to this point, suggest that William’s speech will mark the turning point in his moral development. One of two things should happen here: either this speech will reform the journalists around him, infusing them with a new passion and idealism, or William will leave the unrepentant profession and find a career which he can pursue with integrity. The irony is that nothing and no one changes. We discover later that William stays with the paper and becomes a favorite of his editor. The paper, in turn, continues its unchallenged and unchallenging reporting.

William’s continuing desire to reform moves from his professional to his emotional life. When he finally breaks from Caroline, we expect him to progress toward maturity. Yet his own response is to become even more “depressed,” and to begin to incorporate himself into the profession he had just denounced. Caroline, in turn, starves herself into madness and is committed to Springfield Mental Hospital. In the closing scenes, we find ourselves with William in 1980. He has settled into middle-class respectability, having married and worked himself up to a desk job at the newspaper. In his closing voice-over. William’s interpretation of the events we have witnessed also reveals how he has made Caroline into his own image, for his remarks about her echo precisely our view of him, especially when we remember that both his view of Caroline and our view of him are through specifically focused lenses, metaphorical or actual. “What I always took to be her self-confidence, now seems a way she had of hiding her fears” (40). William’s “I haven’t done badly” holds its own corresponding fear: “Our lives dismay us”; William’s seeming confidence hides his own fear of entrapment and compromise (40).

Perhaps the pronoun shift in this closing voice-over is our clue that these remarks apply not just to Caroline and William but also to their, and Hare’s, generation. Except for one sentence,. William speaks in the first person singular until his closing lines: “I haven’t done badly”: “I’ve found great happiness in having children”; “Obviously Caroline is much with me. I mean it’s something I shan’t ever forget. …” But at the point when he proposes to speak personally—“I can only tell you what I think for myself”—he actually speaks for everyone: “Our lives dismay us. We know no comfort. [Pause] We have dreams of leaving. Everyone I know” (41). The “we” echoes the only previous use of the plural pronoun in the section: “We’ve always tried to keep an open marriage.” Our “open marriage,” therefore, is linked verbally and perhaps causally to our “dismay.” William’s justification of his lack of commitment, seen as typical, prevents him from establishing the emotional integrity that seems to be what is needed to give him and his generation “comfort.”


Shown on January 13, 1991, Heading Home was the premiere broadcast of the season for the BBC’s Screen 2 film series. Like William, Janetta Wheatland is a Bildungsroman protagonist who ultimately cannot fulfill our expectations. Twenty-three and freshly arrived in London during the coldest winter of the century, 1946–47, she meets and moves in with Leonard, a poet who works by day for the BBC. Their relationship remains platonic until she takes the initiative after meeting Ian Tyson (played by the ever-ominous Gary Oldman), a sleazy but energetic slumlord who later also becomes her lover. Although he told her they should have an open relationship, Leonard leaves Janetta after she spends three days with Ian. She soon loses Ian as well when his competition with a rival slumlord turns violent and he jettisons her for her own safety. Forty years later, Janetta looks back at that winter and the following summer and regretfully concludes that she had always loved Leonard and that her relationship with him was her only chance at happiness.

Like William and the conventional Bildungsroman hero, Janetta begins her narrative with few plans, propelled by little more than a sense that the capital represents opportunity. She applies for a job at a library out of a vague sense that it would be nice to be around people who read. When her interviewer asks her, “What is your background?” She answers, “Oh, I don’t have any” (11). But Janetta does not gain self-knowledge. Her voice-over as a mature woman reveals her to be just as bewildered and hurt as she was when young, and just as unaware of the reasons for her pain, and yet she cannot relive her life. Hare is again manipulating his convention to raise and then subvert our expectations that his main character will progress, and again, this character’s failure is associated with a larger failure in her society. Heading Home differs from Dreams of Leaving, however, in that the association between personal and social failure is not revealed to be a cause-and-effect relationship.

On first inspection, the film’s love triangle creates sharply differentiated dichotomies associated with Ian and Leonard between which Janetta must choose. The dichotomies are created visually through the camera’s focus on space, as well as verbally in the plot and especially in the voice-over. Space is important thematically because the film is at least partially about the future of England’s urban and rural spaces after the war. Janetta, as she directs the camera’s attention through her voice-over, associates Leonard with literary pubs, cramped friendly flats, and untouched nature: Old England, able to adjust better to wartime privations than to post-war boom. Ian, on the other hand, is most at home in huge empty industrial warehouse, jerry-built flats, and smoky clubs filled with emigrés.

As suggested by the title, the film is especially concerned with what sort of home space England will provide. Space, particularly that in which people live, also works as a metaphor for the emotional choice between Leonard and Ian that Janetta faces, as well as the economic choices confronting England after the war. With huge popular support, the Labour government had an opportunity literally to rebuild England and especially London in a new way that was less class-divided. Ian’s response to the rebuilding is amoral: he doesn’t think, he acts, by buying run-down properties, subdividing them, and renting them out. He sees the situation purely as an opportunity to make money. Leonard’s response, however, is to think first: “People claim poetry doesn’t do anything. They say, what does it get done? … Isn’t it weak to sit around thinking and writing when there’s been so much destruction in the world? … I say no. It’s strength. It’s true strength” (52). But the war between these two responses to space and what it represents will be won by Ian’s kind. When Janetta returns forty years later to a beach she visited with both men. “It was bricked over. The bay has gone. England’s bricked over. Just like Ian always said it would be” (64).

The dichotomized philosophical choices ostensibly proposed by Heading Home are questioned by the fact that they are based on a specific person’s point of view at a specific time. Janetta has her own reasons for wanting to see that events forced her to make the choice between Ian and Leonard she finally did make. Looking back on her life, she can be reassured that she chose to become involved with Ian because he was part of an energetic new England which was replacing the old, and not for the less gratifying reason that she was incapable of understanding or appreciating Leonard. In her view, choosing between two men is purely an intellectual puzzle; she is incapable of acting on her emotions. As in Dreams,Heading Home’s central character is trapped in a flawed way of seeing which prevents her from reaching the self-knowledge expected of a hero in a Bildungsroman. The super-narrative commentary is suggested in a stage direction which equates Leonard and Ian: “IAN is sitting at a table, right by the filing cabinet, his back to us—just as LEONARD’s back has been to us previously” (40). It is also suggested in shots throughout the film in which we see Janetta lying against a pillow, but cannot initially determine if she is in bed with Ian or Leonard.

Like William’s, Janetta’s response to the break up of a relationship is emotional numbness: “I resumed life. I went back to the library. For years I worked as if in a dream” (64). Rather than “growing up” and accepting the strength of her own emotions, she retreats into a conventional marriage with a man who later dies of cancer. His death leaves no impression on her: “I mean no disrespect to his memory when I say, thirty years later, his death affects me less than the events I have described” (64). Janetta’s emotional numbness is implicitly linked with the disappearance of England’s natural spaces. At the end of the film, as we see shots of pristine meadows and hills, Janetta’s voice-over explains. “There used to be spaces. You took them for granted. In England, there were views” (64).6 In losing Leonard, Janetta has also lost England’s beautiful open countryside. It has become “bricked over,” just like her emotions. In the last shot of the film, the camera heads “out at high speed across the sea, skimming, like a low bird, just above the level of the water” (66). The shot implies that Janetta has not been able to find her home except in flights of memory. The film ends with a reference to her own death: “These events, ”, detain me and me only. No one else remembers them. … But of course I shall not remember them for long. (Fade to black.)” (66).

This later work is similar to the earlier in its narrative patterns and guided camera, yet it is much bleaker, and, perhaps, less successful in linking its central character to her society. While Janetta’s simplistic dichotomization of Leonard and Ian mimics her society’s attitude toward the importance of economic development over the environment, it is not caused by that attitude the way William’s view of Caroline was caused by pervasive male attitudes toward women. The beach and Ian’s tenements become little more than symbols for Janetta’s two options. We can see the flawed reasoning that led her to choose Ian, and can infer that this was the same reasoning that opened the gates that let the barbarian developers in to England’s South Coast, but Janetta is not sufficiently involved in land development to establish any kind of causal link. And there are no other characters or background context to imply the link either, as there are in Dreams.

The emptiness of the final shot is a fitting representation of Hare’s hesitation in this film to anchor his character’s unhappiness in a specific social or economic situation. Janetta’s disassociation from her society could be read as the result of an attempt at a feminine version of the male Bildungsroman: since as a woman she cannot participate in social power, she is depicted as developing outside the realms of that power.7 But Janetta’s development, or lack thereof, follows William’s closely. Both face decisions that have primarily to do with sex, and both envision their lives in isolation. The difference between Dreams of Leaving and Heading Home is not a function of their protagonists’ genders; it reflects, rather, Hare’s rejection of purely materialist psychology as sufficient to explain human behavior in the face of his country’s embrace of Thatcherism. His recent stageplays, such as The Secret Rapture (1988), and Racing Demon (1990), and his film Strapless (1989), all depart from earlier work in their grounding of character in intimate psychology rather than in social pressures. Comparing two films with similar genre roots enables us to isolate this shift in the thinking of one of England’s foremost contemporary writers.


  1. Specialists continue to debate definitions of this genre. A useful recent collection of commentary is James Hardin, ed., Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman (Columbia: U of S. Carolina P, 1991). Most contributors in this collection propose limiting the definition to novels explicitly based on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and expressing a positive belief in the benefits of cultural assimilation. My use of the term is broader, to refer to novels which follow the protagonist from inexperience to knowledge. It is this broader definition which is used by feminist critics in their examinations of female Bildungsromane.

  2. Hare is also working with an historical period important to his most famous play, Plenty (1978). Plenty’s protagonist, Susan Traherne, tries to relive the idealism she discovered during the war as a French Resistance agent, but becomes increasingly disgusted with post-war England’s social stasis. 1947 shows her budding disillusionment. See Scene 4. Plenty (New York: New American Library, 1978).

  3. Possibly because Dreams was broadcast on television, there were only four published reviews in the major papers and journals. Peter Fiddick’s reaction was typical. “How early, and how strongly, do you actually find yourself wanting to knock their heads together….” See his review in the Guardian 18 Jan. 1980: 9. See also Ian McEwan, Times Literary Supplement 25 Jan. 1980:87; Julian Barnes, New Statesman 25 Jan. 1980; and Michael Ratcliffe,. Times 18 Jan. 1980.

  4. Brecht defines the Alienation Effect in a number of essays included in Brecht on Theatre, (trans. John Willett, New York: Hill and Wang, 1964) most notably in “The Street Scene.” Film’s special applicability is discussed in “The Film, the Novel and Epic Theatre” (47–51). “This apparatus [film] can be used better than almost anything else to supersede the old kind of untechnical, anti-technical ‘glowing’ art, with its religious links” (48). Critics as early as Rudolf Arnheim in 1933 observed the effects of given camera angles in terms that are strikingly Brechtian. See Film as Art (Berkeley: U of Cal Press, 1957) 44.

  5. William’s diatribe echoes Hare’s own complaint against journalism. In “A Lecture Given at King’s College, Cambridge.” Hare told his undergraduate audience, “the journalist throws off a series of casual and half-baked propositions, ill-considered, dashed off, entertainment pieces to put forward a point of view which may or may not amuse, which may or may not be lasting, which may or may not be true.” This essay was printed as an addendum to Licking Hitler in the 1978 Faber and Faber edition. When it was reprinted as “The Play is in the Air” in the collection of Hare’s essays called Writing Left-Handed. Hare diluted his complaint by changing “the journalist” to “the bad journalist,” and “throws” to “may throw” (26). See Writing Left-Handed (London: Faber and Faber, 1991).

  6. In the Faber and Faber text, the directions tell us that “We begin to travel now along the front of the South Coast, along endless rows of Acacia Avenues, identical houses replacing identical houses” (64). In the broadcast version, we never see these “Acacia Avenues.”

  7. Because women’s social opportunities are beginning to catch up with men’s, the Bildungsroman has been called “the most salient form of literature’” for feminists (quoted in Voyage In, 13). While Hare has always written strong female parts, Janetta does not fit the paradigm described by the editors of The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development for female protagonists of Bildungsromane. This paradigm insists on the particular social obstacles facing women which continue to make their fictional development different from men’s. To the Voyage In editors, this results in a stress on collective rather than individual experience, in a single illuminating “awakening” rather than gradual development, and an emphasis on sexual identity. Strangely, it is Caroline in Dreams who most closely fits this paradigm, and she is seen almost solely through William’s eyes. Voyage In’s premise that women’s experience is essentially different from men’s and results in a different concept of personal development is, in Hare’s film, precisely the same as the male premise that has damaged relations between men and women for centuries. It is, ironically, the self-consciously male dominated Dreams of Leaving that does more to reveal the social forces blocking women’s equality in twentieth-century England. See Abel, Elizabeth, and Marianne Hirsch, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development (Hanover: UP of New England, 1983).

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth, and Marianne Hirsch, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover: U P of New England, 1983.

Hare, David. Dreams of Leaving. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.

———. Heading Home. Printed with Wetherby and Dreams of Leaving. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

———. Writing Left-Handed. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. London: Verso, 1987.

Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1981.

Swales, Martin. “Irony and the Novel Reflections on the German Bildungsroman” in Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman. Ed. James Hardin. Columbia, S.C.: U of S. Carolina P, 1991, 46–68.

John Lahr (review date 30 September 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670

SOURCE: “A Moral Affair,” in New Yorker, September 30, 1996, pp. 95-6.

[In the following review, Lahr offers a tempered evaluation of Skylight, which he views as an unsatisfying compromise between “conscience and comfort.”]

David Hare has been one of the most visible bricks in the imposing wall of British theatre since he broke through, in 1970, with Slag. His jeremiads about the collapsing state of England and his rants about social justice have been delivered in such varied and successful plays as Plenty (1978), an attack on the corruption of the upper classes; Pravda (1985, with Howard Brenton), an attack on the tabloid press; Racing Demon (1990), to my mind his best play, which attacked the entropy of the Anglican Church: and, most recently, the award-winning Skylight—currently at the Royale Theatre, on Broadway, for a limited engagement—which attacks just about everything else. Here Hare’s invective (“I’m tired of these right-wing fuckers,” one excellent tirade begins) makes him, as Michael Billington, the critic for The Guardian, put it, “John Osborne’s natural heir.” (Hare himself says that Look Back in Anger “is the modern play I’d most like to have written.”) The comparison is wrong but relevant. Osborne was a reactionary brawler—reckless, bullying, as capable of the low blow as of the precision punch—who could rarely go the distance. Hare, who is more of a technician, is a slick, smart, guarded, and progressive in-fighter, his jabs are accurate. If not always memorable, and he never risks the vulgarity of an intemperate explosion. This is why he wins more of his theatrical battles. Osborne, at his best, writes like a bad boy; Hare writes like a Head Boy—articulate, forthright, mature beyond his years, alternately severe and supercilious. He’s a model of good form. Not surprisingly, he holds the record for having the most plays produced (ten) in the history of the Royal National Theatre, whose director, Richard Eyre, expertly directs Skylight. But Hare’s success and his social conscience are at odds: they put him in a moral quandary that is at the center of both The Secret Rapture (1988) and Skylight—plays that, each in its own way, struggle with the dichotomy of being big and being good.

In Skylight, the entrepreneur Tom Sergeant is big (public company, limousine, island retreat); Kyra Hollis, his beloved former mistress, is good (she has given up the lush life to teach the underprivileged in a “comprehensive” East Ham high school). Hare puts them toe to toe onstage and shows us how comfort and conscience don’t live happily together. Yet for all his eloquence he doesn’t have a storyteller’s love of texture and the mysterious idiosyncrasies of character. His dramas are really essays with legs, and the characters are stick figures for his ideas. They set out a hypothesis and then elegantly argue the pros and cons to a progressive conclusion. As a 1991 collection of his journalism, Writing Left-Handed, shows, Hare is a pedestrian, somewhat pompous essayist; in his plays, however, and in the mouths of fine performers, the whopping, opinionated arias he writes lose a good half of their immodesty and sanctimony. Often, the charisma of outstanding performers—over the years, his plays have starred, among others, Helen Mirren, Kate Nelligan, and Anthony Hopkins—distracts from Hare’s inert exposition and makes talk feel like action. This is decidedly the case in Skylight, where we have both the inimitable Michael Gambon, playing the entrepreneur Tom Sergeant, a grief-stricken widower, and the powerful, appealing Lia Williams, playing Kyra Hollis, into whose life he crashes back one wintry London night in the nineties.

John Gunter’s set, like the play itself, seems caught between naturalism and symbolism. It’s a well-appointed, ramshackle main room, dominated by a behemoth upstage wall/window (whose like would not be found anywhere in the fashionable but dowdy area of Northwest London where the play is set), through which the gray, barren outlines of the city can be seen. The incongruity of the transparent wall reinforces the notion that Kyra’s book-lined first-floor flat, with its up-market “working surfaces” and down-market decoration, is some interior garret of Hare’s exacting imagination. (Even the downstage garbage is politically correct: divided into glass and paper, it signals the home of a liberal, responsible citizen.) Kyra, whose name echoes “Kyrie”—a call for mercy—is just that. “My goodness” are her first words. Although it’s an exclamation directed at Edward Sergeant (Christian Camargo), Tom’s eighteen-year-old son—whom she hasn’t seen for a few years, and who walks into her house unannounced—the words subliminally establish the moral stakes in this puppet show of passion. Edward brings news of his rebellion, his mother’s death from cancer, and his father’s weird behavior during a year of mourning, and he asks the question whose answer Hare spends the next two hours telling but not showing. “We saw you for years,” Edward says to Kyra. “Then you vanished. Why?”

As soon as Edward exits, Tom Sergeant is produced as glibly as Edward was. Tom is shrouded in a black raincoat, which he won’t remove, and his loneliness is as vast and dark as the coat around him. He hasn’t seen Kyra for three years, since his wife discovered their six-year affair. He wants to be embraced, but he cannot embrace Kyra’s life style. “This is the life that you made?” he says at the end of Act I, when it appears to both of them that they might come back together. “Will you tell me, will you tell me, please, Kyra, what exactly you’re doing here?” Tom and Kyra are separated not by love but by ideology, and Michael Gambon fills the play’s formulaic plot with the compelling gravity of his booming, inconsolable presence. He enters carrying an offering of whiskey; she puts it with the beer. Starting with this first gesture, the differences between the would-be lovers are factored out as systematically as an algebraic equation. He is wasteful, well dressed, successful, ironic; she is responsible, casual, impecunious, sincere. In her self-sacrifice, she is also “spiritual,” while that “bloody word ‘spiritual’” is one that he can’t abide. “It means, Well for me, for me this is terribly important, but I’m fucked if I can really say why,’” Tom says, on a winning, splenetic roll, as he prowls around Kyra’s lacquered red kitchen table. As we see, Kyra is a good listener; but to Tom “listening’s halfway to begging.” In his restless energy—Gambon is a dynamo of ironic feints and charming nervous tics—Tom, whose entrepreneurial talent has made him a wealthy restaurateur, personifies the Thatcher boom years. “Just through that little opening in history you could feel the current,” he tells Kyra. “For once you could feel the current running your way. You walked into a bank, you went in there, you had an idea. In, Money. Thank you. Out.”

Kyra, who once worked in Tom’s restaurant and said no to an offer of the shares that made Tom a millionaire when his business went public, personifies the rejection of the free-market spirit. “The whole of society must get down on their knees and thank them, because they do something they no longer call ‘making money,’” she says when it’s her turn to serve for the match. “Now we must call it something much nicer. Now we must call it ‘the creation of wealth.’” Kyra gives as good as she gets: “If you actually have to learn to survive, well, it’s a thousand times harder than leading an export drive, being in government, or … yes, I have to say, it’s even harder than running a bank.” Hare’s dialogue fairly crackles with vitriol; and Gambon, especially, makes the observations pay. “I’m deeply impressed with it,” he says of Kyra’s flat. “It gives me no problem at all. Put a bucket in the corner to shit in, and you can take hostages and tell them this is Beirut!” When Tom’s needling doesn’t get a response, he loses control and, in the play’s best moment, heaves her students’ notebooks around the room and at her. He makes a last-ditch promise to give Kyra a family, but they both know they’ve missed their moment. “The energy’s wonderful. Oh God, I tell you the energy’s what everyone needs,” she says to him before he exits, defeated, into the snowy early morning. “But with the energy comes the restlessness. And I can’t live in that way.”

After Tom closes the door on his dream of love, the lights fade on the exhausted Kyra as she straggles to bed. The audience, which has listened with rapt attention, applauds. The play feels over—and, indeed, it is. But Hare adds a forced grace note—a commercial theatrical compromise masquerading as a kind of spiritual consolation. Kyra, who admitted to Edward in the first scene that what she missed from her old deluxe life was “a good breakfast,” has an haut-bourgeois blessing literally spread out before her. At seven o’clock the next morning, just as she’s racing off to school to give special help to one of the few gifted students, Edward arrives with breakfast from the Ritz. Kyra wakes up and smells the coffee. Here on Broadway, at fifty-five dollars a head, it’s in a silver service. “Let’s eat” are Kyra’s last words. The lights fade on a banquet—Hare’s romantic tribute—where idealism and materialism cozy up together. “Nobody lives an honest life, do they?” Hare has said, and certainly his ending, which panders to the customers, proves the point. In Skylight Hare, I suspect, has his Broadway hit; he also has an unwitting metaphor of the winded, nervous British political moment. Skylight, finally, is a socialist soap opera in which, as in Tony Blair’s new Labour, the socialism is left out.

John Simon (review date 7 October 1996)

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SOURCE: “Hare Apparent,” in New York, October 7, 1996, p. 50.

[In the following review, Simon praises Skylight for being “open to multiple interpretations.”]

After World War II, new British playwrights burst forth like gangbusters. It was like a bicycle race, first a whole pack, then a peloton, and finally two cyclists out front: Tom Stoppard and now David Hare. With the others declining, drying up, or dead, the race remains to these two.

Hare came from behind. Slag,Knuckle, and Teeth ‘n’ Smiles showed great promise but had something slightly limiting about them. Other plays—Plenty,A Map of the World,Fanshen—were politicized to the verge of propaganda. Still, in Plenty and again in The Secret Rapture Hare was fighting his way through to making his characters as interesting as his ideas, albeit with uncertain results. But with Racing Demon and now Skylight, he has written first-rate drama in which the humanist concern for individuals and the socialist concern for the world do more than intertwine: They fuse.

Skylight is the story of Kyra Hollis, who as a young girl escaped her respectable but stodgy provincial background and started out as a waitress in a London restaurant, where she promptly caught the eye of the owner Tom Sergeant and his wife, Alice. Tom, considerably older than Kyra, had worked his way up from the ranker ranks to end up as a wealthy restaurateur. Soon Kyra became, as it were, a member of the Sergeant family—almost literally, as she and Tom conducted a six-year affair behind Alice’s back. Everyone was happy, including the two Sergeant children, until Alice found out.

Kyra left, and Alice, who developed cancer, made Tom’s life an expiatory hell. To assuage her suffering, Tom built her a sumptuous sickroom with all comforts and a magnificent skylight. Three years have passed without communication between Tom and Kyra; Alice has died, as has Kyra’s lawyer father. The Sergeant daughter is in college; the son, Edward, is 18 and adrift. Kyra lives in a shabby London suburb and teaches underprivileged kids in a similar one at the other end of the city. Even during her long daily bus trips, she is reasonably content.

The past irrupts. First Edward, then Tom comes calling of a winter evening. With Tom, it turns into a long night of sex and disputation. He wants Kyra back and cannot conceive of her enjoying her present life, about which he waxes wonderfully sardonic. She defends her new existence and cause. The debate grows in intensity and scope: Is fulfillment found in giving or taking? Where is the proper border between self and selflessness? The ensuing agon is fierce, funny, and intellectually challenging. As written, directed, and acted here, it goes from absorbing to overpowering.

Two opposite philosophies of life, incisively argued, are couched in flesh-and-blood characters who, rebedding and reconsidering each other, fight all the better. The dialogue glints and flashes, prickles with witty barbs and bitter sagacity, and cuts to the bone. The disputants touch on the biggest issues, yet keep them snugly within their human containers: The embattled ideas do not spill over into disembodied shadowboxing in an ideological fog. Everything is as concrete as the cooking and eating that keep coming to the fore, yet encapsulates the oldest, most consuming conflicts.

Richard Eyre’s staging is consummate: thoroughly thought out, but always at the service of naturalness and universality. Lia Williams’s Kyra is as complex as she is endearing: perceptive, quirky, impulsive, and wise. She stands before us in the nakedness of her honesty, the dignity of her compassion. In the generous hands of a superb actress, she tickles our mind even as she skewers our heart. As Tom, Michael Gambon is intense, commanding, and possessed of an almost frighteningly projectile diction. A spellbinding monolith, he lacks only grace of aspect and movement. I wish he could portray force without verging on brutishness: be a little less Charles Laughton or Leo McKern, a little more Trevor Howard or John Mills. Christian Camargo is an entirely winsome Edward.

John Gunter’s fine set has a diaphanous back wall, suggestive of Alice’s skylight. And what does that stand for? It is open to multiple interpretations, like Hare’s entire play. It compels us to look beyond, to search for meanings in a work that abounds in them.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 7-21 October 1996)

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SOURCE: “Political Cartoons,” in New Leader, October 7-21, 1996, pp. 22-3.

[In the following review, Kanfer offers an adverse appraisal of Skylight, finding fault in the play's one-sided sociopolitical argument.]

David Hare’s villain never varies. Different guises may be assumed, but sooner or later the mask comes off to reveal the evildoer: Western capitalist society. Even in his early works the British playwright was the bard of political correctness, wagging a finger at a nation obsessed with money and dominated by white males. Lay By, written back in 1971, blamed pornography on the profit motive. Years later Hare took on the British Establishment segment by segment: the haughty upper crust (Plenty), the kept press of Fleet Street (Pravda), the hypocritical Church of England (Racing Demon).

In his latest, Skylight, at the Royale Theater, he heaves his bombs at the Thatcherites—and by extension the Majorites, and ultimately all those to the right of the Left. It is these climbers, in Hare’s judgment, who have displaced altruism and decency with wealth and power. This time the malefactor (that can also be read as male factor) is identified as Tom Sergeant (Michael Gambon). Change the last letter of Tom Sergeant’s first name from an “m” to a “p” and you have a fair idea of his character. Oversized, blustery, used to snapping orders and having them carried out posthaste, Sergeant is a self-made type who rose through the ranks. No polish here; no high-born attitudes. The restauranteur started small, knew what he wanted, faced forward, acquired more eateries, and swiftly became head of a small empire.

En route he picked up a few pointers on how to dress and talk, but essentially he is the same gruff, take-charge bloke he was in the old days. Yet one thing has changed: He is no longer in full control of his days or nights. Tom Sergeant’s business has gone public; now he has to report to a board of directors. Moreover, his love life has vanished. Mrs. Sergeant, an ex-model, died several years back after a horrific battle with cancer. And his former restaurant manager, Kyra Hollis (Lia Williams), who lived with the Sergeants for six years—secretly carrying on with the boss every one of those years—abandoned him even longer ago. He has found no one to love since. All he has left is his 19-year-old son Edward (Christian Camargo), and like the others Edward has fled from the predator’s grasp.

Skylight takes place in Kyra’s flat, located in a down-at-heels section of North-west London. Edward abruptly drops in unannounced. The gawky, bewildered youth is in the middle of a late adolescent search for truth and meaning. He demands to know why Kyra abandoned the family so suddenly, when he was just a tad. That information is not disclosed until Edward leaves and Tom stomps in, demanding his own explanation. As it turns out, Kyra had been quite content to continue the clandestine affair. But it was not to be. For she doted on secrecy and he wanted openness, even if it wounded all those around him. One fateful day Tom failed to put away some love letters; they were “accidentally” discovered by his wife. Kyra learned of the incident and early the next morning, without confronting either of the Sergeants, she vanished into the backwaters of London. This is the first time the lovers have met since her departure.

They make a strange pair these days. Tom is a festival of big gestures and explosive manners of speech. He cannot stop talking about the days when he was building a fortune and the Conservatives were in full sway (“For once you could feel the current running your way. You walked into a bank, you went in there, you had an idea. In, Money. Thank you. Out.”) Kyra rarely looks back. She has become a teacher in a slum school, and her focus is on the students—volatile, vital pieces of the future. Her voice is calm, her movements subtle. Any attraction to the dynamo rises from nostalgia, not hope. (“With the energy comes the restlessness. And I can’t live in that way.”)

Ebb and flow is the name of this game. Sometimes Tom scores a point, mocking Kyra’s modest digs (“Put a bucket in the corner … and you can take hostages and tell them this is Beirut”), then turning on the charm so winningly that she allows him—briefly—back into her bed. More often it is she who triumphs, putting down Tom and his kind for their ill-disguised avarice (“Now we must call ‘making money’ something much nicer. Now we must call it ‘the creation of wealth.’”) In a parting shot, she compares their two careers. What the teacher does for a living is not only more useful than fortune-building, it is obviously more rewarding to the spirit. Although hardly a unique message, Hare seems afraid to present it undiluted. In a coda he brings Edward back, bearing breakfast from a luxury hotel. So Kyra can have her scones and eat them too; she can refuse the father as lover but have the son and heir as friend, complete with his material goods. A happy ending for everyone—except for those in search of significance.

Skylight played in the West End, where many British critics praised the drama as a Shavian battle: the wily businessman vs. the dedicated altruist. Despite his pretensions, however, Hare is not even a road-company Shaw. As GBS observed, in a good play everyone is right; the contest between Tom and Kyra is one-sided almost all the way. If it occasionally seems a battle of equals, that is in spite of the writing and because of the cast.

Gambon, who has quietly become one of Britain’s most important actors, is remembered in the U.S. for his work in Denis Potter’s extraordinary TV series, The Singing Detective. In Skylight Gambon’s beagle-faced plutocrat is more appealing than he should be, thanks to a lightness of movement and phrasing. There is something of Zero Mostel in the delicate movements that belie his bulk, and something of the silent movie heavies in the way he fills a scene while leaving room for the star. And star Williams is, projecting a thirtysomething woman who is at once vulnerable and as incorrodible as stainless steel. She has won shelves of awards in Britain; this is her first big Broadway role. It will not be her last.

All three actors have been directed with vigor and precision by Richard Eyre. John Gunter’s costumes are fitting in every sense of the word, and his set is accurate down to the last Penguin paperback on the makeshift bookshelves. I hope one of the volumes is Major Barbara—in which Shaw was secure enough to give a munitions manufacturer some of the play’s wittiest moments—and that one day Hare will take a close look at the text. He may have the talent to write a great play, but not until he finds the courage to give the bad chap the best lines.

Robert Brustein (review date 18 November 1996)

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SOURCE: “Whose Faust Is It Anyway,” in The New Republic, November 18, 1996, pp. 28-30.

[In the following review, Brustein gives a negative evaluation of Skylight, though he praises the performance of Michael Gambon in the Royale Theatre production of the play.]

David Hare’s new play, Skylight (Royale Theatre), has the advantage of a really shattering performance by Michael Gambon, who at the present time may very well be the most powerful actor in the English-speaking world. You don’t care a whit that this hulking figure is somewhat miscast as a natty capitalist, or that he’s starring in a rather anemic play.

The argument between Gambon’s character, the middle-aged Tom Sergeant, and his considerably younger lover, Kyra Hollis (strongly performed by Lia Williams), echoes the debate Bernard Shaw concocted between the millionaire arms dealer Andrew Undershaft and his Salvation Army daughter, Major Barbara. Sergeant runs a group of hotels and restaurants, and passionately defends his accumulation of wealth, while the even more passionate Kyra defends her dedication to improving the minds of poorly educated kids.

Informing this conflict is the continuing tension between Thatcher’s Tory England and that of the Lib-Lab opposition. And it must be admitted that the playwright, despite his own liberal sympathies, doesn’t load the deck. “I’m disqualified from having any feelings,” Tom Sergeant moans, “because I made some money.” Kyra, he notes, is always drawn to the injustice of the world: “The question is, why you went out to look for it.”

Kyra replies that she hates those “right-wing fuckers” who sneer at social workers. Who else would perform the tasks they’re willing to do? “What makes sense,” she later says to Tom’s rebellious son, in an anti-climactic coda, “is finding one really good pupil … one private target and that’s enough.”

Still, the intellectual argument of Skylight is weak and perfunctory. Hare seems considerably more interested in the dynamics of the personal relationship. Sergeant has returned to see Kyra following his wife’s death, partly to ask forgiveness, partly to reignite their love affair. And although they spend one last night together, Kyra sends him into the cold morning air alone. The reason? He told his wife, before her death, about their affair. I can’t say I follow the logic of this morality.

The unhappy ending of Skylight seems just as inappropriate as the happy ending of Randy Newman’s Faust. But forget about the play. The evening is worth the price of admission just to watch Gambon crumple into fragments, disintegrate before our eyes, the moment he realizes his love for Kyra is futile. With his potato face and sleepy features, his Asiatic eyes hooded like a hawk’s, Gambon looks more like a lumpy Irish coachman than an English plutocrat. And he wears his expensive overcoat as if he had just found it in a yard sale. Yet there is something immensely attractive and commanding in the way he inhabits this role. Dancing and feinting in a manner that belies his considerable bulk, he leaves us in no doubt that this character once took ballet lessons. His resonant voice barking and nattering through a remarkable range of human music, somewhere between an English horn and a Bach trumpet, Gambon can make the most declarative lines ring with irony and power. In perfect harmony with Lia William’s vigorous Kyra, and under Richard Eyre’s effortless direction, he manages to give a Lear-like weight to an essentially weightless character. Acting of this magnitude makes the stage a place of rare beauty and rude strength.

Oliver Reynolds (review date 28 February 1997)

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SOURCE: “Shakespeare for Smaller Forces,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 28, 1997, p. 18.

[In the following review, Reynolds praises Hare's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov.]

The 1887 Moscow premiere of Ivanov, the first full-length play Chekhov completed, was famously shambolic. Actors taking the parts of drunks had prepared themselves so well that there was much unrehearsed upsetting of furniture. Chekhov had difficulty recognizing his own play, something compounded by the actor playing Shabyelski: “Kiselevsky, of whom I was hoping a lot, didn’t get one sentence right—literally not one. …” This débâcle may partly explain Chekhov’s later dismissals of Ivanov. His disparagement of his own play was matched by his scorn for most of the characters in it. The playwright, in his late twenties, looked down his nose at his thirty-five-year-old hero: “He hasn’t grown a decent moustache yet, and he’s already laying down the law.” The twenty-year-old Sasha who falls in love with Ivanov, or thinks she does, is equally inadequate: “she’s a spinster, not a girl.” By the time of the play’s successful revival in St Petersburg in 1889, Chekhov was claiming Ivanov was clearer in his correspondence than on the stage. “That’s because a quarter of his part has been cut. I’d gladly sacrifice half my success if they’d let me make the play twice as boring. The public calls the theatre a school, so if it’s not being hypocritical, let it put up with being bored.”

The briskness of these put-downs, however, was belied by the trouble Chekhov took in rewriting Ivanov. He was set on making a good play out of what he claimed was a bad one. “It’s like buying an old pair of trousers from a soldier’s uniform and trying your damnedest to turn them into a tail-coat. You don’t know whether to utter tragic laughs or neigh like a horse.” The critical consensus on Ivanov tends to echo Chekhov’s harshness, relegating the play to the status of prentice-work. This is wrong. Ivanov is full of the painful dazzle of tragedy mirrored by comedy, of plotting that has a shark-like efficiency and roles that offer huge and immediate gifts to the actor. The current production [of Ivanov] by Jonathan Kent at the Almeida triumphantly vindicates the play’s virtues. It is made possible by a superb adaptation by David Hare. Reaching across a century and shaking off the trite verdicts of posterity, Hare’s new version is a wonderful demonstration of one writer’s solidarity with another.

In outline, the plot of Ivanov is more meatily conventional than Chekhov’s later plays. Ivanov, a landowner, no longer loves his wife, Anna, who is ill; her doctor, Lvov, condemns him; a young heiress, Sasha, whose mother has lent Ivanov money, declares her love for him; his uncle, Shabyelski, plays at being a suitor for mercenary ends; Ivanov is widowed: can he conquer his self-disgust, and will the play finish on a wedding or a death? Summarized like this, Ivanov seems robustly straightforward. In the theatre, though, the seemingly foursquare solidity of the plotting disappears, and we are caught up in the acts and words of Ivanov, Anna, Lvov and Sasha. What happens is who it happens to. Plot is character. Ivanov’s self-deception meshes with his wife’s adoration; the doctor’s frankness feeds off Ivanov’s contempt; Sasha’s immaturity is matched by Ivanov’s hopelessness. The conflict between the characters is complicated by the contradictions within each character and, particularly, within Ivanov. His speeches have the fume and threat of the air above petrol. Chekhov thought him typically Russian—“the over-excitability, the guilt complex, the tendency to fatigue are purely Russian…”—and the play’s drama stems from the fluctuations of his moods being met or fractured by those around him. As such, Ivanov is a showcase play for performers, whether solo or ensemble.

Ivanov’s vanity and self-obsession lead him repeatedly to a mocking identification with Hamlet. Chekhov rescores Shakespeare for smaller forces. Ralph Fiennes is on stage as the audience enters. He is hunched over a book, and there are strong overtones of the Hamlet acted by Fiennes in an Almeida production at the Hackney Empire in 1995. Ivanov’s essential volatility, his flipping from rage to lassitude, is given strong physical expression by Fiennes—he paces and stamps, belabours his face with his hands, threshes the air with his arms—but it rarely seems wholly unleashed, wholly surprising. When he and his uncle have a shouting match, Ivanov gestures at him with his fists in a curiously abbreviated way, pulling himself up and them apologizing. He is too decent. Chekhov’s scorn for Ivanov is part of Ivanov himself. The various elements of Ivanov’s personality are clearly presented by Fiennes, but without any real sense of the chasms beneath. It is as if metals were being soldered without the flux necessary to make them melt and fuse. A sense of Ivanov’s character being muted is reinforced by some details of the staging and text. The crucial early interchange with Lvov is played upstage, in shadow, and we cannot gauge what emotion, if any, underlies Ivanov’s description of the fading of marital passion: “You tell me she’s going to die, and I feel not love, but just a terrible kind of emptiness.” The moment is empty, not terrible. Later on, after his wife has discovered Ivanov and Sasha kissing, Sasha visits him in secret. His horror at her doing this is undermined by a cliché. “Sasha, I cannot believe it. My wife is already in torment. She’s at death’s door.” (Ronald Hingley, in the Oxford edition of the plays, translates the last phrase as “she’s already dying”.) Such touches suggest a modern Ivanov—affectless, cut off from his own emotions—but do so at the expense of diminished dramatic impact.

One scene, however, when Ivanov and Anna reach the point of breakdown, is drama at its most intense. In his preface to the play, Hare describes this scene as one of Chekhov’s greatest, and it is matched here by the acting of Fiennes and of Harriet Walter as Anna. The agonies of marriage, and of the one-sided death of love, give Walter’s performance a pitiful radiance. She has an early emblematic moment when she pleads with her husband to return to the joy that was once mutual: “Shall we go and turn cartwheels there in the hay, my darling?” Her hectic happiness—the wide smile and fluttering eyes—is forced, a nostalgia that cannot mask her naked readiness to be spurned. Anna is Jewish, and Hare points out that Ivanov, dominated as it is by the theme of honesty, incorporates Chekhov’s own anti-Semitism. A defining moment for Ivanov is when the strongest insult he can find for his wife is to call her what she is: Jew. Walter plays her with the tinge of an accent, a slight dragging at the rhythms of speech. At times, her teeth seem a shade too large for her mouth, as if over-exposed by too much beseeching, too much imploring. When Anna breaks down in front of Lvov, she does not cry, but folds in on herself and howls, the sound dredged up from some inner sump of misery. Walter’s performance is a lesson for the audience in that awful emotion, pity.

Had Chekhov not gone on to write the plays of undisputed greatness by which he is known, Ivanov might well have achieved the singular status of that other striking one-off, The Government Inspector. Like Gogol’s play, Ivanov can also be seen as a double portrait of social and personal hypocrisy. The deceits and self-deceptions of its protagonists emerge from a general miasma of boredom, cupidity and malice. A society invigorated by gossip is, in dramatic terms, bound to be comic. Holed up with Ivanov and Anna, Shabyelski demands to be taken out: “I need people I can despise. I need entertainment.” Kent’s production plays the comedy to the full, but it also points up the comedy’s social underpinning. Sasha’s father, Lebedev, is a happy drunk (Bill Paterson’s nose merits its description as “a squashed mulberry”) continually calling out his servant’s name—“Gavrila!”—as if it were a synonym for vodka. After setting down another empty glass on the salver held out to him, he makes a grateful fumble for Gavrila’s white-gloved hand, a gesture that informs us both of Lebedev’s relationship to his servant and to his own drinking.

It would be interesting to know how many plays have their characters eat and drink in the first scene after the interval. There is something very sure-footed in having an audience return from the bar to the scene in which Lebedev, Shabyelski and Borkin, all seated at Ivanov’s desk, work their way through vodka, herring, bread and pickled gherkins. The acting of these parts—by Paterson, Oliver Ford Davies and Anthony O’Donnell—gives the scene the tonic zest of Shakespearean comedy. The feeling that all’s right with the world spreads from stage to auditorium. This is heightened further by the entrance of Kosykh, a crazed card-player. (When Lvov asks him later what he thinks of Ivanov, Kosykh checks whether a truthful reply is required and then gives one: “Very little. He bids trumps almost regardless of what’s in his hand.”) Ian McDiarmid plays the part with an obsessive’s relish for the details of his obsession—his numbering of the spades and diamonds of last night’s game, oblivious to the other men’s paroxysms of boredom, is only quelled when Shabyelski threatens to shoot him with Ivanov’s pistol. The audience’s outburst of laughter, here, can be contrasted with the moment later on when Ivanov tells Sasha she is only drawn to him by his despair, and the audience laughs softly, out of consideration for the characters. We are nearing the “tragic laughs” described by Chekhov when he was struggling to rewrite the play.

The final scenes, with character and plot pushing implacably to their end, have only one resolution on-stage. In the mind of the audience, though, the meaning of what happens is multivalent. The final confrontation between Ivanov and Lvov is wonderfully poisoned by Sasha’s accusation that Lvov has been sending anonymous letters to all and sundry. In Colin Tierney’s performance, the bony planes of Lvov’s skull and face are irradiated by righteousness, his rectitude lit up by neurosis. As Hare puts it in his preface, “Chekhov leaves us to work out for ourselves whether honesty consists in judging others, or in refusing to judge them.” In the process, we are left in no doubt of the play’s stature. The production at the Almeída shows that Ivanov has all the qualities of great drama. The play tells the audience: This is you. The audience’s rapt silence is assent: This is us.

John J. Su (essay date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: “Nostalgic Rapture: Interpreting Moral Commitments in David Hare's Drama,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XL, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 23-37.

[In the following essay, Su examines Hare's sentimental vision of an idealized British past and its underlying function as a point of reference for interpreting contemporary political realities and moral conflicts.]

A deep, if problematic, nostalgia for the Great Britain of World War II suffuses the work of British playwright David Hare. Susan Traherne’s exuberant cry at the end of Plenty, “There will be days and days and days like this,” exemplifies Hare’s troubled nostalgia: the promise of social equality and national renewal with the war’s end presented as the final memory of a fragmenting psyche.1 Hare identifies himself both personally and artistically in terms of World War II: “I was born in 1947, and it makes me sad to think that mine may be the last generation to care about this extraordinary time in English history. … I must also, if I am honest, admit that the urge to write about it came … from a romantic feeling for the period.”2 Such a sentimental stance is interesting considering the importance Hare’s work places on political engagement in the present. Hare’s plays directly or indirectly examine how the post-war promise of “Plenty” did not materialize as the unity against Hitler during the war failed to translate into unity in reconstruction during peace.3 Characters in Hare’s drama seek something to which they can commit themselves even as they desperately stave off fears that their institutions are no longer worth the commitment. Neither the contemporary political Right nor Left offers the sense of mission shared across class lines during the war. Within this context the nostalgic past offers a mode of interpreting the present, a source for the moral framework Hare’s characters find so lacking in British society. This nostalgic framework demands faithfulness or constancy to a vision of the past against a contemporary world given to expediency. Individual moral action is determined through emulating role models of the longed-for past. The crucial question, however, is to what extent can a nostalgic vision of a Britain that perhaps never was provide a moral structuring principle allowing the possibility of right action in the present; more pointedly, can a moral response prove an adequate solution to what Hare has cast as political problems?

Since The Secret Rapture (1988), and through his trilogy of “institution” plays (Racing Demon,Murmuring Judges,The Absence of War), Hare has moved more explicitly in the direction of moral drama. Gone are the wild days of the Portable Theatre, touring the country presenting plays concerned with the socialist message more than the drama itself:

I thought the political and social crisis in England in 1969 so grave that I had no patience for the question of how well written a play was. I was only concerned with how urgent its subject matter was, how it related to the world outside.4

The Hare who has become an institution at the National Theatre now writes about goodness:

I’m bored by propaganda, either from the left or right. But goodness makes me weep. I see Isobel [of The Secret Rapture] that way. So I said, Why don’t I write about goodness? Why be a smartass?5

The transition has not been effortless, Hare having at moments to forestall criticism that his nostalgia might equate with political disengagement, precisely the criticism leveled at the moral drama of his contemporary, Tom Stoppard.6

The problem of moral drama in general, and Hare’s and Stoppard’s specifically, is not that it chooses an apolitical stance. On the contrary, Stoppard has insisted that the political can never divorce itself from the moral sphere: “I believe all political acts must be judged in moral terms.”7 T. S. Eliot, perhaps the most rigorously systematic English moral dramatist of the twentieth century, throughout the 1930s opposed the theological-moral framework of Christianity to communism, finding the struggle between the two “religions” to define the crux of the modern dilemma: “There can only be the two [religions], Christianity and communism: and there, if you like, is your dilemma.”8 The difficulty moral drama faces is presenting within the confines of the stage a convincing basis for the moral vision. Eliot abandoned overt Christian thematics in his four later plays, seeking to expand his audience after Murder in the Cathedral, and consequently lost the clarity of his characters’ struggle to act within a decaying world. Stoppard, who in interviews has made more definite affirmations of God as Absolute in recent years, has only succeeded in translating this sense to his plays circuitously, using scientific paradigms as allegories of the possibility of free will, the limits of human perception, and the fundamental underlying order of the cosmos. Explicitly invoking grand theological frameworks has the air of dogmatism and lacks persuasiveness for audiences who do not already accept the framework. Yet locating a moral center not from an imposed theology but instead from a certain innateness, as Bernard Shaw (Major Barbara) and Arthur Miller (All My Sons) do, often drives such plays toward didacticism or vagueness of vision. Especially within the corpus of modern drama, the moral protagonist lacks dynamism, being defined only in opposition to an evil character, the transgressor, limit-breaker, or anti-conformist. Thus the protagonist’s moral vision becomes defined by his or her evil counterpart, without whom the protagonist is a cipher. And the “victorious” moral protagonist is essentially a conformist, static character, a reactionary to the dynamism of evil. The figures who stamp themselves in our imagination are the Iagos, Richards, and Undershafts who scoff at normative codes. Locating a moral basis in a nostalgic vision as Hare does rather than in a doxology has the additional difficulty of malleability (the absence of an absolute standard) not found in Stoppard or Eliot, for the meaning of the past is so tied to actions completed in the future. Yet even in the post-Thatcherite era, Hare fails to find in the great institutions—church, judiciary, government—a sense of mission comparable to what he envisions was shared by people of all classes during the war. Hare’s church in Racing Demon, unlike Eliot’s, struggles to hold itself together with a common liturgy against a feeling of God’s absence and the haunting question that closes the play: “Is everything loss?”9

Hence, the central struggle of Hare’s characters is to reconcile a sense of past hope and present betrayal, faced with a series of broken promises—personal and political—following the war and culminating in the Suez Canal fiasco. This last gasp of the dying colonial juggernaut not only confirmed the deception of the post-war promise but also questioned the memories of a unified past, insinuating naïve optimism. Although, during the dinner scene of Plenty, Susan Traherne bitingly differentiates the Suez operation from her work as an agent in occupied France, the two conflicts cannot but be compared. Susan’s failure to integrate both events within her conceptual framework precipitates her breakdown, for she cannot jettison the nostalgic past that has become most intimately her nor ignore her government’s betrayal. Belief in her work and, by extension, her government was vital to her survival: “You believed in the organization. You had to. If you didn’t, you would die” (188). The duplicity of the present government threatens Susan because her sense of self is built around the mission and purpose her government gave her, a sense of belonging. To find that its ideals also might have been duplicitous allows a creeping despair to pervade her psyche, which suggests that her constancy was to a vision without value, a vision never taken seriously by the government to which she pledged her life. Confronting a parallel crisis, Anna Seaton in Licking Hitler can only watch “the steady impoverishment of the people’s ideals, their loss of faith, the lying” since the war, unwillingly realizing that it brought unity without unity of purpose: “that whereas we knew exactly what we were fighting against, none of us had the whisper of an idea as to what we were fighting for.”10 Without this common external enemy, the lack of a shared institutional belief or policy becomes manifest. The old class-consciousness returns, if it ever left; yet the next generation, raised under a period of faith in government, continues to seek validation from institutions that increasingly insulate themselves from the people’s concerns. Jean Travers’s love, Jim Mortimer, in Hare’s movie Wetherby, dies needlessly over a card game in Malaya, a “half-war” for which he volunteered hoping to demonstrate his manhood and patriotism, leaving Jean to a life of loneliness and frustrated expectation. Much to the dread of Hare’s protagonists, finally what matters to the post-war government is preserving something of the glory that was the British Empire, regardless of the sacrifice. No opposition is tolerated even from within government—a lesson Leonard Darwin, a career diplomat reminiscent of nineteenth-century counterparts, learns painfully: “We have been betrayed … I have been lied to” (Hare, Plenty 175).

Darwin’s name gives the moment a sad irony; like his namesake Charles Darwin, Leonard must witness the vision of the world he helped to create reinterpreted in the name of expediency. Charles Darwin’s work on natural selection was twisted to provide “proof” for so many misguided social theories of “survival of the fittest.” Extrapolations from his theories, for instance, offered justification for the British Empire, which defined in so many ways the sense of Englishness that Leonard Darwin embodies. Yet “natural selection” ultimately necessitates superseding Englishness in the name of expediency. To save the empire, one must destroy everything the empire purportedly once stood for—such a contradiction boggles Darwin in Plenty, who has managed to misperceive the dark half of the ideology of empire. The very basis of Leonard’s morality insulates him instead of providing a framework to interpret action in the present world: he is “living in the past,” as it were. Noticeably, the younger diplomat Raymond Brock is neither surprised nor befuddled; through jettisoning past idealism he “adapts.”

Resignation becomes Darwin’s only option to express his sense of betrayal, his dissent. The mechanism of government within which he has acted no longer corresponds to his personal structure of belief, based on notions of nineteenth-century Englishness. Darwin cannot simultaneously hold his ideal of England and serve within a government which uses the ideal only as a means to an end. Although he has remained constant to his vision, the terms of his vision—what empire stands for—have changed. Darwin’s choice to disengage himself rather than reconcile his sense of the past to present events alienates him from the social field: he is never seen again in the play and dies unregarded five years after the Suez incident. Susan Traherne experiences a similar internal splitting between a pernicious contemporary world and an inaccessible past, her only shelter madness. The “Plenty” assumes a grotesque aspect, Susan finding “We’re rotten with cash” (Hare, Plenty 186), corrupted and without moral direction. In vain Susan seeks to do a good act—she jumps from career to career, finding none fulfilling; she agrees to marry Brock, hoping thereby to thank him for standing by her during her breakdown; she tries to give away her house to Alice and her “unmarried mothers” (198). But she fails to find in her past a means to “orient [herself] towards the good,” the vital function of a moral framework according to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.11 The source of good for Susan lies lost in the past, and her failure to perceive an orientation toward achieving in the future the promises of the past leads her into disengagement through drugs and a breakdown that projects her into the past in the final scene. “Good” or right action is so immensely difficult for Susan to define in the present because she can find no satisfactory social role (seen in her continual career shifting) through which to realize her dream of a more egalitarian England. Postwar institutional standards of morality are primarily concerned with perpetuating the status quo. “Behaviour is all,” as Sir Andrew says (193); that is, outward conformity regardless of consequences and unconcerned with acts for moral ends.

In a sense, Sir Andrew’s framework insists on constancy to the past. Constancy itself does not provide an orientation, however; the diplomats under Sir Andrew simply cling to the past in fear of the future. Susan seeks (unsuccessfully) in her nostalgic past an orientation for the future. The diplomats cannot envision a future good, only future decline. Given this poverty of vision combined with the lack of a genuine alternative institutional recourse (i.e., the Left), Hare’s protagonists have little alternative to some form of nostalgic paradigm. They seek something sacred in the past, something eminently worth defending in the here and now. But the figures of Plenty become enraptured with the past rather than finding in it a good with which to orient themselves. While Susan’s memory of VE Day, the final scene of Plenty, stands as a condemnation of English institutions for failing to remain constant to past promises, her mental collapse that the moment signifies also suggests that Susan’s stance is somehow incommensurable with present reality.

Hare’s concern with “the intractability of goodness” becomes even more urgent in his play The Secret Rapture, where the main characters are born after the war and lack memories of alternatives to Thatcherism—the final extension of political betrayal and neglect arising after the failure of the welfare state.12 Wrestling with the absence of an older English sensibility, signified by their dead father Robert Glass, the sisters Marion and Isobel and their stepmother, Katherine, must redefine their interrelationships without a stable embodiment of Englishness. The conspicuous absence of a stable figure of the past—each woman has a different vision of Robert—points to the problem of nostalgia as an interpretive matrix: without some engagement with the past, present motives are uninterpretable and thus “good” actions nearly impossible. Good actions, according to Charles Taylor, require an orientation toward the “good,” as defined by a moral framework. Yet the past itself, constructed from continual interpretations, lacks an absolute reality, making “good” in an ultimate sense difficult to apprehend concretely. Isobel, Irwin, and Marion each say they cannot make sense of existence; Katherine avoids, through her drinking, interpretive complexities; Tom’s Christianity, far from giving him a framework of understanding, is presented as patently ridiculous. Thus, answering this essay’s original question, whether the moral can offer genuine political solutions, requires first pursuing the question of goodness itself—if a moral vision requires an orientation toward the (nostalgic) good, can nostalgia provide a common good worth constancy?

Finding a shared good is so important because, according to Hare, evil arises from the valorization of expediency, the unwillingness to accept a coherent framework as more important than self-gain. John Morgan of Wetherby is described as a blankness, a “central disfiguring blankness,” without any scruple mitigating his desire.13 Nothing has sufficient value, within his conception of the world, as to deny the principle of self-gain. Consequently, it never occurs to him to feel guilt in stalking a classmate, Karen, and breaking into her dormitory, or in exhibiting his self-murder before Jean. Morgan accepts no realm outside of his own prerogatives: “I want some feeling! I want some contact! I want you fucking near me!” (Hare, Wetherby 114). A dark homology exists between Morgan, who invades the most private spaces (he also invites himself to Jean’s small dinner party), and the expediency of Thatcherism, which also accepts no bounds of privacy. Hare has said, “one of the effects of Thatcherism has been to introduce politics into every aspect of people’s lives.”14 Within this conception Thatcherite expediency is not itself a moral structuring principle—built upon directed limitation, boundary, and obligation—but rather a radical denial of the notion itself: one simply follows the impulse toward material gain.15 Good actions are impossible for the absolute Thatcherite. Expediency denies the reverence that characterizes nostalgia and thus denies any obligation to be true to past promises. It measures actions by success or personal gain rather than according to a categorical imperative (i.e., an action must be done because it is good regardless of personal consequences). So even when adherents of “Thatcherism” have “good” intentions, such as Brock in nursing Susan Traherne, frustration is not tolerated: “I am going to play as dirtily and ruthlessly as you,” he says, after telling her, “I won’t surrender till you’re well again. And that to me would mean your admitting one thing: that in the life you have led you have utterly failed, failed in the very, very heart of your life” (Hare, Plenty 200). Brock insists that Susan’s cure lies in not only exposing but also repudiating her most intimate and happy memories. Marion of The Secret Rapture, junior minister of the Department of the Environment, likewise has good intentions in trying to place her alcoholic, widowed stepmother Katherine with Isobel, Marion’s younger sister. Marion, however, never allows herself to become personally responsible for Katherine, who could impede her career. Instead, Marion mimics the discourse of old-line British morality, blackmailing Isobel with her own desire to do good.

Blackmail drives the action of most of Hare’s plays, from Plenty and Pravda to Wetherby,The Secret Rapture, and Racing Demon. As The Secret Rapture shows, the appeal of blackmail lies in that it allows characters without a moral framework to avoid personal accountability. Katherine’s demands for comfort, a place to stay, a job, the right to judge Irwin’s (Isobel’s lover) work, mask a desire to “just go somewhere and not have to put up with me.16 Her continual encroachments into every part of Isobel’s life force Isobel to “put up with me,” to orient her actions in terms of caring for Katherine. The very brazenness of Katherine’s demand, that good people are “here to help trashy people like me” (Hare, Secret Rapture 19), seems to belie Irwin’s warnings of her “evil” (57). Hare’s fascination with blackmail stems from the deep challenge it places on moral frameworks. The blackmailer insists on radicalizing the framework in the act of mimicking it. Katherine takes the Judeo-Christian notion of charity that Isobel values and insists it be taken to an excessive conclusion, where Isobel must be continually responsible for her or else be hypocritical, “so fucking English” (16). Katherine lays claim to Isobel’s father, the “one person who ever believed in me” (15), separating Isobel from the symbol of her past and insinuating that she can only continue to possess the past, Robert, through her. Thus, Katherine denies the ability to change herself, transferring the onus of responsibility on to Isobel. Even when she stabs Isobel’s most important client, Katherine accepts no responsibility, makes no apology, blaming the drink and the clients for driving her “back into [her] terrible unconfidence” (73). Consequently, Katherine’s self-centeredness (both in the common sense of petty selfishness and in the sense that she strives to become the center of moral concern for the lives around her) blinds her to Irwin’s obsession, allowing Isobel’s murder near the end of the play.

Through much of The Secret Rapture Irwin appears as the most stable and mild character, his first lines noting how others consider him “prematurely middle-aged” (20). In contrast to Katherine’s continual importunities, his devotion to Isobel to her, seems benign: “I draw for you. That’s why I draw. To please you. To earn your good opinion. Which to me means everything” (50). Yet beneath this artist-muse relationship lies a latent demand for Isobel’s continual good opinion, without which his self-estimation cannot hold. Like Katherine, Irwin tries to impose a double-bind upon Isobel: she embodies Irwin’s structuring principle (guiding and praising his work) but also relinquishes her own independent guidance, defining herself in terms of supporting him. Isobel has apparently recognized for some time Irwin’s motivations but does not lash out at him until he insists on sleeping with her against her wishes, denying any bounds of privacy: “But I never hear the words [I love you] without sensing something’s being asked of me. The words drain me. From your lips they’ve become a kind of blackmail” (55).

Isobel’s severely delimited field of choice resembles Susan Traherne’s situation. The events surrounding the two women are driven by amoral if not immoral motivations, which do not require the interpretive consistency that moral frameworks demand. The women are paralyzed by situations in which apparently no choice allows for fidelity to the dream of the past: Susan must accept betrayal and corruption as the condition of her dream of “Plenty” or abandon her constitutive nostalgia; Isobel must choose to continue to love Irwin although he betrays her or choose to help Katherine, who similarly has no regard for her private identity. Isobel finds that others seek to redefine the interpretive foundations of her actions—her business is bought by Marion; Irwin insists that helping Katherine is wrong, arising from selfishness; Katherine asserts Isobel’s desire to do good is purely rhetoric, just part of the hypocritical English character. If Hare’s interests centered on exploring individual moral crises rather than shared moral solutions to political problems, then Isobel’s and Susan’s dilemmas need not be crippling. Arguably, an act could be good within the individual’s framework independent of external interpretations or the success of the act itself, solely based on the agent’s intentions. Isobel appears to believe this argument early in the play: the love that she finds to be her father’s orientation succeeds whether or not he “was taken for a ride”: “Honestly, I don’t think it matters much. The great thing is to love” (Hare, Secret Rapture 5). However, Isobel herself refuses the solution she attributes to her father. The problem underlying intentionalist morality is that by definition it cannot compel shared belief and orientation. Without being able to insist that particular acts must be interpreted as good, and not just good according to the agent’s intention, the moral loses the power to offer compelling political solutions. Hare depicts Isobel attempting to choose nothing, evading the responsibility of choice, withdrawing from Irwin, fleeing to the island Lanzarote.

Irwin’s renewed fixation upon Isobel after her flight (he had begun to seek sexual solace through Rhonda, Marion’s employee) points to the potentially catastrophic consequences of intentionalist moral frameworks. Defining goodness on the basis of the agent’s intentions creates a fundamentally self-centered ethical paradigm. Irwin’s obsessional love suggests that care for others must not come at their expense. Hare’s desire for a moral politics comes to the fore here: notions of the good must be shared and consensual. Irwin’s love meets neither of these criteria. Although love in the abstract seems like a benevolent good, the latent demand for mutuality subordinates the claimed care for the other to self-satisfaction. His good, in this way, becomes a necessity. Without his “one certain source of good” in Isobel, who has provided a schema of artistic and personal validation, Irwin finds himself bereft of an interpretive faculty: “I can’t make sense of life” (Hare, Secret Rapture 62, 75). His dissatisfaction with the newly expanded business, doubts about his own work, guilt for his secret agreement to Marion’s buyout of the designing firm he and Isobel share—all these vague yet intense feelings cathect upon a concrete symbol, Isobel’s departure, with the consequence that Irwin retroactively posits a nostalgic space in the past where this symbol of loss did not exist and therefore must have been a happy time: “I’m powerless. I only want one thing. To go back. To go back to where we were” (75). Like Susan, Irwin becomes enraptured with a moment in the past that instead of providing present orientation drives him to reclaim what he has “lost.” Irwin thus deceives himself into forgetting his seduction by Marion’s offer of a doubled salary and the possibility of an affair with Rhonda. Irwin’s self-deception distances him from his own real past: his construction of past happiness/present despair based upon the presence/absence of Isobel mediates Irwin’s perception of reality, making him almost a second-hand observer of his situation.17 Irwin’s “secret rapture,” whose roots lie in his tender devotion and deference to Isobel, surfaces when it becomes impossible to fulfill. Murdering Isobel becomes the only way for Irwin to end his self-recriminations and thus his secret rapture.

As a title, then, The Secret Rapture is heavily ironic. Hare describes secret rapture as “the moment at which a nun expects to be united with Christ. In other words, it’s death.”18 The linking of the erotic, “rapture,” and death arises from Christian mysticism, wherein the mystic voids himself or herself in order to experience an unmediated union with some aspect of the divine. Yet within Hare’s work, the secret raptures refer to failed unions: Irwin to Isobel, John Morgan to Karen and later to Jean. The enraptured characters locate in their Christ-equivalents a structuring principle for themselves, someone who can give their lives a method of interpretation and hence meaning.19 Excepting Susan Traherne, Hare’s enraptured characters lack memories of a period worth faithfulness, filled instead with a sense of continual social and political decline. They substitute a person for the absent orientation. The enraptured cannot stabilize the significations of a person in the same way as events past, making the beloved a continual threat to the enraptured’s entire structure of meaning precisely because she constitutes it but maintains an independent existence. The only means to stabilize the secret rapture then becomes death, where person becomes nostalgic event.

Rapture thus represents an extreme version of the intentionalist morality ascribed to Isobel’s father: individual desire (arising from the gap between the conception and the reality of the beloved) denies the validity of any external or shared good. Enrapturement offers a clearly defined, if twisted, system of validation: recognition from the beloved. In consequence, the enraptured character confronts continual frustration, unable to understand the attraction of other goods or other people’s desires when they do not correspond with his or her own. John Morgan ascribes the incompatibility of goods to a contemporary language that has been drained of words possessing deep conviction:

I only know goodness and anger and revenge and evil and desire … these seem far better words than neurosis and psychology and paranoia. These old words … these good old words have a sort of conviction which all this modern apparatus of language now lacks.

(123, Hare’s ellipses)

For Morgan, these primal emotions cannot find adequate expression in modern speech and find release through violence. However, the violence of the enraptured character does not somehow represent a truer expression of human experience than modern language. Morgan’s failure is not wholly expressive but is interpretive in origin. His violence comes when he cannot understand other people’s actions, when they refuse to fulfill his expectations. Violence represents a suppression of meaningful interaction. Violence silences dissenting voices. Morgan’s speech is thus not strictly accurate: he knows only his goodness, his anger, his revenge, his evil, his desire, and nothing else matters. Roger, also of Wetherby, theorizes that murderers like Morgan are driven by an inability to interact meaningfully with other people, haunted by “theories they only half understand. Informal education. A fantasy life of singular intensity” which cannot find expression. Such people, Roger’s theory goes, “handle other people’s things. In second-hand clothes shops, junk shops, markets” (109). Murderers experience a feeling of linguistic over-mediation, unable to express their thoughts satisfactorily or to interact with people directly, but only “second-hand.” Such characters desire the unmediated intimacy they are incapable of having, accepting no private boundaries as sacrosanct. Irwin’s relief at Isobel’s death arises from a need to alleviate an impossible, forbidden desire for intimacy.

Although neither Irwin’s nor Morgan’s acts are condoned, Morgan’s speech, especially, is never refuted, for Morgan eloquently expresses his longing. Jean Travers identifies with his speech and feels she shares an emptiness of conviction. Like the blackmailer, enraptured characters are so threatening within Hare’s drama because they bear close affinities to characters seeking a moral framework. Morgan’s longing for the “old words” suggests that the language used by contemporary institutions lacks the conviction to offer a meaningful vision for society as a whole. And without shared vision, shared commitment is impossible. The moment of intimacy between Jean and Morgan foregrounds the apparent similarity of a potentially disingenuous nostalgic framework to the over-mediation of the murderer who handles second-hand clothes.

The moment collapses when Morgan inflicts his despair upon Jean, closing any mutual communication. But the break itself does not necessarily validate the nostalgic framework over enrapturement; Hare points out that “goodness [also] can bring out the worst in all of us.”20 This line strikes a chord with Brock’s exasperated, desperate expression of the cost of helping Susan: “You claim to be protecting some personal ideal, always at a cost of almost infinite pain to everyone around you” (Hare, Plenty 199). Susan’s nostalgic rapture bears uncomfortable similarities to Irwin’s and John Morgan’s: each fetishizes the lost “good” to the degree that obtaining it becomes the primary prerogative regardless of the consequences to others. The murderer has a nostalgic framework, an orientation toward a “good” that demands constancy; yet a good-orientation is insufficient for a moral framework. The difference lies in that the murderer’s good assumes a transcendent character for him or her, negating goods of others. Jean and Morgan share a longing, not a vision, and definitely not a moral commitment. Jean, beyond Morgan and even Susan, finds something to which she can commit herself, her students. Although Susan cannot find a similar occupation through which to express her commitment, Hare fairly clearly does not perceive Susan as evil. Her rapture is similar to the others (and even to Thatcherism, which claims to desire a “return” to morals), but Susan differs crucially in that she does not deny history or her responsibilities to those who share that past. John Morgan, Irwin, and Thatcherism all deny actions and promises made in the past, denials that cause the “blankness,” the absence of a moral structuring principle, in pursuit of expediency. Susan never succeeds in performing a good act, but until the end of the play denies a sense of futility, maintaining her commitment to the postwar promise.

Characters who perform evil acts attain a vicious enjoyment from their sense of helplessness and the helplessness they inflict upon others.21 John Morgan’s face is almost aglow as he carefully performs his suicide before Jean. Katherine of The Secret Rapture enjoys not only losing control, but also (like Susan Traherne) enjoys describing her loss of control: “When you get angry, they tell you, count to five before you reply. Why should I count to five? It’s what happens before you count to five which makes life interesting” (71). The enjoyment garnered from a loss of control not only arises for characters without a structuring principle but also for characters whose structuring principle stifles independence. Sir Andrew Charleson of Plenty finds a dark pleasure in relating Brock’s vocational demise and his own helplessness against the system: “As our influence wanes, as our empire collapses, there is little to believe in. Behaviour is all” (193). The attempt to instigate meaningful actions, directed by personal belief, is discarded; structuring principles forego their interpretive function and serve simply as disseminators of arbitrary laws adhered to for their own sake, utterly devoid of an orientation toward the good, the vision of a better society. The second half of the epigraph to The Secret Rapture, taken from Rebecca West, highlights the seductiveness of rejecting a moral structuring principle:

The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.

Hare’s enraptured characters participate in an anti-mystical experience—deriving erotic satisfaction not from uniting with a transcendent moral structuring principle (the Divine), but from the embrace of nihilism, the pleasure in the “blackened foundations,” and the helpless freedom it offers.22

Isobel, in contrast, does not find enjoyment in appropriating her father’s structuring principle. She decides, “I must do what Dad would have wished” (Hare, Secret Rapture 69). Isobel’s commitment repudiates her earlier lapse into escapism, her flight to the island paradise Lanzarote.23 Such inexpedient behavior, further demonstrated in Isobel’s apparent vow not to see Irwin, baffles Marion, whose mimicry of English moral values serves only instrumental ends: “A vow? It’s outrageous. People making vows. What are vows? Nobody’s made vows since the nineteenth century” (63). Isobel not only renounces enjoyment but also self-gain, caring for Katherine regardless of the personal costs: “No., She came my way. It was an accident, really. But I made a commitment. Why should I drop it just because the going gets hard?” (76). This represents one of the few moments of goodness in Hare’s work. Isobel rejects the forms of expediency motivating so many of Hare’s characters, choosing her father’s personal sacrifice. Sacrifice in the name of keeping her commitment finally differentiates Isobel from the other characters and from Thatcherism; she refuses to withdraw into nostalgic enrapturement—making no claim that her father’s sacrifice characterized a transcendent goodness excluding others. Instead, nostalgia defines personal moral obligation, obligations that can be understood and admired by others. Isobel’s longing to be true to the past obliges her to fulfill the promise that began in the past, helping Katherine.

Having determined that good actions are possible from a nostalgic interpretive framework, we are back to the question of morality’s efficacy in the political realm. In a world without an external arbitrator represented in God—a notion rejected in the play’s conclusion when Marion’s businessman-preacher husband Tom says, “I’ve slightly lost touch with the Lord Jesus” (Hare, Secret Rapture 81)—goodness requires positive intervention in the social domain, not simply a theoretical intention or retreat into nostalgia.24 The problem, then, haunting Hare’s more recent works is that if no one else interprets an action as good, if it lacks good results, in what sense is it good? Isobel sacrifices herself, but John Morgan also sacrifices himself in a sense; and if she has not helped Katherine how can the waste of life be justified?

A partial resolution comes through Isobel becoming a nostalgic role model: Isobel’s actions have good ramifications because she herself becomes a nostalgic figure, her sacrifice a guiding principle for others. To Marion’s surprise, the whole village wishes to participate in Isobel’s funeral. The villagers find a common ground in crisis, reminiscent of how men and women during the war came together in response to disaster. The tragic fact of a nostalgic framework is that it forms only in the wake of disaster; the sharpened awareness of orientation comes from a desire to compensate for an irretrievable loss. Through reflecting on the loss of Isobel, Marion finally realizes her own interpretive failure: “It’s all obscure. … I can’t interpret what people feel. … I’ve been angry all my life. Because people’s passions seems so out of control” (Hare, Secret Rapture 81). For Hare, Marion “grows” through Isobel’s death,25 and her refusal at the end of the play to answer the government phone line that has defined her—“She’s just someone who permanently gives off a ringing tone” (14), as Tom puts it—seems promising. Marion’s transformation would represent the ultimate coup. If genuine, then nostalgia can have political agency. The problem of a facile, directionless Left no longer means that voices for genuine social change lack an institutional forum: through retrieving a common history of sacrifice, even the proponents of expediency can change. But Marion’s restoration of her father’s house into a “perfect imitation of life” (81) raises the specter of her earlier mimicry, begging the question whether Marion’s growth is sustainable or will be reincorporated into a framework of expediency, thereby rendering the restoration of the country house simply a more ostentatious version of the ring she gave Robert before he died, a material gift substituting for a feeling that cannot be personally expressed. The intimate moment with Tom is broken off by funeral concerns, and Marion is left alone, caught between the promise of a new beginning for the dyed-in-the-wool Thatcherite and a sense of irretrievable loss. The addition, by director Howard Davies in the National Theatre production, of a coda where Isobel’s ghost embraces Marion only incompletely contains the play’s questioning of the efficaciousness of a good action, becoming a sort of deus ex machina to “solidify” nostalgia into a palpable symbol that the body of the play refuses to sustain comfortably.

I would like to thank Enoch Brater, Tobin Siebers, and Ruth Wolbert for their advice and keen insightfulness on earlier versions of this essay.


  1. David Hare, Plenty in The History Plays: Knuckle, Licking Hitler, and Plenty (London, 1984), 207. Subsequent page references appear parenthetically in the text.

  2. David Hare, introduction, The History Plays (London, 1984), 12.

  3. Alan Sinfield debates whether the feeling of unity during the war was universal or whether working-class members simply had little alternative. See “War Stories,” in Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain (Berkeley, 1989), 6–220.

  4. Quoted by Carol Homden in The Plays of David Hare (Cambridge, 1995), 2.

  5. Quoted by Liorah Anne Golomb in “Saint Isobel: David Hare’s The Secret Rapture as Christian Allegory,” Modern Drama, 33 (1990), 572–3.

  6. Hare suggests the “elegiac tone” of the British production of The Secret Rapture gave a misrepresentation that “suggested that in some way I yearned for an England of decency that existed before the time of the play.” George Gaston, “Interview: David Hare,” Theatre Journal, 45 (1993), 224. Perhaps the most rancorous critique of Stoppard’s supposed disengagement is in Neil Sammells’s essay, “A Politics of Disengagement” in Critical Essays on Tom Stoppard, ed. Anthony Jenkins (Boston, 1990), 137–46.

  7. 7 Quoted in Paul Delaney, Tom Stoppard: the Moral Vision of the Major Plays (New York, 1990), 6.

  8. T. S. Eliot, “Christianity and Communism,” Listener, 7 (16 March 1932), 383.

  9. David Hare, Racing Demon (London, 1990), 98.

  10. David Hare, Licking Hitler in The History Plays (London, 1984), 128. Subsequent page references appear parenthetically in the text.

  11. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA, 1989), 51.

  12. Gaston, 224. See note 6.

  13. David Hare, Wetherby in Heading Home, Wetherby and Dreams of Leaving (London, 1991), 84. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  14. Gaston, 224. See note 6.

  15. James Gindin makes a similar claim about the homology between Thatcherism and evil in Hare’s work, although more circumspectly, in “Freedom and form in David Hare’s Drama” in British and Irish Drama Since 1960, ed. James Acheson (New York, 1993), 172. Gindin links Thatcherism and evil through the corpse of social liberalism: “Any sense of morality or of spirit is, in The Secret Rapture, defeated by social and institutional perversions … the form of social liberalism has been completely shattered by the evil violence and self-destruction endemic in the human being” (172). The “social and institutional perversions” within Hare’s work arise from the Conservative postwar government.

  16. David Hare, The Secret Rapture (New York, 1989), 11. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  17. If we accept that memory mediates between a person and his/her past, then self-deception creates an additional layer over the repressed memories, thus making the person doubly mediated or “over-mediated.”

  18. Quoted by Golomb, 571. See note 5.

  19. Christianity consciously refers to Jesus Christ as embodying a structuring principle: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John, 14:6). By implication, loss of such a principle results in an interpretive failure, as suggested earlier, a loss of meaning.

  20. David Hare, Writing Left-Handed (London, 1991), 159.

  21. I use “enjoyment” here in the sense Slavoj Zizek uses it, to refer to “the thrill of entering a forbidden domain.” Zizek’s term tends to be associated with the surrender to the impulses of the superego, the displeasure received in renouncing one’s agency, as the diplomats of Plenty do. Unlike the Freudian superego as conscience, Zizek describes it as the “obscene reverse of law.” See his For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London, 1991), esp. 233–45.

  22. Hare, in an interview, links nihilism to a form of dangerous and unsatisfying freedom. See “An Interview with David Hare,” Hersh Zeifman, David Hare: A Casebook (New York, 1994), 10.

  23. Isobel’s return seems a tacit attack on the escapist nostalgia Susan Traherne embodies in her lover, Lazar: Lanzarote without the “n” and “ote” spells Lazar. Whereas Susan seeks to retreat to the past, so much defined by her lover, Isobel denies such disengagement.

  24. Given that the only Christian representative in The Secret Rapture is Tom, who lacks any solid conviction, I must disagree with Golomb’s view that the play is a Christian allegory. Hare, both in The Secret Rapture and Racing Demon, seems quite critical of institutional Christianity in that it effaces personal responsibility and obligation to the present social realm. The impersonal language of Isobel’s criticism of Irwin, “You want to be saved through another person” (76) suggests an implicit attack on Christianity, which insists upon salvation through another person, Jesus Christ.

  25. Gaston, 223. See note 6.

John Lahr (review date 21 July 1997)

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SOURCE: “London in Love,” in New Yorker, July 21, 1997, pp. 78-9.

[In the following review, Lahr praises Amy's View.]

This summer, the English have seen two well-managed changings of the guard: the British withdrawal from Hong Kong and Sir Richard Eyre’s exodus as director of the Royal National Theatre. The fireworks Eyre has provided for his departure after his masterly nine-year stewardship include a revival of his first Royal National hit, Guys and Dolls, Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, opening in October, and David Hare’s new smash, Amy’s View, at the Lyttleton, which also ends Hare’s more than twenty-five-year association with that theatre. In this work, Hare forgoes his theatrical habit of making his characters speak for England and instead lets them speak for themselves. The play charts the struggle for separation between a famous actress, Esme Allen (the incomparable Judi Dench), and her dutiful daughter, Amy (the steely Samantha Bond), over a trajectory of sixteen years, from 1979 to 1995; the battle between self-aggrandizement and selflessness, which is at the center of so much of Hare’s writing, is worked out in a tale of considerable psychological complexity.

“Do you want me to help you?” Amy asks her handsome, moody boyfriend Dominic at the opening of the play. Amy, who is twenty-three, is a born caretaker. She, like all children of the famous, has learned early that to lure affection from temperament you have to please; her compulsive giving comes not out of goodness but out of terror at losing the loved one and not getting her needs met. She is sitting in her mother’s comfortable Berkshire home, which is about an hour’s drive from London. Dominic, who is twenty-two, is fixing a bicycle. “It’s the sense of achievement I want,” Dominic says about the bike. But we soon learn that Dominic is all ambition: he is a critic, who edits an English film magazine called Noir et Blanc, he dreams of one day being a film director. Amy idealizes the whippersnapper and empowers him. “I give him some faith in himself,” she tells Esme. “I build him up.” After her day’s work at a publishing house, Amy distributes Noir et Blanc at night. As a youngster, she wrote her own magazine, called Amy’s View: “Crosswords. Cartoons. Interviews. Mostly with my mother.” Amy’s “view” is no view at all but a self-deluding accommodation to others. Noir et Blanc, Amy says earnestly, is “like Amy’s View … except this time the view is Dominic’s.” Hare is setting up a relationship that is the mirror image of Amy’s relationship with Esme: the child who has shouldered the task of being parent to the adult seeks in adulthood the same kind of relationship, in order finally to get it right.

As Esme, Dench, who is pug-nosed and petite, is by turns coquettish, cunning, sulfurous, and vulnerable. “Layers,” Esme explains to Dominic, to whom theatre “doesn’t seem relevant.” “I play lots of layers.” From the outset, there are hints of a well-guarded fragility in Esme. She goes to the extravagant expense of returning home by taxi each night from the West End; she rarely leaves the house during the day, and meals are sent up from the local pub. She is literally and symbolically fed by others. Her husband, an undistinguished landscape painter, died when Amy was a year old, and Amy’s childhood project with Esme was clearly to fill the grief-stricken void. But now Esme has to fill Amy’s sudden request for five thousand pounds. She writes the check and winkles out the situation: Amy is pregnant, and, out of fear of losing Dominic, she won’t tell him. “I made him a promise. No children,” she says; she plans to have the baby, rear it alone, and inform him later. Esme suffers Amy’s naïveté more or less in silence, but when Dominic appears from upstairs, she announces, “Dominic, my daughter has something to tell you.” And as Esme goes off to bed she turns back to him at the door. “She’s pregnant,” she says, and exits. With that superb curtain line, the play’s drama of conscious and unconscious aggression is set in motion. Hare sees himself in the political tradition of John Osborne, but these well-turned observations of upper-middle-class behavior stake a claim for him not as the Osborne of his era but as the Somerset Maugham.

By Act III, set in 1993, Esme, who turns out to have been a Name in a bankrupted Lloyd’s syndicate, has been forced to take work in dreaded television. She is gallant in the face of loss. “How can I blame anyone except for myself,” she says, having been charmed into signing a contract she never read. Esme has lost her money on a whim; Amy has lost her life. She has borne Dominic—now a renowned pundit—two children, has finally married him, and has been holed up for six months since tabloid reports of his affair with a Scandinavian starlet. Yet Amy rounds on Esme for a childishness she won’t face in herself. She berates Esme to grow up and “face the problems you have.” She works herself into a whirlwind of bewildering accusation: “I want a mother who I can ring up. … Who I can call, who won’t judge me.” But it’s Amy who has refused to phone, who does all the judging, and who finally confesses that her six-month silence was because “I can’t face admitting you’re right.” Esme tries to embrace Amy, but they fight free of each other, each demanding what the other can’t give. Their separation feels not so much like an evolution as like a hemorrhage, and that is how, two years later, at the age of forty-one, Amy dies.

The final scene is played out backstage in Esme’s dingy, cramped dressing room, in 1995, when she’s enjoying a hit in a shipwreck costume drama. We learn that Esme has grown in her art, but when Dominic, who is now newly married and the successful director of a blockbuster action movie, comes to the dressing room to make amends, we see that she has not grown in her life. “I do my best not to think about you at all,” she tells him. She won’t cash the checks he has sent to help her out in her reduced circumstances, and she projects her blaming of Dominic for Amy’s accidental death into her dislike for the kind of violence that he purveys on film. “Are you just bored? Or is it that you just don’t dare to deal with real experience?” she asks, unable to hold back tears. “Like grief … and loss … the loss of people we love.” Dominic asks for forgiveness, but he doesn’t get it. He leaves Esme a wrapped parcel which turns out to be a shoebox full of cash. “My daughter’s ashes,” she says to Toby, a fellow-actor (Christopher Staines), throwing it in her closet as they exit for the stage. Some losses, Hare seems to be saying, are beyond repair. At this point, Eyre brilliantly moves the play out of melodrama into vision: flats fly away, a cyclorama drops down, a billowing cloth stretches in front of Toby and Esme as they face upstage, waiting for the play to begin. “So we’re alone,” Esme says to him, and the word “alone” echoes Esme’s history—she is alone with loss, alone with talent, and, finally, alone with the responsibility of expressing for others the feelings they cannot find in themselves. Even though love doesn’t find a way in this strangely modest tale, Hare has found his way beyond polemic to real people, which is why, for me, Amy’s View ranks with Racing Demon as his best work. Broadway doesn’t beckon—it positively waves and shouts.

Robert L. King (review date November-December 1997)

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SOURCE: “Tradition,” in North American Review, Vol. 282, No. 6, November-December, 1997, pp. 45-8.

[In the following review, King offers a positive assessment of Amy's View.]

The title character of David Hare’s latest play, Amy’s View, is the daughter of Esme Allen, a woman whose successful acting career has peaked when the London theater no longer offers actresses continuing, fulfilling work. Dominic is Amy’s lover in Act I (1979), husband in II (1985), betrayer in III (1993), and widower in IV (1995). He is a product and purveyor of popular culture, and by the play’s end he has directed a very successful, very violent film. In death, Amy remains a barrier between Dominic and Esme, neither of whom saw worth in the other’s work and could not subscribe to Amy’s view that loving people without question is the fundamental human value.

Over the play’s sixteen years, Dominic’s career flourishes as Esme’s declines. In off-stage action, he takes a younger woman as a mistress, “a brainless Heidi” to Amy, who is nonetheless willing to stay with her husband and children. Esme, who hates television in Act I, takes a part in an escapist series in III. Amy comes home for a visit in I and leaves her mother for good in III despite Esme’s pleading: “I beg you, Amy, please stay.” But Amy’s final view is harsh: “I went with Dominic because he was the future. I’m frightened of you because you’re the past.” These reversals and contrasts appear obvious only when reflection lifts them from Hare’s dramatic contexts. In the theater, most of the play’s sharp confrontations are governed and informed by Esme as performer, a woman so committed to her profession that role playing has become a social strategy and personal value for her. Even her original wit seems distilled from the repartee of the many characters she has played; it often has the satiric bite that wins the moment and caps it with laughter. Although that wit prompts the most sympathetic response from the audience and although Esme is the play’s central character, her dominant theatrical presence confers no secure moral authority.

After Esme appears as a celebrity to cut the ribbon opening a suburban fete, she makes fun of her role and the event itself. Hare gives Dominic, champion of vulgar taste, the telling put-down: “You want it both ways. Both to do it and mock it.” In Act III, when Esme delivers a long speech to deflect Amy’s valid criticism, her daughter is even more incisive now that she has been tested by hard experience:

What, I’m meant to be charmed? Is that it? Is this some performance? My mother putting on this brave and gutsy display. Well, forget it! I’m not charmed by it.

Here and throughout the play, Hare folds one irony in another, for Esme herself has articulated the acting standards she upholds, and they become the test for her human sincerity. Shortly after meeting him, she half boasts to Dominic: “Layers. I play lots of layers.” In a later dialogue with Amy she identifies the “basic skill” of her profession: “You say one thing, but you’re thinking another.” Moments later, she adds that the double point of view of acting “can’t be achieved. But that’s the ideal. To make it look effortless. Perhaps it applies just as much in our lives.”

Years later, when she offends Dominic, Esme refuses to mend the breach by acting civil: “I’m meant to pretend that I’ve done something wrong?” She criticizes Dominic for not showing “people in the grip of real passions” in his work, but her own life is lived too exclusively as a performance which masks her own deep feelings. When she does plead for comfort from Amy, she has been taken to the edge of poverty by ill-advised investments in a Lloyd’s of London syndicate. Amy resists her embrace and “the two women seem to be fighting,” a painfully ambiguous dramatic image as acted by Judi Dench and Samantha Bond. This, Esme’s most vulnerable, most soul-baring performance, fails to persuade Amy to stay the night.

The last act, the shortest, is set in Esme’s dressing room backstage in a small theater. Her face is covered with cold cream, and soon she will remove that mask to replace it with her stage face. Dominic enters tentatively, the two have been estranged. He is a financial success, but the checks he has sent unasked to Esme have not been cashed, partly because she resents help from him and also because any money beyond providing genteel subsistence goes by law to her Lloyd’s liability. Hostile to each other’s work for sixteen years, he has seen her play, and she his film. While Dominic “liked the play’s youth,” she was “appalled” by the violence that he defends by calling it “action.” As Esme condemns the film, her anger and grief rise in a speech which masterfully asserts the characteristic Hare commitment to enduring moral realities in a world which scorns them:

Is it that you just don’t dare to deal with real experience … with the things that really go on in real life? Like grief … and betrayal … and love and unhappiness…and loss … the loss of people we love…

The stage direction now puts Esme “disturbingly out of control,” but her style for all its fitful surface carries meanings that only firm control can achieve. Hare links “love” and “loss” by a slight alliteration, and “love,” the great abstract value here, is transformed from noun to verb. It becomes an action, one contingent in syntax and in “real” life on the “people” it modifies.

In the same scene, Esme comes close to confessing her fault when she admits to Dominic that his arrival meant that her “daughter was lost to her.” They share a smile at his ironic reply (“To be fair, you did dislike me personally, too”) and, after a moment of “some real warmth between them,” Dominic leaves. Esme opens his gift, a box with thousands of pounds in cash. Her fellow actor, Toby, joins her as a single bright light like an approaching train’s shines out into the audience. Billowing curtains fall away. The two performers, their backs toward the house, are facing an imagined audience. Toby douses her with water—a kind of secular baptism—for the opening scene of her play. Her last words and Hare’s are “Now we’re alone,” a paradoxical truth for a woman who has minutes before told Dominic: “My life is when the curtain goes up. My work is my life. I understand nothing else.” Amy’s View is wide and deep in its understanding of the social pressures we find, create, resist, and obey.

Both David Hare and Judi Dench have made much of their lives’ work at the National Theatre, and their audiences know as much. Eleven of his plays have been produced there, and within the last few years Dame Judi Dench has acted actors on its stages: Desirée in A Little Night Music and Arkadina in The Seagull. No commentary can suggest the layers she adds to lines about layers or to scenes in which acting as a value is held up for examination. Personal authority, professional achievement, and artistic integrity merge in her acting and his drama.

John Lahr (review date 1 December 1997)

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SOURCE: “A Short History of Abdication,” in New Yorker, December 1, 1997, pp. 94-5.

[In the following review, Lahr offers a commendatory estimation of Hare's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov.]

As the lights come up on David Hare’s crisp adaptation of Ivanov (at the Vivian Beaumont), which Chekhov wrote in 1887 at the age of twenty-seven, we can make out the inevitable Russian birch trees and the inevitable murk of the Russian vastness. The landscape, which enforced a special quality of brutalizing boredom and agitation in provincial nineteenth-century life, is the backdrop—and perhaps even the shaping power—for what Chekhov saw as a defining national trait. “Russian excitability has one specific quality: it is quickly followed by fatigue,” he wrote to his friend and publisher Suvorin. “A man has hardly jumped off the school bench when he takes up, at fever heat, a burden above his strength: he takes on at once schools, the peasants, scientific farming … makes speeches, writes to Ministers, combats evil, applauds the good, falls in love. … But he has hardly reached thirty or thirty-five when he begins to feel fatigue and boredom.” Ivanov, an educated nobleman whose surname, like “Smith” in English, signifies the prototypical, is one such burnt-out case: a progressive farmer, a regional counsellor, a disenchanted husband of a tubercular wife, and a sensational failure. When we meet Ivanov (Kevin Kline), he is up to his eyeballs in debt to the Lebedevs, and unable to pay the workers on his estate. He is both literally and figuratively spent. He is, indeed, in the vanguard of collapse. In the play’s first image, Ivanov’s boorish steward, the blowhard Mikhail Borkin (Tom McGowan), sneaks up on him and, in jest, holds a gun to his head. “Misha, honestly, you know what my life’s like,” Ivanov says, immediately making a legend of his regrets. Ivanov can’t escape his little cave of consciousness; he’s unbiddable and unreachable. Borkin takes Ivanov’s hand and presses it to his chest to Ivanov can feel his irregular heartbeat. “I could drop dead any moment,” Borkin says. “Then what would you feel?” Ivanov, always the adept of entropy, answers, “I’d feel nothing.”

Ivanov ranks with Alceste, in Molière’s The Misanthrope, as one of drama’s great sourpusses, but, unlike Alceste, whose discontent is the product of intellectual vanity, Ivanov’s melancholy comes from his vulnerability. Drink, money, position, romance, gambling, the “perpetual drizzle of stupid conversations,” the posture of rectitude—all the delusions that distract the pesky local society and that Chekhov’s haphazard plot stages around Ivanov—don’t distract him. He’s continually thrown back on his own restless emptiness. “I feel terrible here,” he says. “I go to the Lebedevs’, I feel worse. I come home, I feel worse still. And so it goes. I am desperate.” He is inconsolable, which makes him irresistible to the Lebedevs’ twenty-year-old daughter, Sasha (Hope Davis), whom he jilts at the altar after his wife’s unmourned death. “You set yourself the task of saving me. The idea of resurrection, that’s what you love,” he tells Sasha. Here we see characters saying things that in Chekhov’s understated mature style he would show in the subtext. “The execution is no damned good,” Chekhov wrote a friend about Ivanov, “I ought to have waited!” He was not wrong; but in the creaky soliloquies and asides it’s interesting to see the vestiges of a kind of melodrama which Chekhov’s later, streamlined plays would blast from the stage. The characterization of Ivanov, however, is a considerable achievement, and it struck a nerve in Russian society. Ivanov’s contradictoriness, his sudden outbursts of rage (“You dirty Jew,” he yells at Anna, his wife, to the audible shock of the audience), and his bouts of self-loathing (“Oh, my God, the evil! How evil I am!”) are a somewhat crude but ambitious attempt to incarnate the ambiguity that was at the core of Chekhov’s notion of personality and his radical revision of Russian dramaturgy: to “show life and men as they are, and not as they would look if you put them on stilts.”

What Ivanov dramatizes is not just manic-depression but a particular crisis of faith: the half-life of resignation that follows the loss of an ideal. “I was full of faith, I believed,” Ivanov says. “So few people bother. I worked and loved and tried and hoped and gave, all in full measure, without even measuring, never stopping to think: am I giving too much?” Ivanov’s story is a short history of abdications: the romantic ideal (“I swore to love her for ever,” he says of his wife); the social ideal (“My estate is in ruins”); the political ideal (“I have no hope, no expectation. My sense of tomorrow is gone”). But Americans don’t live easily with the ironic undertow of such negative feeling. As a nation, we are optimistic and proactive. Our response to Ivanov’s chronic existential complaint would be to do something, see somebody, get busy. Although things look authentic on the play’s handsome set (designed by John Lee Beatty), they don’t feel it. American actors can’t really inhale the nihilistic ozone of Chekhov. So Gerald Gutierrez’s production is competent without being compelling. A kind of emotional gauze covers the proceedings: we see the outlines of the wounds without quite being touched by them. “I have not introduced a single villain nor an angel, although I could not refuse myself buffoons,” Chekhov wrote about the play. And although Gutierrez doesn’t really focus the social satire, the buffoonish caricatures do well: Marian Seldes as the malicious, penny-pinching Mrs. Lebedev; Jeff Weiss as the bridge-playing obsessive Kosykh; and William Preston as the bearded, bandy-legged old retainer Gavrila, who hasn’t a line but whose forlorn presence is hilariously precise. The casting of the main parts, however, seems strangely off kilter: Jayne Atkinson’s Anna, who loses everything for love, doesn’t find the tragic dimension in her solitude, and Hope Davis’s Sasha exhibits none of the character’s vaunted wit and charisma. Even an expert player like Kevin Kline, who powerfully conveys Ivanov’s honesty and intelligence, can’t seem to find the raw, nervy, spiritually deracinated mood of decline in the character. Max Wright’s charming, drunken Lebedev, alternately wishing his gargoylish wife dead and offering his friend Ivanov money behind her back (“Go over to the house, put it in her hand, and say to her, ‘Zinaida Savishna, here is your money, drop dead’”), is the most fully explored and vivid performance in this production. He and the rest of the wedding guests chase the gun-toting Ivanov around the drawing room, and in the ensuing farcical scrum the gun goes off almost as if by accident. Ivanov stumbles away from the pack and falls dead downstage. This plays as a happy ending of sorts. “Let me free!” are Ivanov’s last words; and, finally, he is.

Kate Kellaway (review date 27 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “Theatrical Inaction,” in New Statesman, March 27, 1998, p. 43.

[In the following review, Kellaway offers a favorable valuation of The Judas Kiss.]

David Hare’s superb new play The Judas Kiss is about love that disdains reason. Oscar Wilde must have known, on some level, that Lord Alfred Douglas—Bosie—was unkind, self-pitying and talentless. So why did he persist with his abject love? Was Wilde heroic or cussed? And what was it, exactly, that he found to love in Bosie? Beauty seems—in Hare’s imagined version—to have been only part of the answer.

The first act of The Judas Kiss takes place in 1895 in a bedroom in the Cadogan Hotel in London on the day of Wilde’s arrest. Bob Crowley’s set is ravishing; he has excelled himself with a room of pale green silk, printed with faded dragons and furnished with elegant gilded tables—a perfect place for champagne and rest. But Wilde has other reasons for wishing to stay in it. With his persecutors closing in on him and the possibility of prison ahead, he has no intention of escaping. “Action is something my mother brought me up to distrust. Why make a decision which does not yet need to be made? What’s more, think of this: I am where I wish to be.”

Hare succeeds, remarkably, in making Wilde’s inaction theatrical. And Richard Eyre’s production is poetic: the two acts exquisitely shadow-play with each other. In each, Wilde is betrayed by Bosie and recognises his own paralysis. (“I’m trapped in the narrative. The narrative has a life of its own.”) In each, he fatalistically eschews the idea of escape. Hare suggests that, for Wilde, escape and betrayal were the same thing.

There is an amazing moment at the end of the first act when Wilde hears the train he might have caught to escape his own story. He asks: “Do you hear the wheels running down the track? The train is departing. Do you sense the life we did not live?”

Dawn takes action where Wilde took none. Light arrives through the curtained windows (Mark Henderson’s lighting design is also beautiful) as if to arrest him.

We meet Bosie first. Tom Hollander plays him to perfection as a grotesque with a baby face, spoilt mouth and petulant whine: “Why is this room in such vile disarray?” he asks. He is a toxic combination of self-importance and impotence and is openly jealous of Wilde. Hare suggests that there was little between them, that their relationship was held together by Wilde’s will. Love of this kind—frighteningly one-sided—proves to be almost as uncomfortable to witness on stage as it is in life.

I was disconcerted by the fact that Liam Neeson bears a slight resemblance to David Hare himself. He does not look much like Wilde—there is nothing of the overblown Cupid about his face. But he cuts a dashing figure in his sage green coat (Wilde’s favourite colour), and he is compelling throughout, with wary charm and exquisite manners.

Hare has elected to avoid pastiche and keep aphorisms to a minimum. Although this is understandable, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing from Wilde’s talk. As a speaker he is lustreless, not amusing enough, alcohol-free champagne. Wit, after all, was part of Wilde’s heroism.

In the second act Wilde and Bosie are in the Villa Guidice near Naples, a place of slatted light and whitewashed walls. Wilde is older, ravaged. It is 1897. He has been to prison. Bosie has been making love to Galileo, one of the local fishermen (played by Daniel Serafini-Sauli) while Wilde looks on.

Wilde cuts a sombre figure—he seems funereal in his love. He is visited by a grave Robert Ross (affectingly played by Peter Capaldi), who implores him to give up Bosie, saying that his wife intends to cut him off financially and from his children if he continues with the affair. Wilde’s despair at not seeing his children has a passion that is different in kind from his love for Bosie, which suddenly seems cursed. Earlier he had claimed that “All I care for is beauty”. But this is patently untrue.

By this stage Wilde has become in his own eyes—though not altogether in ours—a Christ figure, believing himself translated by suffering. Bosie, of course, is his Judas. But Wilde’s love is finally made intelligible through his suffering and his fatalism. “It is what we fear,” he says, “which happens to us.”

Richard Hornby (review date Autumn 1998)

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SOURCE: “Ireland Your Ireland,” in Hudson Review, Vol. LI, No. 3, Autumn, 1998, pp. 561-67.

[In the following excerpt, Hornby offers a detrimental estimation of The Judas Kiss.]

The plays and film about Oscar Wilde that have come out lately all stress his role as gay martyr. Since he got two years in a brutal Victorian prison merely for acts performed with consenting adults, also losing his home, career, income, and contact with his wife and children, Wilde would certainly qualify for that description. Nonetheless, the interesting thing is that Wilde did not think of himself as being homosexual. The best of the many books that have come out on Wilde in this decade, Alan Sinfield’s The Wilde Century, convincingly argues that the very concept of the existence of a special category of human beings with an innate attraction to their own sex was unknown until the 1860s, and not widely known until after Wilde’s trials in 1895. Of course, homosexual acts were identified, being prohibited both in the Bible and in law, but not homosexual people. In conversation with Frank Harris after the trials, Wilde blamed his homosexual behavior not on his inner nature, but on his wife’s pregnancies, which made her unappealing.

The best thing about the recent film Wilde, starring the superb Stephen Fry, is that it shows Wilde as a kind and loving husband and father, who adored his wife and children, and they him. (The worst thing is that it also shows Wilde as a voyeur, watching his friend and former lover Lord Alfred Douglas having anal intercourse with another man: there is no evidence that this tasteless event ever took place.) He did not marry as a cover, nor in the naive belief that marriage would convert him; in fact, it appears that he did not have sex with men until after he married. Pinning a clinical label on Wilde that he would not have used himself reduces a man known for his greatness of soul. Similarly, treating the homosexual undercurrents that can be found in all of Wilde’s major works as if they were dominant themes reduces a great writer to a producer of political tracts.

Now David Hare, a major political playwright, has weighed in with a play about Wilde entitled The Judas Kiss, which transferred from London to Broadway in the spring, featuring the charismatic Irish star Liam Neeson. The first act takes place in 1895, in Wilde’s London hotel room just after the first trial, which was against Douglas’ father for libel in calling Wilde a “somdomite” [sic]. I was intrigued that Hare would start a play about the most famous homosexual in history with a heterosexual couple (a porter and a chambermaid) indulging in oral sex on the bed, before Wilde and his party have arrived. In fact, the event proves dramatically gratuitous, except possibly to debunk the traditional view of the Victorians as sexless. The focus shifts to Wilde himself, who has only a few hours to flee the country, since evidence surfaced at the trial that Wilde had indeed had sex with men. Wilde’s old friend Robbie Ross tries desperately to get Wilde to leave before being arrested, but Wilde lingers, partly to appease Douglas (or “Bosie”), who loathes the idea of victory for his despised father, and partly from a martyr complex.

Act Two is set in Naples in 1897, after Wilde’s release from prison. Wilde’s health is shattered, and both he and Bosie are broke, though this does not prevent the latter from enjoying the sexual favors of a young fisherman. Wilde is depicted as self-pitying and resentful, against Bosie for not having provided financial support at the trial and now in their squalid lodgings, as well as against friends who are trying to “help” by changing him morally: “I am punished not for my sin but because I have refused to learn the lesson of the sin.” The couple separate bitterly, with the ailing Wilde having only a few years to live.

The play thus has a strong gay liberationist thrust. Wilde accepts himself for what he is, while those who do not are betrayers, Judases. Bosie betrays not only by his failure to provide support, but because he will not acknowledge his own homosexuality: “It is not in my nature to love men—only a phase.” These are strange words coming from the young man who introduced Wilde to homosexual brothels! The term used for homosexuality throughout the play is “invert,” which was then just coming into use by sexologists like Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis; again, it is unlikely that the real-life Wilde ever used it, or even heard it. The idea was that a male homosexual was a woman in a man’s body (and a lesbian vice versa), but there is nothing in the play to suggest that Wilde is effeminate, especially as played by the strapping Neeson. All in all, The Judas Kiss might have been a good piece of social realism if it dealt with contemporary homosexuals, but it fails to do justice to the complexity of Victorian attitudes about sex, or indeed, to the intricacies of human sexuality generally.

Kate Kellaway (review date 18 September 1998)

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SOURCE: “Hare's Breadth,” in New Statesman, September 18, 1998, pp. 38-9.

[In the following review, Kellaway offers an affirmative evaluation of Via Dolorosa.]

When David Hare walked on stage on the first night of Via Dolorosa, his nerves were apparent, his voice putting a false emphasis on words. He is not an actor and this made him seem more exposed. He was like someone hanging on hard to roots on a slippery hill, determined not to fall. His gestures were asking for help. But Hare has been expertly directed by Stephen Daldry, and his fear eased as his story got underway. His own emotion and lack of actorly gloss added to the integrity, the extraordinary atmosphere of Via Dolorosa.

It is a piece about which Hare has every reason to be nervous. He has bravely elected to share his thoughts on the apparently insoluble conflicts in the Middle East and enlists us as his companions on his travels through Israel and Palestine. He is at pains not to appoint himself as an expert. He would rather be seen as a vessel filled to overflowing: he records what he sees and hears and when his mind spins, he tells us why it does. He is, he says, only “a pen”. But this is not a lecture, and he is much more than a pen. This is invigorating, theatrical journalism. I saw no furtive watch-checkers, heard no clearings of throats. The audience seemed not to stir for 90 minutes.

Philip Roth once urged Hare to go to Israel on the grounds that Israelis were “absolute lunatics. They’re the maddest people I’ve ever met in my life. For any writer of fiction, they are the most wonderful material.” Hare suggested that they might prove more suitable for Roth than for himself. “Oh no,” said Roth. “You have no idea. These people are so crazy there’s room enough for all of us.”

But Hare has not been tempted by fiction; he is in thrall to facts. When he visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, he felt that the art within it was lame, that the paintings were unable to live up to their subject. He implies that there may be a presumption in art taking on the Holocaust: it cannot help but put the subject at one remove.

Hare gives up the characters as he found them—Israelis and Arabs. And in one sense Roth is proved right: they are worthy of fiction. He marvels at but also mocks the Israeli love of argument, their ability to pick a fight with air. His most memorable interview is not an interview at all. Shulamit Aloni, once “the firebrand” of Rabin’s government, a former minister of science and arts, answers questions that have not been asked. She arrives with a convoy of words, her security entirely verbal. She desires no exchanges of views.

Hare is beastly, to comic effect, about Keith Lawrence, the young British Council rep in tapered trousers who finds Tel Aviv “sexy” and “happening”. But he is circumspect in his portraits of the Arabs and Israelis he meets. In Sheri Tiva, one of the Jewish settlements, he walks at night with an American woman resident, spooked by the suburban ease of the place in contrast to distant ramshackle Arab villages. It is strange in the dark theatre to hear their conversation relived. Hare makes one feel that one is walking alongside them. Sarah is articulate, likeable, intransigent. Hare wonders at her.

Via Dolorosa is beautifully shaped and written. It has a pleasing symmetry: in the second half, Hare leaves Israel for Gaza. By this stage, there have been hints of what he feels but he has been listening more than interjecting. His style is not to insist officiously on a view but to ask questions—trying to turn a deadlock into a conversation. He suggests that the tragedy of the Middle East is a failure to put ideas before territory. He quotes the Israeli theatre director Eran Baniel: “Fuck the land! Fuck it! What does the land matter? The highest value to a Jew is human life. The idea that stones now matter more than lives is a deformation of the Jewish religion. A defamation.”

Hare elegantly includes himself, Hampstead and Christianity in the piece so that he is moored within it and its arguments. The result is an exceptionally moving evening: passionate, thought-provoking and individual. But I was aware, listening to the “Bravos!” at the end, of two women near me fuming with anger. I have no idea what specifically enraged them but it seemed proof that Via Dolorosa will be the beginning of many new—and old—arguments.

Glen Newey (review date 18 September 1998)

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SOURCE: “Is He Himself?,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 1998, p. 25.

[In the following review of Via Dolorosa, Newey finds Hare's stage persona as writer, actor, and moralist confusing.]

Early in his new play about Israel, Sir David Hare quotes a remark by his friend David Grossman on the spirit of place. “I have some sort of mineral reaction to the place I don’t get anywhere else in the world. Just to breathe the air makes me feel happy.” Which place? The Heath—Hampstead Heath, to be precise. For Grossman, its appeal is as the Heimat of secular, if not rootless, cosmopolitanism, on a North Sea roof where not much happens, and no one gets excited about much. And of course, above all, the Heath is common land. This doubtless comes as welcome relief when the lived norm is territorial haggle, down to the very pebble used by the boy David to brain Goliath.

Hare himself strikes a less affirmative note than Grossman: “Playwrights are drawn to places without quite knowing why.” Early on in Via Dolorosa—a monologue performed by the author—he tells us that “I realize, almost without noticing, that for some time my subject as a playwright has been faith.” He admits to being attracted by G. K. Chesterton’s Tertullianesque remark that the Jesus tales are so improbable that they must be true. In a talk to a company rehearsing his last play, Amy’s View, in Tel Aviv, Hare remarks that the piece is “about how we no longer expect society to validate our beliefs. Our only values are private values. The last line of the play is, ‘So. We’re alone.’” But in his Church of England play Racing Demon, his sympathy clearly lies not with cocksure evangelicals, but with the doctrinally etiolated anglicanism of clerics who form an amiably chaotic DSS-at-prayer: not so far from the milksop Anglo-Catholic Sunday School of Hare’s Bexhill-on-Sea boyhood.

Israel appeals not only as the Holy Land but also as a society which validates virtually any belief, no matter how extreme. The ideology sustained by the Netanyahu administration is Blood and Soil, more or less under that name. Moving out still further, we have Israeli fascist organizations like the Kach, founded by the gunslinging rabbi Meir Kahane, not to mention the posthumous renown of Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron mosque mass-murderer. Theodore Herzl favoured Uganda as the Zionist homeland; the benighted Acholi might have had to contend not with Yoweri Museveni but Ariel Sharon. “Stones or ideas?”, Hare asks. Israel was born in the blood of Deir Yassin, spilt by the Nobel Peace laureate Menachem Begin and his Irgun terrorists. Deir Yassin is now as emphatically écrasé as Carthage, and paved over as a Jerusalem suburb, Givat Shaul, the site obliterated by petrol stations, flats and shops. Some stones are more equal than others.

Hare’s initial attitude of writerly curiosity lies at some remove from the militant agnosticism of his 1996 lecture, “When Shall We Live?”. But his cynicism and apathy get a new lease of life when he falls among zealots. He blots his copybook with his settler hosts at Sheri Tikva in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), when he lets it slip that Lady Hare (the clothes designer Nicole Farhi) is Jewish, but—assimilated. He boggles at the West-Bank Voortrekkers, for whom David Ben-Gurion was a crypto-Communist and Yitzhak Rabin a bleeding-heart liberal, if not a card-carrying fedayee (Rabin vowed in 1988 to use “might, power and beatings” to crush the Intifada, proving as good as his word).

None the less, he withholds explicit judgment even amid the squalor of Gaza. Against this stands the mineral quality of the Biblical stones, of blood and soil. It’s as if Hare can’t quite bring himself to believe in his own lack of conviction. Confusion also surrounds Via Dolorosa itself. It’s unclear in what sense it is drama, and if so, who’s performing it. Up on stage, it’s certainly Sir David himself. But is he himself, or just impersonating himself? Matters are muddied further by the published script, which tells us that Via Dolorosa is “a monologue, ideally to be performed by its author”—who is, indeed, helpfully identified as “Author” thereafter. This is slightly odd, as if this might be a generic designation. Why not “Sir David Hare”, or, indeed, nothing? And, come to that, why the title? The Passion hardly bulks large in Hare’s oeuvre, this piece not excepted.

“I just want to see what it’s like”, he tells us, of his first dip into the greasepaint since playing Cromwell in A Man For All Seasons at the age of fifteen. But the equivocal nature of Hare’s persona is also manifest in his performance. This is not really due to deficient talent or technique; artlessness has its own integrity. And anyway, Hare’s delivery—if that is the word—is not that bad. Although its relative dynamics are sometimes uncertain, wavering between incongruous hectoring and hesitancy, the technical limitations don’t distract. There are, indeed, some brilliant grotesques, and his consistently high-class writing is well attuned to ironies predictably lost on the settlers. He has fun with their baffled attempts to explain Rabin’s assassination, and with the coachloads of shell-suited evangelists from Kansas who de-bus in the Holy City, to find it an altogether more bijou affair than the Disney-sized theme-palace promised in the brochure. But once the piece aspires to reach beyond travelogue to voyage of discovery, self-apotheosis becomes hard to avoid. Towards the end, a scale model of the holy sites descends from on high in a sort of Lego ex machina. Jesus’ walk from the Mount of Olives to Golgotha is paired with Hare’s arrival home in Hampstead, where he is greeted by Blanche, the Hare family dog.

This softens edges which in reality are razor-sharp. There is Israel’s non-withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, in defiance of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the decade-long solitary confinement of Mordechai Vanunu for exposing Israel’s lies about its nuclear capacity, and probable perjury by the legally immunized intelligence services in cases like that of the Circassian Muslim Shin Bet operative Izzat Nasfu. Hare acknowledges the ghastliness of Yasser Arafat and the (as it were) pork-barrel temporizing of the PNA. But writing the conflict up as a drama of faith flirts with the “moral equivalence” which condemns “terrorism” after Palestinian atrocities, but which after a massacre like Hebron calls on “both sides” to “exercise restraint”.

Kate Kellaway (review date 2 October 1998)

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SOURCE: “Tangled up in Blue,” in New Statesman, October 2, 1998, pp. 34-5.

[In the following review, Kellaway presents a disapproving estimation of The Blue Room.]

The blue room announces itself in red neon. Yves Klein could have dreamt up the set (Mark Thompson was, in fact, responsible). The light is so blue it can make a scarlet chair its own. It appropriates man and woman in intense weather and a persistent mood indigo. A girl (Nicole Kidman) in a leather coat walks on stage carrying a cheap, pea-green handbag. She is soliciting a boorish cab driver (Iain Glen) in the first scene of this dance of desire, Hare’s fast-and-loose interpretation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1920s classic La Ronde. It is a play that Schnitzler regarded as “unprintable”, and the task faced by Hare and director Sam Mendes has been to make it performable.

Virginia Woolf complained, after a private performance of the play in Bloomsbury, that “the audience felt simply as if a real copulation were going on in the room and tried to talk to drown the very realistic groans made by Partridge!” In this production, Virginia Woolf would not have been discomfited by audible groans. In each scene, a black-out and a curdled soundtrack mark the various couples’ copulation. A screen keeps score of how long each couple has made out together (zero at worst, over two hours at best). It is an amusing, if vulgar, idea. The problem is that it collides with Schnitzler’s cynicism and gives a clue to what is missing from Sam Mendes’ snazzy production.

Hare has attempted to add soul to Schnitzler’s beautifully shaped but emotionally arid piece. It is disappointing that so few of the characters are treated seriously. Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen prove efficient and good-looking chameleons, each performing five different lovers in less than two hours. The pacing is excellent: they change costumes and accents effortlessly. But they play relentlessly for laughs.

As a screen actress, Kidman is winningly distinctive, beautiful and diverting. On stage she seems diminished, beautiful but ordinary. She is meticulous. She plays the prostitute at the beginning in a Cockney that is a little too careful and well-behaved for credibility. As the au pair, she is more successful. When the young student asks her cheekily to fetch him a drink of water, she fills the glass, letting the tap run till the water spills over the edge of the glass repeatedly. Her carelessness seems to contain an erotic message about letting go. As the classier women, her accent has gone too far; she sounds like Eliza Doolittle in the early stages of her tuition in Pygmalion.

Iain Glen is a marvellous actor, but is also more convincing in some vignettes than others. I like his hectic student unpacking Marks & Spencer snacks for the married woman he hopes to snare, and trying to give himself courage by swigging from a curvaceous bottle of brandy. He delivers the has-been of a seduction line, “Life’s not a rehearsal”, in a deliciously bogus way. But I was not entirely convinced by him as a new Labour politician. I found it improbable that he and his wife would be sleeping in twin beds at their age, however unsatisfactory their love life. There is a nice moment when the politician congratulates himself on sharing a “sense of humour” with his wife. She responds with a miserable, forced laugh. But the scene as a whole is a missed opportunity: it could have been a sharper vignette of an unhappy marriage; it is undermined by jocularity.

Iain Glen has almost too much fun with the verbose, pretentious playwright who lights candles with his cigarette lighter and boasts himself silly. He says his own work is “not easy to put in a box”, but it would be great to see him put in a box and silenced for good. Except when he sits down to play the piano and sing about the Blue Room. Here there is, through music, a sense of the circle coming together (though not all the lyrics are audible).

Glen is best as the aristocrat who brings claret-coloured roses to the actress but has scruples about seducing her. He longs to climb down from the sexual carousel. He can see the end of an affair before he begins one. Alas, in this production, there are too many beginnings that lead nowhere. There is, for all Hare’s effort, not enough humanity to extend them. The Blue Room is a machine operating on a night shift; it does not touch the heart or greatly occupy the mind.

John Lahr (review date 28 December 1998-4 January 1999)

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SOURCE: “Ancient and Modern,” in New Yorker, December 28, 1998-January 4, 1999, pp. 135-37.

[In the following excerpt, Lahr assesses Hare's The Blue Room as unsufferable and dispassionate.]

As the world knows, the film star Nicole Kidman is in a play—David Hare’s “freely adapted” version of Arthur Schnitzler’s sexual Viennese merry-go-round “La Ronde” (1900), whose ten dialogues have been remarketed in a down-and-dirty package as The Blue Room, at the Cort. Kidman is beautiful, leggy, and damn good at her job. She and her excellent co-star, Iain Glen, have real chemistry, and, indeed, it takes all their charisma to give the cardboard characters and the charmless script here an iota of life. Together, they act out a series of sad seductions, with Kidman being rogered every which way, including up; the duration of each sexual bout is flashed on the back wall, as though it were a scoreboard. It’s vulgar touch—one in keeping with the winded sensationalism of Sam Mendes’s production, which would make voyeurs of us all. Hare has followed Schnitzler’s game plan, so the shallowness of the characters is not entirely his fault; his contribution is the brittle dialogue, which makes the play all the more insufferable. An eighteen-nineties sense of sin has been replaced by a nineteen-nineties sense of cynicism. There’s nothing erotic here, and even the news of Ms. Kidman’s nudity has been greatly exaggerated: what we get is a brief sighting of her backside and a bit of breast, barely visible in the dim stage light. The ballyhoo surrounding The Blue Room has sold out its limited engagement—a case, it seems to me, of making a Mound of Venus out of a molehill.

John Simon (review date 29 March 1999)

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SOURCE: “Now Playing the Strip,” in New York, March 29, 1999, pp. 73-4.

[In the following review, Simon offers a salutary estimate of Via Dolorosa.]

Does a playwright’s holding forth in person for 90 minutes about journeying to Israel and the Gaza Strip sound like good theater? No? Guess again; you’ll be riveted by Via Dolorosa. David Hare can observe, write, think (already rare enough in a dramatist), and also act. Not in the sense of political action—what can an English playwright do to compel Jews and Palestinians to live in peace?—but of being a charming actor. He can also bear witness.

Hare, who has a Jewish wife, conceived his trips to a war that calls itself peace negotiations out of both intellectual and professional curiosity. The tone is set right off: “The girl at Gatwick asks me where I am going. ‘Tel Aviv,’ I say, and at once she laughs. ‘Lucky you,’ she says and roars with laughter. Why? … What is the joke?” The joke, as Hare is too tactful to spell out, is that Israel is no place to go. But some essential truths are lurking or rampaging there, as in so many strife-torn parts of the world. Or in the covetous human soul, never content with what it possesses.

The author was lucky enough to be shown around everywhere and meet everyone, even if only by mistake. Thus he gets to see the most popular and reclusive politician in Gaza, Haider Abdel Shafi, who takes him for “the Guardian journalist David Hirst … author of a recent two-page exposé.” In fact, Hare knows almost nothing about Shafi. But knowing nothing helps you keep your eyes and ears—and, above all, mind—open.

The voyage is not only political; it’s also theatrical. Hare’s play Amy’s View is on view there, and, as a director, he is also being consulted about a unique co-production of Romeo and Juliet in Jerusalem, eight years in the making. Co-directed by a Jew and a Palestinian, it has Jews playing the Montagues, Palestinians the Capulets. “In this production,” Hare wryly notes, “the Capulets really hated the Montagues.” In Israel and Gaza, art and politics inevitably get entangled. At the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, “every single acceptance speech was about politics.” An angry spectator starts a bomb scare, the hall is cleared, and, sadly, “the suspense leading up to the Best Picture was lost.”

Ordinary people are reported on no less than famous ones. So Hare quotes an American settler on the difference between living in the United States and living in Israel: “Memorial Day here is a day where we all get out of our cars, wherever we are, in the middle of the road and stand for two minutes remembering the dead. In the U.S., it’s a day when you have a mattress sale.”

I could quote forever from a play—and it is a play, not a lecture—whose every other line is quotable. But you must hear it from Hare, in what he calls a monologue “ideally to be performed by its author.” And ideally performed it is: with great but controlled flourishes, sparing but effective scenery, searching light effects, and subtle direction (intermittent but telling stage movement) by Stephen Daldry.

And what does it all mean? An eminent Palestinian historian, allowed to travel back and forth, is asked the two obligatory questions by the Israeli border guard: “Did you pack the bag yourself? Did anyone give you anything to carry?” Once, answering the first question, the historian adds, “And no one gave me anything to carry.” The guard explodes: “How dare you? … You are not allowed to answer the second question until I ask it.” That, the Palestinian claims, “says it all.”

But nothing does. Not even page 56 of the book in which Via Dolorosa is published, where principal is published as principle. We have clearly lost our sense of what is principal, not to mention misplacing our principles. The search for them is arduous indeed, but maybe, just maybe, Hare is pointing the dolorous way.

Lindsay Duguid (review date 7 May 1999)

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SOURCE: “England Has No Feelings, Yes?,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 7, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following review, Duguid offers an unsatisfactory appraisal of Plenty.]

David Hare was born in 1947, and grew up with films and comics about the Second World War. In 1978, when he came to write Plenty, he could put an up-to-date gloss on their tales of adventure and honour by adding elements from the recently published history of the SOE in France and the revelations of Anthony Blunt’s treachery. As in his television film Licking Hitler (1977), there is a female central character: Susan Traherne, a courier in France who, accustomed to war, cracks up under the pressures of peace and prosperity (a theme which has echoes of Rose Macaulay and of The Constant Nymph). Her story runs alongside a brief history of British post-war decline, as seen from the late 1970s: sexual decadence, Suez, the advertising industry, drugs.

The play is structured as a series of short scenes which take us from the certainties of northern France—St Benoit, 1943—to London in the 1950s and early 60s, ending, after a Rattigan-like episode in a cheap hotel in Blackpool (the end of the road for Susan Traherne), with a dream sequence which looks back to the hopes of the Liberation. On the way, there are some emblematic exchanges in which personal disasters underscore the nation’s failure of political nerve. Susan watches the Festival of Britain fireworks on the Embankment with a young spiv whom she asks to father a child outside marriage. Married to a diplomat, she makes a scene in front of their foreign guests at the time of Suez. She finds money for a friend’s abortion during a break in her husband’s tour of duty in Iran. Her crack-up, which has involved a spell in the Maudsley, prescription of Nembutal and the threat of being sectioned, has other causes: the decline of her husband’s career, the lack of strong men in her life, barrenness, the boredom of post-war Britain and a sense of guilt. Incidental mentions of the Chelsea Arts Ball, Aldermaston, town-twinning and the EEC provide period colour.

Jonathan Kent’s production makes the most of the scene changes. The different locations are introduced by a subtitle projected on to the curtains and a snatch of period music (Victor Sylvester in 1947, a plummy Third Programme broadcast, a burst of jazz). Maria Björnson’s sets are grandly conceived; we move from a slummy Pimlico basement to an antechamber of the Foreign Office with a leather bench and a vast Victorian painting of Roman Britain. A pale Georgian drawing-room (“Knightsbridge, October 1956”) is swiftly stripped of its modish artefacts and reduced to bare boards and dust sheets. Cate Blanchett, a film star on the London stage, changes from one fashionable ensemble to another; from romantic Dior New Look to neat Susan Small costume with matching gloves and elegant hats. Each scene ends with a curtain coming down from above and closing in at the sides in imitation of the BBC’s old vanishing square.

There is less attention to nuance in the emotional reading of the play, where Kent has decided to go for high drama. Blanchett appears covered in blood; she brings out a gun and fires it; she generates hysteria, jerking her body and flailing her arms, but without raising the temperature and failing to convey either heroism or Englishness. She scream at her husband, who shouts back. “Please can you stop, can you stop fucking talking for five fucking minutes on end”, and, louder, “Your life is selfish, self-interested gain.” Around these two are grouped the stiffs and dummies who represent British manhood (Sir Leonard, Sir Andrew) and Susan’s long-suffering, promiscuous friend Alice, a would-be writer who observes it all (“You have to live it before you can write it”). They make the occasional joke, interject bits of information, provide plot impetus; but mostly they stand awkwardly silent.

The smoothness of Kent’s production only exposes the technical ineptness of the play. Hare finds it difficult to get people on and off stage, and provides no opportunities for characters to connect naturally; they are too busy informing us of the political situation (“Eden is weak. For years he has been weak”) or, as in a radio play, filling in with banalities (“If you’ve got nothing to do, could you give me a hand with these?”). Plenty can be seen as the starting point of Hare’s later work; its cartoon-like construction and fascination with the Establishment presage the journalistic coarseness of his political trilogy: Racing Demon,Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War. Writing in the Guardian last week, he recalled that the critics of the first production of Plenty had been so harsh that he had contemplated leaving the country. A playwright of such sensitivity might have considered improving his text after twenty years. It would have been easy enough to cut the scene with the schoolgirl wanting an abortion (“wham, the knitting needles”), and to rewrite the part of the French peasant in the final scene (“The Frenchman works or starves”; “The English have no feelings, yes? Are stiff”).




Hare, David (Vol. 29)