Plenty’s Discontent

Plenty’s Discontent

The lost sense of hope and idealism in David Hare’s England.


In the program for Plenty, David Hare’s breakthrough 1978 drama of disenchantment, which recently completed a run at New York’s Public Theater, the British playwright’s bio doesn’t mention that he was knighted in 1998. But it does report that “in a millennial poll of the best 100 plays of the 20th century, five were his.” I couldn’t verify that claim, but in the famous poll of English-language plays conducted by London’s National Theatre at the end of the 1990s, Hare shows up twice. In all likelihood, Hare did not write the bio himself. Still, the boast captures something elemental about the sensibility of the man The Guardian has called “a titan of British political theatre”: He’d rather flaunt plaudits from the people than ribbons from the royals.

Though no one would mistake Hare for a populist—his dozens of plays, adaptations, TV and movie scripts, several books, and countless newspaper columns are too cerebral for that—he has struck an antiestablishment stance since his early career. Despite multiple decorations from the highest echelons, Hare has remained a champion of the underdog, a needler of the ruling class, and, especially, a critical chronicler of his country’s often-elitist institutions. Having come of age as one of postwar British theater’s Brecht-inspired angry young (mostly) men—Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, Snoo Wilson—Hare has long regarded himself as a socialist.

What that means—particularly when it comes to Hare’s body of work—has never been easy to fix, and the question was reopened this past year as the political ground was shifting in Britain (and buckling here) and a series of old and new Hare works, in a range of media, came to the United States. In addition to the first major revival of Plenty, last season saw the publication, in paperback, of his memoir, The Blue Touch Paper. New York also hosted a visit, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, of a London production of The Judas Kiss, a 1998 play that imagines the waning days of Oscar Wilde. And in September, the film Denial, for which Hare wrote a deft screenplay (based on Deborah Lipstadt’s History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier), was released.

Over the decades, Hare has been lauded as a leftist who creates characters ensnared in personal predicaments while caught up in historical circumstances, rather than putting forth the stick figures of agitprop. This is, of course, a false binary, and yet it’s one that Hare himself has promoted. “When people tell you they value political art,” he writes in The Blue Touch Paper, “what they often mean is that they enjoy political propaganda which corroborates what they already think.” But dramatic art “is about people, it is not about types.”

True enough. But Hare’s own plays are closed systems that leave little room for radical challenge. His characters, while embroiled in traditional dramatic conflicts over family grudges (Amy’s View, The Secret Rapture), the battle of the sexes (Skylight, A Map of the World), or both (The Vertical Hour), often express rigid political positions filigreed into those more intimate frictions. They argue over politics in tangy clashes of perspective, but they don’t question themselves. Often, his conservatives get the better arguments, even as both sides come off as self-righteous and doctrinaire. Audiences are invited not so much to participate intellectually and emotionally in working out the ideas that Hare’s characters debate, but rather to stand aloof in cold judgment.

One reason his characters are so absolute derives from what Hare has described as his primary concern: “For some time, my subject as a playwright has been faith,” he says in Via Dolorosa, his 1998 monologue recounting a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. The faith that interests him has little to do with religion—most of the people he interviewed were secular—but with conflicting political convictions. “[P]eople here are still arguing passionately about where their country is headed,” he says, contrasting the fervent Middle East, in old Orientalist fashion, with complacent England. He presents their beliefs as if they have sprung full-grown (as in many of Hare’s other plays) from their personalities—­not from their contending with history or contemporary events. So while Hare’s characters may discuss politics, because he depicts their viewpoints as a matter of faith, the plays can feel strangely apolitical. Faith, after all, is impervious to reason, evidence, and better judgment; it is about resolute commitment. And because its rupture is always devastating, Hare’s plays often turn on issues of betrayal; disappointment and disgruntlement are his most combustible dramaturgical fuel. For a man of the left, Hare has spent a surprising amount of his career writing with suspicion, and even cynicism, about ideals.

* * *

A dyspeptic sense of disillusionment—and Hare’s efforts to overcome it, typically by puncturing what he deems the illusions of others—suffuses his memoir. For Hare, growing up in repressive Bexhill, a provincial town in southern England, in the 1950s, “the family religion was judgment.” So too was the kind of unrelieved boredom that he endured and which, he eventually understood, was the preferred salve for the trauma his parents’ generation had suffered during World War II. His mother perpetually seeped fear and anxiety; his father, a Merchant Navy purser, dropped in on the family for a few weeks a year. “The only available therapy was silence,” Hare recalls.

Practicing the family religion, Hare judges himself harshly throughout Blue Touch, describing himself as “nasty,” “sanctimonious,” and “unlikeable” at home; filled with “anguish” and “loneliness” as a friendless scholarship student at an elite private boarding school; and exuding “glibness” and “facetiousness” at Cambridge.

Likewise, in the theater world, he quickly acquired a reputation as “ruthless and arrogant.” And as elegant as his writing is, sentence for sentence, in his memoir, his prose often sweats smugness and embitterment. He dredges up decades-old grudges and frequently wags his finger at anyone he deems a poseur, purist, or disappointment. Often this person is himself. In describing his betrayal of his first wife, the TV producer Margaret Matheson, as a result of a long-term affair with the actor Kate Nelligan, he tells the reader that anyone inclined to “think ill” of him cannot match his own scathing “judgment on myself.” Yet despite the self-lacerations, Hare is also unrepentant (he tells us that Nelligan took his arm one day after a run-through of Knuckle and confided, “You’re a great writer,” and then—ick!— “Inevitably, during the first week together [in rehearsal], Kate and I grew close”).

* * *

The book’s title is taken from a British phrase for causing a stir or pissing folks off—a “blue touch paper” is a fuse for fireworks and other explosives. The image well captures Hare’s temper, but he uses it to evoke the experience of being a playwright, who kindles a project with a script and then turns it over to a performance company that will set it ablaze in unpredictable ways. One might also argue that it serves as a nice description of the incendiary early years of Britain’s new fringe theater, whose story forms the most engaging part of the memoir.

After his undergraduate days, Hare rode his high horse out of Cambridge, at full gallop, and became one of the artists blazing a new path of postwar alternative theater. It’s astonishing how open and ready England seemed to receive them—and how entitled to the reception they seemed to feel. Hare formed an itinerant company with his classmate Tony Bicât, the Portable Theater, which sought to bring its plays to far-flung community spaces—churches, village halls, army camps, art galleries—with the purpose to “go in, shake them up and get out.”

Working primarily as a director at first, Hare responded to a playwright’s failure to deliver a commissioned script by dashing off his own first play in 1969. The result was a satirical critique of the left, inaugurating Hare’s clamber to a perch above his comrades. At age 21, he also became the literary manager of the Royal Court, a more establishment theater devoted to new plays, a “sweltering hothouse of defensiveness and paranoia.”

The election of Margaret Thatcher jolted Hare, and Britain’s rightward turn became the subject of many of his plays. Mendacity and pretense—the failure to behave in a way consistent with professed principles—remain the target of Hare’s most pointed attacks. He pokes most sharply in his trilogy of plays about British institutions—­Racing Demon (the church), Murmuring Judges (the law), and The Absence of War (the Labour Party)—and in some of his documentary plays, like The Permanent Way, which examines the disastrous result of Britain’s selling off its public railroads.

Despite all of Hare’s creative energy in the 1980s and ’90s, The Blue Touch Paper ends in a hurry, concluding before these plays were written. Racing through the ’80s in fewer than 10 pages, Hare seems to be in a rush to get to the ’90s so that he can report a happy ending. In these years we find him in a new, mature, and blissful marriage to the designer Nicole Farhi, which softens his edges.

* * *

The last play Hare discusses in The Blue Touch Paper is the one that first brought him international acclaim: Plenty. He regards it as the culmination of all of his early efforts. Opening at the National to a tepid reception in 1978, the play was kept on the boards by the artistic director, Peter Hall, who considered it a landmark work. As the Thatcher years commenced, Plenty found a wider audience: Theatergoers responded to its prescient sense of England’s rising conservatism and were dazzled by Nelligan, who starred as protagonist Susan Traherne, a woman crumbling under Britain’s stifling postwar dullness and lethargy.

Taking place from 1943 to 1962, not quite in chronological order, the play traces Susan’s decline after she returns from occupied France (where she served as a courier for the Special Operations Executive), to a land full of compatriots who now seem “childish and a little silly.” She finds office work intolerable, affairs unsatisfying, and her marriage to a diplomat downright numbing.

Hare wrote the play, he explains in Blue Touch, after reading that 70 percent of women who served in the Special Operations Executive divorced after the war. “You believed in the organization. You had to. If you didn’t, you would die,” Susan says of the SOE. Now England, despite the promise of “peace and plenty,” gives her nothing to believe in. Hare charts the path from idealism to disillusion and a sense of betrayal. With no cherished ideals to serve as a true north, Susan finds her moral compass has gone haywire. Because of her desultory spirit, she has often been read as a metaphor for Britain itself: After a period of sacrifice and noble action during the war, the country found itself foundering and uncertain, politically and culturally barren (Susan’s inability to get pregnant is a key plot point).

When Plenty first came to New York in 1982—premiering at the Public and then moving to Broadway—Nelligan gave an indelible, shattering performance; she was a solid crystal beauty splintering into dangerous shards. At the same time, the play caught the uneasiness of the Reaganite zeitgeist, striking the same sort of bitter national chord it had sounded in England.

I wondered if the new production at the Public this fall, some 35 years later, would have similar resonance in the wake of Brexit and amid the vertiginous election season here. It didn’t—and not only because Rachel Weisz portrayed the despairing Susan as flighty and skittish, but also because the play’s essential nostalgic appeal no longer exerts any pull. Susan yearns for a time when she could believe in her country’s good; even the diplomats in the play come to feel betrayed by Britain’s bad faith during the Suez crisis of 1956.

The heroism and righteousness of the Allies in the Second World War notwithstanding, audiences have now long been disabused of any delusions about the glories of Western power abroad. And the disorientation that the play manifested when it debuted, as one generation’s wartime sense of commonweal yielded to the Thatcherism of the next, has, alas, hardened into the supremacy of financial markets and a near-universal veneration of individualism. As Hare put it in a lecture in 2004, “Plays serve, and then they cease to serve.”

Nowadays, it’s even harder not to ask of Susan: What really ails her? Why didn’t she just commit herself to any number of good causes? She never expresses any specific principles; what she misses, apparently, is merely the sense of adventure and importance the war gave her, not the principles it ostensibly sought to protect. One realizes that Susan does not actually have any politics. “We have grown up,” she says in the play’s last scene, a flashback to a French hillside at the end of the war, when she is 19. “We will improve our world.” But Susan has no inclination to work for that improvement; the play’s final irony feels smug, even cynical.

Today, such a scene seems especially dispiriting, when our deteriorating democracies don’t even bother to hide the nefarious deeds that give the lie to their virtuous platitudes. Punching holes in the hypocrisies we live by—Hare’s abiding dramatic impulse—has become, one fears, a quaint enterprise.

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