Book review, Literary criticism

The Blue Touch Paper by David Hare

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British screenwriter and playwright, David Hare

Any child who has stumbled through childhood surrounded by unanswered questions, where adults were too occupied with their own demons to take notice; where one parent was largely absent in body and/or interest, and the other so shackled to society’s norms and buffeted uncomplainingly by the stings and shallows of the life they thought they had to lead, will relate to David Hare’s childhood in this, his 2015 memoir. David Hare’s father, Clifford Hare, a merchant sailor, was absent most of the time, while his mother, Agnes, conformed to the norms of the town of Bexhill, “a parody of suburbia”, between Eastbourne and Hastings on the Channel coast; a town described by James Agate as ‘bleak and purse-proud’ and used by the director Alfonso Cuarón as the location for those surviving Armageddon in his film Children of Men.

“Childhood is like going into the jungle without knowing what animals you will meet there.”

Saved from a fate he so easily saw on his horizon by cinema, the local theatre repertory companies, and his natural intelligence he weathered his upbringing and won a scholarship to Cambridge. Hare writes in a self-deprecating tone, which is endearing, but at the same time there is a feeling that he has done this to hide a sense of self-importance, as if his success and intellectual rise was inevitable. He wants to be liked. And steps in his making did seem to come easily and letter writing was one of his most successful modes of advancement: a holiday job in Los Angeles, a visit by Alfred Hitchcock, and a meeting with Peter Hall which had formidable repercussions.

It was at Cambridge in the 1960, ‘all wasps and no honey’ so said Kenneth Tynan, in a “self-deluded Britain” that Hare began his theatre-making, as both performer, director, and then as playwright.

“The very over-sensitivity which equips you to be a writer also makes being a writer agony.”

In 1969 while leading his Portable Theatre Company, Hare and co-founder Tony Bicât, had the idea of presenting, in their second season a play based on the history of evil and asked their new friend Howard Brenton, at the time working in the Royal Mint, to take it on. He eschewed the ‘history’ but kept the ‘evil’ in the character of serial killer John Reginald Christie, and set it in a pen made of chicken wire filled with old newspaper. Christie in Love “plays with the controversial notion that when Christie practised necrophilia, assaulting his dead women, he was, in his own eyes, expressing a kind of love.” Hare had only written one short play to fill in a gap in the previous program but Brenton’s “brilliant” play, directed by Hare, set Portable, and Hare, on a path of creating and presenting new plays.

“…my most important discovery about playwriting … Every line on dialogue, every exit and entry, every development of the story, every deliberate change of mood on the stage pleases or displeases the author for reasons they would be at a loss to explain. The mystery of style is exactly that: a mystery. Yes, of course, I could clean the play up. I could redraft. I could, if necessary, make the action more deft. I was perfectly capable of saying. ‘That scene’s working, but that one isn’t. That joke’s working, but that one isn’t.’ But to the basic question ‘Why is the play the way it is?’ I had no answer at all.” No matter what you WANT to write,  “ultimately you are at the mercy of your imagination – what ever that might be”; a bit like Christie.

There are moments in everyone’s life when the wanting of something is far more powerful than the getting of it; and there are many times when our bodies and our imagination are at odds; the latter taking over from the former and causing a positive, or negative, but involuntary, outcome. A man knows when his body betrays his will with an unnecessary erection; a woman once was so attracted to Ted Hughes, she vomited, something she did not want to do; Marcel Proust wrote at the age of 18 that ‘Desire makes all things flourish, possession withers them’; and David Hare separates his wanting to write a play, from his imagination that finally finishes it. In this sense we are all victims of our imagination, which can give our lives succor, as in a creative individual like Hare, or destroy it, as in another individual like Christie.

Theatre “is about people, it is not about types. Shakespeare did not intend Macbeth to be an indictment of Scottish monarchy. Nor is the characterisation of Lady M misogynist.” Recently in the London Review of Books review of The Girl on the Train; the writer, a woman, was horrified that the novelist, a women, seemed to her, to hate women. Yes, the female characters are in turn, liars, drunks, traitors, and lay-abouts, but the story is about these women, not all women. Hare derides this “idiotic language of role models” as a symptom of the late 1988s but it continues today. He says, “…with the rising tide of programmatic wordsoup which would threaten the vigour and authenticity of theatre in the new century, I would have no patience. Work, when fully achieved, seemed to me a more powerful manifesto than manifestos.”

David Hare, now Sir David Hare, is a very British writer for stage and film with an impressive list of work over many decades: they include Knuckle (1974), Fanshen (1975), Teeth ‘n’ Smiles (1975), Plenty (1978), The Blue Room (1998), The Judas Kiss (1998), Stuff Happens (2004), South Downs (2011), The Moderate Soprano (2015). His Skylight (1995) play was presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company earlier this year. He also penned the screenplay for the 2002 film The Hours, among many others.

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