- - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE BLUE TOUCH PAPER: A MEMOIR

By David Hare

W.W. Norton. $27.95, 368 pages illustrated

Of the generation of British playwrights born right after World War II, David Hare is not only one of the most successful, with such hit plays as “Plenty” (which he adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep), but has also demonstrated remarkable staying power. “Skylight” of 1997 won this year’s Tony Award for Best Revival on Broadway. Mr. Hare is not only a dramatist skilled at delving deep into his characters’ psyche, libido and general essence, but uses the stage as a bully pulpit for his radical views on society in general and politics in particular. Indeed, the tendentiousness with which these are expressed sometimes comes close to spoiling fine dramas with their obtrusiveness.

So it is not surprising that this unusually probing memoir is larded with an outspokenness and, yes, that trademark tendentiousness we expect from this one-time second-generation Angry Young Man of the 1970s and ‘80s British theater who showed that his fiery anger was at least as white-hot as his ‘60s predecessors, John Osborne and Harold Pinter. What is surprising is how all the rough spots which he cannot resist placing throughout his retrospective look at the first part of his life (with the odd appropriate flash-forward) are softened by all sorts of much less expected pronouncements. What you see here is a genuinely thoughtful person capable of making fine distinctions and rendering justice even to people whom he generally abhors. After all, this is the man who defended his anathema Margaret Thatcher from what he termed as the left-wing snobbery which derided her for not following the political trajectory which they believed her relatively humble origins obliged her to do.

Although there are the expected denunciations of American foreign policy within the purview of the memoir — Vietnam — as well as the obligatory one of the Iraq War well beyond its timeframe — it is a pleasant surprise to discover Mr. Hare’s genuine fondness for the United States and its people. Much of this is grounded in a sojourn on this side of the Atlantic between school and university, which took him coast to coast from painting houses in Southern California to selling vacuum cleaners in Manhattan. It is good to read that after such discoveries as the splendid pluralism of American society in general and a specific kindness from his Electrolux supervisor which he “absolutely associates with Americanness,” he writes that he would never “likely thereafter succumb to the facile anti-Americanism of the European left.” Indeed, his fondness for this country and its friendly openness — all too sparse in his native island — shines through in anecdote and incident over and over again.

So give him his due, his opposition to individual actions which he deplores are principled and sweeping, characteristics he shares with his nemesis Thatcher, which is perhaps why he can defend her against something he hates still more: snobbery. The son of a ship’s purser who managed to win scholarships to a prestigious private school (Lancing College, alma mater of that arch-snob Evelyn Waugh) and Cambridge University, he had plenty of encounters with uppishness, yet this memoir dwells more on the benefits and opportunities that came his way, another of its attractive aspects. At the present moment when American campuses are full of protesters more interested in loudly and publicly airing grievances about hurt feelings and bending the curriculum to fashionable nostrums, it is heartening indeed to read about Mr. Hare’s activism at Cambridge, which involved a respectful but steely determination behind closed doors actually to obtain the tutelage in English literature from those he had specifically come there to study with.

Mr. Hare does not always come across as likeable and makes no secret that many who worked with him found him difficult to say the least. But he is as unsparing of himself as he is of others, perhaps more so, and this leavens those harsh lumps which might otherwise have made for unpleasant reading. Nowhere is he harder on himself than in his recounting of the affair with one of his leading ladies which blew apart his marriage and resulted in leaving his young children. He writes of his first wife, a distinguished producer, with tenderness and respect, the very reverse of how he treats himself.

If “The Blue Touch Paper” has a fault, it is perhaps its plethora of insiderish accounts of getting plays produced with a lot of technical and other details of limited interest to those not immersed in that particular world. But Mr. Hare more than makes up for all this with insightful portraits of Peter Hall and Helen Mirren, among others, and with some delicious anecdotes ranging from Noel Coward delivering a crisp critical summing up of one of the young playwright’s early efforts to examples of Laurence Olivier’s characteristic mischievousness. But my favorite comes from his student days, hosting Alfred Hitchcock on a 1966 visit to Cambridge. The great director pronounced the one quality which could not be faked onscreen:

“The public had taken Grace Kelly to their hearts because she was indeed likeable. For all Hitchcock’s efforts, they had rejected Tippi Hedren because she was not only one actor in the world was so formidably skilled that he could fake on screen a charm he didn’t have in real life. Could any of us guess who it was? Fearing the answer, I replied ‘Cary Grant.’ Hitchcock smiled, satisfied, ‘Correct.’ “

Politics may be Mr. Hare’s passion, but he reveals himself convincingly to be a true man of stage and screen and you can’t fake that on the page.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.


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