Playwright David Hare on reality art

David Hare, known as a “verbatim playwright” for his plays taken from news events, gave a lecture on the relationship between nonfiction and art to the Royal Society of Literature in which he drew the distinction between what he does and ordinary daily journalism. In a nutshell, “without metaphor we have no art,” he said. The Guardian printed an edited version, under the headline “David Hare: mere fact, mere fiction.”

In turn, I excerpt it here:

Journalism is reductive. This is not always the fault of journalists. It is in the nature of the job. At its best and worst, journalism aims to distil. It aims to master, even to subjugate, a particular topic. In this ambition, the journalist will always run the risk of tipping over into contempt. As soon as something can be summarised it can also be dispatched. Anyone who has ever attended morning conference at a national newspaper will know the form: everyone taking part in the human comedy is a fool. What was once the humorous stance of Private Eye has become the humourless stance of the entire press. The gap between what people are and what they are treated as in journalism has never been wider. Only the very best journalists know how to suggest that a person, theory or event is not just what the journalist believes it to be. It is also itself. Holding that balance between your account and a proper respect for the truth of what something or somebody is outside your account involves a level of self-awareness hard to achieve in 600 words.

In the west a journalistic culture which takes in both the internet and television has now become both tiring and ubiquitous. It has also led to a curious deformation in society. As citizens, we consider our family, our friends and, most of all, our children as likeable and virtuous. But we are encouraged to consider everyone we don’t know—and most especially those we know only through newspapers – as ridiculous or vicious. To this tendency, this desire to bundle people and thereby to dismiss them, art and death are the most powerful antidotes. Art frequently reminds us that things are never quite as simple as they seem. Nor are people. Journalism is life with the mystery taken out. Art is life with the mystery restored. Put people on the stage, in all their humanity, propel them into a course of events, and in even the most savage satire or preposterous farce, characters may acquire a sympathy, a scale, a helplessness, all of which draw forth feelings eerily reminiscent of those elicited by people you actually know.

Meanwhile, to the objection that plays and novels about contemporary events are too hastily conceived to be profound is added the confident counter-objection that such works are unlikely to endure. Shakespeare’s plays may be crammed with incomprehensible Elizabethan references and jokes which amuse nobody, and these have hardly damaged his continuing popularity. But the example of literature’s highest achiever does little to blunt the popularity of this line of attack. How on earth, it is asked, can either foreign cultures or generations unborn ever be interested in such local doings? On this question, I can only say I am willing to take my chances. Like most writers, I have at best a sceptical attitude to posterity. But wherever playwrights gather, you will find them telling stories of plays, performed in far-off places and years after their premieres, which have somehow acquired what seems like an accidental shimmer.

Of a recent revival of Stuff Happens in Canada—six years after the National Theatre first conceived a then-topical account of the lead-up to the Iraq war—the director wrote me a letter: “I find the play infinitely sadder than a few years ago . . . I think there is something potent about these people now officially out of office and firmly set in their historical place. At the same time, the references to both Afghanistan and Iraq are eliciting vocal responses from the audiences that I don’t recall having happened in my previous production.” In response to such a letter, any playwright will argue two things. First, no proper play is ever just “about” the events it describes. The whole intention of a play in describing one thing is to evoke another. Bush and Blair, after all, are not the only warmongers in history. But, secondly, in celebrating this play’s bewildering success in Toronto six years on, the director was, in fact, celebrating the special nature of theatre itself. In Stalinist Russia the most powerful protest you could make was to stage Hamlet.

The Power of Yes dealt with issues that might well have been batted back and forth on a lively edition of Newsnight. Because the play portrayed real people, the dish arrived hotly spiced for journalistic carving. But then, interestingly, a second wave of reaction followed which addressed not so much the play’s ideas as its techniques. Many things were expected of a play about high finance, but it was not foreseen that it should resemble Michael Bennett’s production of A Chorus Line. Friends reported that they found the sight of 20 suited bankers lining up beneath the proscenium arch curiously moving. From then on, nothing was as they’d anticipated, least of all their own responses.

Plenty of people get their poetry from science, from the physical universe, from the contemplation of mathematics, or of animals, or of solitude or of the stars. An audience arrives fearing the theatre will be one more medium like any other. If the subject of the play comes from political life, then they anticipate a form of animated journalism, journalism on legs, the usual mud-soup of opinion and sociology. But the performing arts can deliver high-flying bankers who are at once contemptible and deeply sympathetic. If we accept the simple distinction that factual work asks questions for us, whereas fictional work is more likely to ask questions of us, then why can some work not do both?

We are living through curious times and they demand curious art—in both senses of the word. “Aren’t you telling us what we already know?” is the last question, always aimed between my eyes, potentially lethal in the questioner’s view, but not even causing a skin-wound when fired. “No, I am not. You may think you know about something. But it’s one thing to know, and another to experience.” The paradox of great factual work is that it restores wonder. Thinly imagined work takes it away. “I never knew that, I never realised that, I never felt that” is what you hear from the departing audience when their evening has been well spent. Because we think we know, but we don’t.

Hare’s complete essay in The Guardian is here.

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