David Hare on His Play 'The Vertical Hour'

The play The Vertical Hour, written by David Hare, opens Thursday on Broadway. Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, directs. Julianne Moore stars. Hare discusses the play with Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

David Hare is one of Britain's most celebrated playwrights, and over 30 years of writing, one of its most political. His last play “Stuff Happens,” was a dramatic rendition of the run-up to the war in Iraq. His latest work also takes place in the shadow of that war. “The Vertical Hour” premieres tonight on Broadway starring Julianne Moore. Here, her character defends supporting the Iraq invasion.

(Soundbite of play “The Vertical Hour”)

Ms. JULIANNE MOORE (Actress): (As Nadia Blye) I've been in these places. I've seen suffering at ground level. I've been present in situations in which the West did nothing and I've seen the results of our indifference. So if you want me to pass my evening defending the right of Western countries to use their muscle to free Arabs from systematic murder, then, believe me, I am up for it.

Mr. BILL NIGHY (Actor): (As Oliver) I'm sure you are.

Ms. MOORE: (As Nadia Blye) I take it you are against?

Mr. NIGHY: (As Oliver) Passionately!

MONTAGNE: David Hare came to our New York studio to talk about “The Vertical Hour.” I asked him how he came up with the title.

Mr. DAVID HARE (Playwright, “The Vertical Hour”): Well, the central character in the play, Nadia Blye, is a war correspondent who has become an academic at Yale. And there is this wonderful phrase in combat medicine - the vertical hour - and that's the moment at which somebody has been injured and you can actually intervene to be of use. It's the moment at which you can most be of help. And so that becomes, if you like, a metaphor in the play for the encounter between two people: an American academic and her boyfriend's father. And I suppose during the course of a single night they are of some use to each other.

MONTAGNE: So, in a sense, they're inhabiting that vertical hour - actually, it's also called - in America it's known as the golden hour.

Mr. HARE: Oh, is that right?

MONTAGNE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HARE: Well, I often find that I've invented something. I invented - when I wrote a play called “The Secret Rapture,” when everyone asked me what that title meant, I said it's a well-known term in Catholic theology. It's the moment at which a nun finally becomes united with Christ and marries her. And we set teams of researchers onto this and they came back with the reply saying you've totally invented that. There is no such moment in a nun's life.

And so I often find that what I thought was a common term isn't a common term. So I may be wrong about this one as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: So within the definition of the play's title, “The Vertical Hour,” Nadia meets up with and spends a short time, a moment, with Oliver who is played by Bill Nighy. He is the father of her boyfriend. He's - the boyfriend's taken her back to England to meet the parents. What do they have to offer each other?

Mr. HARE: They're two people who've thought profoundly about how you've lived today. I mean one of the things that's been interesting I suppose since 9/11 is that there has been a certain amount of self-examination in the West, if only because people have been horrified to discover the way in which the West is thought of by other cultures, which has been brought home rather dramatically.

I was in America during the lead-up to the war and, as you know, I wrote a play “Stuff Happens” which was about the diplomatic process leading up to the invasion. And I was very interested in the position of the pro-war liberals. They had a very strong moral case for intervention. It was part of something that had been building up over the previous 10 or 15 years in Africa, in Yugoslavia, where a whole lot of well-intentioned liberals came to believe that the West had a moral duty to intervene when there was great deal of suffering.

Although I was against the war, I could see that there was a virtuous case. And in the case of Oliver, the doctor who sits on a hillside in England, I wanted to write about maybe the overly easy way in England in which we sit around and expect everything to fail.

I came by my anti-war position quite easily I think, maybe unthinkingly. I don't think it is now. But my instinctive reaction to an American invasion of a Middle Eastern country is, Oh, my God, that's going to be a catastrophe. There's been no pleasure in being proved right.

MONTAGNE: Has there, though, been no pleasure in being proved right?

Mr. HARE: No, none whatsoever. If you say to me, would I wish Iraq to be in the present state it's in, who could be sane and wish that? You know, every night the line that is applauded and, indeed some nights brings the theater to a stop for about 45 seconds, is when the doctor played by Bill Nighy is asked why he was against the war and he said, I knew who the surgeon would be, so I had some idea what the operation was going to look like.

MONTAGNE: Now, Nadia, the former war correspondent, spends much of this conversation, much of the play, defending an early moment when she paid a visit to the White House and was asked for her advice.

Mr. HARE: Yeah, I have to say we're making it sound as if the play's exclusively about Iraq, but it isn't. One of things it is is a traditional Henry James theme of the difference between the American can-do spirit and the British cynicism. And bringing those two points of view together apart from anything else is quite delicious theatrically.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder, though, the play “Stuff Happens” was, as you said, it was a dramatization of the decisions that went into invading Iraq. In “The Vertical Hour,” your new play, the Iraq war is more like a moral backdrop. But still in all you're writing about a very big historical moment, a very difficult time in real time. What does that bring to the challenge of writing a play?

Mr. HARE: Well, I mean it's an approach to playwriting which I've had my whole life. When people say in that demeaning way, they say, oh, you're a political playwright. And it makes it sound as if that means that you write about politics all the time. But you don't. You write with a certain view, and that view is that history affects human beings as much as biology.

I've always written plays in which social forces and historical forces are blowing through the room and affecting how the people feel and think. And this is, if you like, crudely, a Shakespearean approach to playwriting where you're always trying to show the way social and historical forces change individuals.

So in “The Vertical Hour,” obviously what I'm trying to catch is the mood people are now in as a result of the events since 9/11. I don't think like Samuel Beckett that we all live under the eye of eternity and that nothing really changes. You know, Beckett said that famous thing, the number of tears in the world is constant, meaning, you know, whatever you do, there is such a thing called the human condition and it's always the same.

I don't believe that. I believe things are very different in one country to another and at one time and another, and you can actually relieve the number of tears in the world. And you can make them less and that the job of making them less is a noble job and something worth undertaking.

And so there's always been a profound division between those two kinds of playwright. And you might say at the moment for my kind of playwright, this is our time because things are happening very fast and in ways that are very interesting.

MONTAGNE: David Hare, thank you for joining us.

Mr. HARE: Not at all.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: David Hare's newest play, “The Vertical Hour,” has its premiere tonight on Broadway.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

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