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5 June 2006

Strange stuff happens

The New Statesman's event was one of the highlights of this year's Hay literary festival: B

By David Hare

JK: I thought I would quote to you an extract from your first public lecture in 1978 in Cambridge: “Satire depends on ignorance; it is based on the proposition ‘if only you knew’. Thus the satirist can rail, ‘If only you knew that Eden was on Benzedrine throughout the Suez crisis, stoned out of his head and fancy-free. If only you knew that the crippled, stroke-raddled Churchill dribbled and farted in cabinet for two years after a debilitating stroke, and nobody dared remove him. If only you knew that cabinet ministers sleep with tarts, that Tory MPs liaise with crooked architects and bent offshore bankers. If only you knew.'” That was 1978. Has much happened since then, David?

DH: It seems timely, doesn’t it? I think it was Tom Lehrer who said that satire died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. There is a limitation to satire, and when I came to examine the diplomatic process leading up to the war in Iraq, I felt strongly that although I was a fan of Michael Moore there is a limit to how far you get by laughing at George Bush. He’s dyslexic, but that doesn’t mean he’s stupid. And to confuse an inability to handle language with a lack of intention, when his intentions may be the most significant that any politician has had in the past 50 years . . . It’s worth doing him the credit of trying to analyse what he is trying to do, even if he can’t articulate it himself. And so I felt strongly, when I wrote Stuff Happens, that it absolutely should not be a satire.

JK: We spoke as you were finishing off Stuff Happens. Has anything happened since, in both the London and the New York productions, that has made you amend your view of the events that led up to the war?

DH: Yes, the play is now running in New York, and I did rewrite it for New York . . . After studying it I came to feel, which I think you actually said to me, that Colin Powell, who I had represented as the liberal hero, became in the American production a tragic hero. I now believe that Powell knew he was lying when he presented the evidence [on Iraq] to the UN. This is very contentious; he denies it. But I believe I now know enough. I have had a lot of trouble with Stuff Happens. Mysterious trouble. It was playing to 100 per cent audiences in the Olivier Theatre and it was taken off. I have no idea why. I was promised it would be revived and it hasn’t been revived and I have no clue why.

JK: What answer did you get from the theatre?

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DH: “It’ll be out of date next year.”

JK: What do you suspect?

DH: I don’t know. You’d have to ask the artistic director. I have no idea. People’s attitude to this play is so weird, that I have stopped worrying about it. It’s so atypical of any play that I have ever been involved with, in terms of how people react to it. I’ve stopped trying to analyse what it is that provokes or disturbs people about the idea of a play that gets you great reviews, fills your theatre and you still don’t want to put on. I don’t understand it. I don’t know why it was stopped at the National Theatre.

It was then presented in Los Angeles, where it was playing to full houses, and the same thing happened: it was stopped again. I have no idea why. And now, a very brave off-Broadway producer has put it on at immense expense. And it’s playing to full houses. I daily expect the closure notice, you know.

JK: What has Blair’s era done for the revival of political theatre?

DH: It always takes time, and Blairism has been a very slippery phenomenon to get hold of. If you take Margaret Thatcher, she came to power in 1979 – and I’m talking about a worldwide phenomenon of global capitalism renewing itself by freeing up its markets – and the reaction of the artistic community to that, for the first four or five years, was pitiful. About halfway through, Hanif Kureishi writes My Beautiful Laundrette and Caryl Chur-chill writes Serious Money. Suddenly you begin to have a critique of Thatcherism which is deeply felt. But artists aren’t journalists; it takes time. Which is a long-winded way of saying I’m not sure anyone’s nailed Blairism yet.

JK: Confess. Were you one of those in May 1997 who thought: “This is the start of a brave new world?”

DH: I was not dancing at the Festival Hall that night, and I was not swept away on a wave of optimism when Tony Blair came to power. However, I rather hate the media building up people and then knocking them down. The way David Cameron is now being built up, you know in three years’ time they’re going to be cutting his legs off. It’s become a demeaning ritual. It is impossible now for a politician to escape a predestined cycle of rise and fall. Almost every single politician you can think of in the past 30 years has been built up as new and refreshing and then destroyed. Utterly pitiable. If Blair is what he is claimed to be by his critics, he would be a child murderer. There’s simply not a single word in a single newspaper any day which is not saying what a terrible and disastrous human being he is. It’s just absurd. Because I think he actually is the most gifted politician of my lifetime. I’ve never seen as formidable a politician. If he were here debating today, he would wipe the floor with me.

JK: That’s just oratorical skills . . .

DH: Yes, but Eden was gone six months after Suez. How on earth has Blair survived three years after Iraq?

JK: You sound as if you’re sort of proud.

DH: No, but it’s foolish to underestimate the man. Iraq was the biggest mistake in foreign policy since Suez. It was both a crime and it was a mistake, but having said that, the man who did it is astonishingly resilient. Would you be able to get up every morning, three years after having got something quite that wrong? It’s phenomenal.

JK: Do you expect your plays to be performed in 50 years’ time?

DH: I would think it’s a lottery, don’t you? Posterity is so arbitrary, isn’t it? I don’t see any justice . . .

JK: Shakespeare’s histories are still being played.

DH: Shakespeare is an unusual example of a writer of whom everybody at the time said, “We are never going to write as well as him.” Otherwise, I can’t think of a single reputation which hasn’t gone through ups and downs. Most playwrights’ lives end badly. I knew Tennessee Williams very well and he could wax incredibly eloquent into the small hours of the night about the eclipse of his reputation. He would be astonished to discover that he is now just about the most performed American playwright. It’s heartbreaking that he is not around to know it happened. But it happened after his death, after 20 years in which nobody would touch his work. And so it’s a lottery, isn’t it?

JK: Do you ever try to sneak around and listen to what theatregoers say as they are leaving after one of your plays?

DH: I’ve heard such wonderful things. It’s been nothing but trouble. After the first play I ever wrote, a woman – because traditionally it is women who drag men to the theatre – was putting her arm around the man and saying, “I’m sorry, darling: that was my idea.” It’s never really got any better.

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