The Play

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Plenty begins in a room that has been stripped bare, like the prostrate, bloody, naked man who lies sleeping on a mattress. Susan sits smoking on a packing case as Alice enters and discusses the cold climate, which she relates to the “loveless English,” thereby callously acknowledging the existence of Raymond. From their conversation the audience learns that there has been a fight between Susan and her husband Raymond and that Susan is leaving him and giving their house to Alice, who will use it as a home for unwed mothers.

The second scene shifts abruptly from 1962 London to 1943 France, where Susan and Lazar, two British undercover agents, have met at night in a field—Lazar has just parachuted into France and awaits a “drop” from an airplane. Despite the interference of the well-intentioned French Underground, the two secure the package. The distraught Susan loses her composure, declares that she does not want to die, like Tony, at Buchenwald, and embraces Lazar. Lazar asks her the French term for “mackerel sky,” un ciel pommele (the phrase is repeated during their abortive reunion in scene 11); and while nothing romantic happens onstage, the excitement and vitality of this scene suggests the offstage sexual relationship that sustains Susan in the postwar years of torpor and mediocrity.

The following lengthy scene, which occurs in 1947 Brussels, introduces Sir Leonard Darwin, Raymond’s superior in the British Foreign Service. Tony, with whom Susan has been touring Europe, has died abruptly, and it is Raymond’s task to make the necessary arrangements. Since Tony has a wife back in England, Raymond’s job is a bit complicated, and he has to make a conscious decision to lie. (Raymond’s initial assistance leads to further concessions and the eventual ruination of his diplomatic career.) This scene also establishes Susan’s distinction between “them,” the “fools . . . who stayed behind,” and “us,” “those of us who went through this kind of war” in France. Susan’s impatience and intolerance is at odds with Darwin’s naïve, evolutionary optimism about European reconstruction: “Ideals. Marvellous. Marvellous time to be alive in Europe.”

Scene 4 begins with a radio announcer’s apt comments about a “reconstructed” musical selection and then dramatizes the extent to which Susan’s obsession with the past dominates her life. As Raymond sleeps, a visual reminder of Scene 1, Susan and Alice, an aspiring writer, discuss Susan’s problems with her amorous boss and the status of her affair with Raymond, who has been commuting from Brussels on weekends. Raymond wakes; as he speaks of “acclimatizing” and becoming rich, Susan cleans her gun (Alice says that she is “fondling” it), suggesting that she, like Darwin, “has slight problems of adjustment to the modern age.” Susan’s testiness and Raymond’s resentment at her obscene criticisms of the Foreign Service result in a battle between people from different worlds. He asks, “But what other world do I have?” After a pause, Susan states, “I think of France more than I tell you.” Even at this early stage of their relationship Raymond has learned that “when you [Susan] talk longingly about the war . . . some deception usually follows.” Alice concludes the scene with a reference to “peace and plenty.”

In scenes 5 and 6 Susan, having decided to have a child, secures the services of Mick, a hustling East Ender who cannot deal with being sexually used by a woman, particularly since his failure reflects on his manhood. Time again becomes the focus as Mick, the jazz “revivalist,” declares that for him “it all stops in 1919,” and Susan states, “England can’t be like this...

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forever.” Scene 5 ends, fittingly, with Susan, who is about to start her affair with Mick, referring to the mackerel sky associated with Lazar. Susan’s past also affects the end of scene 7, when, confronted by an angry Mick, she fires her revolver over his head.

The Suez Canal debacle is the focus of scene 7, which takes place in the Knightsbridge home featured in the first scene. At a dinner party the Brocks stage for Burmese guests and Darwin, Susan suffers another breakdown. She apparently cannot refrain from mentioning the Suez Canal “blunder or folly or fiasco,” which she sees as the “death-rattle of the ruling class.” Susan’s disillusionment is shared, though not so hysterically, by Darwin, who resents being lied to by the government and declares that “when the English are the cowboys, then in truth I fear for the future of the globe.” To change the subject, a guest is encouraged to describe Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona (1967), which unfortunately features a woman “who despises her husband.” The parallel prompts Susan’s memories of “poor parachutists” and women who spent a single night with English resistance fighters. At the end of the scene Susan declares, “There is plenty.”

After the interval, Raymond and Susan have returned from Iran for Darwin’s funeral, five years later. While the intervening years have been relatively calm for the Brocks, Susan’s inner peace has been achieved with pills. She will not return to Iran; the consequences of her decision are apparent in the following scene, in which she is interviewed on the BBC and then visits Sir Andrew Charleson at the Foreign Office. Sir Andrew and Susan discuss Raymond’s career, which is proceeding at a “slowish” pace, in part because of his unwillingness to return to his post in Iran. When she realizes that Raymond has no future, she threatens to shoot herself and attempts to shift the blame for Raymond’s fate to Sir Andrew.

The following scene, which occurs a year later at the Knightsbridge house, explains what led to the scene at the start of the play. As Susan begins to empty the house, Raymond asks, “Which is the braver? To live as I do? Or never, ever to face life like you?” When he threatens to have her committed, Susan sends Alice away and confronts Raymond. A month later, Susan and Lazar, who has heard the BBC interview and found her, are at Blackpool in a dingy hotel room, where both attempt to recapture what they had in France. To Susan’s dismay, Lazar reveals that he “gave in. Always. All along the line,” though he had hoped to regain the “edge” he had in France. The loveless encounter ends when Lazar leaves, opening the door.

The open door discloses “a French hillside in high summer” in 1944, after the armistice. The young Susan addresses a French farmer, who grumbles about his situation. Susan, however, has a different perspective: “We will improve our world.” As she and her farmer friend walk down the hill, she affirms, “There will be days and days and days like this.”

Dramatic Devices

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Although much of Plenty is staged realistically, the sets not only serve as backdrops for action but also express the state of the English nation. For example, the Knightsbridge home of the Brocks, which is “decorated with heavy velvet curtains, china objects and soft furniture” in scene 7, the occasion when the British seized the Suez Canal, is in scene 1 “stripped bare,” much like Raymond and England. Similarly, the dark, “sparsely furnished and decaying room” where Lazar and Susan attempt to recapture their past is at once, because of its darkness, reminiscent of the dark, exciting night when they met in the second scene and indicative of the decay in their own lives. When Susan states, “I’ve stripped away everything,” she means that she has discarded all trivial irrelevancies, but she also is “exposed,” like Brock, and there is little left, except obsessive memories destroyed by reality. In fact, as Bert Cardullo has pointed out, in Plenty David Hare reverses the usual consolations of darkness and light. Susan’s most exhilarating experience occurs in darkness, which makes her failure in the dark Blackpool hotel room even more ironic. Sunlight only reveals reality and her growing disillusionment and despair.

Similarly, Hare uses what Cardullo terms anticipatory darkness and sound to introduce all but two of the scenes; the darkness and sound become the promise that is destroyed when the house lights go up. While the sounds function to set the mood of a scene, they also serve occasionally as ironic commentary on what is to follow. In scene 7, for example, the music “from the dark” is “emphatic, triumphant,” before the lights reveal that British victory has been achieved through diplomatic lies and “cowboy” behavior, actions that are hardly compatible with Aung’s opening statement that “the English are the Greeks—ideas, civilization, intellect.” The triumphant music sounds the “death-rattle of the ruling class.”

The play does not begin in sound and darkness, because Hare wants the audience to see only the result of Susan’s disillusionment: There is no promise at this point in her life. When the scene shifts from Blackpool to St. Benoit, there is again no sound; in scene 12 the “darkened areas of the room” of scene 11 disappear and are replaced by a French hillside in summer. Thus, the scenes are not divided but merged, suggesting that the failure of scene 11 is directly attributable to the naïve optimism of scene 12. Hare’s stage directions are a bit ambiguous: There is a “fierce” green square. Despite the brilliant colors, ordinarily associated with life, the Frenchman in the scene has “an unnaturally gloomy air” as he comments on the status of the French (“the lowest of the low”) and complains that “the harvest is not good again this year.” Susan, however, ignores what the sunlight exposes—that there will not be “plenty”—and prefers to think that “we will improve our world.”

Historical Context

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England in 1978 England is one of the countries that comprise the United Kingdom along with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In 1978, the year of Plenty's debut, Prime Minister James Callaghan and Queen Elizabeth U presided over the United Kingdom, whose population at the time was approximately 55,780,000 people.

British Arts and Literature in the 1970s According to Arthur Marwick in British Society since 1945, "British art merged anonymously into the major international trends'' and thus did not necessarily advance a "distinctively national or personal genius." Marwick identified "super realism" as one of the international trends with which British art blended. He included political works that emphasize feminism and homosexuality in this group. For dramatists, poets, and musicians, he noted that "innovation tended to be at the unspectacular." Despite such derogatory comments, Marwick did— contrarily—suggest that in the 1970s "the National Theatre at last entered into its magnificent new architectural complex and thereafter continued to present a range of plays which could by no stretch of the words be deemed conservative or unimaginative.''

Also during this period, novelists such as Angela Carter and Fay Weldon advanced feminist concerns while playwrights such as Hare addressed issues that directly affected women in postwar society. Marwick called the rise of women novelists and feminism as a literary theme "the most significant development in the indigenous novel "for the 1970s.

Economy By the close of 1978, the British economy had not enjoyed a better year since 1973. Most of the leading indicators were up, including total output, export volume, spending power, earnings, and retail sales. The government aided this trend by reducing taxes during the summer of 1978. As a result of a strong pound (the basic unit of currency in England), the country experienced less expensive imports. In addition inflation was brought to a celebrated low of 7.4% in June of 1978.

Although 1978 signaled improvement in many areas, the mid- to late-1970s were a harkening back to the Depression of the 1930s according to Marwick in British Society since 1945. The author stated that this period was marked by "a general sense of a worsening economy and declining living standards ... and the break up of the optimistic consensus which had carried Britain through the difficult postwar years into the affluence of the sixties."

Politics According to Encyclopedia Britannica's Book of the Year for 1979, one of the principal successes of 1978 was Prime Minister Callaghan's ability to run the nation despite'' a hung Parliament, a divided Labour Party, and Trades Union Congress opposition to his principle policies." Ironically, in 1978, opinion polls rated Margaret Thatcher less popular than James Callaghan. This suggests that the Labour Party enjoyed a higher approval rating than Thatcher's Conservative Party despite the fact that Thatcher assumed the Prime Ministership in 1979.

Foreign Relations Callaghan's visit to India marked a major foreign relations event in 1978. Prior to this visit, a British Prime Minister had not visited India since 1971. The general concerns for the year involved increasing international trade and decreasing Soviet influence in Cuba and Africa. Britain's colonies continue to agitate for independence. Colonial Prime Minister Ian Smith signed an agreement that allowed the African nation of Zimbabwe's black majority to assume sovereignty by year's end.

Class During the 1970s, Britain's society continued to confirm the endurance of its class-conscious system. The decade, however, was also a time of class mobility. Marwick noted that "Margaret Thatcher herself is a symbol of the educational opportunity and upward mobility offered by the British System." Marwick referred to the Prime Minister's "lower-middle-class" beginnings in contrast to her future distinction as the British head of state as an example of the possibility of social mobility afforded to British citizens during this era.

Literary Style

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SettingPlenty takes place in the European countries of England, France, and Belgium. The twelve scenes occur in seven different cities or towns during eight different years ranging from November of 1943 up through June of 1962. The setting of this play is significant because it is far from unified. Not only does the action skip from location to location, but it also travels back and forth through close to nineteen years as well Instead of highlighting the ways in which many things change over time, the skipping through the years exposes what remains constant in the lives of the characters, namely Susan's dissatisfaction.

The setting for Scene 1 and Scene 10 is particularly significant because it takes place on Easter. During these scenes, Susan prepares to and eventually does leave Brock. Because Easter symbolically recalls Jesus Christ's resurrection, Susan's leaving can perhaps be read as a rebirth of sorts. Hare concludes the play with an almost dream-Eke scene in which a radiant, young Susan celebrates the Resistance's victory in France. The audience's last impression of her is as a confident, optimistic young woman. Yet this scene evokes bittersweet emotions with the knowledge that Susan's life will never again be this rich or fulfilling.

Allusion Hare employs several political allusions within his play. An allusion is a reference to a person, place, or event with which the reader/viewer is supposed to be familiar (likewise, a literary allusion makes reference to a written work with which familiarity is assumed). An example of a more overt allusion occurs in Scene 7 when Susan brings up the Suez Canal. Critics such as Ted Whitehead, who wrote for the Spectator in 1978, somewhat sarcastically criticized Hare because such allusions "may mean more to those for whom Suez still rings a bell." Whether one is familiar with the event or not, its inclusion in the text should prompt an investigation about the event, for knowing the history behind the canal will only further one's level of understanding regarding Hare's intent. The playwright's allusions highlight his refusal to spoon-feed his audiences with a neatly packaged message.

Ambiguity Ambiguity is one of the more central literary devices Hare employs in Plenty. He intended ambiguity. He gives examples of this intention m his foreword to Plenty. Hare says of Susan, "in Scene Four you may feel that the way she gets rid of her boyfriend is stylish, and almost exemplary in its lack of hurtfulness; or you may feel it is crude and dishonest." By not clearly defining a character's actions or motivations, Hare provokes thought in his readers and viewers. He intends to show that there are often many ways of perceiving a situation or person. Some may see Susan as heroic while others may find her crazy and unpredictable. The manner in which Hare portrays her makes it possible to view the character in both of these lights.

Unconventional Convention in literature pertains to certain expected approaches and traditions associated with particular genres. Hare breaks with traditional approaches to drama and thus his work can be considered unconventional. In particular, Plenty's plot is considered a departure from standard dramatic narrative. Hare's plot does not follow a linear development that progresses from a beginning through a middle to an end. Instead, the plot is broken up and begins at the end. Scene 2 is really the first of the chronology and Scene 12 is the second in the chronology. Although Scene 3 through Scene 11 follow in a linear fashion, they are separated by many years. In addition the setting for these scenes span the globe, taking place in different countries and cities throughout Europe. Rather than adhering to the unities of theater (place, time, and action as defined by Aristotle's Poetics), Hare jumbles the events of Susan's life to illustrate his themes; while time does not unfold in a typical fashion, the play's structure allows the playwright to build a "linear" concept of thematic unity.

Plenty is also considered unconventional in its liberal use of cinematic techniques such as flashbacks, quick scene changes that approximate film editing styles, and concise dialogue. While the play earned its share of criticism for appropriating such methods (many theater critics looked down on film as a bastardization of traditional drama), it also made Plenty appealing to a generation of theater goers who had become familiar with cinematic vocabulary.

Symbolism One of the most blatant symbols in Plenty is Susan's gun. According to Joan Fitzpatrick Dean in David Hare, Susan's gun symbolizes her "destructive powers that are intended to exact respect and submission." Often guns suggest a certain phallic presence in literature. Read in this way, Susan's gun could also be understood to symbolize the ways in which she controls, manipulates, and destroys the men in her life.

Hare also employs symbolism by linking Darwin (through the character's name) to noted scientist Charles Darwin, who, like the diplomat, sought to spread the truth despite harsh criticism. On a larger scale, the character of Susan can be seen to symbolize the unfulfilled promise of England in the postwar era. Like Susan at the end of World War II, the British empire is strong and confident, believing that it has the power to change the world for the better. Susan's disillusionment and growing unhappiness mirror the dissolution of the British empire and the country's increasing hardships with unemployment and domestic unrest.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: During World War II, Great Britain envisions that it will be able to provide for the development of its colonies abroad. On February 20,1947, Great Britain announces its intention to relinquish governing power over India. By 1948, the British colonies of India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Burma have gained independence These events indicate the downsizing of the British Empire.

Today: The majority of England's colonies have achieved independence. The British Empire as a world power is no more.

1940s: Retail sales decline in 1943 because citizens are urged to purchase items such as clothing and furniture on a need only basis. Expenditures on luxury items are low as a result. Other items are restricted such as coal.

1978: Britain enjoys a booming economy in 1978 with many of its leading indicators up from previous years.

Today: According to the Economist, in 1997 Britain experienced economic growth for "a fifth straight year" despite a more recent slow down.

1947: Britain and Egypt attempt to negotiate a renewal of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which granted Britain the right to post defense troops in the Suez Canal region to protect their interest in the route's security. Negotiations break down despite Britain's voluntary evacuation of the area.

1956: President Nasser of Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal in July and in October, after making an ultimatum that Egypt and Israel withdraw from the area, Britain and France invade the Canal Zone. Egypt sinks forty ships and effectively blocks the Canal in retaliation. By November British, French and Israeli troops withdraw from the area.

Today: The Middle East continues to be a site of extensive political conflict.

Media Adaptations

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Plenty, was made into a film by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1985. Hare wrote the script and Fred Schepisi directed the film. The drama starred Meryl Streep as Susan, Tracy Ullman as Alice, Sting as Mick, Charles Dance as Raymond, and John Gielgud as Sir Leonard Darwin.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Craig, Sandy, Editor Dreams and Deconstructwns Alternative Theatre in Britain, Amber Lane Press, 1980.

Economist, January 3,1998, p. 52.

Gussow, Mel Review of Plenty in the New York Times Magazine, September 29,1985.

Hare, David. "Note on Performance'' in Plenty, New American Library, 1983.

Further Reading Bull, John. New British Political Dramatists. Howard Brenton, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, and David Edgar, Macmillan, 1984. This work explores Hare as well as other modern English playwrights. It dedicates a thorough, m-depth chapter to Hare and his work.

Childs, David. Britain since 1945, A Political History, Methuen, 1986. Childs details post-World War n political issues up through 1985. The book focuses on domestic as well as foreign affairs.

Dean, Joan Fitzpatnck David Hare, edited by Kinley E Roby, Twayne, 1990. This work offers information on the critical reception, themes, imagery, sources, settings and contexts of Hare's works.

Homden, Carol. The Plays of David Hare, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Homden's work is a comprehensive resource about Hare's works and includes commentary about his 1993 trilogy which includes Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War.

Oliva, Judy Lee David Hare: Theatricalizing Politics, UMI Research Press, 1990. Olivia's work provides another comprehensive review of Hare's works and includes an interview with him from 1989. The appendix lists the sources for critical reviews of Hare's work

Trussler, Simon, General Editor and MalcomPage, Compiler and Associate Editor. File on Hare, Methuen Drama, 1990. This helpful short book provides summaries of many of Hare's works as well as quotations from Hare, his actors, and his critics about the works The text includes nine pages about Plenty and additional bibliographic suggestions.


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Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. “Theatre: Plenty.” The New Republic, November 29, 1982, 24.

Bull, John. New British Political Dramatists. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Cardullo, Bert. “Hare’s Plenty.” Explicator 93, no. 2 (1985): 62-63.

Donesky, Finlay. David Hare: Moral and Historical Perspectives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Gale, Steven H. “David Hare’s Plenty.” In Drama, Sex and Politics, edited by James Redmond. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Homden, Carol. The Plays of David Hare. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Olivia, Judy Lee. “David Hare.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide