David Hare is on characteristically combative form in today’s Guardian, including a feisty defence of what he calls “the central claim of fiction: that by lying you get to the truth”.
Hare is a divisive figure, attacked by the right for being too left, and by the left for being too right, but he’s one of our most ambitious dramatists, committed to addressing the issues of the day. He once said that “the most important playwright’s gift is to hit your time and speak to your time,” and has certainly achieved this with plays such as The Absence of War, The Permanent Way and Stuff Happens. He also has a continuing engagement with the long term impact of the Second World War, with plays such as Plenty and his film adaptation of The Reader.
The Reader has had mixed reviews in the UK, including a savage critique from Peter Bradshaw, which Hare responds to directly in his interview — you can read Bradshaw’s riposte here. Essentially the question boils down to this: should drama attempt to understand the actions of the Nazis, and if so how should it dramatise those actions? The Reader certainly does the first of these, but in Bradshaw’s view chickens out on the second: it analyses the motivations of an Auschwitz guard, but ducks the reality of her crimes.
Personally I think Hare was right to avoid flashbacks to the camp. We no longer need to see what happened to appreciate its evil: the brilliant Conspiracy is proof enough of that. But Bradshaw does have a point. The film is too sympathetic to the character’s defence of, in essence, “I was just obeying orders”. Paradoxically, rather than making her more sympathetic, it just makes her less interesting, and her tragedy less powerful. Ultimately, as Mark Kermode has argued, the film, though beautifully written, is just too polite. I wanted more of Hare the polemicist, the writer willing to confront an audience and make them question their own beliefs about themselves. He once wrote that “There is still a place in the cinema for movies that are driven by the human face, and not by explosions and cars and guns and action sequences . . . there’s such a thing as action and speed within thought rather than within a ceaseless milkshake of images,” and he was right. The problem with The Reader is that its thought lacks the speed and sharpness of his own best work.
Whatever its flaws, though, The Reader demonstrates another central Hare idea: that history is not general but specific, and that the time in which we live is an essential part of who we are. As he says in the interview: “I dislike what I call bell-jar writing. In other words, I don’t think there’s anything called “the human condition”. Who we are is hugely affected by where we live, when we live, what happened before we were born, who we meet, the culture that we grow up in. If you’re a Chinese peasant, you will feel yourself to be significantly different from the people in this audience. I like history to be blowing through the room.”
At his best Hare writes brilliantly about how people navigate their time. And that phrase, “I like history to be blowing through the room” is as good a definition of his craft as any. With his latest play Gethsemane playing at the National, as well as his own readings of his monologue Berlin, there’s rarely been a better time to explore his ambitious and provocative career.