The director Richard Eyre once told me that, during his long working relationship with David Hare, he was eventually forced to decree that it would henceforth be the playwright’s task to answer the avalanche of correspondence from audience members seeking an explanation for the titles of Hare plays. Enigmatically named texts such as Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Secret Rapture maintain their mystery by declining, unlike Ibsen’s Wild Duck, to contain a conversation in which the organising metaphor is glossed.
It is not obvious from the outside why Hare’s autobiography is called The Blue Touch Paper rather than the sort of nominal pun – Hare Piece, Hare in My Eyes – usual in this genre. But, once inside, the reader rapidly understands. Delivering the script of his anti-capitalist thriller Knuckle to his agent, Hare remarks: “Light the blue touch paper and retire.”
Alluding to the explosive reactions that his plays have often provoked – the agent hates it, resulting in a transfer to the inspired and eccentric Peggy Ramsay, a vivid presence in the book – the firework reference also relates to Hare’s belief that a playwright must not and cannot be fully in control of the work. For him, ideas and dialogue arise so mysteriously from the subconscious that they are, “at the deepest level, out of my hands”. And because playwrights share their creation, in a way novelists do not, with the unstable variables of actors and audience, it is futile to complain if what they wrote as a lament for the victims of the death camps is perceived as a defence of the Nazis. Once the fuse has been lit, the fire can’t be controlled.
Perhaps less intentionally, the title also evokes the writer’s tendency to explode at any moment. Although in the text he generally praises two of his theatrical champions – Eyre and Peter Hall – he also parenthetically rebukes them for passing comments they made in rehearsal periods 42 and 37 years ago, respectively. He admits to being hypersensitive, but possibly provides too much evidence of the self-diagnosis.
Even a casual acquaintance, the political columnist Peter Jenkins, dead for 23 years now, has his views and his voice eviscerated. Hare also confesses that for three and a half decades he has been unable to see a column by Jenkins’s widow, Polly Toynbee, “without groaning”, because, quite unknown to Toynbee, the memoirist’s first marriage collapsed during a weekend she was hosting. Hare acknowledges that a sane observer would not blame her for something that happened unseen in an upstairs room, but then, “I am no sane observer.”
That sentence, suddenly throwing the anecdote’s punchline at himself, is characteristic of the way in which Hare, in this book, does penance for being tough on others by being even tougher on himself.
In his account of his childhood on the Sussex coast, the son of a merchant navy purser who was at sea for 11 months of each year, he describes himself as “a nasty little boy”. At Lancing, self-conscious as a scholarship boy among pupils whose parents could pay the fees with ease, he developed a “deep certainty that I was unlikeable”. Teaching at prep school, he still “hated myself”; moving into the theatre, feeling “no less insecure”, he was a “pretty unpleasant person”, which results in his being “hugely disliked”. He quotes a letter from Tom Stoppard telling him to stop beating himself up. At times, a reader may feel that the book should have been called Hare Shirt.
For anyone familiar with the autobiographies of politicians – whose biggest mistakes are always somebody else’s fault – this tone is bracing, even if you sometimes want to call in a qualified shrink to take over the reading. The main narrative devotes most of its length to Hare’s first 32 years (the latter part of his life so far is covered in the final seven pages), and climaxes in a confession of adultery with his frequent leading lady Kate Nelligan, so ending his marriage to the TV producer Margaret Matheson, with whom he had three children, including twins then only six months old. Baldly noting these facts, he invites readers to “think ill” of him. Regarding himself as having been fathered neglectfully, he realises he has become a bad dad himself.
His love for his sons and daughter and a happy second marriage to the fashion designer Nicole Farhi help strike a redemptive note in the book’s coda: brutal self-analysis is only one of Hare’s tones. There is elegiac social history in his recording of the moods and foods of 1950s Britain and some of the theatrical anecdotes are as funny as those of Britain’s most prolific playwright-autobiographer, Simon Gray.
After successive backstage bust-ups, Hare, during the previews of an early work, finds himself “on non-speaking terms with the management, while also assiduously avoiding the beaming director”. Working on Fanshen, Hare’s adaptation of a book about a Chinese peasant collective, the director becomes so influenced by the model of democracy in the text that he judges it wrong to take control of that day’s rehearsal and concludes “we should simply wait until one of the actors suggested we start. I think we sat for about ninety minutes.”
In a book so sceptical about both the subject and his country, it seems appropriate that the one note of unbridled national pride should have become questionable since Hare wrote it. Recalling the TV coverage in January 1965 of the funeral of Britain’s wartime leader, he recalls that “the spontaneous lowering of cranes to half-mast on both sides of the Thames as Churchill’s coffin sailed by remains the most indelible public image of my life”. This moving tribute is repeated in the memoir’s peroration. In fact, in a recent TV documentary by Jeremy Paxman, a retired docker claimed that most of his colleagues had despised the Tory prime minister but had been paid Saturday overtime to form a memorial tableau on the orders of their bosses. As two of Hare’s finest pieces of work – the stage play Plenty and the TV film Licking Hitler – subvert British mythologies about the Second World War, an enterprising artistic director or TV commissioner might usefully invite him to write a drama about Churchill’s funeral.
The Blue Touch Paper, unnervingly but rivetingly frank, leads you to hope that there are many more displays of dramatic fireworks to come. Perhaps only David Hare would have addressed a perception of being disliked by writing a book that may, to careless readers, make him seem even more dislikeable. For those interested in postwar Britain or modern British theatre, however, the text is filled with plenty.
The Blue Touch Paper: A Memoir by David Hare is published by Faber & Faber, 346pp, £20
This article appears in the 09 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles