About two-thirds of the way into the 90 extraordinary minutes of Via Dolorosa, his dramatization of what he heard, saw, soaked in and learned during several 1997-98 trips to Israel, the West Bank and Palestinian Gaza, David Hare remarks from the stage of the Booth Theatre: “I’m just a pen.”
Something rings in the ear. Christopher Isherwood from early-thirties Berlin: “I am a camera, silently watching. . . ”
Intentional parallel? “Yes, exactly,” says playwright-performer Hare, an Englishman who is not so silent (nor was Isherwood). “Stephen debated this line with me a lot, but I wanted to stick it in.” Stephen is Stephen Daldry, director of Via Dolorosa here as in London. “He was concerned that it would make me sound overly neutral, which,” says Hare, “I’m not.” What David Hare is unneutral about -- what he’s deeply against -- is extremism. Here it’s the extremism he found, and brilliantly acts out, between warring political-philosophical-religious diehards within each populace, Israeli and Palestinian alike -- “people who seek religious justification for excessive behavior on either side.”
Now, in his dressing room at the Booth -- where Via Dolorosa, imported by Lincoln Center Theater, knocked even John Simon out and looks to be a hit into June -- Hare says: “I simply wanted to express my astonishment, as an honest outsider, at the depth of those [internal] divisions, and to say that the situation there is not an argument en masse between the Israelis on one side and the Palestinians on the other.”
A series of some 30 living, breathing portraits of Israelis and Arabs of all sorts and stances -- of Israel’s fiery Shulamit Aloni, for instance, as opposed to Gaza’s world-weary old Haider Abdel Shafi -- makes this vividly clear. “Just yesterday,” Hare says with a fleeting smile, “someone who knows Shulamit Aloni said to me: ‘You’ve got her exactly.’ And someone else in London came up and said: ‘I went to school with Shulamit, and she was like that then’ ” -- words a playwright, or any writer, will give his life to hear.
Two blocks north of the Booth, on 47th Street, Amy’s View, also by David Hare, also a big London hit, was just then preparing to open at the Barrymore, starring Judi Dench. You might, in fact, call this The Year of David Hare; better yet, the two years of David Hare, taking in the London and New York advents of his The Judas Kiss, about Oscar Wilde; The Blue Room, Schnitzler’s cynical circle of sexual congress updated; Via Dolorosa; and, now, Amy’s View. So, after 29 or 30 years as a very hardworking, intense, highly regarded playwright, but one who has never had any roll of the dice like this, how’s it feel?
“Obviously fantastically satisfying,” said the playwright, pulling himself to his feet. He is a lean, tall, fair-complexioned, angular Englishman, the son of a purser on the old P & O steamship line that carried Britons southward and eastward to postings of Empire. “And as we speak,” he tossed off, “there’s also a revival of Plenty in London, starring Cate Blanchett.”
After a moment: “You know, I’m not writing plays for Broadway, but for audiences.” A number of his earlier plays, Slag and Plenty and A Map of the World, made their U.S. premieres Off-Broadway at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. Plenty moved to Broadway with Kate Nelligan as its World War II heroine subsequently bereft of a cause. “I’ve always had the highest opinion of Broadway audiences ever since Plenty,” said its author. “There are people who say: ‘You can’t put serious material on Broadway.’ Well, nonsense. I think Broadway has the most discerning audience in the world.”
Really? More discerning than London?
“As discerning.” With that half-smile: “American audiences are more restless than London.”
David Hare was born at Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, on June 5, 1947 -- just 11 months prior to the creation of the State of Israel, 20 years to the day before the start of the Six-Day War. The last time he ever acted on a stage was at age 15 as that very Protestant person, Thomas Cromwell, in a production at the Lancing School, Sussex, of A Man for All Seasons. The Richard Rich of the show was playwright-to-be Christopher Hampton.
Via Dolorosa is, in Jerusalem, the path along which Christ, carrying the Cross, stumbled his way to crucifixion. “I call the play Via Dolorosa,” says Hare, “because, though I’m not a Christian, I come from a Christian country.”
If not a Christian, then what is he?
“I suppose I’m an atheist, really. Racing Demon was the play that made that point.”
His wife, fashion designer Nicole Farhi, as he notes in the current work, is Jewish, the daughter of Turkish and French parents who spent a year in hiding in occupied France.
“Eight years ago my play Murmuring Judges was being done in London, and the leading lady came out dreadfully clothed. I went to [set designer] Bob Crowley and said: ‘Can’t something be done?’ Twenty-four hours later there arrived these fabulous costumes. I said: ‘I want to meet the woman who made those clothes.’ It was Nicole. So I fell in love with her clothes before I fell in love with her.”
David Hare, who has three children now in their twenties from an earlier marriage (to television producer Margaret Matheson), was “propelled into playwriting” at age 22 when somebody else didn’t come through with a script at a little theatre Hare was running. “And I just haven’t stopped since.”
At the moment, he says, he’s written out. Don’t count on it.