Theme of Ambiguity

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1695

The extent to which readers are able to understand or discern an author's intended meaning is often a topic of literary debate. Some authors refuse to discuss the meaning of their works and thus it is not possible to know for certain whether critical interpretations of their writings are accurate. Doris Sommer's article "Resisting the Heat: Mench, Morrison, and Incompetent Readers'' in Cultures of United States Imperialism, expanded this debate even further. Sommer argued that readers may not necessarily be capable of accurately interpreting a work's meaning because "some books resist the competent reader."

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Sommer noted that writers like Guatemala's Rigoberta Mench and the United States's Toni Morrison may intentionally prevent readers from pinning down an author's meaning. Sommer's article raises the point that authors go to varying lengths to either help or hinder interpretation of their work. In addition, she noted a critical distinction between ambiguity and what she calls resistance. She stated that "ambiguity, unlike the resistance that interests me here, has been for some time a consecrated and flattering theme for professional readers. It blunts interpretive efforts and therefore invites more labor."

David Hare's works combine resistance and ambiguity. In the introduction to The Early Plays: Slag, Great Exhibition, Teeth V Smiles, Hare states, "as you can't control people's reactions to your plays, your duty is also not to reduce people's reactions, not to give them easy handles with which they can pigeon-hole you, and come to comfortable terms with what you are saying " In the "Note on Performance" that precedes Plenty, Hare goes further. He says of Plenty, planned a play in twelve scenes, in which there would be twelve dramatic actions. Each of these actions is intended to be ambiguous, and it is up to the audience to decide what they feel about each event.''

Taken as a whole, Hare's Plenty may seem rather overwhelming—in fact it has confounded many critics over the years. Taken piece by piece, however, the play may be more readily accessible. In the "Note on Performance," Hare states that he intends for his audiences, or presumably his readers, to judge his characters and plots in order to arrive at conclusions about the work as a whole. One impediment to judging quickly, however, is the presence of ambiguity in Hare's writing. Thus prior to judging, one must explore the nature of Plenty's ambiguities in further detail.

One of the greatest obscurities in Plenty surrounds the characterization of Susan Traheme. Should she be detested, admired, or pitied? Is she selfish, inspired, or crazy? Can she be detested, admired, and pitied because she is selfish, inspired, and crazy? These questions are not easily answered; however, they seem to be the very judgments that Hares insists his readers make. In David Hare, Joan Fitzpatrick Dean remarked that "there is a fundamental ambiguity in Hare's presentation of Susan. On the one hand she is frustrated, trapped, and unfulfilled; on the other, she is selfish, insatiable, and unreasonable.''

Scene 7 is the pinnacle scene of Susan's frustration with the polite inanity of the British diplomatic world. Her barbs towards Darwin, who to that point had epitomized the acquiescence and silence Susan detests about diplomacy, reflect her deep dissatisfaction with Britain's social mores. In a heated moment she declares, “I would stop, I would stop, I would stop ... talking if I ever heard anyone else say anything worth ... stopping talking for." But does Susan's outburst reflect a warranted frustration or simply the ranting of a self-centered unstable idealist who wishes to control the present and who cannot let go of the past? Susan's dealings with Mick suggest the latter.

In asking Mick to father a child for her, Susan exposes an intolerance for allowing other people into her private world. She is absorbed in her own wishes and would be more than happy to "do the whole damn thing" alone. After Mick and Susan's attempts fail, she reveals that she does not care for Mick's feelings. The Susan presented in Scene 6 is cold, calculated, and self-absorbed. She does not demonstrate compassion for Mick, who feels used, but rather she is preoccupied with the work she must do on her newest ad campaign. In the end, Mick concludes that "she is actually mad,'' yet is she not just frustrated by his love for her?

Hare suggests that the answers to these questions betray the values of the one who judges, thus what does it imply to say that Susan is frustrated or Susan is a raving lunatic or Susan is selfish? Better yet, what does Hare evoke by wanting his readers to categorize Susan as one thing or another? To see Susan as a frustrated and trapped woman places the reader squarely within a camp that openly criticizes British culture; however, labeling her as crazy may indeed do the same. Susan's madness may account for the lack of perfect British decorum in her behavior, yet it does not necessarily diminish the impact of what she says.

Whether she is frustrated or crazy, Susan's honesty still reveals social criticism. The reader who is willing to label her as frustrated shows his or her willingness to be overtly critical, while the reader who prefers to call her crazy can be shielded from implicating him/herself in such criticism. In the end then, the ambiguity surrounding Susan Traherne ferrets out those folks who value honesty above decorum or those who value diplomacy above forthrightness.

Hare weaves ambiguity throughout Plenty not only through his characterization of Susan but within each scene as well. As he clearly states in his "Note on Performance,'' he intended each action to be ambiguous. One of the ambiguities raised in Scene 2 concerns the British presence in France. Angry about losing the guns and explosives from an armed Lazar, the Frenchman declares, "Nobody ask you. Nobody ask you to come." In French he adds, "you are not welcome here " The implicit "you'' of the Frenchman's statement is not simply Susan and Lazar but the British in general.

In this scene Hare suggests that despite their allegiance in resistance to Germany, England and France were perhaps not as united as one might think. What then are the rules of engagement by which Susan and Lazar must abide when France, a supposed ally, becomes adversarial? She says, "they [the Gaullists] just expect the English to die. They sit and watch us spitting blood m the streets." In a frightened state of dismay Susan questions, "what's the point of following the rules?'' Susan's questioning contrasts sharply with the comment she makes earlier in the scene that, "it really is best if you always obey the rules." Scene 2 thus embodies two contradictions that leave the audience or reader somewhat mystified: allies stand in opposition to one another and rules are both to be followed and not to be followed.

Although Scene 2 does not include Alice, the themes it raises have metaphorical implications on Susan's relationship with her. In that Alice and Susan share a distaste for England, she and Susan seem alike. In David Hare, Dean suggested that although Alice and Susan share such distaste, "the contrast between them is at least as strong as their shared disdain for convention." Dean noted that Susan "admires Alice's freedom and independence,'' but she does not achieve the same in her own life. In Scene 6 Alice prompts Susan to leave her job and Brock, yet Susan convinces herself not to do either. Susan does not leave Brock for another ten years and continues to torment herself with unfulfilling occupational choices. As she sees it, she chooses instead to continue "living in hell."

Susan and Alice's relationship symbolizes the notion that within similarity, differences may exist. Alice most definitely does not believe that one must always obey the rules. Her sexually active Bohemian lifestyle flies in the face of such social conventions. Susan's rejection of the rules manifests itself only sporadically and thus she can ironically be seen as someone who in part obeys the social mores of her time. The action advanced in Scene 2 involves Lazar and Susan in 1944 in France, yet the ambiguities it evokes permeate the play throughout its entirety.

Because ambiguity plays such an integral role in Hare's work, one should not be surprised that his title also reflects this basic organizing principle. The title calls to mind Susan's postwar optimism In the final scene, which chronologically precedes the majority of the other scenes in the play, Susan declares "there will be days and days and days like this." Susan's perception of what the day is like differs greatly from that of the Frenchman who seems downtrodden and pessimistic about the future and his own reality. Thus, the days that follow or—in the jumbled chronology of the play—have passed, can either be seen as Susan perceives them or as the Frenchman perceives them.

The scene's placement at the end of the play also has important significance. First, it calls attention to the fact that the days that follow it chronologically do not meet Susan's expectations; however, if one reads the final scene as a 1962 dream sequence induced by Susan's drug use, her words may express a valid hope for her future. The title, like this final scene, embodies two possible perceptions of the past and the future: one of plenty and one of lack. Again, Hare leaves this judgment for his readers and audiences to make. The irony afforded by the more pessimistic reading may seem a bit more appealing, however, the two readings play into Hare's use of ambiguity. Despite the reading that each viewer of Plenty may choose, the inclusion of options makes Hare's play an exercise in decision-making.

As Colin Ludlow noted in an article for the London Magazine, "the power of his [Hare's] work is to provoke thought and to disturb complacency." At the very least, Hare stirs his audience into debate. For this reason, I would argue that the title of "Empty" that George Perry suggested in his review of the play for the Sunday Times lacks the subtlety required of this wonderfully ambiguous play.

Source: D. L. Kellett, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Hare's Plenty

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In Scenes 2 through 11 of David Hare's Plenty (1978), we hear sounds from the dark before the lights come up on the action. Those sounds are of a wireless (Scene 2); a small string orchestra (Scene 3); a string quartet (Scene 4); a brass band (Scene 5); Charlie Parker's saxophone (Scene 6); the music of the English composer Elgar (Scene 7); the voice of a priest (Scene 8): a radio interview (Scene 9);' "some stately orchestral chords: melodic, solemn" (Scene 10); Elgar's music again (Scene 11). The lights come straight up on the action, without any sounds coming first from the dark, in Scene 1. In Scene 12, music is playing as "the room [of Scene 11] scatters [and] we see a French hillside in high summer. The stage picture forms piece by piece. Green, yellow, brown. Trees. The fields stretch away. A high sun. A brilliant August day."

Plenty, in the words of Robert Brustein,

traces the career of a spirited Englishwoman from her youth as a courier [ 1943], aiding the French resistance against the Nazis, to her collapse, some fifteen years later [1956], into peacetime disillusionment—paralyzed by anomie, riddled with depression, rotting with despair and psychic rust. Hare's heroine, Susan Traherne, represents a particular example of a general condition, the personification of a hopeful, idealistic generation disaffected by a nation in moral collapse. It is Hare's conviction that World War FI represented England's last heroic moment, after which it experienced a series of demoralizing deceptions and compromises, tied to the loss of empire. Ironically, this was a time of relative affluence, an era of peace and plenty [New Republic, November 29, 1982]

The play begins in 1962 as Susan is about to leave her husband, Raymond Brock, whom she later
says she married only because he had once been kind to her when she was in trouble (she had shot a man in a quarrel). The play begins, that is, with Susan's disillusionment and despair. We see that disillusionment and despair clearly from the start; there is no anticipatory moment of darkness and sound before Scene 1. There is such an anticipatory moment before Scene 2, and this scene itself is played m only "a small amount of light.'' Scene 2 is a flashback to Susan's days as a teenaged courier for the Resistance—a time of excitement, danger, mystery, and promise for her There—we get not only "from the dark the sound of the wireless," but a whole scene played in semi-darkness: darkness is a metaphor, not for death, but for life lived at its highest pitch. Scene 11 is a flash forward to England in 1962, after Susan has left Brock and has been tracked down by Lazar, the parachutist whom she aided in Scene 2 and whom she hasn't seen since the war. Susan and Lazar are spending the night in a Blackpool hotel in a failed attempt to recapture the exhilaration and sense of purpose of 1943. The scene is played in semi-darkness, an ironic reproduction of the lighting of Scene 2.

Scenes 3 through 10 of Plenty chronicle Susan's life from 1947 to 1962. She meets Brock after the death in 1947 of Tony, a Resistance worker with whom she was carrying on a casual affair and whose sudden death of a heart attack can be seen as a mercy not afforded those who had to live through England's decline after World War H She has an unhappy career as an advertising copywriter, where success is "simply a question of pitching my intelligence low enough"; she runs around with a bohemian crowd. Susan attempts to have a child by Mick, a man she barely knows: she wants a child, but not a husband; she likes sex, but she'd rather not know her sex partner very well, if at all. She marries Brock, whom she does not love. She shows signs of a mental imbalance that will never leave her.

Like Scene 2, Scenes 3 through 10 open with an anticipatory moment of darkness and sound; unlike Scene 2, these scenes present an increasingly sad reality exposed by light. Through light and sound, Hare repeats the outline of Susan's experience up to her leaving Brock eight times: the anticipation— the promise of darkness and sound—then the deflation—the disappointment of light and human bodies. Even though the sounds from the dark are usually meant to underline the mood of the scene to come (for instance, the music of a brass band before Susan's brassy request, made at a festival and fireworks site, that Mick father her child), still they have, occurring before not during the scene, an existence independent of it, an existence in darkness as pure, tantalizing sound. Scene 12, set in 1944 in newly liberated France, opens in light: even as we saw clearly Susan's disillusionment and despair in Scene 1, we see the past clearly now. We see it without illusions, with the knowledge about Susan and England that the play has given us, knowledge that Susan herself, for all her erratic behavior, achieved. The time is immediately after the liberation, and already the boredom and sluggishness of "peace and plenty" are setting in under a brilliant sun. Thus the "unnaturally gloomy" farmer whom Susan encounters speaks with “extreme disgust'' of the ugly stretch marks he sees on his wife's legs in bed, as if darkness with its attendant invitation or allure has completely deserted them, just as it will desert Susan.

Source: Bert Cardullo, "Hare's Plenty" in the Explicator, Volume 43, no. 2, Winter, 1985, pp 62-63.

A One-Man Revival of Great Women's Roles

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First, Kate Nelligan, beautiful and sardonic as the larger-than-life and eternally dissatisfied heroine of David Hare's play Plenty (produced at New York City's Public Theater and transferred to Broadway several seasons ago). Then, Vanessa Redgrave, all natural radiance as a Yorkshire schoolteacher in Wetherby, Hare's first venture as filmmaker. And now, in the movie Plenty, Meryl Streep giving brilliantly muted and quite different shadings to the character of Susan Traherne. Together, they constitute a three-woman/one-man renaissance of great women's roles.

A male critic I know was so startled at the spectacle of these powerhouse heroines that he began looking for signs of misogyny in Hare True, Jean Travers (Redgrave) sends her lover to his death ... in a sense. And Susan Traherne is a man-eating tigress (though where Nelligan spit her men out for breakfast, Streep swallows them sadly). But there's more to it than that. All these women are too large to be contained by a label like misogyny—or veneration, for that matter.

In Wetherby, Travers is plagued by memories of the past, in particular the night her young fiancé went off to war ... and died before he could get there. As her story unfolds in flashbacks (with Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson playing Jean Travers as a young girl), we realize that she had only to say the word to keep her lover at home. That she didn't was partly, one suspects, because she refused to be responsible for another person's life decision; but more important, she had a duty to herself that marriage would have compromised. In the midst of his deliberately, tantalizingly cryptic narrative, Hare makes it quite clear that the kind of marriage she and her provincial young man were about to make would have ended forever her passionate desire for an education.

An abiding guilt mingled with the tremendous satisfactions of being a really good teacher—that's the life that Redgrave's glowingly attractive middle-aged "spinster" is content to live. Until the disruptive intrusion of a strange young man (Tim Mclnnerny) who kills himself in her presence, and an equally strange young woman (Suzanna Hamilton) who later appears on the schoolteacher's doorstep, Travers is as richly in tune with herself as she is with die old farmhouse that becomes the stage for unseemly melodrama.

Through the device of a psychological mystery that is never resolved, Hare gives us a richly atmospheric and slyly satirical study of a milieu, and the manners—ultra-British yet casually "country"— that maintain a smooth facade even as the underpinnings are about to crack.

For all its modernist, ellipses, Wetherby is a remarkably physical film, both in the sense of place it evokes, and the sensuality of the characters. The attraction between Redgrave and a stumblingly shrewd detective (Stuart Wilson), for example, provides one of the more erotically charged love scenes in recent cinema.

Susan Traherne, the heroine of Plenty, Hare's wittily scathing chronicle of postwar England, is also a woman nagged and imprisoned by the past, but in this case the past represents perfection. In France, during a night of lovemaking with a fellow Resistance worker, love and ideals came together. From that moment, life became a disillusioning descent.

In both play and film Traherne is a feverish idealist who, by her own admission, wants to change the world without knowing how. Her life is one long and increasingly reckless diatribe against what she considers the complacency of an England grown fat and conservative with postwar profits. But she is more (and less) than the scourge of the bourgeoisie. Sardonic and strong-minded, she rips apart the surface of life and shreds human beings as she does so. She works at jobs she despises; she takes a lower-class lover in order to get herself an illegitimate, and unconventional, child; she marries, without passion, a man in the diplomatic corps to whom she feels culturally superior. Finally, unable to find a niche or an outlet—and perhaps unable to face the wreckage of her life—she goes mad. Is she, finally, a lonely beacon of emancipation or an angel of destruction? More than a little of both, I should say.

Like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler before her, like Frances Farmer in the recent dramas of her life, she seems to lay claim to a feminist alibi: that of die woman too large and energetic for the options that society gives her. Yet, like Hedda, like Farmer, there is an arrogant, narcissistic fury that drives her to destroy rather than to nurture or create. She is smarter than everyone around her—yet she surrounds herself with people to whom she can condescend. Having done noble work in the Resistance, she dismisses an entire nation with the words, ' 'People back in England seem a little childish."

"Don't you think," another character says to her, "you wear your suffering a little heavily?"

In adapting his own play, David Hare has barely changed a word, yet the whole feeling of the film is different. (The film is directed by Australian Fred Schepisi, who also directed the haunting ' 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" about a scorned half-breed aborigine turned vengeful murderer of whites.) One of the beauties of the film version is that it takes the destructive side of Traherne's idealism into account without making us hate her. On the contrary, thanks to a more balanced cast and the genuine naiveté Streep brings to the part, we like her more. As the diplomat husband, Charles Dance (Guy Perron in Masterpiece Theater's '"The Jewel in the Crown'') has more sex appeal and authority than Edward Herrmann had. Because Dance's Raymond Brock is clearly not a wimp, our sympathy is with him when he lashes out at Susan, but also with her for marrying him, Tracy Ullman as Susan's free-spirited friend and Sting as her anointed lover (both British rock stars turned actors) are sparkling, active presences that underline her own frustrated inertia.

These subsidiary characters, in raising all the objections that we feel and that Nelligan's dominance suppressed in the play, free us to sympathize more often with Susan Traherne, and feel her vulnerability. Nelligan, always in control, seemed too ironic, too shrewd, too blisteningly aware not to perceive the gap between her ideals and her actions. Streep, however, in her scenes with such elegant exemplars of tradition as John Gielgud as a British ambassador and Ian McKellen as a foreign service executive, seems more of a well-meaning innocent.

Under Schepisi's sometimes laborious direction—endless travelogue shots of the Dordogne and quaint French village life during the war— Plenty takes a while to get going. The phony, picture-postcard atmosphere of the early scenes infects Streep's performance. She seems forever out of place. But this quality of alienation suits her well as she matures, and grows ever more isolated from the people around her. Whether catatonic or lashing out in fury, she is tremendous in the bitterness and craziness of the later scenes. What makes these passages so moving is that Streep has managed to keep before us the shadow of the young woman Susan once was, who believed she could change the world. In a searing, deeply troubling yet exhilarating performance, Streep universalizes Susan. She challenges us to remember our own lost ideals, and to wonder if the world is any readier to receive the goadings of a fiercely independent woman.

Source: Molly Haskell, "A One-Man Revival of Great Women's Roles" Ms,, Volume XIV, no 4, October, 1985, pp. 19-20.

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