The theater has always been a place where political matters can be debated. And the notion of a playwright as performer isn’t new either. But with David Hare’s Via Dolorosa, the two phenomena interfere with each other to such an extent that you almost suspect Hare of having arranged their collision to mirror his topic. Like Israel and Palestine, the production and its author share the same space, always getting in each other’s way, seemingly doing everything they can to avoid functioning as a unified whole. And there is no possible meeting ground; they will simply go on like this, you think, till one or the other gives up.
A surrender is likely to come sooner in Hare’s case than in that of the region he’s discussing. Israel and the Palestinians have both proved highly tenacious, and both have vast historical precedent for their claims. Hare, in contrast, is a novice making his professional stage debut at 51, by which age Shakespeare was retired and Molière dead. He has a pleasantly clear voice (I assume he’s miked) and is pleasant looking in a schoolmasterish way. Walking and gesturing aren’t his strong suits; you tend to wish he had a lectern to lean on, and when he extends his arm to try for a big moment, you really wish he hadn’t. He’s actually more at ease impersonating the various people he meets, whose words make up the bulk of the text he speaks. Though crude, these imitations have the effect of someone gossiping animatedly: I went to Israel, and so-and-so told me such-and-such.
What Hare has written is not a play in any sense of the word. If his uncomfortable stage deportment seems to be mocked by the vast, somber space of Ian MacNeill’s set, Rick Fisher’s darkly complex lighting is even more aggressive in its ferocious eagerness to build a world of sandy haze and shadows from the mostly straightforward, feature-writer reportage of the text. Hare tells us, in a clipped, neat, informative style, where he went, how it struck him, whom he met, and what they seemed like. By the time Fisher, MacNeill, and director Stephen Daldry are through, this simple recitation has been pushed to the edge of phantasmagoria, lacking only a distant minaret and an apotheosis to be a junior-grade simulation of To Damascus. And right on schedule, there’s the Dome of the Rock glinting on the backdrop, while Hare moves onto an inexplicable plank bridge upstage and, trying hard, makes one of those arm-outstretched gestures you wish he’d forgo.
It’s especially annoying because, whatever the flaws in Via Dolorosa, Hare has not written a faked-up, pretentious, pseudo-religious work, but a well-meaning and honest piece of journalism. As I’ve never thought much of his plays, I’m rather glad he didn’t attempt one on this subject, which above all others is prone to be pushed into falsity and melodrama as soon as you move from issues into character dynamics. Hare talks to Jewish settlers on the West Bank whose bitterness toward Rabin hasn’t been diminished by his assassination, and to soulful leftists who moan that it’s un-Jewish to care more for land than life; he talks to Palestinians so morose about the scandal-mired Arafat government that they’ve given up hope, and to others so competitive that even a coproduction by Palestinian and Israeli actors has to be seen in terms of “we were better.”
Hare does not get all of the situation into this very quick trip through the region’s talking heads. He has a slight tendency, perhaps inevitable in an Englishman who grew up in the twilight of the Empire, to view the Arabs as colonized natives and the Jews as sophisticated Westernizers. His summary tends to show the Palestinians as outnumbered and rudderless, taking little account of either the deep hatreds smoldering there or the tensions in the Arab states that surround this contested tidbit of land. Yet he doesn’t propagandize; he’s unsparing about the situation’s brutal facts without wallowing in them; rather than picking heroes and villains, he looks for points of sympathy. If there isn’t any particular dra-
matic thrill to his talk, at least it gives Broadway-goers, whose minds are often too fixated on showbiz news to notice the rest of the world, a chance to catch up with reality. I don’t know that dressing up Hare’s anecdotal chat, for which a library lecture hall would suffice, in these elaborate trappings will fool anyone into mistaking it for theater, but in the absence of a great, searching play on the subject, it at least raises the questions involved.
And there is a genre into which Hare’s work almost fits: A standard entertainment, from the late 19th century up to World War II, was the travel
lecture English and American missionaries used to give on what Christians refer to as “the Holy Land.” Hare’s finale, in which he walks the Via Dolorosa and marvels at the smallness of Christianity’s presence in this Judeo-Arab realm, falls so perfectly into the form that I wish Daldry had confined his production elements to a slide projector and a pointer. Simple documentation would have made so much more sense here than his impressionist shadow play.
Because, finally, the clarity of documentation is all a post-Christian Western observer can provide. It’s no business of Hare’s to announce, as he does when hit by the contrast between urban Tel Aviv and his first real sight of the desert, that “the Jews do not belong here.” In fairness, he’s startled by his own thought, and in a sense spends the rest of the piece putting it in context. But the fact remains that Israel and the Palestinians are not his problem; the good Via Dolorosa does in mapping the agonies of the place is almost undone by the hint of imperial complacency with which Hare seems to imply that he, the Englishman of rationality and good will, could fix everything. From that angle, the tinge of exoticism in his tone leads him to miss the larger point. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a peculiarly Middle Eastern phenomenon; such things are happening even as Hare speaks, and even in Europe, from Kosovo to Armagh. Hare doesn’t mention them, doesn’t draw the global analogy that makes this struggle part of a century’s worth of struggles between groups competing for the same space.
Decades ago, a greater London playwright knew better. At some point after the
Balfour Declaration established the British Mandate in Palestine (the subject on which Hare was originally commissioned to write), Bernard Shaw turned out a three-page sketch called Arthur and the Acetone, first published in 1936, which ends with GBS himself appearing onstage, the newspaper headlining Balfour’s speech in his hand. His comment on the future of Palestine consists of exactly eight words, containing everything Hare says and a great deal more: “Another Ulster! As if one were not enough.” If any writer for the English-speaking stage has something fresher or truer to say, it would be welcome.
Marcel Marceau, infinitely wise at 75, knows better than to spoil his act by saying anything at all, and knows how to walk across a stage even while standing in one place. The true secret of mime— sustaining the convention once you’ve set it up— is his stock in trade. When he has to climb a very high ladder, you always know exactly where he is in relation to the top step. He’s so precise with his nonexistent props that sometimes, in the pieces that call on him to play multiple characters, you catch yourself wondering where he’s stashed the thing he just had in his hands. Marceau’s pieces don’t go very far dramatically, and old memories— I haven’t seen him for a few decades— tempt me to say they once went further. But it may just be that memory sharpens its few keepsakes. If his face has fleshed out with age, his body seems if anything younger and quicker: Watch the prosecutor’s arm in “The Trial” when he demands the death penalty; David Hare should study it. Even more, watch “The Maskmaker.” Do I remember the relief at the end of this masterpiece being more palpable? Yes, but I don’t recall the middle, with its rapid on-and-off of masks, being carried out with such brilliant ease. And this is only Program A. How I wish I had time for B.