Right from Shakespearean times to the contemporary era, British theatre and literature have been widely regarded with reverence across the globe. One of Britain’s foremost playwrights and filmmakers, however, believes that British theatre is far ahead of the country’s literature.
“We have always had a very strong theatre culture in Britain and probably from 1950 onwards the British novel has been much more concerned with the family, the personal and intimate subjects, whereas the theatre has been much more pioneering and ambitious,” Sir David Hare told IANS in an interview on the sidelines of the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).
“In other words, there have been a number of epic plays on political subjects and about public issues. The theatre has generally been much more involved with society whereas British literature has traditionally been rather tame and character based,” he said.
Hare has written over 30 plays, including “Plenty”, “Racing Demon”, “Skylight”, “Amy’s View”, “The Blue Room”, “Via Dolorosa”, “Stuff Happens” and “The Judas Kiss”. He has also written 25 screenplays for films and TV, which include two Oscar-winning films — “The Hours” and “The Reader”.
The acclaimed playwright also said that the British novelists are slowly catching up but still lag behind writers in theatre and in films.
“The British novel is beginning to catch up a bit, but I also must say that in my lifetime I have barely bothered with the British novel at all. It has been of very little interest to me because most British novelists just seem, to me, so far behind most British screen writers and playwrights,” Hare maintained.
He also felt that theatre can serve as a “potent medium for political critique”, citing the example of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.
“The most revolutionary thing one could do in Soviet Russia was to perform ‘Hamlet’ because the moment it is played in a tyranny, it is immediately understood as a protest against tyranny,” he quipped.
Hare has been critically-acclaimed for his characters, said to come alive before the audience in a way that the British theatre had never seen before.
“I think the problem when I started writing was that people thought that my characters were types, they were extroverts or introverts, they were clever or stupid. A wise man may say one thing that is stupid and a stupid man may say one thing that is wise and so in characterising, I try to show the world that we can all be different, depending on where we are and who we are talking to and what the situation is,” Hare explained.
So, he dislikes works in which people are given only one strong characteristic, “like noisy, stupid, clever because most of us are a rich mix and that comes alive when we find ourselves in different situations. I think that’s what makes the characters come to life”.
“And then the unexpected — most of all, people behaving in a way that you don’t see coming but when you do, you are surprised and this element of surprise is a very useful tool in characterisation,” the 70-year-old playwright said.
At the other end of the spectrum, he has also been severely criticised for his work, even though he was doing exactly what he believed in. Most of his contemporaries thought of him as “rude and arrogant”.
“It was tough. You know, I was coming in for a huge amount of criticism in the press. I was not popular; what I wanted to do was not popular throughout the British theatre. My generation of playwrights were equally resented because we appeared to be taking over the theatre and we were going to change it.
“So we were very embattled and that means you are not necessarily the nicest people. That is true for most artists, not just me. And so I did come across as rude and arrogant because I was so determined about working to establish the kind of theatre in which I believed,” he said.
Hare, who was in Jaipur to share insights on his memoir, “The Blue Touch Paper” (2015), did not deal well with the criticism.
“Like all artists I have an extremely thin skin. I dealt with criticism very badly. It made me feel extremely unhappy and caused me sleepless nights. I don’t mind my character being criticised as much as I mind my work being criticised,” he said.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at email@example.com)
By Saket Suman