"Have you noticed?" asks the heroine in Sir David Hare's 1997 play, Amy's View. "It's always the death of the theatre. The death of the novel. The death of poetry. The death of whatever they fancy this week." Manifesting all of the dramatist's own warm affection for the fourth estate, she continues: "Except there's one thing it's never the death of. Somehow it's never the death of themselves... It's off to the scaffold with everyone except for the journalists."
Among these irritating pundits, there is a type that is particularly fond of intoning the last rites over political theatre. To their chagrin, the death certificate has had to be binned with a decisive flourish this year, which has seen a striking resurgence of the form. Roused to dissent by the "war on terror [sic]" and the invasion of Iraq, playwrights and theatre practitioners have taken a stand on stage. If it now looks highly unlikely that Saddam Hussein could have mobilised weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes, theatre - with its inherent facility for rapid response - has plainly demonstrated how swiftly it can launch a counteroffensive.
Written by Justin Butcher in less than a week, The Madness of George Dubya - a rambunctious update of Dr Strangelove with a deadly serious undertow - moved from the fringe to an extended West End season at the Arts Theatre. Organised by the actress Janie Dee, the star-studded "Concert for Peace" cunningly alternated examples of the best of American culture (show-stoppers from the Broadway musicals) with instances of the worst (disturbing reports from the victims of US foreign policy). There was a play that questioned the myth of precision bombing, David Williams's Warcrime. The Royal Court arranged a series of afternoon events called War Correspondence, with reactions from writers such as Tony Harrison, Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp. Over on the South Bank, Nick Hytner launched his directorship of the National Theatre with an antiheroic CNN-style Henry V, which stressed the uncomfortable contemporary parallels in this play about a charismatic leader who invades a foreign country on dubious moral grounds. At Shakespeare's Globe, Mark Rylance proved to have been prescient in programming a season of works about "regime change", a euphemism that strives to sound as innocuous and desirable as a change of bed linen.
Political drama continues to be robustly alive and well this autumn in a host of theatres and in a variety of styles. At the Tricycle, you can witness a meticulous reconstruction of the Hutton Inquiry, Justifying War, edited to revelatory effect in the best tradition of this theatre's provocative tribunal stagings of the Scott and McPherson Inquiries, Half the Picture and The Colour of Justice, respectively. The Arcola is presenting the world premiere of Americans, a bracing first play by Eric (Fast Food Nation) Schlosser. It finds in the response to a presidential assassination in 1901 the germs of the imperialistic drive and "Globocop" behaviour that suffered such an appalling backlash precisely a century later. Meanwhile, showing at the National Theatre, Michael Frayn's superb Democracy uses the ideologically divided Germany of the Cold War and the tricky coalition politics of the Brandt era as a searching metaphor for those self-contradictions in all of us that make democracy the least bad form of government.
And now, like the star of the show who comes on last, Hare - the doyen of political dramatists - weighs in with a new work. He has called 2003 "this errantly peculiar year", a period when thinking adults have been "forced to stand to one side, watching in disbelief, while the governments of two English-speaking countries undertook massively unpopular policies with exactly the consequences that all intelligent bystanders foresaw". He's referring, of course, to Iraq and to the undermining of international law. But in his new piece, The Permanent Way, this disturbing disconnection between the political class and the people they purport to serve is epitomised by a scandal closer to home: the tragic farce of rail privatisation - a foreseeable, life-endangering fiasco that New Labour attacked in opposition and failed to reverse in office. Using first-hand material gathered by the author and the cast, The Permanent Way tells the story of these accidents-waiting-to-happen and their aftermath in an artful succession of verbatim testimonies from the people involved (everyone from Treasury mandarins, rail union leaders and journalists, to the bereaved of the Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Potters Bar disasters, and campaigning solicitors). The play, presented in a co-production by Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint Company and the National, is receiving its premiere in York, before embarking on a major tour that will visit the South Bank in January.
It's a project that represents more than one form of homecoming for this dramatist. For a start, it reunites him with the kind of subject at which he excels. His great trilogy - an incisive anatomy of the Church of England (Racing Demon), the legal profession and the police (Murmuring Judges) and the Labour party struggling to make itself electable in the 1992 election (The Absence of War) - was the high-water mark of Richard Eyre's tenure at the National and demonstrated Hare's acute gift for diagnosing, from the difficulties faced by particular institutions, the state of health of the body politic as a whole. At the end of the trilogy, the defeated Kinnock-character cracks a rueful joke. There seems to be no point in having other parties, he reasons, because the Tories always win. What, then, is Labour's best bet? "Let's all join the Tory party," he declares. "And then let's all fuck it up." As The Permanent Way seems certain to highlight, Labour did indeed go on to "fuck up" the Tory party, though only by the novel method of becoming it, under a new name.
This latest venture also reunites Hare and the seminal director Stafford-Clark for the first time (amazingly) since 1975, when they worked together on Fanshen, a dramatisation for the Joint Stock Theatre Company of a book by William Hinton about a village community's attempts at genuine change in the Chinese land-reform programme of 1947. Unlike many playwrights, Hare has never been afraid of going out into the world and asking people questions before delivering judgements (he travelled to Israel to amass the data distilled in Via Dolorosa; his extensive interviews conducted as research for the trilogy are collected in Asking Around). But The Permanent Way harks back to Fanshen, too, in the communal nature of the play's origins. The material was collected and researched by the whole company, after which Hare went off by himself to shape it into a drama. In 1975, the group discussions and self-examination of the Fanshen workshops were an attempt to mirror, in the rehearsal methods, the political techniques developed during the revolution. It's easy to smile a little such practices now (Hare himself tells a story about how, one day, the directors silently left it up to the actors to indicate when the afternoon session should begin - and were kept waiting for an hour and a half). But to strive to make the processes by which a piece of political theatre comes into being reflect and enshrine the values it champions is an honourable aim. The heightened sense of collective responsibility that went into the making of The Permanent Way will surely stand as an eloquent rebuke to the fragmentising irresponsibility that allowed a railway operation to be broken down into multiple units, with public safety left shivering on the track as one profit-motivated company was put in charge of the line and another profit-making company was given charge of the trains.
It's the keenly outward-looking character of the new play that will hearten Hare's admirers - for, in his last few works for the theatre, there has been a strong streak of troubled self-preoccupation, and it has often been hard to decide whether this ingredient has enriched the plays or thrown them off course. Viewed as a whole, they amount to a kind of portrait of the English political dramatist as a disillusioned, middle-aged man. The long career of Hare, the Lansing and Cambridge-educated son of the Bexhill-on-Sea petite bourgeoisie, is a survivor's history of post-1968 political playwriting. He began as a founder member (with Howard Brenton and Tony Bicat) of Portable Theatre, a kind of ideological meal-on-wheels outfit that delivered the revolutionary message in short, sharp doses to schools, prisons, and army camps. From the fringe, he gradually progressed to the mainstream, producing plays such as Plenty, his passionate lament for the wartime hope and idealism that were betrayed by resurgent capitalism. In a lecture delivered in Cambridge in 1978, he gobsmacked his comrades in the left-wing drama movement by drawing attention to that "sinking of the heart when you go to a play and find that the author really believes that certain questions have been answered even before the play has begun."
There were those who felt that his own work did not always escape that stricture, as he shinned up the ladder of acclaim with dramas exploring the human cost of Thatcherism - in, say, The Secret Rapture, which is soon to be revived in the West End, and in Skylight. Even while conceding that the trilogy was a considerable achievement, John McGrath, the late director of the radical 7:84 Company, accused Hare of "massaging the middle classes". That gibe seems positively unctuous, though, when compared with the hand grenade chucked at him by the director Dominic Dromgoole in the latter's extraordinarily candid survey of contemporary playwriting, The Full Room. "You get the feeling," he writes, "that somewhere in David Hare's heart he not only sympathises with the enemy, he wants them to win. And that is why he carries the audience with him. It's the not-so-covert conservative conspiracy. They, too, long for the world to be liberal. On the condition that it remains a matter of longing... That's where their security lies, and that's where they find reassurance in David Hare." The playwright's acceptance of a knighthood, and his second marriage to the wealthy fashion designer Nicole Farhi, have not been seen as mitigating circumstances.
Pitching his perceptions at an outrageous extreme, Dromgoole nevertheless speaks as one of the talented bunch of theatre professionals who rose to prominence in the ideological vacuum of the 1990s. Dramatists who were living through the legacy of Thatcherism elected, on the whole, to communicate what this did to the nervous system rather than to engage in state-of-the-nation analysis, although Hare's influence can be discerned in the work of Mark Ravenhill (especially in Some Explicit Polaroids) and Patrick Marber. The latter's update of Strindberg's Miss Julie, soon to open at the Donmar Warehouse, makes a very Hare-like manoeuvre in transporting this duel of sex and class to an English country house on the night of the Labour election victory in July 1945. Insufficient admiration from their juniors is a cross most mature writers have to bear. But a left-wing political dramatist of Hare's generation also has to face the fact that his or her plays have manifestly failed to change the world in the way that they were intended to. David Edgar ploughs brainily on, fascinated by the ever-more intricate politics of negotiation and behind-closed-doors decision-making in the complex new world order. Darting ahead, Churchill tries to outwit disillusion by radically reinventing herself with each piece. Hare, by contrast, does his soul-searching in public.
Take Via Dolorosa (1998), a solo show of first-rate reportage that the dramatist performed in the West End and on Broadway. I remember remarking to a friend on the way out that only Hare could have turned the Arab/Israeli conflict into a metaphor for the difficulties of being him. Nor was I being wholly cynical. It's a piece that is funny, moving and honest about how it feels, as a political writer, to move from a society where nothing seems to matter much any more to a land (or lands) where everything is passionately contentious. There's a lovely moment when Hare explains to an Israeli cast in Tel Aviv, who are rehearsing Amy's View, that Tony Blair is all things to all men. He'll do whatever he thinks is popular. At which point an actor pipes up: "Oh, please, please - send us your Tony Blair."
There's oblique self-portraiture, too, in My Zinc Bed (2000), in the part of Victor Quinn, an ex-Communist-turned-dotcom millionaire. This self-portraiture accounts for the fact that Victor is both intensely compelling and mildly unbelievable. A despairing, ironic capitalist, half colluding with the forces he despises (you know the type), he declares that: "I had faith. But then it was stolen from me. I was the victim of a robbery. Like millions of others. History came along and clobbered us on the head. No victim support scheme for us." Hence his contempt for Alcoholics Anonymous, which in his view merely replaces one unseemly addiction with another. The figure of the one-time radical duly resurfaced in Hare's disappointing last play, The Breath of Life, her credentials as a quondam enemy of the bourgeoisie not well established by Dame Maggie Smith, whom it is much easier to picture marching on the House of Fraser than on the White House.
For releasing Hare from this cycle of introspection, we have two people to thank: the brazenly incorrigible Blair (on the principle that there's nothing wrong with a political playwright that a really good dose of bad government can't cure) and the canny Stafford-Clark, who brought the idea of the railways project to Hare, thus disproving once again the conventional wisdom that a director should not be proactive but wait patiently till the dramatist feels another political statement coming on.
What, though, if the message of The Permanent Way is ignored? After all, very few plays have ever brought about a change in legislation or criminals to book. When someone told Sartre that what he wrote was going to have very little effect, he agreed, but said that he had to write it any way: it was his duty. That's a wise answer. Just imagine how poor we would look in the eyes of posterity, if no drama had borne witness to the injustices to our times. The best political plays create structures that help us to think about public issues, without telling us what to think. And their value endures. One of the most moving experiences I have had in the theatre recently was watching Richard Eyre's excellent Broadway revival of The Crucible. When the lights went up at the end, people were in tears. Arthur Miller's play, a coded protest against the McCarthy witch hunts, had clearly spoken with a piercing directness to that audience, as the United States enters yet another period where dissent is seen as synonymous with "unpatriotic". It's worth reflecting that the oldest surviving Greek play - Aeschylus's The Persians from 472BC - is a political drama that manages, with extraordinary empathy, to see war from the point of view of the enemy. Cut to AD1993, and this ancient text gives the American director Peter Sellars the sturdy template for a take on the events of the First Gulf War. It should hearten Hare that he has already written a couple of plays that will also last in that way, and help future citizens to make sense of their experience. Let's hope that he produces more, because now - with The Permanent Way - a career that seemed to have gone slightly off the rails looks set to get back on track.
'The Permanent Way' is running at the York Theatre Royal (01904 623568) until tomorrow and then touring
Sound and fury: David Hare on the limits of his art
"Did any of my plays change the world? I know for a fact The Absence of War haunts various politicians. The Prime Minister has said he remembers going to see it and it's always there as a ghastly memory of what might happen. I don't think you expect to have a direct effect on the world at large, although there's no doubt that individuals are changed or inspired by pieces they see. In my lifetime, Cathy Come Home was one of those pieces. Oh! What a Lovely War radically affected how people saw the First World War. Look Back in Anger had a political effect, as did The Boys from the Blackstuff...
I think the performing arts have a strong record in affecting the way people think socially - much more so than British literature in the same period - and their tradition is much stronger than in the American theatre. You'll find that all the best young US playwrights - Neil LaBute, Tony Kushner, Wallace Shawn - are experts on English political theatre. Kushner knows much more about David Edgar and Caryl Churchill than most young British playwrights do, in fact.
But I think of all theatre as political. The first question I ask about a work of art is: "What is it trying to say?" A political writer thinks it's the most important question you can ask. A non-political writer doesn't. It's about point of view. If I were faced, tonight, with a choice of going to see Waiting for Godot or Justifying War - Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry at the Tricycle Theatre, I would choose the Hutton Inquiry tonight and seven nights a week. It just interests and excites me more than someone [like Beckett] whose essential view of the world is so hopeless.
People wonder about the real-life voices I use in my plays. When I went to Israel and Palestine and wrote Via Dolorosa, I simply felt that to interpose myself between the people and the audience who were going to listen to them was unnecessary and obtrusive. There are certain subjects where it's enough just to listen to people who know far more than you, and arrange their thoughts in a certain way. That isn't, in my view, any less creative than if a sculptor picks up a piece of driftwood and carves that wood and paints it. He's still creating a work of art - he's not expected to make the wood itself. I regard myself as sculpting the stuff I find around me - which is the voices of other people.
I get bored by the view that "agitprop" must be less worthy than art that takes a universal view of its subject. Sometimes this universality can be fantastically bland and negative. One of the most moving things about Michael Frayn's new play Democracy is that it's a very partisan defence of democracy. All the passion of the writing goes into saying that, imperfect as it is, there's something uniquely moving about this system where everybody has to make accommodations and - by showing the nitty-gritty of politics - he manages to make it heartbreaking. It's all the better for its partisanship.
Political drama needn't be about idealism and disillusionment. The Permanent Way is about groups of people who behave honourably or dishonourably. The heroes and heroines of it are people who've been victims of privatisation and those who are determined to honour the victims. I find these people very moving; their behaviour gives me hope.
When a play about rail privatisation was first suggested to me, I must say my heart sank. But the minute I began to talk to people, once I found the story of how this bad piece of legislation got onto the books, I began to understand something about my own life. When you wonder whose mind the playwright is out to change - well, one of the minds is his own. I personally enjoyed the process of enlightenment that followed writing this play. Really, all I'm trying to do is share my pleasure in my own enlightenment..."
Interview by John WalshReuse content