Reputations: David Hare (3/3)

10th June 2005


Q&A: Michael Billington, Richard Boon, Sir Richard Eyre and Charles Spencer conclude the session. Dominic Cavendish chairs. Recorded live.

He puts a lot of people’s backs up… and he’s extremely successful… so there’s a lot to hate.



Michael Billington, Richard Boon, Sir Richard Eyre and Charles Spencer consider Hare’s status. Dominic Cavendish hosts.
Recorded: 10 June 2005.
Transcribed by Keyboard Freedom. © theatreVOICE.
Dominic Cavendish: David Hare is regularly described as one of the most productive and successful playwrights to emerge in Britain in the post-war era. He was born on 5th June 1957, grew up in Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex, and was educated at Lancing College. He went on to read English at Cambridge where he met the playwright Tony Bicat with whom he founded Portable Theatre, a trail-blazing touring outfit that took its work to such uneffete destinations as schools, prisons and army camps in the late 60s and early 70s.
His first solo debut, Slag, was produced at the Hampstead Theatre, London, in 1970. In 1975 he co-founded Joint Stock Theatre Company with David Aukin and Max Stafford-Clark, and produced with them one the decade’s most seminal ensemble pieces, Fanshen, an evocation of village life in China in the late 40s at the time of revolution, which was described as being without precedent in the history of the British theatre by Michael Billington in The Guardian.
In 1978, following poor reviews for his play Plenty, he took his wife and family to the United States and there, so report has it, experienced a marital and nervous breakdown. He returned four years later to London, shortly after which time he was made Associate Director at The National Theatre where a considerable amount of his work has now been premiered, including 1982’s A Map of the World, 1985’s Pravda co-written with Howard Brenton, 1988’s A Secret Rapture, and the Hare trilogy of the early 90s, Skylight and Amy’s View in 1995 and ’97 respectively, and last year’s Stuff Happens, plus several adaptations including Mother Courage and his currently running version of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.
I’d suggest that during the 1990s Hare’s reputation grew apace so that by the end of the decade he had become a central figure in the theatrical culture. Through the achievement of the Hare trilogy, which looked in turn at the Church of England, the Criminal Justice System and the Labour Party in the run-up to the ’92 election, he set himself apart as the most forceful examiner of British institutions in the profession, gaining a degree of access to the heart of the establishment that even privileged sections of the media would struggle to match, and which continues to bear fruit in recent work such as Via Dolorosa, his one-man assessment of the Arab/Israeli situation, The Permanent Way, his gathering together of testimonies about the break up and break down of the British railway network and, again, Stuff Happens, which charted the international build-up to the Iraq war. If his 1998 knighthood marks an official seal of approval for his contribution to British theatre, it also raises questions about the exact nature of that contribution.
Has David Hare succeeded in squaring the circle of being at once left-leaning and anti-establishment while proving his mainstream acceptability, or has something been lost as the achievements have grown? The backlash against his success finds its most angry articulation in Dominic Dromgoole’s scathing denunciation in The Full Room: An A to Z of Contemporary Playwriting, which was published in 2000 in the wake of much media excitement at the scenes of nudity of Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room, his adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde for The Donmar in 1998. ‘The most intriguing question about David Hare is how such a flat writer has come to be afforded such a mountainous reputation,’ he wrote. ‘It still baffles me. I presume the answer can only be a matter of desperate ambition, he simply wanted it badly.’ Dominic Dromgoole continued: ‘How did the writer of Fanshen, one of the purest, most original and cleanest works of the post-war period, end up creating the stomach-churning spectacle that was The Blue Room?’ He concluded: ‘Perhaps the early enemy proved too seductive, and what began as a target became a lifestyle, or maybe the real enemy all along was vanity and that eventually couldn’t be defeated.’ Without wishing to concentrate too much on Dromgoole’s assertions, his remarks provide, I think, a useful backdrop for this afternoon’s discussion.
Before starting which, just let me introduce again the panel properly, beginning with a director acclaimed for his work across theatre, film, and television, Sir Richard Eyre, who has played a crucial role in the development of David Hare’s career, first as Artistic Director of the Nottingham Playhouse between 1973 and ’78, and then as Artistic Director of The National Theatre between 1988 and ’97.
There he directed the Hare trilogy, Skylight which we’re going to be showing after this conversation, and Amy’s View. After leaving The National he went on to direct The Judas Kiss. All three of these plays, dubbed ‘Hare’s unofficial trilogy’, played on Broadway as well as in London. Right at the other end, we have Richard Boon who is Professor of Performance Studies at the University of Leeds, he is the author of a number of books on modern British political theatre and most importantly, as far as this event is concerned, he’s produced About Hare: The Playwright and His Work, published by Faber as part of a series of surveys of playwrights for which he is an Associate Editor.
Michael Billington is The Guardian’s chief theatre critic, he’s the author of a major critical biography of Harold Pinter, and Charles Spencer is, again, the lead critic of The Daily Telegraph. He’s also a novelist and he’d probably be a millionaire if he had a penny for every mention and reworking of the phrase ‘sheer theatrical Viagra’, which he coined to described Nicole Kidman’s performance in The Blue Room.
Well we’ve got to the end of the long introduction. I just really wanted to go around the row first really and ask people what their general assessment of David Hare is, if that’s possible. I mean perhaps I could just start with you Richard, you’ve written a book about David Hare. If you don’t mind me quickly quoting one more thing, in the introduction you say, ‘as a dramatist he’s perhaps more than any other of his generation, succeeded in capturing the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, through the many changes the period has seen.’ I mean that’s a pretty big statement.
Richard Boon: Yes, I guess it is. I think it’s a true statement or I wouldn’t have made it, accounting for it is more difficult I think. I think there are grave dangers in ascribing mystical qualities to the process of writing, but at the same time I think there are mysterious processes at work there. And I think one of the things that Hare’s done throughout his career is shown a fairly unerring instinct for sometimes almost pre-empting major or significant shifts in cultural perception. I think that was most clearly seen most recently in The Permanent Way, which was a play that interesting because, in my view, it was about more things that its ostensible subject. And I think that kind of instinct is, for me, what lodges him pretty much near the centre of the theatrical establishment today.
Dominic Cavendish: OK, well that’s a good starting point. Just to swing to the opposite end. Richard Eyre, it must be strange sometimes seeing critics and academics talking about someone you’ve come to know very well and worked with a lot, and I don’t know whether it’s on a sort of theoretical or a historical level that you appreciate the work of David Hare, or whether you’ve got such an intimate relationship with him that you’ve got a rather different overview, in a sense, of the man and his work.
Richard Eyre: I do have a different overview, I’m talking about somebody who… we’re talking about somebody who… Jonathan Kent who’s a director who used to run The Almeida, when David and I were bickering about something or another said, the two of you, oh, you’re just like an old married couple. And I realised that that actually is quite a good analogy, because directors are, you know, marriage brokers, they’re trying to, you know, effect marriages of text and performance. And it’s true, and if it is a marriage then it’s been going for thirty-five years. So it is very, very difficult for me to be objective about somebody I’ve been that long involved in, and with his work. I think that Dominic Dromgoole’s account, I don’t really recognise and I think it’s a caricature, and to pick The Blue Room which was a piece commissioned by Sam Mendes as a sort of iconic work of David Hare, is absolute nonsense. If you take Racing Demon, which is my favourite play of his, I think it’s a play that in fifty years will stand out as a play which absolutely recognises, enforces and exemplifies everything that Richard Boon has said about being, representing the zeitgeist. It’s a play about an institution, it’s a play recognisably about a period where socialism has failed and we’re left with these essentially great liberal institutions, if you like, like The National Theatre and The Guardian and the BBC and, if you like, the Church of England, and trying to find a way of moving forward. And this is where David, I think, liberated by a lack of obligation to have an ideological position, a political ideological position.. and I think it released in him an extraordinary vein of writing which also tapped into his childhood because his childhood, for all that he might appear to the man in the street as a toff, is from a curiously deracinated background in Bexhill on Sea, and he tapped in to that in Racing Demon. So I think the answer is yes or no to your question, whatever it was. Oh incidentally, I thought it was wonderful you said he’d written a play called ‘Prada’, he should of course write a play called Pravda with his wife, but he wrote Pravda with Howard Brenton. And a very, very good example of what you’re talking about is prescience. When I commissioned a play about, in 1973, about the Poulson affair, about civil corruption, it was called Brassneck. And in fact the Poulson affair, involving corruption in Newcastle, was sub-judice at the time, and the official solicitor came to see it and also the head of the Fraud Squad and said how did you get all this stuff, how did you get all this stuff. And of course David and Howard had invented it all, and now it appears like social realism in the same way as who said, you know, the Murdoch press was going to amalgamate it in that way. And Pravda now, you look at Pravda it’s just, you think this is documentary stuff.
Dominic Cavendish: Michael Billington, do you see there as there being a kind of incremental increase in status, or is that a rather bogus sort of journalistic way of looking at Hare’s work?
Michael Billington: No, I don’t think it’s bogus, I think he’s genuinely got better and I think the early plays, as I remember them, maybe we’ll come on to them, Slag and.. particularly one which Richard directed, The Great Exhibition, I think were very callow pieces. And I think Hare’s one of the few examples of a dramatist who gets better and better with age, not always the case. And if you want me to place him, I mean I think he’s now one of the four living great British dramatists along with Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn. Not necessarily in that order, but I think those four who, to me, not are individually great but represent an extraordinary sort of contrast. We can explore that later if you like, you know, they all have different territory, and David Hare’s territory seems to me, as both Richards have said, is exploring social and political issues. He has the most extraordinary antennae, it seems to me, for what is going on in the country. I place him very firmly in the ‘State of England’ dramatists. His obsession, I believe, is with the moral climate of this country, the political climate of this country, and what he’s done in play after play is to explore that and to take the temperature of the nation. And just to come back to Dominic Dromgoole’s fatuous, absurd comments, to be accused of vanity by Dominic Dromgoole is like being accused of bigotry by Ian Paisley, it seems to me. I mean his remarks are so ridiculous, calling David Hare’s dialogue flat, I think is the word he uses, is nonsense. I mean I’ve got here a copy of the plays and I could quote, you know, from examples which are anything but flat. I think the mistake with Hare though, very briefly, is to assume he’s simply a super-journalist, you know, that he’s simply a journalist/dramatist who cottons onto issues. I think, as with all first-rate dramatists, there is a streak of poetry and indeed romance running through all the work but, again, we can come on to that. I think he’s a major writer.
Dominic Cavendish: Charlie, last but not least. In a sense you were kind of at the front of the media furore about The Blue Room and maybe the whole thing kind of got blown out of proportion..
Charles Spencer: Yes, I don’t think… they didn’t really have much to do with the Hare adaptation, I think, and as Richard was saying, I think that’s very peripheral to David Hare’s work. My feeling about Hare is that I agree, I mean he does absolutely tap into the zeitgeist, it’s just whether that is necessarily the mark of a major dramatist, to me, I mean we don’t say about Shakespeare that he was wonderful because he tapped into the zeitgeist of the time or that, you know, that King Lear was a play about the need for housing for the elderly or something like that. And I think that my view is that by and large he is a remarkably good journalist, and often a less good playwright. For me there are two exceptions to that and Richard’s mentioned one of them, Racing Demon, which I think is a play that does lurch into wonderful areas of transcendence and empathy and stands up remarkably well. And also Skylight, a much smaller play, is a really fine study of an adulterous relationship and with a wonderful heart to it, I think. But quite often I find a conscientiousness about Hare, that he’s trawling through issues. Richard directed the trilogy, that middle piece of that, Murmuring Judges, seems to me to be an entirely conscientious work, you know, he was looking at the police, at the legal system and at the judges, and it just seemed to me to be real, very solid hack work rather than one of those plays where you feel a writer has some.. his imagination has been fired and he’s soared in to places he didn’t know he was going to go to. What I find about Hare too often is a kind of pedestrian need to list the issues. But he’s very conscientious, they’re very audience friendly, and I mean I think there is wit in the dialogue, but a lot of these plays I don’t think will last. I think they work very well now, but I don’t think he’s written, like the other three, plays that are timeless, apart from those two. And the other thing I’d say is, the other thing is if you… I absolutely agree that the top, you know, this ridiculous sort of British male’s love of lists, but the top four I think are exactly as Michael said. If you think of Ayckbourn, Pinter and Stoppard, all of them have a tone of voice, a world that is authentic, absolutely their own. What I miss in Hare is that sense, a sense of a writer that creates, you know, you’d only have to read a page of any of those three or see, you know, two minutes on stage, you’d probably know who it was by. I don’t feel that Hare has that, that sort of quality of himself, as it were, that’s one of the things I find missing.
Dominic Cavendish: Well I’m sure various people will want to maybe pick up on that assertion, all those assertions, but maybe that’s a good way of talking about the early Hare work because in a way perhaps what’s striking is that maybe there was this desire to perhaps be more self-abnegating as a writer in those days. When Hare started out there was a mission almost to get round the table as a group of writers and a group of actors and create work. And it’s possible that some of the questions about identity as a writer that Charlie’s picked up on, can be threaded back to those early needs to go out on a mission. I mean that’s a big word to use, but I don’t know, perhaps Richard Eyre, could you talk about your first encounters with David Hare at that time? You said in The Guardian interview that you remember him as being preternaturally assured and he knew his own mind.
Richard Eyre: He did know his own mind even then… I didn’t know him at Cambridge, he’s about three years younger than me, and in many ways I felt he was much older than me when I first met him. Because he had this extraordinary paradoxical presence of, you know, the captain of cricket, very, very good-looking, dashing in a sort of Edwardian fashion, married to this absolutely forthright, scathing, acrid and extremely witty conversation. So he could just eviscerate issues and people and he was a wonderful anecdotalist, so he always seemed to have a sort of charmed life, which has in some way, I think, been a burden for him because actually he’s incredibly thin-skinned and he gives this impression of total assurance, which of course is a mask because he’s a welter of anxiety. I just wanted to pick up on something that Charlie was saying about, I think about his journalism, Murmuring Judges I would put in brackets and I’m responsible. And he was extremely noble about Murmuring Judges because we’d committed to a trilogy, he was having tremendous difficult writing it and if you see, you know, if you take on the judiciary, the police and the Prison Service, are you surprised? And he said, I really can’t get through it. And I said well David, you’re going to have to, even if it means we’re going to line-up twelve chairs, black chairs on the Olivier stage, you’re going to finish this play. And so I whipped him in to that. So you can call that hack work, but actually I’d say hack work of an extraordinarily sophisticated nature. But the guy can write some of those scenes, I mean for instance, like the first scene of the second act where Michael Bryant, as an extremely reactionary High Court Judge, held the stage with the Home Secretary, and there’s this wonderful piece of pantomime, if you like, about the British legal service, and in parallel action a prison, there was a prisoner in a cell. It was a wonderful piece of imaginative and, you know, it’s very, very difficult to write plays. And one of the reasons I think David gets criticised is because he’s so prolific, and it’s wonderful that he is so prolific and it’s very, very rare amongst playwrights who usually, they have their talent or their energy, expires rather early, the need to please, to live and to live to please becomes very wearing. But just a propos the notion of journalism, I think he’s almost obsessively consumed by the subject of what, how do you live a good life. And in that sense, you see it is like King Lear because that’s precisely the subject of King Lear, is the mystery of things, how do you live. And I think he’s more and more coming to show that and loss and despair and disappointment, if you like, are his themes.
Dominic Cavendish: Michael, just to carry on from that, I mean do you think this idea of Hare the journalist, I mean in some ways he perhaps has recreated an idea of what a playwright can and should do, hasn’t he? There’s some snobbery attached to a playwright not delivering from some deep core part of themselves – somebody goes out and interviews people and brings back materials and sifts it and weighs it up and this sort of thing. Do you think that willingness to engage with the material of journalism goes back to the very beginning, to Fanshen and this sort of material?
Michael Billington: Well I think it goes back before then. I mean first of all, as a journalist myself, I refuse to see journalistic as a pejorative word actually, I think a journalist/dramatist is a fine thing. And I often have quoted, and I will quote yet again, a remark of Shaw’s on this very subject. He said, A Doll’s House will be forgotten when A Midsummer Night’s Dream is still being played, but A Doll’s House will have done more work in the world, i.e. you know, it would have had a bigger social impact. What is fascinating is how wrong Shaw was, because of course A Doll’s House is still a hundred years on being played, but you see the point he was making, and I think that’s a valid criteria for judging plays, not simply whether they’re enduring masterpieces. We’re not going to be here in a hundred years’ time, it’s the work they do now, what impact now, the impact Stuff Happens has now on an audience. Whether it’s played when, you know, Old Times is being played, to me is neither here nor there, I don’t give a toss about posterity, I care about what plays do for us today. So yes, there always has been a journalistic element, it seems to me, to Hare’s work, because he’s obviously, as Richard has said, he’s obviously obsessed with the world around him. And I think it goes beyond Fanshen, which actually in a way is not journalistic, because what that is, as far as I can tell, is a piece of meticulous research, I mean the company took William Hinton’s book about this Chinese collective and found a way to dramatise it. And that quote of mine which you used, you know, reflected I suppose the unlikeliness of that on the British stage. Could I just go back to first encounters though, because I have two vivid memories of the young David Hare, one of which absolutely confirms Richard’s. I interviewed him about a thing called Lay-by, this collaborative venture he did with I think six other writers, and he said, oh let’s meet at the French Pub. You see, there again, I didn’t actually know where the French Pub was, so he had to point it out to me. We then met there, and in swept this guy who looked as if he’d just come off the tennis court actually, full of a sort of raffish glamour, and I always remember with a yellow scarf loosely knotted around his neck, you know, and exactly this sort of, I don’t know, out of a Michael Arlen novel or something. And he proceeded then to show this mass of self-confidence, I mean he’s about ten years younger I guess than I, he said of course you’ll hate Lay-by when you see it. That itself was provoking, to be told that I was going to hate it as a critic, you know. And then the second time, my second encounter was less happy, it was the morning after The Great Exhibition, his play had opened at Hampstead Theatre which Richard directed in 1972, I think. I had given it a rather, you know, sniffy notice in The Guardian. At 8:10 a.m. that morning my phone rang and it was David barking down the telephone at me, and this was my first encounter with the prickly side, which I know exists in David Hare. But, I mean going back to your basic question, I think the journalistic instinct is there and is very strong, but this does not, it seems to me, in any way diminish him as an artist, because journalism can make great theatre. Via Dolorosa you may say is journalism, but it’s his report on his experiences in Israel and the Palestinian territories, but he turns that experience into something actually strangely moving and oddly poetic in a way. So I don’t see journalism and art as necessarily opposed.
Dominic Cavendish: Well some great early encounters. Charlie, did you encounter David Hare in person or in print mainly?
Charles Spencer: I’ve had trouble with him. As Richard said, behind the, you know, this sort of confident facade, he is incredibly prickly and sort of self-defensive, I think. But there’s no reason why a great artist should also be a, you know, a thoroughly nice chap, I mean look at Thomas Hardy. But he is a difficult man, which brings me to my other sort of nagging worry about him, which has also been mentioned, the sort of head-prefect quality of him, and he does seem to me to be sort of slight.. there’s often in his plays this slight sort of feeling of the sort of I know better than you, the finger wagging, you know, laying down the moral line, which I find… And while I’m on this sort of knocking bit I may as well, this will be my last bit which is, it’s often said of journalists that when you read a story about something you know very well, it would always strike you as wrong. And one of the most difficult plays I ever had to review by David Hare is one that sort of rather slipped under the net, which was called My Zinc Bed, about alcoholism. And I had to review this play at The Royal Court six weeks before I went in to The Priory for treatment of my own alcoholism, and so I was in that stage of really being in trouble with drink but also in fierce denial about the fact that I was an alcoholic. I sort of, I knew I was but of course there was another bit of me that was constantly saying I wasn’t. And even in that rather sort of anguished situation the play worried me, and I’ve just been re-reading it and it seems to me to be absolute bollocks about alcoholism in general and AA in particular. If you had to name any organisation which has done nothing but good and has, you know, is entirely benevolent, it must surely be Alcoholics Anonymous. And he has this trite little line that it’s a cult and that you definitely, you lose something if you give up drink, and it’s a hateful play and I pray that one day it will be revived and I can really put the boot into it because I hate it. That’s really me done, really.
Dominic Cavendish: Richard Boon, he granted an interview to you for your book, clearly must have been interested in the idea that there was a book being prepared about him. Was that the first encounter with him you had, had you followed his work before that?
Richard Boon: I’d followed his work before that, I mean my first encounter really came as a student when Fanshen was used as a text for the course. And as… in the way that it was originally designed by and with the Joint Stock, there also was a kind of teaching exercise to do with the nature of theatre, the nature of acting, performance space, so on and so forth, and it’s a remarkable play from that point of view. I mean it’s the nearest play with the, maybe the exception of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, to a British Brecht that exists. And I think in its own way it did more to bring Brechtianism, if not Brecht, in to the British theatre more than many production of Brecht before then. So there was that play on one hand and on the other hand, but in very stark contrast to it, also on the course was Plenty, which seemed to me to be a quite remarkable play and maybe the play for which he’ll be remembered longest. It’s a futile game guessing the nature of posterity, and how important is that. But I think those two things together fascinate me and to try to put them in the context of the discussion so far, it seems to me there’s a kind of paradox about Hare’s work which is that if you view it with all the benefits of academic distance, critical distance, and in hindsight, one of the things that strikes you is how varied his output is, that he writes in varieties of form, varieties of play, that he changes and re-changes his mind all the time. It was not long after Fanshen, I think, that he said he’d never do documentary again, and where we now, you know, what have been his two most successful plays of late other than Stuff Happens and Permanent Way, each of which in different ways is a kind of documentary. He talks about giving up the theatre, about being utterly pissed-off with critical reception, with the state of English theatre in the mid-1970s and getting away from that, then he comes back in to the theatre, he’s never going to adapt again, then he adapts again, so on and so forth. All that’s on the one hand, on the other hand is, and I started thinking about this when you mentioned this question of voice early on, Charles, that notion of do you recognise a Hare play from one page the way you recognise a Pinter or an Ayckbourn or a Stoppard. I think you do, I think it’s a remarkably consistent voice despite what I’ve said, in two ways. One, and ironically he’s often criticised for this, Hare’s characters tend to speak with Hare’s voice all the time, they’re very much within a particular kind of register and, as I say, he’s criticised for that in a way that Rembrandt isn’t criticised for painting like Rembrandt, not that that’s necessarily an entirely appropriate comparison. But I think also thematically, and this touches on the journalism question, I think there’s a remarkable consistency across his career, from the very beginning, from those early plays, right back to Slag and to Knuckle, which accounts for the particular way in which he’s a political playwright. And that is that in a sense behind the politics there’s a deep concern with morality and with where do we locate and how do we sustain value, what is human value in the end. And it’s there right back in Slag and in Knuckle, and interestingly in Knuckle he kind of defines it as an empty space because he can go no further at that time, it’s the space occupied by the good person, Sarah, the missing sister who may be dead for much of the play, turns out not be dead, but we never see her and it’s never explained to us why she’s such a powerfully moral figure. And from there and I think, and as society and culture have changed over the last twenty or thirty years in really huge ways compared to when Hare began, that question has constantly been there and it’s the answers that he’s come up with, and I agree with what Richard said, I think there was a kind of… I think there was one kind of breakthrough with Plenty, I think there was another kind of breakthrough with The Secret Rapture, and beginning to fill that kind of moral space in saying, in writing plays which aren’t simply to do with what isn’t right, what isn’t good, but trying to articulate what is and what can be, which of course is notoriously difficult in any kind of work of art.
Michael Billington: Isn’t his great talent as well a talent to abuse? He has, it seems to me, and this partly answers the question about the lack of voice, a talent for irony, mockery, scorn and opposition. Can I just quote a short passage from Knuckle which I have just reread this week, and it was one of my favourite early Hare plays, written in this sort of pastiche Ross MacDonald/Raymond Chandler style. But there’s a wonderful speech in it where Curly, the brother who has come back to look for the missing sister, talks about the England he’s returning to. He said, ‘When I got back I found this country was a jampot for swindlers and cons and racketeers, not just property, boarding houses and bordellos and nightclubs and crooked charter flights, private clinics, horse-hair wigs and tin-can motor cars, venereal cafés with ice cream made from whale blubber and sausages full of sawdust.’ I think there’s an evocation of the tacky vulgarity of 70s capitalism, that’s unbeatable actually. But it’s, you see, it’s quintessential Hare, it’s got a tone of voice that is, I think, very distinctively his. I suppose the only echo you might find is John Osborne actually there, there’s quite a bit of Osborne’s, again, talent for abuse in that. So I mean I don’t think his writing is either flat, as Dominic Dromgoole said, but nor do I think it’s personality-less as Charles is implying actually, I think there is a flavour there.
Richard Eyre: I agree, I could identify, I mean in the same way as it’s always eerie the way that you can put three musical notes together and say, well perhaps, you know, three chords anyway, and say, you know, that’s Mahler or that’s Beethoven and there is a voice there. And I could certainly identify, you know, give me three lines of Ayckbourn, Pinter, Hare, I could certainly without fail identify it. I think there is a voice, there is a very, very distinct music to it and very distinct syntax to his writing. Also something that we haven’t talked about is that he’s an absolute master of dialectic. One of the enjoyable things in all his plays is that they always have, almost always have a scene a faire, you know, like the confrontation between the reactionary bishop and the vicar, the Oliver Ford Davies character in Racing Demon, and a similar one in The Absence of War, and in some sense Skylight is emotional and social and political dialectic, the whole play. And he is fantastically good at writing both the kind of vociferously, acerbic evisceration of social issues, as Michael quoted, but also he’s very, very good at putting the opposition case. And that’s a Shavian skill which is part, for me, part of the pleasure of most of his work. I’d just like to come back to something that Charlie was saying, I mean I recognise and my heart has often sunk as hearing David launch… I wasn’t aware of the 8:10 phone call, but I believe it. It’s just that all of us engaged in this profession at some stage feel are that thin-skinned and feel that wild, wounded fury and deal with it in different ways, and try not to ring you up at ten past eight in the morning. And some part of me admires the fact that David comes out in the open with it and actually stands his ground and takes on, you know, as he did famously and I thought insanely, took on Frank Rich of The New York Times, and took him on and I think not entirely certainly on the right grounds. But it’s sort of, if you like, a kind of magnificent folly that somebody is going to care so much about their work to, as it were, to be prepared to pick up weapons and assault on behalf of his work.
Dominic Cavendish: Do you think that maybe he’s, in some ways he’s often accused by those on the right perhaps of being too political and those on the left for not being political enough. To what extent do you feel that Plenty was a really important play not only for Hare but for British theatre. In the story of Susan Traherne who’s had this kind of moment, this hour of glory in the French Resistance during the war, and then has to lead this very wearying and psychologically debilitating life with a diplomat in the post-war years – the whole thing is beautifully fused together, the sense of her collapse or accumulative collapse, and the nation’s gradual easing into a mode of prosperity and sort of phoniness really, phoney materialism. And in a way it’s so clean and so, a beautifully constructed play, and yet it wasn’t particularly well received at the time and Hare was very upset by that. Was that to do with his creating this interlocking structure which didn’t necessarily argue a political position but was indeed, you know, a fusion of political and personal?
Richard Eyre: There was a book that we all read at the time called The People’s War by Angus Calder, which.. it’s still in print, it’s an absolutely fantastic book about mass observation during the war, about social conditions during the war and about what happened at the end of the war, and particularly what happened in the election, the landslide Labour election. That book had an enormous impact on all of us, and I could name about twenty works, films, television and theatre which have emerged from, essentially from Angus Calder’s book. What that posits was a sort of, it was really on the new Jerusalem, that the sense that there had been promise at the end of the war of a better world, and that promise had not been fulfilled and had not been fulfilled for reasons that David’s plays anatomises. That sense of loss of a sort of Arcadian world, that sense of public and private loss is constantly at the centre of his work, that and a sense of the powerlessness, the feeling of powerlessness of the individual to change things. Couple that to a really, really passionate belief in the power of romantic love to change lives, which runs in parallel with, if you like, a romantic idea that it’s possible for politics to change lives. So in that sense, I think Plenty brings all those themes together.
Michael Billington: I was just going to say I think Plenty is a fascinating book because it does deal with this journalism, the art debate that we seem to be having, is he a journalist, is he an artist? And I think the great thing about Plenty is that it is both, it is partly a panoramic portrait, isn’t it, of that post-war world, and the sense of pervasive disappointment that the new Jerusalem was not finally built, and I think it’s Hare’s disappointment. And I always thought the centre of Plenty is the scene in 1956 at the Suez, and it reminds me of the life of another David Hare work, Licking Hitler, about the corrosive national habit of lying. And I think that’s what he’s saying Suez was, it was a monumental lie imposed by the politicians and the establishment upon not just Britain but the world at large, and I’m sure if Hare were here he’d say the corrosive natural habit of lying has not diminished, you know, that it may have continued under the present government. So it’s about that, it’s a portrait of England or Britain, but it’s also got something strange about it, Plenty, which I never fully understand, there’s something poetically unresolved about the play which is to what extent Susan Traherne’s accelerating breakdown is the product of post-war England or to what extent is the product of some imbalance within herself. And although one has seen people like Kate Nelligan and Meryl Streep and Kate Blanchett play it, I’m never quite sure what the ultimate trigger is for her breakdown, which I think is why it’s a good play, and it has that wonderful ending. I think you said a moment ago, it has this shape, doesn’t it actually.
Richard Eyre: That beautiful line, There will be days and days and days like this.
Michael Billington: Yes.
Richard Eyre: Which is just a beautiful cadence, but the hope set against, you know, our ironic knowledge of the present.
Michael Billington: Absolutely, which I, I mean I think that’s why that play will survive actually and does stand a very good chance of being done, you know, in decades hence if anyone cares.
Dominic Cavendish: It’s very difficult for anyone to start tallying biographical detail with the plays, the work, but there seems to be, running through his descriptions of his early life in Bexhill on Sea, a sort of horror of… in a way the world that Traherne encounters really, which is that world of sedate, content, bourgeois, nothing really much happeningness. Do you think it’s actually fruitful to see some of the anger that David Hare has in his plays as coming from an early period in his life? I don’t know who’s most qualified for that, maybe Richard Eyre again.
Richard Eyre: Well I think there’s something in David that is like George Orwell who, you know, famously went to Eton, but in some way was disenfranchised, he was never, he was always like the child who’s just peeping over the fence and thinks he’s been allowed in. But because Orwell’s background was, I mean upper-middle class but fairly relatively impoverished. David, I think, David went to a public school from a sort of petit bourgeois background and yet, as it were, retained that perspective of the disenfranchised. And because of the British class system about which he writes very well, is so fierce, those distinctions between upper class and upper middle and middle-middle and lower-middle, and being, finding yourself in an environment like Lancing College and yet feeling not an appropriate figure there, I think fuelled a lot of that, if you like, class anger.
Richard Boon: He’s also very consistently worked in terms of institutions, I mean we think of that most obviously with the trilogy at The National in the 90s but, again, it’s a theme that’s absolutely consistent throughout his work. This… and I love the image Richard paints of the figure peering over the wall and not but quite being part of, but equally being fascinated by the strangeness of institutions. I mean it’s right there back in Slag in the very early work and through Plenty, again, in terms of the Foreign Office and through many other plays, all the way through his career, I think. And I think that fascination, that sense of being slightly in and out of some of the key institutions, whether they be schools, universities, the Foreign Office set plays and all these, the press, the church, set plays in all these contexts, it’s a kind of… it’s another one of those paradoxes about him, I think, of being both inside and outside at the same time.
Dominic Cavendish: I’m interested to know whether you think in some ways he felt that he had to break in to some closer relationship with the establishment in order to be able to critique it in a way. Was there was a point in the 70s when he just thought, you know, it’s all very well getting in a van and travelling around the country and trying to work in that way, but really some form of success, some form of stability is quite important in terms of what he wants, what he could say, who he could reach. It looks as though when he gets a residency at The National he becomes part of The National’s writing infrastructure, he sort of blossoms in a way. I mean there’s a kind of great variety of work that he produces, and I don’t know whether that’s unique, that David Hare got very lucky in that he met with the right directors at the right time and he was in the right culture at the right time that enabled him to produce the work that he needed to do. Do you see The National, the sort of mid 80s when he starts becoming a more regular contributor to The National, is vital to understanding how successful he is now?
Richard Boon: At the risk of flattery, I think one of the great strokes of luck that he had was being at Nottingham with Richard in the early 70s, because that was a kind of watershed not just for him but for his whole generation of writers, Trevor Griffiths and Howard Brenton as well. And out of that regime, and I’d love to hear Richard’s thoughts on this, came some of the key plays of the period like Comedians and Churchill play, fascinatingly of course, not Plenty. I think in a sense, I mean am I right Richard, the writing that David did for you was Brassneck with Brenton?
Richard Eyre: Yes.
Richard Boon: Yes? Plenty came straight out of Nottingham, but actually it happened at The National.
Richard Eyre: Well with a producer offering him tremendous resources at The National Theatre, he said, Peter said, Peter Hall said come and do a play at The National Theatre. How crazy would he be.. yes, great. I get to direct it, I get the fantastic budget, I get a very, you know, wonderful designer, big theatre. I mean it’s producers, I mean the curiosity, one of the curiosities, and I think one of the strengths of British theatre is that our directors are mostly, sadly I think less and less so, mostly people who have run buildings, they’re producers, we’re producers as much as directors. So you get a writer, if you’re lucky you find a writer or you find two or three writers, and you produce them. And it’s thoroughly opportunistic, you make your choices and if you’ve got a writer of talent, you try and encourage the writer of talent because it’s so difficult to get writers who will write for big theatres. So Peter Hall saw David, knew David’s work, saw Brassneck at Nottingham, thought um yes, yes, yes, yes, I want some of this. And that’s how we work, and that’s how writers work, they go, I mean crudely, go where the money is, if you like, but go where the producer is, go where the conditions are, you get the best actors in the country and you get the best conditions in the country. So it’s not really that sort of choice, he would have been extremely perverse and there isn’t a writer, you know, even Edward Bond was not saying no to The National Theatre.
Charles Spencer: It is a fascinating journey though, isn’t it, from the sort of, you know, from the van to Amy’s View say, which I think is possibly the sort of most middle class bourgeois play he wrote and it is… I don’t begrudge him for that, but I think what’s very interesting about Hare is that you feel that he’s a man who’s grown up, you know, he’s sort of, he’s changed. And I think that is part of, a good artists is that they are, you know, they don’t stay with the same view, and that’s what I find interesting about him. And the other thing, I think we haven’t really talked much about the recent documentary plays. But I do think that The Permanent Way will be remembered as the play that actually defines the sort of shabbiness of Blair’s Britain by focusing on that very specific point.
Michael Billington: Can I…?
Charles Spencer: But by the same token, I think because it was all sort of personal testimony, it does show that Hare is not entirely obsessed with his own voice, which was sort of the point I’m making earlier, you know, he’s quite happy to use direct quotation from other people and that documentary theatre. But he did turn that into something very special, I think, that it did nail a moment brilliantly. I just think that too often, for me, there’s just that feeling that it’s conscientious rather than inspired.
Michael Billington: Could I just pick you up on that particular play? I mean I admire Hare’s documentary work, I think Stuff Happens is an extraordinary achievement. I’m not even sure we took in the scale of Stuff Happens actually, the monumentality of it, you know, managing to encompass the history of the Iraq war so quickly after the event. The Permanent Way, the more I thought about it the more the doubts have crept in on several grounds. First of all, I think it is visibly impure in that it does mix obviously testimony with invention, there’s an opening scene that is pure invention. Secondly, the more you examine the actual factual basis of the play, the shakier it seems. There was a very, very knowledgeable article, none of them, I should add, are experts on British Transport or British Rail. There was a very good article in The Financial Times by a man who was an expert on the railway system, who said there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of a causal link between privatisation and increased deaths and accidents. Obviously all deaths due to accidents are tragic, I mean that goes without saying, but apparently there was a far greater number of fatal deaths under British Rail nationalised system than there were under the splintering and fragmentation of railways, which is the basis on which the play rests. And thirdly, the thing I disliked about Permanent Way was I thought Hare, aligning himself with The Daily Mail kind of argument about the whole country is going to the dogs. There was actually a line in the opening scene where someone virtually said that, and you could hear the audience sighing with contentment. And I thought it was a bit disappointing to find Hare aligning himself with the, you know, the sort of angry right in this country.
Richard Boon: I think that’s what I find interesting about him, I think there is that element of him that he does sympathise with that, and it’s a very Osbornian thing that we were saying earlier, there’s that kind of anger. I don’t know about you, but don’t you feel that a lot of your life these days is just, you know, reading the paper, and this is just becoming middle aged, but reading the papers and just being outraged, you know, you can’t take pictures of children on, you know, in a school choir anymore and that kind of thing. And I think that that’s, I like that side of Hare that it’s, that there is a sort of… and I think Amy’s View in particular, which was a play really about mothers and daughters, it really struck a huge chord but it was absolutely a middle class play and worlds removed from Fanshen, wasn’t it, I mean it was an extraordinary journey to have made.
Michael Billington: But I’d still come back to The Permanent Way, which I think is based on rather lazy reporting. I mean if you’re going to investigate New Labour then you’ve got to investigate it, and you’ve got to give an accurate picture and that you deal with the boring facts that in certain areas, you know, like hospitals, like education there have been visible improvements, like transport, no visible improvements, and I just thought that play took a broad brush, you know, anti-Blair swipe. I should say that if you want anecdotal remarks, I mean when I phoned David Hare in the course of doing a profile for him for The Guardian, where Richard was very helpful, I phoned David and David said your review of The Permanent Way was New Labour bollocks, which is a fair comment perhaps, but anyway… But can I just come back, Stuff Happens on the other hand, seems to me a staggering achievement actually. To have absorbed that material, to have extracted the narrative from it, to have so vividly realised the characters and, going back to what we’ve been saying, surprisingly made George Bush anything but an obviously patsy in that play, that I thought was an amazing achievement. I just feel with the documentary theatre, the problem with Permanent Way, as I say, its calculated impurity leaves you guessing at some points what you’re watching.
Charles Spencer: But it was also very moving, and I thought there was a real empathy with the people who had suffered in that play, and.. but I’m fascinated by this link between Hare and the Right really, Charles Moore, for instance, the former Editor of The Daily Telegraph, got on very well with him and used him a lot. And there is something, and I think it’s what Richard was saying about his writing, and I this is, I think, a sign of his strength, like the entrepreneur in Skylight, not a man you’d think Hare would approve of. What it became, what made the play so moving is that that character became so real, and the person you think that Hare would approve of, the teacher, was sort of finally seen as rather life-denying and also slightly shifty, you know, that she preferred an adulterous relationship to an open one. And that, I think for me, is the moment when Hare gets really interesting, when he’s writing across what his basic beliefs are, and I think that’s when he becomes a great writer. I just think there are too many times when he doesn’t manage that unless it’s part of the sort of, you know, the sheer number of plays that he writes, that some of them just seem to me to be duty plays or, you know, issue plays. And it’s the moments of, well as in all art, it’s the moments that he transcends himself that he really becomes great, I think.
Dominic Cavendish: One thing we didn’t really talk about was Thatcherism, we haven’t really said ‘Thatcherism’ yet. Clearly The Secret Rapture articulates a sort of dialectic between, you know, the kind of cut and thrusting young Tory minister, Marion, and the much more saintly figure of Isabel who is a rather mysterious figure in a way. She presents a value, Richard Boon, you were talking about Hare’s interest in asserting moral values as well as simply detracting from those who don’t seem to have it. But in a way Secret Rapture seems the most difficult really to embrace as a play because there’s very schematic about that dialectic, there’s something that feels very dependent upon that era, that the 80s. Watching it more recently, some critics have felt that it really was a sort of relic. I don’t know whether you see there as being a much more subtle assertion of that moral value in the later plays, whether he’s become more complicated in a way, in the way that perhaps Charlie’s talking about in Skylight and beyond that.
Richard Boon: I’m trying to think. I mean it actually bears out what Charlie was saying about Skylight. I mean one of the interesting things about that play is the way in which one does expect a certain kind of schematic or formulaic approach, Isabel good, Marion bad, and he kind of plays with that, I think, in quite sophisticated and complex ways. Because Isabel does tend to get rather irritating in her belief or her exemplification, I should say, of the value of goodness, and strange kinds of sympathy, I think, are found for Marion who is notionally set up as the Thatcherite stoolpigeon, as a kind of Edwina Curry figure but who nonetheless has a kind of directness and energy which puts her sister into not altogether a favourable light. There’s a certain sense, I think, in which a number of Hare’s women, and they are almost if not all women, live their lives as what one critic, maybe one of these two, I don’t remember, called spiritual extremists. Wherein there’s a certain kind of, a quality of dangerousness, danger in their very innocence which, I think, Marion recognises in Isabel. And there is something dangerous about Isabel, about her moral absolutism, and it’s unexpected, it’s a kind of, it’s something that seeps in to the play, I think, quite gently and through some very, very clever writing. So I think whenever you feel certain, and this is interesting about some of the things that Charlie’s been saying about David at maybe his most didactic, whenever you feel certain about Hare’s viewpoint, he almost always does something to dislocate that and gives attitudes, lines, actions to characters that you really wouldn’t expect them to have.
Dominic Cavendish: Well that runs interestingly counter to a sort of prevailing view of Hare as having rather, I suppose an idealised view of women, or at least his heroines having a sort of idealised quality. I don’t know whether anyone feels that that charge is, you know, is needless, the one that somehow sets Hare’s female characters apart in a slightly more unreal room than the other characters. Susannah Clapp in The Observer worried, I think, when she was watching Secret Rapture that David Hare might not be writing good parts for women, but sort of parts for good women. Do you have any worries about that, Michael Billington?
Michael Billington: Well it strikes me that male dramatists are on a hiding to nothing, because if they write male-ego dominated plays, a la John Osborne, you know, they get attacked for that, and then, if like David Hare, they write plays where more often than not the woman is the protagonist, they get attacked for that, so it’s very difficult for dramatists to win. I mean as a man it’s very difficult for me to say whether Hare’s heroines are romanticised, I personally find them on the whole not so much idealised but they have a capacity for, sometimes for survival which I think is a key quality that Hare looks for, survival. Or if not survival, then a capacity to be wrecked in a very interesting way or damaged in a very, you know, compelling way. I just am staggered that, you know, anyone would deny this gift actually for writing sort of rich, fat, meaty, succulent parts for female protagonists and seeing women as in some way sort of tokens of morality in the way, interestingly, Tom Stoppard uses children as moral symbols time and time again, and it seems to be Hare does that. I don’t know Hare well enough to know, he’s a man who prefers maybe the society of women, he certainly writes well about them, I think.
Dominic Cavendish: He certainly has no difficulty persuading leading actresses to take those roles, which must say something about their value.
Richard Eyre: No effort, persuading women to.. I thought you were going to say something else then.. No, I agree with Michael, I mean , you know, he writes wonderful parts for women occasionally, as a woman friend says about a new play of his I was seeing, said has it got one of those women in white coats and… But, you know, I think that’s, I don’t, I can’t find it in me to think of that as a flaw, it’s just a character’s part of his voice.
Charles Spencer: And part of that is romanticism, perhaps, that you were talking about earlier.
Richard Eyre: He does romanticise, but I don’t see this as a serious fault, of romanticising women frankly, or having a romantic view of love as love as something that enables people to change. I think I’m a romantic, yes.
Michael Billington: Could I say a PS to the subject before last, which was about Hare and institutions, and it suddenly struck me, as we were talking about this, how he has relied on the security of the institution. I mean through Peter Hall, through Richard Eyre, particularly those two relationships to be absolutely crucial and have actually produced his best work, and now Nicholas Hytner at the National with luck again too. If you look at some of the perhaps less good work of recent years, My Zinc Bed, the Breath of Life, interesting they are not written, are they, for, well maybe I don’t know who commissioned My Zinc Bed, but it didn’t seem to have, it obviously didn’t, you know, rely on The National Theatre. In other words, I think there was a period of a few years when someone else was running The National Theatre when David Hare seems rather rudderless actually and doesn’t write quite as well. Now it seems to be he’s got the security of an institution behind him, and hopefully even better work to come.
Dominic Cavendish: Do you think, Richard, though that in some senses that it’s a need for David Hare that because he has so many ideas and he’s a creative spark, that he needs a sort of director relationship to steer him towards, I mean like Stafford-Clark pushed him towards The Permanent Way, I think, do you think that’s good?
Richard Eyre: Max, Max had the idea, Max is in love with railways and Max asked David to write the piece about the railways. I think that’s a mistake to compare that because they’re both, roughly speaking, their dramatic syntax is documentary, but I think that Stuff Happens is a piece of creative writing and that occasionally uses direct quotation. The Permanent Way was a piece of research partly done by David, partly done by the company, and it was, the verbatim transcripts were edited, it’s a very, very different order of creative writing, I think.
Dominic Cavendish: We haven’t really asked you, I mean I think we’ll have to let the audience in, but we haven’t asked you that much about directing a man who has directed many of his own works. There’s a delightful quote, I think it’s in your National Service, the diaries of your time there, talking about receiving, or maybe it’s in Utopia, but about receiving lots of faxes from David Hare when you direct a David Hare play…
Richard Eyre: Yes, you do. Yes, and the thing is that I think any, a director and writer have to have a relationship in which the director has a voice but it’s not, in the end, the voice that is being heard by the audience, and you have to serve the writer. And it’s always, you know, a judicious balance whether you serve the writer by, you know, changing or putting spin on the writer’s voice or whether you present the writer’s voice in unambiguously pure terms. And with David, you know, you’re a collaborator but essentially you’re trying to find ways of putting on his work as expressively as possible. That’s the job of a director with new work, I think, if you went to Germany and asked a director you’d get a very different answer.
Dominic Cavendish: So do we have any questions from the floor, as we’ve hardly touched really on most of his work because it’s such a huge career.
Audience Male: Could all of you just say why you think that David Hare is the sort of object of some of those derisory comments, I’m not particularly thinking of Dominic Dromgoole, but quite often I’ve noticed amongst academics. you know, the minute sort of David Hare’s name comes up it gets these kind of titters and, you know, bits of derision. Is it because he’s so successful or what is it about him that inspires those kind of extreme reactions of dislike?
Richard Boon: I don’t know whether anybody else saw it, but a few months ago there was a BBC documentary on, it was something like a week in the life of Windsor Castle, and it was pegged around the preparations for some huge banquet. I mean you can imagine what the thing looked like and how hard people were working to produce this spectacle, this wonderful meal. And there was a moment in the very last few minutes of the last episode when the banquet was actually happening, and the camera caught a familiar figure walking down a corridor, and it was David with his wife who had clearly been invited as a representative, and you thought, you don’t half ask for it sometimes, in that sense, what in God’s name are you doing there? And I suppose one answer is, well it’s the institution, he’s gathering material. But you’re quite right Aleks, certainly within academic circles there’s a kind of sneer that tends to come in to the voice very quickly, and I think it went back, it probably goes back all the way to his move from the fringe and from Portable into the mainstream. Which a whole number of them did at the same time largely through Nottingham, really out of an impulse which said that the effort to take new kinds of theatre to new kinds of audience about new kinds of subject. Because interestingly, Hare in many ways began not as a politically committed figure, but as somebody who loathed the established theatre at the time, thought it was overproduced, lavish, over-rhetorical, not saying anything and so on, and began as a director who began writing simply because somebody let them down with a play. But I think what was quickly discovered, or certainly by the early to mid 70s, was discovered that the fringe, this vehicle for finding new audiences, had actually become a kind of cul-de-sac, as Brenton called it, and that the audiences were as particular as a West End audience and that they weren’t going because of the radical new things that were being said in terms of subject, but to see what kind of radical new ways these writers were finding of saying it. And there’s also the thing again, again, to quote Brenton, of wanting to move in to the mainstream that just opens up the whole kind of vocabulary of possibility and what can be said. And I think the justification for it, if it needs a justification, is if somebody, if Hare or Brenton or whoever is not sitting there in the middle of the mainstream culture making their particular case, well that space is going to be occupied by somebody else. But there are certainly whole numbers of academics and leftwing figures who have never quite forgiven Hare for making that move.
Richard Eyre: And the people see him, and then I suppose Richard’s description as a sort of, as a dandy, I think, and an intellectual dandy. I don’t think that’s a true position, but they see him and also he’s provocative, puts a lot of people’s backs up…
Audience Male: And he’s successful
Richard Eyre: And he’s successful and he’s got an absolutely wonderful wife who is extremely, in fact more successful than he is internationally, and so, you know, there’s a lot to hate.
Michael Billington: I mean we have a great national hatred of success, as we all know, and I’ll just give a phrase of a fellow dramatist of David Hare’s, Trevor Griffiths, whom I actually deeply admire, but who talked in political terms about the purity of impotence. And I think we’re a society that loves the purity of impotence – the moment you achieve any success you are suspect. And I mean the kind of derision you’re talking about is applied not only to Hare, Alan Ayckbourn is hardly taken seriously even now after sixty-nine plays actually. So I think Hare is simply part of that syndrome actually. I mean I think we’re all too hung-up on, you know, posterity and this word ‘masterpieces’. I mean I keep saying this, what is important is what a dramatist achieves in his or her lifetime. I mean the fact is very few plays survive for a hundred years, you know, I mean I should think probably there’d be, you know, ten plays if we’re lucky from the last fifty years that will survive. And it would be a great game, wouldn’t it, to sit down and say what they are actually. And, you know, I suspect they’ll probably be, I suspect Caryl Churchill, there probably will be about three, you know, Pinter plays there, and there may be, you know, only one Hare. But does it matter, I mean it’s simply a game, isn’t it, actually? What is important is Hare has energised the British theatre in his lifetime. It’s very odd, my life as a critic has more of less coincided exactly with his output as a dramatist, and I just feel my job has been made that much more exciting by his presence, it would have been a dull theatre, I think, without him.
Dominic Cavendish: Any other points? Yes?
Audience Female: I think you’ve established that he does have a voice, and I wondered which of his plays you thought conveys his voice best. I think there’s not being much mention of the Absence of War.
Richard Eyre: Well I suppose Racing Demon in that you have the voice, the authorial voice, you have his themes very, very clearly intertwined there, and you have the voice of the reactionary, the wonderfully eloquent arguments of the Bishop of Southwark for retaining the integrity and the unbroken integrity of the church and the institution. As against this voice which does have a sort of tenderness and a tender anger within it that articulates a feel of love, a feeling of love and loss as represented in not only in the Lionel Espy character, the main character, but also in the young evangelist, and also in the woman. So I would say if you’re looking for, if you would say a Martian, here is the voice of David Hare, that’s the exemplar.
Dominic Cavendish: Does anyone want to carry on? I mean The Absence of War even, that’s an interesting aside, isn’t it..?
Michael Billington: Absence was a very interesting one because of course, when it was done as part of the trilogy, I think, again, it was not too well received actually, and I think we all quite simply got it wrong because it seemed so close to the events of Labour’s continual disaster at the polls, we all thought it was mere journalism. I then saw the play again when they revived the trilogy at Birmingham Rep actually, and they did the trilogy very well. It was very interesting to see how Absence of War had grown, Murmuring Judges, I think, had declined as a play, as it were, if you see what I mean. Racing Demons still is a great play, Murmuring Judges looked less interesting, The Absence of War leapt out of that re-stage in Birmingham, about ten years after Richard’s production, as an extraordinary play about the recurrent problem in any Labour government of, you know, again, ideological purity versus electability. And I remember David Hare saying at the time, he said one day this play will be seen as a tragedy, which is what he conceived of it as and it came out as that ten years later. I think it is a neglected play actually.
Richard Eyre: We felt at the time it was…
Michael Billington: I know you did.
Richard Eyre: We felt it very, very bitterly. I didn’t feel it as bitterly as the writer.
Richard Boon: I think there are two that, as I said at the beginning, I absolutely agree about Racing Demon, which also has a sense of the numinous in it that very few of his plays do, I think, and a sense of, I really feel that that is a writer at full stretch and that with a sense of something beyonds himself which I find very moving. I’d also say that Skylight, it’s just a sort of knock ’em dead account of a relationship, it still lingers in my mind. I can see that production with Gambon and Lia Williams when they did it. It still burns in my memory, that play, I can remember, in a way like something like, if Richard would forgive me, The Judas Kiss has long since faded, but Skylight will stay. I mean when was it done Richard, it must have been at least ten years ago now?
Richard Eyre: Ten years ago, yes.
Richard Boon: And I can remember sort of scenes and the whole feel of that play is burnt into me still.
Dominic Cavendish: It did strike me that Hare talked about his objectives as a playwright in a very clear manner, a very unusually clear manner, in that he wanted, at one point particularly he wanted, he thought that theatre could change society, writing plays mattered because he could effect change in people. And I don’t know whether that view has mellowed as he’s got older, whether he’s become more aware of how little can be changed through public, important public art. I mean do you think he sees his body of work as kind of locking together to achieve something tangible or is that in a sense, to misuse those early quotes that he made about?
Richard Eyre: No, I think he does, and I think we all, well I say we all, certainly when Nottingham Playhouse, buoyed-up by a preposterous arrogance and folly and self-delusion, we did. And part of David, certainly David feels that he writes to make stuff matter, and he’s all too aware, which I think so much of his writing is about the position of, you know, impotence of purity and the purity of impotence.
Dominic Cavendish: Do you think he’s changed things, Michael, do you think he’s made an impact outside the theatre in a way?
Michael Billington: Well he’s made theatre discussable on pages outside the art pages which is always, I think, a good thing to do actually. I mean notoriously in the case of Stuff Happens, you know, at The Guardian it was so important an event that the theatre critic was the last person to review it, you know, eight or nine very important public people, you know, wrote about that play. That’s quite interesting, isn’t it, that a paper thinks a play is of such significance you send your Cabinet ministers and your top military brass etc. I mean I’m sounding peevish but I’m not meaning to actually, I thought it was a tribute to the play that they thought it was, you know, the first preview had to be covered. So yes, I mean he hasn’t changed society but, as Richard implies, very few plays do, but what he’s done is made the theatre oh, debateable, discussable, newsworthy, and he’s.. to his great credit, he always campaigned against those boring people, you know, who write theatre off and say, you know,the real action is happening in cinema or novel. Hare, unfashionably I would say, has campaigned militantly for theatre as medium all his life.
Charles Spencer: And he had that great phrase, didn’t he, the fashionable whine of contempt against the theatre, I have always remembered, and yes, good stuff.
Dominic Cavendish: Do you agree with that, what Michael said about the, making theatre talkable about discussable?
Charles Spencer: Yes, I think he does that. In a way, what I would say is one of the weaknesses of his plays is that, you know, that they are too susceptible to that. But actually Stuff Happens was a remarkable achievement in just the organisation of so much material, I mean you really did feel, I mean you came out and it was a nightmare on the night to review and everything, but you did actually feel that you, for a moment you actually understood all the issues involved, you know, how ever fleetingly they lodged in the brain, and so I mean it was an education in every way. So no, but I think the idea of a play ever changing the world, I mean has any Richard, did Shaw, did Shaw write anything that..?
Richard Eyre: O’Casey, maybe, and Synge..
Charles Spencer: Yes.
Michael Billington: And Odets.
Richard Eyre: Odets. Would you forgive me, I have to go to The National Theatre …
Dominic Cavendish: Time’s against us, but thank you. Thank you to all the panellists, it’s been a really fascinating discussion – Richard Eyre, Michael Billington, Charles Spencer and Richard Boon. Thank you.