David Hare

By transforming the collision of people and ideas into provocative stories, Britain's hottest dramatist has reinvigorated the theater with plays that are not only compelling and enigmatic, but successful at the box office.

Published December 7, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Have you noticed? It's always the death of the theater. The death of the novel. The death of poetry. The death of whatever they fancy this week. Except there's one thing it's never the death of. Somehow it's never the death of themselves ... The death of television! The death of the journalist! Why do we never get those? It's off to the scaffold with everyone except for the journalists!"
--"Amy's View"

If the theater is dead, what was all the noise last spring about people not being able to get tickets to "Amy's View" or "The Blue Room"? Indeed, you'd have to drive a stake through playwright David Hare's heart to truly put an end to the theater. Otherwise Hare would keep on doing what he has been doing for the last 30 years: setting loose complexly conflicted characters caught in sparkling irresolvable dramas that grapple with the questions, "How do we change the world? And if we cannot change the world, how can we live in the world as we find it?"

Routinely referred to as one of Britain's leading playwrights (along with Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard), David Hare, who had four new plays on Broadway in a 12-month period, is so prolific that he may have to slow down to let his audience catch up with him. At best count, Hare has written 22 plays, many of which he directed, including "Plenty," "Racing Demon," "Skylight," "Amy's View," "The Blue Room" and "The Judas Kiss." He's also written seven feature films (including the adaptation of "Damage" directed by Louis Malle), as well as five produced teleplays, two books and various other projects.

Hare's plays are bitingly funny and politically engaged. They favor the left, but often create equally compelling portraits of the right. They're also very different from what has been passing for theater in America for all but the last few years (in which serious drama has finally begun to compete with, and at times outsell, the razzle-dazzle musicals). Among the performers who've appeared in his works are Nicole Kidman, Liam Neeson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Gambon, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench -- who was a Hare regular long before Americans discovered her and showered her with awards for even the briefest of screen appearances.

In 1998, Hare became an actor himself, something he hadn't attempted since he was 15. The vehicle for his "return" to the stage was "Via Dolorosa," a one-man play about the present state of the state of Israel, written after a trip to the Middle East to research a play about the British Mandate. When I spoke with him in New York recently, Hare said that "Via Dolorosa" is meant for people who think they know something about the Middle East, but who don't know the full complexity of the situation. And not to know the full complexity is not to know the debate at all.

"Via Dolorosa" is a testimony to the conflicting voices and beliefs -- not just the familiar Arab vs. Jew, but the equally intense Jew vs. Jew and Arab vs. Arab -- buffeting a far-off land very different from Hare's homeland. In England, Hare says in "Via Dolorosa," "people lead shallow lives, because they don't believe in anything anymore." Not so in Israel, a country where one experiences in a day "events and emotions that would keep a Swede going for a year."

Acting in "Via Dolorosa" was much more arduous than Hare had anticipated. Confronted with the unfamiliar conventions of getting onstage each evening, he grounded himself in the familiar conventions of writing each morning, producing a diary that has just been published by Faber & Faber under the slightly rebellious title "Acting Up." (Hare's preferred title would have been "My Wife Is George Bush," but his publishers convinced him that this would have been a cataloguing nightmare. Do you file it under politics? or transsexuality?)

Hare sees "Acting Up" as a defense of theater at a time when it has been accused of being elitist. He believes theater has an ability to communicate in a way no other medium can, and he's most gratified by the heated debates that filled the lobby after performances of "Via Dolorosa." "Acting Up" is also a funny day-to-day chronicle of what it's like to perform onstage in front of a live audience, by somebody very much at the heart of contemporary theater. Hare marvels at how Judi Dench can rally the troops before heading onstage with "OK, let's move them," or how Kevin Spacey hits the boards as if it were a football field with "Let's go out there and kick some ass."

Whatever indignities Hare suffers as an actor, nothing compares with the crawling-in-the-stalls agonies of a playwright sitting with the audience watching his own work, a torture he has endured since 1969, when he was 22. His writing career began accidentally -- "with a typewriter on my knees, while traveling in a van with an itinerant theatre group Tony
Bicet and I had founded called Portable Theatre," a leading force in Britain's fringe theater movement -- when a playwright failed to deliver a play for a performance four days hence. In an interview with his Faber & Faber editors, published as a foreword to the first volume of his collected plays, Hare recalls, "The piece was as silly as you'd expect of something concocted in four days by someone who'd never really thought about writing a play before. It was a primitive satire on the unlikelihood of revolution in Britain."

What was clear even then, however, was that David Hare could write dialogue, which is "as essential a skill for a playwright as rendering hands and feet is for a painter," he says. Immediately commissioned to write a full-length play, "Slag," a satire about life in an all-female community inspired by feminism and Germaine Greer's
recently published "The Female Eunuch," Hare won the Evening Standard Drama Award for most promising new playwright. He quickly followed up with three more satires capitalizing on the "democratizing elements of public laughter."

Hare then changed course in 1974 with "Knuckle," moving away from contemporary satire to begin what would become a long string of history plays. Unfortunately, his agent at the time hated "Knuckle" and told him he should stick to writing jokes. This turned into one of the greatest bits of luck in Hare's career: a meeting with Peggy Ramsay, the legendary British agent (remembered by Simon Callow in "Love Is Where It Falls") who became not only his agent, but also "the formative influence on my playwrighting life." Peggy Ramsay broke her cardinal rule and put up her own money for a production of Hare's play.

Over the years, Ramsay's faith in the playwright has been amply rewarded. He wrote four more plays in as many years, culminating in "Plenty," which premiered at the National Theatre in 1978, to a less than spectacular reception. The National Theatre's then-director, Peter Hall, fought for the play to be left to find its audience: "What's the point of having a National Theatre if you can't put on something you believe in?" Since then, "Plenty" has become one of Hare's most prominent works (although when Nicole Kidman took off her clothes onstage in "The Blue Room," lines ran around the block). Now, "half a lifetime" later, Hare says, "There is not a play of mine of which I feel more strongly."

At the center of "Plenty," which is set after World War II, is Susan Traherne, a quintessentially enigmatic Hare character. Hare describes her in "Acting Up" as a woman "who has had a good war, but then is disillusioned by peace." Susan lives in a permanent state of ineffectual dissent, but has no way of expressing this dissent other than to disrupt the lives of those around her. She and her husband, the enduringly mono-syllabic Brock, live their lives in evening-gowned times of plenty, which have done nothing so much as underscore her feeling that nothing is ever going to be quite enough.

After "Plenty" opened, Hare left England and didn't write another play for the stage for almost four years. In "Acting Up" he recalls that he was "exhausted, like everyone else, with the class system and the lethargy of living in Britain." He credits Margaret Thatcher with his silence in the early '80s. "History didn't take the turn we had expected, or advocated. Marxist writers of all ages have been thrown for a similar loop by the fall of the wall."

Hare lived in self-imposed exile in New York until he realized that "hating England is not a good enough reason to live in America. America may look freer, but the kind of freedom we all wanted we weren't going to get. You still spend every day with who you are."

Hare returned to England and the stage in 1985 with "Pravda," an attack on the British press -- Rupert Murdoch in particular -- written in collaboration with Howard Brenton. In a recent interview with Sarah Lyall for the New York Times, Hare described the 1980s as a time during which he "felt trapped in the theater, and I went through a period of intense bitterness and self-pity." He tried his hand at both film and television, in an agonizing exploration of where he should go next as a dramatist. His most accomplished film, "Wetherby," won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1985, adding another accolade to his already weighted-down shelf.

By the end of his dark decade, he had made a satisfying peace with the theater, culminating with "The Secret Rapture" (1988). The play is about a Thatcheresque MP who sets out to destroy her younger sister, the aptly named Isobel Glass, who wants to be left alone to earn her meager living without the imposition of the nearly universal desire to get rich. The man who supposedly loves her tells Isobel, "You must grow up. You have this crazy idea of integrity."

In 1980, after 10 years of marriage, Hare was divorced from his first wife -- television producer Margaret Matheson, the mother of his three children. Ten years later, he married French fashion designer Nicole Farhi, to whom he's still "deeply married."

After his marriage to Farhi, Hare settled into an incredibly productive run, welcoming in the post-Thatcher era with a trilogy of plays attacking the failings of British institutions. "Racing Demon" (1990) takes on the Anglican church in the poorer neighborhoods of London; "Murmuring Judges" (1991) goes after the British criminal justice system; and "The Absence of War" (1993) blasts the Labor Party.

According to the New York Times, "The Absence of War" offended the party's leader, Neil Kinnock (to whom Hare had been given special access during the 1992 elections). Kinnock, in turn, criticized the play, offending Hare. In a gesture of reconciliation,
the Labor government granted Hare a knighthood last year; at the time, the playwright told the New York Times that the appointment "stems from Labor's change of heart over its mean denunciation of 'The Absence of War.'" The knighthood was also what Hare calls "a hedge against transience. The point of adding the one word to my name was that people would know that at least one of my plays had been taken seriously, even if it was a long, long time ago."

In the wake of this trilogy of history plays, Hare wrote "Skylight" (1995) and "Amy's View" (1997), which he refers to as his "Jim and Tim" plays, bourgeois dramas of the "two characters in a room" variety -- in which the individuals seem to be caught in a moment in history that is slowly eviscerating their lives. Both plays wrestle with irresolvable dilemmas of intimacy fueled by complex and defiant female characters whose flawed integrity is the heart and soul of the dramas. In fact, the female characters in Hare's plays often carry the conscience of the piece, retaining a dignity that derives from a deep conviction -- both the character's and the author's -- that they alone in the teeming madness see and accept the world for what it is.

In "Acting Up," Hare denounces "this new British genre of films, like 'Sliding Doors,'" where "people have no lives or thoughts beyond our romantic relationships." In fact, the entrenched drama of the Middle East explored in "Via Dolorosa" offers near-perfect material for Hare: It incorporates the destructive nature of morality ("The Judas Kiss"), the conflict between the secular and the religious ("Racing Demon"), the manipulative nature of a punitive suicide ("Wetherby"), the faiblesse of goodness ("The Secret Rapture"), the irreconcilability of opposing beliefs and the inevitability of betrayal (nearly everything he has ever written).

Hare is such a good writer that, about two-thirds of the way through "Acting Up," when he is bitterly lamenting what he is missing as a playwright in order to be an actor, you begin to seriously wish he would talk about writing in the way that he has been talking about acting. But he won't. Anything he has to say about writing he has already said as writing. During our conversation he asked, "Does anyone talk about writing? You can't. What's there to say?"

Despite himself, "Acting Up" is full of a seasoned writer's wisdom. "My first rule of playwrighting is that scenes must be rivers, not lakes. They must go somewhere," Hare writes. "The first character a playwright has to get right in a play is himself  Mastery of the form involves not just controlling what happens in each act, but also the sense of what happens between them."

"Good playwrights describe the collision between people and ideas," he adds. "Intentions and ideals have to be embodied in inadequate vessels called human beings."

When asked what he will do next, he says he will do what he has always done: He will write another play. Superstition won't allow him to discuss the subject, but he will pursue the formal experimentation and exploration of history he has begun with "Via Dolorosa." "In England we are born with a sense of history and a feeling that we have been robbed of an immense amount of power," he says. "We are who we are because of the Empire; historical events shape us."

Will he act again? Absolutely not. With self-effacing charm he recently told a Barnes and Noble audience that, "Nobody has asked me to star in anything, no doubt because they've seen me act."

Whatever the subject of his next play, Hare will undoubtedly strive for, and more likely than not accomplish, what the late artist Robert Smithson called the goal of any true artist -- to establish enigmas, not explanations. There are some things that are irreconcilable. The whole of life cannot be organized into a Spielbergian drama with a single resolution. Explanations and opinions are the province of journalists, not the theater or playwrights -- and Hare, who is deeply in love with the theater, is anxious to return to being a playwright.

By Susan Emerling

Susan Emerling is a feature film and documentary writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles. Her most recent film, "Robert Zemeckis on Drinking, Drugging and Smoking in America: The Pursuit of Happiness" premiered on Showtime in September.

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