January 22, 2003: Hare, The Breath of Life

Haymarket Theatre, Matinee

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith costar as Frances Beale and Madeleine Palmer in this double tour de force; they are the only characters. In recent years I’ve seen other plays of Hare’s: Skylight, Amy’s View, and have read The Judas Kiss (about Wilde and Bosie in Italy after the trial and incarceration). These are plays all for just two or three characters, essentially or literally. Hare seems to be making small-scale works his specialty these days, and he is very, very good at it. In his program essay he denies that he wrote this play for Dench and Smith. Wilde denied that he wrote The Duchess of Padua for Mary Anderson or Salome for Sarah Bernhardt, but I don’t believe Hare or Wilde either. In this case, the roles seem so ideally suited for the two actresses that nothing will convince me otherwise.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Dench and Smith are such finished actresses, having worked out and settled on every nuance, every shading, every timed moment, that the distance between actress and role seems infinitesimal. There is a contin­uous pleasure in watching these two perform together — and a rare opportunity as well. This matinee audience, with seemingly as many Americans as Brits, knew how lucky they were. And so did I.

Frances and Madeleine are, respectively, the divorced wife and former mistress of a certain man who began as an idealist in the 1960s, in Alabama during the civil rights movement, then returned to England and made a career of the law as an advocate and Queen’s Counsel. Frances found out about Madeleine only after years of marriage; but in fact Madeleine and her lover (Is he George? I don’t remember his name) were apart for years at a time. Vehemently refusing to be “used” by anyone, Madeleine has kept her freedom and has supported herself in the most esoteric and lonely of jobs, a researcher at the British Museum of the provenance of Islamic objets d’art. She is now in semi-retirement on the Isle of Wight, and there she is visited one day — a long day that turns into an over-night — by Frances. Frances says that she, though a novelist, is turning to non-fiction now, to write a memoir and wants to ask Madeleine some questions, but the truth is that she has no book in mind, and late in the play she swears that it’s a book that will never be written.

So the action is compounded of evasion and truth-telling, by turns. The dialogue is at first very funny, and deliciously so; it then turns serious, and in a succession of scenes that take us into the evening, through the night, and into the morning, a strange temporary bond develops between the two women, who know they will never see one another again but meanwhile are disposed, despite themselves, to open their hearts a little to what has happened and to contem­plate, in a combination of fear and courage, what that finally has left them in the present.

Hare offers a glimpse of what that is in his comment that, because human life spans have become so extended, there now seems to be a new and perhaps decades-long time of life that has opened up between the end of middle age and the advent of old age. There is no name yet for this curious but at least partly welcome period now so well accounted for in actuarial calculations; but there is no doubt it exists. (I can vouch for it myself, at age sixty-seven still going strong, putting off retirement in favor of an absurdly full schedule of major research and writing still unfinished and substantial teaching still being undertaken, including a new lecture course in modern American drama that begins two days after I arrive home this Sunday, the 26th.) What Hare is looking at is a certain subjective sense of “space” — the term comes up explicitly in the dialogue — in the sense invoked only in the last decade or so, as in “Give me some space to be by myself” (whereas before, space was what we sent men into, in spacesuits). At the end, when Maggie Smith’s character offers to drive Judi Dench’s character to the ferry (she missed the one that went the previous afternoon by unaccountably falling asleep on the sofa, for which all the audience can be grateful), Smith says she will then take a walk on the Esplanade and have “a breath of life.” Hence the title, and hence our understanding that life is not over for either of these two women, laden though they are with unhappy experience. Nor is life over for those of us who are of an age, as many members of this matinee audience were. What is a key part of the warm and welcome experience of this play is, of course, the fact that Dench and Smith are of such an age too — though Smith is older than Dench by a few years, I think — and that they are still doing what they do best, and do even better than ever as they move into old age. At what point will either of them decide that eight or nine performances a week are just too much and it’s just not worth it? Fortunately for all of us, they clearly have not yet reached that actor’s point of no return.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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