Obedience, Struggle and Revolt by David Hare

Political art may need a defender but, observes Johann Hari, playwright David Hare is the wrong man for the job
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The Independent Culture

Hare has always given good rant, and there are a few fantastic flash-moments here: "What school of Hello-magazine-style criticism is it which insists a play about your own family must be hard, but a play about the intellectual disgrace of the Renaissance must be easy?" he demands. "Are Zola, Gorky, Hardy and Charles Dickens asking less of themselves in their socially aware writing than armchair stylists like Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov?" Next time somebody wheels out anti-political critics like James Wood - those who act as though Art is some Platonic sphere floating far above politics - this is a quote to slap them with.

But at the heart of Hare's case for the defence is an uneasy witness: John Osborne. He is "our poet laureate of flopsweat, of lost opportunity, of missed connections and of hidden dread", Hare's paradigm of the political artist who writes to change his audience and his society. He is furious that, in contemporary accounts of theatrical history, 'Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot has displaced Osborne's Look Back in Anger as the turning-point in 20th-century drama. He wants a theatre of Jimmy Porters hacking bile at their audiences, not of bemused tramps asking gently, "We're not starting to mean something, are we?"

There are a few problems with Hare's attempt to marshal Osborne in this way. Was he in any meaningful sense a political artist? And was he any good anyway? Hare claims Beckett borders on nihilism and offers his audience no vision of positive change, but isn't there far more nihilism in the incoherent and howling rage of Osborne? When Hare tries to outline his hero's political agenda, he descends into (uncharacteristic) banality, saying "in Osborne's values, you find a love of emotion, of high, true, uncensored feeling", and that he offers "a highly romantic gesture of defiance in defence of the individual". Osborne's key insight is apparently that, "because we are all going to die, it is therefore extremely important what we do now." How is any of this political? Who doubts that it is extremely important what we do before we die?

Look Back in Anger remains a sharpened dagger of a play, but all Osborne had to offer was a vague and apolitical smash-the-system rage. (Worse still, it became a long reactionary retch in the later years of his life). And - apart from the piece that made his name - the rest of Osborne's work is now almost unwatchable. But Hare has a strange knack throughout this book of squandering his own case by focusing on the wrong people and the wrong rows. The other example of political art he cites here are the execrable political plays of Harold Pinter, which are largely dedicated to controversial ideas such as Torture is Bad.

Hare smothers his texts with so much self-importance that it becomes hard to follow his argument. He persistently presents himself as the tortured victim of dark forces. He says the supposed attempt to undermine political art "borders on an Oliver Stone-style conspiracy", and he is the victim of people who "seek to destroy us with neglect". Yet he then (in direct contradiction) fumes at the decision of a few London critics to fly out to see his new show in Australia: "In this business your enemies will follow you to the end of the earth." Come on, it's hardly the Mafia, is it, David?

He declares that "the right disliked me - no, that's too weak a word - the right loathed me," and "my wounds remained shockingly raw throughout the 1970s because I made myself vulnerable." Your wounds? We are talking about a millionaire playwright (married to a millionaire fashion designer) whose greatest tribulation was the odd bad review in a sea of positive notices. Aren't there are better things to be angry about?

This narcissism and lack of perspective has always marred Hare's work in what he calls "the poor beleaguered theatre". His biggest complaints in one lecture seem not to be global warming or massive income inequalities, but the fact that when the RSC tried to commission him to write a new play, they "sent the letter to an address I had vacated 15 years previously". The most vehement criticism of contemporary politicians presented in this book is that they failed to come to see his one-man show about the Middle East: "No doubt, they regard themselves as so brilliantly well-informed that they don't need to waste 95 minutes listening to anyone." Oh, get over yourself.

Hare is neither a great political artist, nor a great defender of political art - because he doesn't have very interesting politics. He follows a strangely wet and spongy form of leftism; it seems at times to be motivated primarily by the self-aggrandising idea that Hare himself is a victim of the right (and its evil theatre critics), rather than by a concern for their real victims out there in the world. Political art badly needs a defender, but this book is more likely to send its readers running to a triple bill of Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan and the latest brain-free musical.