Portrait of the Artist as Incendiary

By Brighde MullinsJanuary 16, 2016

Portrait of the Artist as Incendiary
SIR DAVID HARE’S new memoir — part exploration, part apologia, part letter to the world — tells the story of his coming into his own as a writer and as a theater artist. Though from humble origins, Hare landed, via grit, wit, and luck, at Cambridge, where he was drawn to the upper registers of culture and learning, beginning with the writings of Raymond Williams, whose essay “Culture Is Ordinary” helped to form the scaffolding of his egalitarian aesthetic. When Hare describes Williams as a “working class migrant who knew things were complicated,” he might as well be describing himself — he is, one of a group of political writers who came out of a particular moment in British theater, a time of idealism and foment. Though also a successful film artist, Hare has been writing and directing plays his whole adult life, and The Blue Touch Paper is written from the perspective of a theater artist. Why theater? What could theater do that other forms didn’t? “For popularity drama could never compete with music,” Hare writes. “But it could articulate a timely kind of discontent, and thereby release discontent’s paradoxical energy.”

Of his early years as a playwright and director, Hare says: “We were happy to judge our impact not by the length of the applause — sometimes there wasn’t any — but by the level of shock we achieved.” He is one of the inheritors of the Brechtian aesthetic of the anti-aesthetic: that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” One of the founding members of Joint Stock, the company that created the collaborative conditions for some of our greatest living playwrights (Caryl Churchill and Wally Shawn, among them), Hare was able to nurture art that actively challenged the status quo. And yet: Eventually Hare accepted a knighthood. And another contradiction: Though he has written gorgeous and complicated roles for women (his muse and mistress was the brilliant Kate Nelligan), his own first marriage to a formidable British producer, as documented in the memoir, was a shambles.

Hare’s work for the theater addresses the class struggle, the larger-than-personal predicament, the role of the citizen in a decaying and compromised state. He is well-known, too, for his award-winning adaptations of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. Now, however, to tell his own story, he has turned to prose. Though his personal coming of age is well worth reading about, his insights about theater and his description of his artistic process make this memoir sublime.


BRIGHDE MULLINS: Why a memoir? Why now?

DAVID HARE: The book is about my launch as a writer: it’s what the Germans call a bildungsroman. I wrote it because as I got older, I was more and more bothered by the past. It became an ache I could not dispatch. By setting down on paper what I felt about my upbringing, I cleared my own mind. I strongly recommend the therapeutic effects of autobiography: it has made me a significantly happier person. All the guilt, bewilderment, regret, shame, and anger is now between pages, not rattling around in my head.

The title has a significance to Britons. What does it mean?

In the UK, fireworks are launched by lighting the blue touch paper.

Unfortunately in the States, you light fireworks with a blue fuse but my American publisher agreed that “Blue Fuse” is a lousy title, and stuck with the original — which even if you don’t know what it is, seems suggestive, and maybe, I hope, poetic.

You state that you "fashioned" rather than wrote the memoir. I’m quoting from the prologue where you write "I wanted to be expansive, to move where my memory took me, and I felt this could be best achieved not by writing prose, but by talking." Why was it more freeing to dictate?

If I’ve achieved anything at all it’s been to expand theater’s adult subject matter — to include the Chinese revolution, the invasion of Iraq, aid to the Third World, the privatization of the railways, and the 2008 financial crisis. (None of these are what’s usually offered in the name of a good night out.) But I’d never written much about myself. So I had to sit down in 17 sessions over the space of a year with a sympathetic ear (the journalist Amy Raphael) to determine what we discovered to be the narrative of my life. I then wrote the book entirely by myself.

Midway through the book, you discuss the inaugural production at the National Theatre. Describing the production of Weapons of Happiness, a play by Howard Brenton that you directed back then, you say "when we finally got to present it, the play cast its spell, and the performance ended with an image which was unanswerable." That’s such a distinct idea of what constitutes a success — one that theater people may understand, but I wonder if you’d explain for a wider audience. Is that image something that is written and then achieved?

It’s a little-remarked fact that what we take away from a play or a film tends to be its ending. Some Like It Hot is so well remembered because it has such a satisfying last line. A play should take an audience somewhere entirely new, and lead them to its finish. For me, the glory of Howard Brenton’s play was that its fulfillment was in a visual image — a snow-covered hillside in Wales. You had to have seen the play to know why it had such beautiful resonance.

Throughout the book, you discuss the frisson that happens between the performers and the audience, saying that that is where the play happens. I found particularly striking your observation that "I was learning that one of the most surprising rewards of theatre is to marvel at how a play may gleam at a different angle according to where and when it’s presented. The thoughts and feelings with which the audience arrive are half the story." Is that what makes playwriting perhaps more satisfying than film, or television?

The most satisfying thing about a stage play is that, legally, you own it. Nobody can change a word without your permission. The playwright is a contractual monarch, whereas the screenwriter is a hired hand. You sell your labor — words and images and ideas — but you do not control them. My view is that all works of art mutate on the shelf. A film may seem completely different 20 years later — hence Quentin Tarantino’s recent point that well-meaning art-house films don’t necessarily “keep.” But of all art forms, yes, theater is the most mutable. Hamlet, presented behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s, was seen as a revolutionary manifesto. In London in 2015, it’s a showcase for a famous actor.

Is the spirit of the Joint Stock alive anywhere, and would you want to go back to that kind of work?

The aim behind Joint Stock was to deepen the actors’ investment in their own characters by making the process of the play’s creation open to them. There was a workshop even before the playwright started writing. But there was no migration of roles. When the play had been written, the original actors performed it as it emerged from the process. They didn’t rewrite it. Joint Stock struck a wonderful balance between a traditional respect for the writer and an openness to improvisation and exploration. You can find such a balance today wherever you find directors as great as Bill Gaskill and Max Stafford-Clark.

Throughout the book, you write candidly about your relationships to famous colleagues and collaborators: Helen Mirren, Peter Hall, Howard Brenton, John Osborne, Ted Hughes, Tennessee Williams all show up. And in the postscript, you quote a letter from your friend Philip Roth, who says, of your characters, "I like these monsters you create." Do you consider your characters to be "monsters"?

Most people have a monstrous side to them. Philip Roth despises writers who prettify human behavior to pretend that we — and implicitly the writer — are better than we are. He’s right.


Brighde Mullins lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Violet.

LARB Contributor

Brighde Mullins’s plays include The Bourgeois PigRare BirdMonkey in the MiddleThose Who Can, Do;  Fire EaterTopographical Eden; and Pathological Venus. She teaches at USC where she is the Director at MPW (Master of Professional Writing).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!