PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with David Hare

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with David Hare It is one of the ironies of recent theatre history that the great dramatic interpreter of 9/11 and the war in Iraq is not an American, but an Englishman: David Hare.
Stuff Happens Playwright David Hare.
Stuff Happens Playwright David Hare. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The 59-year-old career playwright's "modern history play" Stuff Happens, which examined the Bush White House's rush into the invasion of Iraq, was acclaimed by many critics as the most intelligent and vibrant theatrical response yet to the post-9/11 world.

Hare's new play, The Vertical Hour — currently having its world premiere on Broadway in a production starring Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy, and directed by Sam Mendes — shows that the dramatist is not through with the subject. Set at Yale University and on an estate on the English-Welsh border, it pits a pro-war celebrity professor (Moore) against a anti-war, renowned British surgeon (Nighy)—who just happens to be the father of the man Moore's character is currently dating. The encounter sparks verbal fireworks, but also fosters mutual respect and acute attacks of self-doubt. Hare paused from his busy schedule to discuss his fate to live through what the old Chinese curse refers to as "interesting times."

Playbill.com: Was it your idea to have The Vertical Hour premiere in New York?
David Hare: No. It was just [director] Sam [Mendes] stole it off the producer's office without telling me. He was in Robert Fox's office and knew that I had written a play, so he stole it and then rang and said he wanted to do it. Which obviously thrilled me.

Playbill.com: He just took it off Robert Fox's desk?
DH: He did.

Playbill.com: That's like a story from old-time Broadway.
DH: Yes, it is, isn't it? It's lovely. And then he rang me and asked if I'd mind if he directed the play. I said I didn't mind in the slightest. Robert and I were just beginning to talk about what we should do and where we should put it on and who should be in it. And then when Sam read it, he said, 'You know, I live in New York, three of the characters are American, and the obvious actress to play this part is Julianne Moore.' And I said, 'Well, obviously, if Julianne wanted to play it, I would be delighted.' It fell out that way. We originally were going to do it in an Off-Broadway theatre, but as soon as Julianne joined we realized it was crazy to do it in a small theatre. Though nobody with a weak heart should be doing what I'm doing. Playbill.com: Yes, but after a few decades of experience, you're probably up to premiering on Broadway.
DH: Yes, but there's that famous Neil Simon quote: "Opening a play cold on Broadway is like having a gynecological examination in Times Square."

Playbill.com: The play goes into the subject of the Iraq war at great length, yet one of the major characters is American and the other major character is English. Is that important to the structure of the play?
DH: Oh, completely. We have in England a slightly different, distanced, more skeptical attitude to some of the events of the last five years. What I wanted to do is contrast an American pro-war liberal who has supported the war through the most idealistic reasons, which many of them did, because they believed in humane intervention, against the easier English position. In England, there was a very strong feeling that we were being taken to war by the government and by a couple of newspaper proprietors. There was never massive popular support in England. The majority of educated people were strongly against it. That attitude [against the war] came very easily. The idea was of throwing one [attitude] up against another.

Playbill.com: But you don't make it easy for a liberal New York audience, because Nadia, the Julianne Moore character, an ideologue academic who supports the war in Iraq, is revealed a woman of intelligence and substance. Meanwhile, Oliver, the Bill Nighy character who is against the war, is a flawed, selfish individual with many spots on his record.
DH: Of course. This is fiction and the fun of fiction is making it all up. Things aren't black and white. There's a very passionate line in the last scene when she's talking to a student who's written an essay on Iraq that's completely black and white and she says, "Suddenly everybody's become a blowhard. When did this happen?" People have been reduced to their opinions. And one of the things that the play's about is there's more to human beings than the stuff that comes out of their mouths. I suppose I have found a lot of the debate of the last five years somewhat reductive, the idea that there are good guys and bad guys. It's really more complicated than that.

Playbill.com: American playwrights have found it hard going grappling with Iraq as a subject, while you, an Englishman, have written two very strong works on the subject—this one and Stuff Happens. What do you make of that?
DH: Well, I was equipped to, wasn't I? What I mean is my whole life I've written these kind of plays. That brilliant book about Shakespeare that's just been published, "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599," it's written by James Shapiro, and he's arguing that the reason Shakespeare wrote his best plays in that year is historically it's an important year and Shakespeare is responding to what's happening in 1599. It's a brilliantly argued theory. The more interesting the world becomes, the better Shakespeare writes. That's what I believe. I believe at this point in my life, when I'm getting on, we've entered this extraordinarily fascinating historical period. The challenge of writing about it has been a great opportunity, and because I've been, as it were, 30 years in training for this moment, you might say I'm opportunistic.

Playbill.com: The Julianne Moore character seems like a modern-day descendent of Susan Traherne, the disenchanted character from "Plenty" who yearns for, but does not find, nobility in her times. Would you agree?
DH: Yeah. Robert Fox and Scott Rudin produce this play, and when Scott first read it he said, "This play has that febrile excitement of Plenty, in a way because it has a central character who is as demanding and difficult to live with as Susan Traherne was." I think that I write those characters very differently, again because I'm older and I probably see Nadia more generously than I saw Susan Traherne. But women vibrating with life have always been a theatrical favorite of mine.

Playbill.com: How is work on the stage adaptation of Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking going?
DH: Joan [Didion] and I have spent most of the year working on how to translate it for the stage and it's now done. We did a couple of workshops in which we experimented with how we wanted to present what are necessarily harrowing events to the public. I think she's come up with a wonderful theatrical experience that's quite different from the book, in the sense that it takes in the death of her daughter as well as her husband, and that it takes a very different method than the method of the book.

Playbill.com: Can you give me an idea of what the stage experience will be like?
DH: Not nearly as depressing. There is something curiously uplifting and resilient about Joan's own stoicism. I think her stoicism and her humor translate in the play. For instance, I was sitting on an airplane reading the latest draft and I was roaring with laughter at it. Somebody asked me what I was doing and I said, "Oh, I'm reading this play about someone who lost her husband and her daughter."

Playbill.com: Does the new play you're writing for the National Theatre have a name and topic yet?
DH: No, I'm nowhere near. My goodness, my dance card is full.

Playbill.com: Returning to The Vertical Hour, there are other themes running through the play besides Iraq, including the nature of responsibility, the difference between who we are and the person we present to the world, how to balance one's personal and professional lives, the choice of apathy versus action. Is it too reductive to call it a play about Iraq?
DH: Yeah. We see our lives differently because of the perspective of our enemies. I think since 9/11, it's put a certain perspective on the way we live our lives. I think the question the play is asking is, what is the intelligent way to live in the present situation? One character who is denying her private life—in her phrase "getting her private life out of the way"—in order to concentrate on the things that she passionately wants to do in the world, is paying a price for that. On the other hand, the people in the play who are just concentrating on their private lives and pretending nothing is happening, I don't think they're prospering either.

Playbill.com: What was your reaction to our midterm elections? Were you surprised?
DH: I've been here a lot, because I've been preparing both plays. I'm not an expert on American politics, and least of all, I wouldn't claim to know anything about the American heartland. But I had the conviction the Democrats were going to win and this time it was real. Whether they're willing to exploit their win, I don't know. But it was quite clear that a combination of things had contrived to make the Republicans sound hollower and hollower. When I wrote Stuff Happens, my theory that the Iraq invasion was dreamt up by an opportunistic group in the White House who were simply exploiting 9/11 in the most cynical way in order to accomplish different foreign policy aims that they had always had—that was a very controversial point of view and was hotly disputed. Now, it's accepted as orthodox history.

Playbill.com: Has there ever been any talk of filming Stuff Happens?
DH: There's talk, but I squash it whenever it comes along.

Playbill.com: Will you continue to write about Iraq and the War on Terror?
DH: It's sad to me—I don't know how a playwright can't be massively excited to be living through these times. I'm not taking advantage, but how can you not look at the world as it is now and not seek to describe it?