Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

Plenty has most certainly not gone without its share of unfavorable criticism despite the fact that it is one of Hare's best-known plays. Prior to Plenty's debut at the Lyttelton Theatre, Hare's plays had not been performed at Britain's National Theatre and following some of the rather scathing reviews from his critical contemporaries it may seem shocking that Hare has risen to such artistic acclaim—despite the mixed critical reaction his plays have received, he has continued to be popular with audiences.

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It is perhaps Hare's often shocking and pointed commentary about England that elicited such a response from his nation's critics. After the release of the film adaptation in 1985, Gavin Millar wrote in Sight and Sound, "no one with any serious hopes for contemporary British writing can ignore him, yet what the devil is the chap saying about us?" Ted Whitehead, writing for the Spectator soon after Plenty's first performance in April of 1978, had answered this question years earlier by detailing Hare's work as "a cry of disgust with Britain— with the wet, the cold, the flu, the flood, the loveless English—-and with the horror of sexual repression, the futility of sexual freedom, the corruption of wealth, the lie of good behavior, the decay of belief, the deceit of advertising, the bureaucracy and the indignity of death.''

Whitehead touched on the elements within the play which may have offended Britain's critics. He further noted that the play was somewhat confusing because of the inclusion of "some sketchy minor characters" such as Dorcas Frey and the Aungs. Then inclusion, along with the "hurtling forward, or backward and forward, gives the feeling of hectic development that never quite becomes organic growth" according to the critic. Whitehead was not alone in his confusion about Plenty. Bernard Levin wrote in the Sunday Times in April, 1978, "what does the author want us to think, to feel? What is he saying? What does he believe about his characters and their predicament? There is no telling, and it is no use searching the title for clues, either, for it has less discernible connection with the contents than in any play since Twelfth Night."

Of the film version, George Perry echoed Levin's dismay in his November, 1985, article for the Sunday Times. He noted that "Plenty, albeit well dressed, entertaining, and cleverly written, is ultimately so shallow it might as well have been called Empty." While there seemed to be a consensus of confusion surrounding Plenty, which many critics viewed as the playwright's fault, one critic suggested that perhaps the viewers of Hare's work were themselves responsible for coming up empty. Writing for London Magazine, Colin Ludlow commented that the critical conclusion "that [Plenty] lacks substance and has nothing to say" results from "pure laziness" on the part of the critics. Further, Ludlow noted that his peers' inability to understand the play also highlights the way in which "Hare refuses to prescribe cures for the problems he highlights."

In a two-page "Note on Performance" published with Plenty, Hare confirms his intent to not answer the questions he poses. He wrote, "ambiguity is central to the idea of the play. The audience is asked to make its own mind up about each of the actions. In the act of judging, the audience learns something about its own values." Hare's work continued to frustrate, disappoint, and challenge critics both in England and in the United States, where he produced the play in 1982 prior to making the film version; however in general, Plenty was received much better abroad than at home.

In his introduction to his work The History Plays, which includes Plenty, Hare partially attributes this relative acceptance to the fact that Americans were "not afraid to look English society in the eye, to see Suez as criminal and the Foreign Office as absurd. They also seemed less frightened of a strong woman." Despite the criticism Hare has received about the political content of his work, he has often been praised for his wit even by his most skeptical critics. In the same Spectator article of 1978, Whitehead applauded the playwright's "glacially witty dialogue."

Much to Hare's credit, he has been congratulated not only for his mastery of his craft but for his effect on audiences as well. After noting the intentional ambiguity of Plenty, Ludlow made the comment that "the power of his [Hare's] work is to provoke thoughts and disturb complacency." He follows this with the appraisal that "certainly the study of suffering and waste in Plenty does no less than that." While critics may have initially chafed at Hare's forthright commentary in Plenty, time has shown the play to be a significant contribution to both British and world drama. As Joan Fitzpatrick Dean noted in David Hare, "Plenty deserves to be Hare's best-known work, not only because it is among his finest plays but because it epitomizes his themes and character types. Like many of his works of the 1970s, Plenty deals with specifically British experiences and personalities."

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