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.