Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 18: Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist (1970)
I’m finally seeing Florian Zeller’s The Father on Saturday, two years after its UK premiere. Christopher Hampton has translated it from the French, a playwright whose work I know a little about but mainly from his translations and adaptations. Reading David Hare’s memoirs recently, I was aghast when he said that he stumbled across the job of the Royal Court’s literary manager by luck when Hampton was too busy for the role and so offered to give it to his friend Hare. As easy as that! Out of the few original Hampton plays at my local university’s library, I thought I’d read The Philanthropist, a bourgeois comedy which first played at the Royal Court.
The play centres on Philip, a rather apathetic and emotionally incompetent university don, engaged to Celia but with his heart not completely settled on the idea. It’s often witty and it’s interesting that (like Leonard in Time and Time Again) Philip’s inertia and indecisiveness is his downfall. But it feels like all of this comes second to talking about the dramatic opening scene which opens with John threatening to kill himself in front of two others, although really he’s acting out part of a play he’s written. The scene continues with meta nod nod wink winks aplenty and works its way towards a discussion of how the character might shoot himself when John accidentally does shoot himself, blood spluttering up the wall. It’s surely one of the most exciting openings to a play.
Hampton presents a comedy full of rich characters: the supposedly charitable author Braham who enjoys taking his fee from televised appeals; the sexually liberated Araminta; and Don who realises his own hopelessness and uselessness but embraces it to enjoy a rather sedentary life. They’re slyly subversive. For instance, Don has a speech which is surely unpopular with teachers. We also hear of the crazed gunman who shoots down the Tory Prime Minister and cabinet in an attempt to quell socialism! What Hampton does is write dialogue which makes characters sound both intelligent and buffoonish, creating an enjoyable comedy reminiscent of Twenty Twelve and W1A.
In a neat twist which echoes the start of the play, Philip – seemingly inspired by the horror stories of shootings and hostage situations about which we hear from other characters – springs into action to do something about his (love) life. Philanthropic turned misanthropic, Hampton’s comedy is smart, dramatically rewarding and shows a more unattractive side to the leafy middle classes.