The unhappiest time of his life: David Hare on dramatising his school days

How does left-leaning playwright David Hare make a return to the stage with a play based on his days as a scholarship boy at public school? Michael Coveney asks him.

If, 30 years ago, you had said that Sir David Hare, scourge of the establishment and intellectual leftie given to cracking scornful jokes, would one day open a new public school play in the West End on a double-bill with a dusty old classic, The Browning Version, by Terence Rattigan – and, what is more, in a theatre re-named for the resolutely non-knighted Harold Pinter – you might have been told to go away, or whistle, or have your head examined.

But that is what is happening this week, as Hare's play, South Downs, based on his own experience of being a scholarship boy at Lancing College, comes trailing unanimously good reviews – that, in itself, is almost a first (well, a second: everyone loved his play about the Anglican church, Racing Demon) as far as Hare is concerned – from last year's summer festival in Chichester.

Admittedly South Downs contains a shockingly funny sequence of dialogue about the size of Dirk Bogarde's private parts and the rumour that he had to be "sewn in" to his costume each day on a film set, but still... Hare was the leading light of the fringe in the 1970s, more or less the resident dramatist at the National Theatre in the 1980s, the screenwriter of thoughtful, high-quality art-house movies, and now... Chichester, Rattigan, what's going on?

Popping in to his study in Hampstead, north London, last week, I can hardly wait to hear his excuses. Typically, of course, he has a clever answer ready, as with TV chefs who put their hands under the counter and come up with something they prepared earlier.

"T S Eliot, the most conservative of cultural critics, said that you can only add to a tradition by changing it. But at some point, you do actually fall into that tradition, don't you?

"If you're 64, as I am, you're part of it. So you can put a play on with one of Rattigan's and see the connection, whereas once you would have seen only the difference."

Hare's nothing if not smart, and has an almost unparalleled gift in the British theatre of being able to get right up people's noses. That quality of disruption runs like a streak of acid through most of his work, which is usually to do with romantic love, political betrayal or our capacity for grief, and I now think that all of this has to do with emotional and spiritual bravery.

Did he not need some of that during his schooldays, surely the happiest days of your life? Hare does his characteristic laugh, half-snort, half-bark. "I was deeply unhappy. I'd been sent to Lancing because my father was always away at sea – he was a purser in the P&O Line – and I hated it. Although the boy Blakemore's trajectory in the play is mine, I'm also distributed through other characters.

"The events of the play are fictional, but the atmosphere and culture of the play is Lancing in 1962. I had a lot of letters during the Chichester run saying, 'That's exactly how it was'."

But didn't the school chaplain complain about the scene in a religious class where the doctrine of "consubstantiation" – when the bread and wine represents exactly the body and blood of Christ – is explained and then challenged by Blakemore?

"Yes, he wrote to say that he had explained it perfectly clearly and didn't understand why the boys in the scene were confused about it. I had to explain to him that this was, in fact, a play, and that the person doing the teaching wasn't even the school chaplain. I did research this extremely thoroughly, and the theology is correct."

Does he really believe that some chaplains, social workers and most teachers, nurses and even actors, are the blessed of the earth because they have no chance of inheriting it?

"Well, yes, of course I do!" He cannot believe I'd doubt this. "Power triumphs, and usually corrupts. There's a revolting little bully in South Downs, whom people might recognise as the sort of person who does very well in life, probably going into industry and/or politics.

"If you think life is about power, then you will prosper, won't you? It's like the line in Citizen Kane about there being no trick to making money if that's what you want to do. And it's the same if you end up running ICI and you are blind to what you or I might think of as taking responsibility for all those people's lives."

In the Rattigan play, a buttoned-up classics master is given a gift by a pupil he thought despises him; the "gift" in Hare's companion piece is given to Blakemore, the cleverest but unhappiest boy in the class, by the mother of one of his friends, an actress, who suggests to him that all his anxiety about the bomb – he's written a letter to the Daily Express complaining that, while the other boys are allowed to wear religious badges, he can't display his membership of CND – might really be part of his own unhappiness at school.

Personal pain lies behind the public gesture, Hare suggests: "Discontent with the world is so tied up in complicated ways with discontent with yourself, and maybe in this play I've been able to put my finger on that." This is something he sees in Rattigan, certainly in the way Rattigan deals with sex, but also, and especially, in John Osborne, to whom he became close in that tweedy old curmudgeon's final years.

Suddenly he says, "I absolutely loved the way Michael Sheen played Jimmy Porter [in Osborne's Look Back in Anger, the play that opened the door for Hare's generation of playwrights]. He said these outrageous things and then stopped as if to say, 'Now, what d'you think of that, eh?' He was like a little boy showing off. He was saying, 'This man is so unhappy and insecure, and it all comes out in this form of aggression', which is exactly how John was in private. He was so insecure, it was agony being with him, but he was never going to show that to the world."

Hare's Blakemore is a soul in torment, of sorts. He's reading Camus and Sartre – the play's epigraph is Sartre's "In a football match everything is complicated by the presence of the other team" – and kicking against all the pricks. Like Hare at Lancing, he's already saying we should never have split the atom and that it's his generation's job to "get the genie back in the bottle".

"One of the difficulties of doing the play with young actors was the time difference," he says, warming to the glow of remembered protests; "I had to spend a lot of time explaining what CND was. On television in the 1950s, there was always Malcolm Muggeridge asking how human beings could continue in the shadow of the bomb. That question now has an archaic ring, but the bomb posed a huge human existential problem as well as a scientific one: if matter can destroy itself, that does tell us something about our existence. here was a huge feeling – Jacob Bronowski was on television a lot, too – about the implications of this discovery.

"Later, of course we all read Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, which was hugely influential. For me, the implications of the bomb question have been shelved. So, at the moment, in respect of Iran and North Korea, nuclear proliferation – which was declared a non-subject by Reagan and Thatcher at the end of the 1980s – is clearly going to be a problem in the future as it was in the past. It's still a great issue. But nobody talks about it."

Hare was born in Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex ("the most boring place in the world") and claims he was forced up through the class system by his school – Blakemore is derided in the play for living in a "semi" – although, amazingly, this did not stop him becoming head boy. His contemporaries included Christopher Hampton and Tim Rice; Hampton helped secure Hare his first "proper" job as his successor as literary manager at the Royal Court.

His father returned home once a year to throw money at the family and then left them "to get on with it". His "tragically unfulfilled" mother, later in life, suffered from Alzheimer's and walked naked into the English Channel to drown herself.

As a result, and because of his disaffection at school, a deep sorrow drives Hare's plays and public statements. He's boiling inside, and he channels this in both an engagingly flip public exterior and a highly disciplined work ethic, sitting every day in this tall, spacious, light-filled study – once the furnace for a Victorian sculptor who lived next door, later the studio of the painter, Mark Gertler – at a big pine desk he has owned for 40 years.

He leaps up and shows me a "mini world premiere" on his screen of Wall, an animated film-in-progress based on his entertaining monologue about walking along the Berlin Wall; he has done the preliminary work at Shepperton Studios and now the National Film Board of Canada will spend two years turning it into a 50-minute animated cartoon.

This at least throws me off the scent of a recent disappointment, the collapse of the projected film of Jonathan Franzen's brilliant novel The Corrections which, after three years' work and countless drafts, has morphed into an HBO season scripted by Franzen himself.

"There comes a time when there's nothing more to be done about certain things." He admits defeat, too, with My Zinc Bed (2000), his "addiction" play in which a sarcastic former communist entrepreneur hires a young poet to write advertising copy.

"But, with Plenty, there's still something in it I don't wholly understand..."

The main character in Plenty (1978), Susan Traherne – played in the film by Meryl Streep and brilliantly in the West End 13 years ago by Cate Blanchett – is a heroine of the French Resistance who finds the peace she had helped secure more difficult to survive in than the war. Hare recalls how Kate Nelligan, who played the part originally, told him that she "withheld her consent" from Susan – while admitting it was the best role she'd ever played, or would play – "because she allows herself to be broken. I wish she could be more courageous in the second act."

The remark stuck home but only made sense to the playwright much later on. "As you get older, courage is the thing you come to admire more than anything. And stoicism. It's what appeals in Rattigan. I had a blinding revelation when I directed King Lear [with Anthony Hopkins] at the National. The most moving scenes were not those in which people suffered, but in which they were brave in the face of suffering. You don't cry when Gloucester's eyes are gouged out, but you do when he appears on Dover Beach."

"The art of writing," said the novelist in Hare's 1981 play, A Map of the World, "is the art of discovering what you believe". And this is where courage comes in, he reckons: "If you'd asked me who was going to be the political hero of 2011, I would not have guessed at Sienna Miller. I don't know her. But in standing up to the Murdoch press over phone hacking, she was the one who really had something to lose – though I do think Hugh Grant has been fantastic, too – as she's the one whose career is fed by the Murdoch newspapers and who is in a symbiotic relationship with them."

Might not this form the basis of a really strong new Hare play in the future? He's not saying, but he has always written especially well for women; even The Breath of Life (2002), a misfired comedy for Judi Dench and Maggie Smith playing an ex-mistress and ex-wife of the same dead man, was rooted in themes of death, grief and loss.

The same was true of Hare's play about the railways, The Permanent Way (2003), which deployed the verbatim evidence of survivors, engineers and civil servants in the wake of the scandal of four major crashes in six years. He is riled when people dismiss it as a mere documentary: "They seem to have trouble with the idea that you might use real-life material to pursue artistic ends that are just as rich in allusion and suggestiveness as purely private material.

"After The Permanent Way, my plays at the National about Iraq and the financial crisis, Stuff Happens (2004) and The Power of Yes (2009), were progressively more stylistically ambitious. And the fact that nobody notices you are doing this makes you want to shoot yourself! They say, 'Oh, I can read about all that in a newspaper'. And I say to myself, 'Do you know nothing?!'"

This passion drives him crazy but also into print, where he has long delivered polemical essays and moving appreciations of his peers such as Osborne and Pinter and even the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, whom his own warring church has "wasted", he reckons, in arguments about women bishops and gay marriages.

"Rowan is a man with so much to offer, with an artistic gift of going to the heart of things. I heard his sermon on the death of Harry Patch, the last surviving First World War veteran, and it made me cry. He said that we shall continue to know about the First World War but we shall know about it in a different way, because the one certain thing now is that we won't know about it at first hand."

There's a sense in which South Downs, like several other Hare pieces, acknowledges his own generation's recovery from, or reaction to, the Second World War. "It was a natural historical process in our lives that we should end the war, end the empire, and then dismantle the institutions of empire. We may have been young and naive but a lot of people believed this was going to happen. A highly intelligent politician like Tony Crosland could say, 'I'm going to close every fucking grammar school in the country'."

How times change. And Hare, who has been married to his second wife, the fashion designer Nicole Farhi, for 20 years (he has three grown-up children, including twins, with his first wife, the television producer Margaret Matheson), was knighted in the first flush of the New Labour government in 1998. Surely, given his blistering disillusion with Tony Blair and the war in Iraq, he must have considered returning, or disowning, the honour?

"No. I would regret it if I'd written less radically, or written less well, and neither of those two things has happened." And does it help with restaurant bookings? "It's so much the opposite. The first time I tried it on with British Airways, I got bumped... So no, no regrets. I think returning awards is a rather futile gesture."

His essays and lectures are always bracing, but why does he feel he has to justify himself so often? "I don't like doing it. I only write about myself when I feel I have to explain what I'm trying to do. I much prefer – and I've always loved best – those moments in my life when I've felt part of something bigger: Portable Theatre when it was part of the fringe movement, Joint Stock which I founded with Max Stafford-Clark and William Gaskill, or at the BBC in Birmingham when I was allowed to make a film for the first time."

It sounds easy for him to say this, but he confesses himself less than delighted with the "professionalisation" of playwriting. "There are an awful lot of young people who now think of playwriting as a career. We never thought like that when we started, and I still don't. Playwrights say they have five plays to write... Well, there can only be one thing you are absolutely desperate to say at any one time. And if you're not desperate to say it, don't say it!"

He puts his head above the parapet and leaves it there. In this, he is wholly admirable, even courageous. As he once said to me – "It is hard, and very lonely, being a writer. It is much easier, as you must know, to be a critic."

'South Downs'/'The Browning Version', Harold Pinter Theatre, London (0844 871 7627) to 21 July

A life in theatre: Five of the best

Slag (1970)

After running the fringe company Portable Theatre with his friends Howard Brenton and Tony Bicât, Hare went solo with this play, a microcosm of England set in a girls' public school and openly influenced by Germaine Greer's 'The Female Eunuch'.

Fanshen (1975)

Hare has always operated best when he feels "part of something" and 'Fanshen', wittily adapted from William Hinton's classic book with the newly formed Joint Stock company, was the first, and best play, about the Chinese Revolution, and a statement of theatrical philosophy, too.

The Secret Rapture (1988)

A companion piece to 'Plenty' in which the "good" sister (the other is like Edwina Currie) stalks a Thatcherite scenario of greed and state-licensed versions of Tory Christianity. Best line: "We try to do business the way Jesus would have done it."

Skylight (1995)

Perfect Hare play in an encounter between a wealthy restaurant entrepreneur and a dedicated teacher whose affair ended when his wife (now dead) first learned of it. Michael Gambon, then Bill Nighy, gave differently definitive performances.

Amy's View (1997)

One of the best of all "defence of the theatre" plays, which has entered the repertoire after Judi Dench's performance as a West End actress down on her luck. The evening bristled with as many good jokes as combative ideas, especially about the media.

Michael Coveney

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