David Hare Hare, David (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Hare 1947–

English dramatist and scriptwriter.

Hare is a leading figure in the movement of British theater toward political concerns during the 1970s. Along with such dramatists as Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths, he writes in the aftermath of the "angry young man" tradition of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker. Setting his plays in a variety of microcosmic societies, Hare exposes the inadequacies of capitalism and imperialism and the decay of civilization in England. The societies he portrays, ranging from an isolated girls' school in Slag (1970) to a Chinese village in Fanshen (1975), parallel the problems of his country and demonstrate the impact on individual lives of recent English history. Most of Hare's plays reveal a socialist bias, but being personal as well as political, they stress his feeling that "the main reform needed is moral."

Hare began his career in the theater in the late 1960s, when he left Cambridge University with his friend Tony Bicât to found the Portable Theatre, one of the first "fringe" theaters. At that time, little was happening in theater outside of the West End of London, and the goal of the Portable was, in Hare's words, "to take theatre to places where it couldn't normally go." The Portable was alternative theater: its mobility enabled it to be seen in campus gymnasiums and youth clubs, and its plays depicted England in a state of moral decline. Many critics considered the Portable playwrights arrogant and cynical. During the 1970s, "fringe" theater became more popular with the drama establishment and received government funding. Hare became one of the most prominent and commercially successful of this group of political playwrights. Before he began writing plays, Hare was an accomplished director, and he has since combined playwriting with directing.

The first of Hare's plays to reach a wide audience was Slag, a farce involving three female schoolteachers in isolation. The decline of English culture is mirrored in the bizarre behavior of the three women as their school gradually loses all its pupils. Although some critics perceived Slag as misogynistic, Hare claims to have written the play out of feminist sentiments and an interest in female character. His other plays also reflect this interest, and Hare is credited with creating some of the strongest roles for women in contemporary theater.

After Slag, Hare wrote several plays in collaboration with others during the inception of the fringe movement. Later, he wrote Knuckle (1974), a Mickey Spillane-type detective thriller which has been interpreted as a message about the importance of being self-critical and avoiding complacency when engaging in revolutionary efforts. Knuckle is anticapitalist but stresses the need for idealists to acknowledge the real power of capitalism. Unlike some of his compatriots, Hare satirizes leftwing intellectuals as well as the establishment. This aspect of his plays, along with their focus on the upper class rather than the working class, has helped to make Hare more commercially successful than some of his fellow noncommercial playwrights.

Plenty (1978) is generally considered Hare's best work and is a typical Hare play in its focus on a woman and upper-class life. It is the story of a diplomat's wife who is so filled with idealism from her days in the French Resistance movement that she later becomes bitter and ineffectual and eventually goes mad. The title of the play refers to the prosperity which was supposed to follow World War II; Susan's life reveals the true spiritual emptiness of that time. Plenty shows the effect of the war and its political aftermath on Susan's life, and Hare uses Susan as an example of what happened to all of England. His recent play Map of the World (1983) has not been well received by critics, who claim that he has tried to cover too many subjects.

In general, even critics who fail to praise Hare's plays respect his skill as a playwright. Hare is most often faulted for failing to analyze fully the topics treated in his plays. For instance, in Plenty Hare discusses the reasons for Susan's postwar malaise and madness, but critics are not convinced that he has clarified whether the character's problems are unique to her or an inevitable result of the time in which she lives. Most acknowledge that Hare creates individual scenes of great intensity, but some suggest that his plays as a whole tend to lose their impact through inconsistency. Nevertheless, most critics agree that he is among the best contemporary dramatists at creating witty and riveting dialogue.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)

Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Hare is … dexterously talented. He skates with words, plays with metaphors and teases lilacs out of the dead land of an English society too long in transit. In short, he is clever. He is also a genuine playwright with more ideas than his thought can handle.

"Slag" is set in a private girls' school, those special and expensive torture camps happily endemic to England….

The girls' school in "Slag" is on the way down and will soon be on the way out. Mr. Hare postulates just three teachers and hardly any more pupils. By the end of the play, only this skeleton staff is left. The three young teachers try to make the best of things. The headmistress is determined to keep control of her staff, a young virgin devotee of Women's Lib who is a fervent proponent of self-assistance in sexual matters, and a lady who misses men enough to engender a hysterical pregnancy after a fleeting Lesbian encounter.

Mr. Hare is operating on a number of levels. First he is writing a fantasy about the decline of English society—its new rootlessness—as symbolized, Ionesco-fashion, by the disintegration of the school. The play is called "Slag," the refuse left by burning ore and other materials. The bonfire party is over, and new generations are left with the cold ashes.

So far, so interesting, but Mr. Hare darts off at tangents like a mad geometrician given a sufficiency of circles. He wants to...

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Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Slag shows Hare] to be a prodigy. Slag is unfocussed and sometimes boring, but it is attractively articulate and theatrically at home….

The best aspect of the play is that Hare has taken a conventional comedy about a public-school staff and converted it internally into a macabre fantasy without much altering externals, rather in the manner of I. Compton-Burnett. Some of the materials are: a kind of mod Princess Ida, a female sanctum with males excluded and the results thereof; satire on cultural glibness; and, the seeming sine qua non of English playwrights these days, a microcosm of the fate of the Empire. None of these efforts wholly succeeds, largely because Hare never clarifies his viewpoint, he just has fun; but if Slag doesn't always hold interest, it always commands respect. One thing the play is bursting with is promise.

Stanley Kauffmann, in a review of "Slag" (copyright © 1971 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Brandt and Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.), in The New Republic, Vol. 164, No. 11, March 13, 1971, p. 32.

Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Slag" is] quite the dullest evening in town. There are just three women in it, which is a bit of a mistake to begin with since they all speak at a teakettle hiss, making one wish that a male voice were present or that refreshments would soon be served.

Nothing refreshing is served….

Hopping about the stage as though she'd just taken landing lessons from Peter Pan, [Joanne] is not really an advertisement for Fem Lib, unless we want to believe that Mr. Hare sees the Fem Lib crowd as altogether around the bend. Neither is she a sounding-board for provocative, or even mildly original, ideas. She is merely tiresome….

The other two are busy climbing to the roof and falling off (hey, any symbolism there?), playing hilarious practical jokes with collapsing chairs on one another, sucking one another's toes, and entering into sexual relationships…. One of the two becomes pregnant for a time, she says, but we are unable to pay much attention to that because [Joanne] has by this time put on a Ubangi mask and whipped out a toy machine gun.

What is so defeating about the evening is not the inscrutability of its message or even the monotony of its voice-work but the fact that playwright Hare never writes a line that makes you want to listen to the next. He is not even a good tease, there is no come-hither to his prose….

Walter Kerr, "A Brilliantly Drawn 'Line'," in The New York Times, Section 2 (copyright © 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 7, 1971, p. 3.∗

J. W. Lambert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Teeth 'n' Smiles [is] simultaneously a metaphor for British society and an elegy for the vanished visions of the late Sixties, but a great deal more entertaining than that solemn summary might suggest. The time is 1969, the place a Cambridge college during a May Week ball (May Week balls are smart parties which the colleges hold in June). By way of keeping up with the times, the college has engaged a pop group to play…. [A] Storey-line is followed: the band arrives, messes about, plays, and departs. But it is a band in the throes of dissolution, like the kind of alternative culture it stands for. Mr. Hare on the face of it wishes us to feel with and for that alternative culture; but … he cannot as an artist conceal from himself or from us that it is no good. For all concerned it was a blind alley…. The group itself is all too obviously going nowhere as it lounges about playing feeble wordgames, injecting itself, mocking the nobs and occasionally playing … hollow songs amplified into pounding vacancy, while a contemptuous college servant and an eager-to-be-with-it little undergraduate come and go. They are all, in so far as their lives have any point or focus, the slaves of an enchantress. She, the singer, is at one point isolated in a striking theatrical image, keening in a pool of light while out of the darkness around snout-faces mutter their adoration; but mostly she is drunk or drugged, lost, miles adrift from her commonplace New Town girlhood but in sight of no other harbour…. [The] girl burns herself up, then slumps, sad or spiteful, her final act to set fire to the marquee where the rest of the world dances on. But there is no bitterness in Teeth 'n' Smiles: it too is often very funny as it charts the helplessness of a generation lost in a world of aimless sensation. (pp. 41-3)

J. W. Lambert, in a review of "Teeth 'n' Smiles," in Drama (reprinted by permission of the British Theatre Association), No. 119, Winter, 1975, pp. 41-3.

Irving Wardle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You might box [Fanshen] up as a documentary [of the Chinese agrarian reform movement], or as a didactic piece on the lines of Brecht's The Measures Taken: but, in this case, formal classification is no more helpful than using a learned medical term to explain away a virus…. Literally fanshen means "to turn the body": in the revolutionary vocabulary this means putting an end to feudalism—not only by expropriation of property, but by education, judicial reform, sexual equality, the whole process which Chekhov described as "casting out the slave in oneself".

There are two stock varieties of revolutionary drama: those that salute the glorious overthrow of the oppressors, and those that show the new regime going on to exceed the iniquities of the old. The point about Fanshen is that it bypasses this futile cycle, and shows a community that does not collapse into cynicism and corruption. All the violence comes at the start, with the village revolt against the landlords; then a Maoist work team move in and dissolve the local cadres. There are classification meetings, where property is reallocated; public tribunals, where officials come before peasant delegates to confess their mistakes. Everything is open to examination, except the case of remaking the community.

The production encourages you to look at the evidence with an equally open mind. It would take a determined bourgeois individualist to snigger at the characters as card-carrying boy scouts, chorusing the Internationale, and dropping lines like "I fanshened myself and forgot my poor brothers". All that is there; but it appears in a context that gradually forges a human link with an alien society and vindicates the new leaders as honest men….

Through the evening you get to know the rules. They may seem cold-blooded, or pious, or humourless: but by the end they make good sense. Nobody is watertight: nobody needs to despair: "Too many taxes under the Nationalists; too many meetings under the Communists", grumbles one of the peasants. It doesn't seem a bad exchange. Fanshen may not be much of a guide to modern China, but it tells us a good deal about ourselves.

Irving Wardle, in a review of "Fanshen," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1975), April 23, 1975, p. 15.

Ronald Bryden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[After] the first night of David Hare's Teeth 'n' Smiles, there seemed to be one name on everyone's lips—John Osborne. Wasn't it just like early Osborne, old Courtiers were saying. Didn't it carry you back to The Entertainer and those first, electric nights of Look Back in Anger? To which the answer, strictly and properly, should have been no, not really. I've never been among those who find it helpful to think of Bucharest as the Paris of the Balkans, nor would it strike me as flattering to call David Hare, or anyone else, the Osborne of the '70s. Still, because it was obviously shorthand and well-intended, I said yes, I saw what they meant…. [Teeth 'n' Smiles is] a play plugged deep...

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Peter Ansorge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hare is certainly the brightest literary satirist in the underground. His plays tend to reflect the self-enclosed and, finally, self-defeating society which surrounds middle-class 'progressive' groups…. Unlike many underground writers, he is able to satirize the pretensions of progressives as bitingly as those of reactionaries. A desire for revolution can also imply a purely middle-class endeavour to jump on the latest cultural or political bandwagon. (p. 11)

Although Slag provides a platform for a discussion of feminist views, which is frequently absent from our male-orientated theatres, the play lacks any genuine commitment to its central subject. Indeed Hare tends to treat the characters...

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Anthony Curtis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Hare is a man in his early thirties, not his late sixties. He is writing about the world of his seniors, trying to diagnose its disease dramatically; [Plenty] has its origin in events that he can only have imagined as a fact of contemporary history rather than experienced directly. Moreover Mr. Hare has grown up in the period when our theatre has been let out of the confines of the single-setting play in which Rattigan and the managements for which he worked contained it. Mr. Hare has studied Brecht and he has a social conscience. He is one of a number of comparatively young English playwrights who have tried to introduce a more fluid kind of construction and have shown how a play may spread itself in time...

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Colin Ludlow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a recent interview on television, David Hare declared that he is not a social doctor prescribing remedies for our national ills. Nevertheless, like most dramatists of his generation, he is concerned with diagnosing our social condition. The particular interest and originality of his plays lies in the immense variety of subject matter and styles he employs to illuminate that condition. In Teeth 'n' Smiles, he uses a rock band playing at a Cambridge May Ball as a framework for wider comment. In Knuckle, he adopts a thriller format. Fanshen tells the story of the Chinese revolution in a particular village employing a Brechtian narrative style. Brassneck, which he wrote with Howard Brenton,...

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Ronald Hayman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan is one of the best roles written for an actress since Brecht's Mutter Courage, and [Plenty] is Hare's best so far, but it is seriously flawed by its awkward division of focus between rotting psyche and rotten society. The implication is that the main causes of Susan's deterioration are social. We see her mouldering with discontent in a well-paid advertising job, and making rebellious gestures (like stealing food) when she is working for the 1951 Festival of Britain. After marrying a young diplomat, she discharges her indignation about Suez in the presence of an ambassador; later she threatens a high-ranking official that she will shoot herself unless her husband is promoted. Her freedom from...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a narrative, David Hare's Dreams of Leaving … has the confined simplicity and elegance of an Eric Rohmer moral tale….

And yet the film is a disappointment, all the more frustrating for being so tantalizing, for offering elements that are never quite connected. In a Radio Times interview David Hare has said that in Dreams of Leaving he was trying "to push aside the business of being a teacher or a moralist". Perhaps in this remark lies the source of my frustration, for in this film Hare seems to have chosen a means of proceeding, through the use of voice-over, that is essentially moral: a man in early middle age looks back on his youth, and tells the wistful story of a...

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Steve Grant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hare once confessed, albeit wryly, that he can only write about the middle classes; and while it is true that he can pen convincing dialogue for Chinese peasants or zonked-out rock musicians, his most memorable creations stem from the highly articulate but often emotionally sterile bourgeoisie. Hare is particularly concerned with the sufferings of intense and virulently honest people (often women) caught up in the cloying, claustrophobic and tightly knit society of establishment Britain, whether it be the suburban delights of stockbroker Guildford, the groves of academe or the post-Suez diplomatic service.

In Hare's plays the rules of the game are often the only important factors. Those who survive...

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Jack Kroll

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If the British playwrights of the '50s and '60s were Angry Young Men, then those of the '70s and '80s are Furious. Writers like David Hare have brought a new passion to their plays that has often discomfited and shocked audiences, but has carried their work from the little "fringe" theaters to the West End commercial houses and the subsidized battlements of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. This passion is neither narrowly political nor personal; Hare and his generation are fiercely concerned for the quality of life as it touches everyone in his most intimate or public aspects, from sex to socialism, from economics to anxiety. Strongly individual, these writers also feel a common bond, symbolized...

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Leo Sauvage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hare belongs to the school of promising young English playwrights who have been influenced by John Osborne and often have something to say, though it is not always easy to follow.

His play is called Knuckle, and both the title and the text are somewhat perplexing. Despite the use of the singular, I imagine the title is meant to suggest the pitiless use of brass knuckles. The play is conceived and developed as a cold-blooded drama of suspense; it is harsh and hard-hitting, leaving no room for the expression of emotions…. Hare fitfully tries to heighten the suspense by occasionally drawing upon the "theater of cruelty" that was in fashion at the Royal Court during the time he spent there....

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's not until late in Act II that the audience hears the noise of breaking glass in David Hare's "Plenty," but long before then, we've become terribly familiar with the harrowing sound of things going smash. A partial list of the evening's casualties would include at least three lives, one empire (the British), the egalitarian ideals of a generation and many of the conventions of the traditional narrative play.

But if this sounds reckless, Mr. Hare is no indiscriminate vandal. Out of the bloody shards of the ruins, this young British playwright has meticulously erected an explosive theatrical vision of a world that was won and lost during and after World War II. (p. 394)

Mr. Hare...

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Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The flaw in [the plotting of "Plenty"] becomes apparent fairly early. A British commando comes down, fighting to disentangle himself from his parachute, in occupied France during World War II. He is almost immediately looking directly into the barrel of a pistol. It is held by a nervous girl in a trench coat (Kate Nelligan) who is as British as he. She is working with the French Resistance and, once she has accepted his credentials, she is able to give him vital tips on avoiding the Gestapo. As their hurried meeting is about to come to a close, she does an odd, impulsive thing. Grateful to see a compatriot whose name she doesn't and must not know, exhausted from her labors and rattled by tensions, courageous and proud...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

David Hare once observed that his plays were intended as puzzles for the audience to solve…. But Plenty … though far more disciplined than his previous offerings, is not a conundrum, merely a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces all too knowingly scrambled. In the end, after milking this purposive disarray for its maximum ironic value, Hare himself unriddles everything for us. We are left as spectators of not so much a play as a display: impressed, sometimes entertained, often dazzled. But quite unmoved. (p. 82)

[The point of Plenty] is not so much the story as the cunning way in which it is fragmented and skips back and forth in time. Some of this is to keep us guessing, surprised, and a...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Plenty] is an ambitious effort to create a comprehensive X-ray of England's soul following World War II. Taking social fluoroscopes is an important, even crucial, dramatic function—it was Chekhov's motive in The Cherry Orchard, for example, and Shaw's in Heartbreak House—though such tasks have grown more difficult as the diagnostics have grown more complicated. I don't think Hare entirely accomplishes his intention, but I honor him for it, and pray it has a salutary influence on American playwrights, most of whom are still engaged in counting kitchen angels on the heads of domestic pins….

It is Hare's conviction that World War II represented England's last heroic moment...

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John James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the face of it A Map Of The World is a serious play about important issues. It takes in world poverty; third-world emergent nationalism; the decay of western civilization; art and expression; the artist's pursuit of truth and his freedom to express it; the nature of fiction; Capitalism; Marxism; Zionism; sexual expression hetero, homo and bi….

[An] outline does little justice to the sparkling humour and polemical seriousness of Hare's new play. But it indicates the confusion arising from actors playing real people playing actors playing them. Contrary to his publicly televised assertion …, what is real and what is acted is not "absolutely clear" in performance. His claim that Stephen's...

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John Hope Mason

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Despite the large claims David Hare's early plays made to be describing the state of England, there was always a danger that the general view, the overall verdict, would collapse into a purely local and personal reaction. This was particularly the case with Plenty, where what set out to be a chronicle of disappointment at the unfulfilled promise of Britain's post-war history came across more as a projection back onto it of disappointment at the unfulfilled promise of the 1960s. Hare is too good a writer and too accomplished a playwright not to have made Plenty a strong theatrical experience, but the underlying difficulty remained.

In his new play, A Map of the World, he has...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Contrary to popular opinion, I can see nothing very mystifying about the construction of David Hare's new play A Map of the World …—except why he should have wanted to put it together that way in the first place. The principal action concerns emotional sparring and sexual rivalry going on in the margins of some U N conference on world poverty set in a plush Bombay hotel. The annexed material, as it were, is introduced smartly at the end of the first scene, by a quick dissolve … to a film studio where, a few years later, Hollywood-on-Thames is in the midst of travestying the novel one of the characters we have just met wrote about the whole business. From then on we go back and forth, but mostly back, with...

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Jonathan Myerson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps because Hare is looking at subjects new to his repertoire [in A Map of the World], its ideas are rather disparate: he seems to be talking about Third World Funding, Zionism, How We Argue, The distorting Power of Fiction/Reporting and Sexual Rivalry—all at once. These ideas may be spread thin in the course of the play, but it does not make them any less stimulating and forceful; also, while he seems to be moving away from outright criticism of British institutions and mores, there is a great deal of muck thrown at British arrogance and its dictatorial attitude to the Third World. To contrast this English rejection of the Third World, Hare offers a spark of hope; the strength of utopianism in a world...

(The entire section is 496 words.)