The Secret Rapture
DAVID HARE 1988
In an article he wrote for the Listener just before The Secret Rapture opened in London in October 1988, David Hare revealed the source of the play’s curious title. “In Catholic theology,” the playwright explained, “the ‘secret rapture’ is the moment when the nun will become the bride of Christ: so it means death, or love of death, or death under life.” True to its origins, the play is filled with images of death, from the opening scene, in which a young woman keeps a vigil over the body of her dead father, to the climax, in which that same young woman is murdered by her obsessed lover. In between is a family drama rich with the symbolism and topical social criticism for which Hare has become well known in more than three decades as one of Britain’s most popular playwrights.
Although the play’s characters and themes are rather complicated, its plot is quite simple. Isobel Glass is a humane, fairly successful small business owner. Her sister, Marion, is a self-centered, fast-rising politician in Britain’s Conservative Party government in the 1980s. When their father dies, Isobel is forced to assume the responsibility for their young, reckless, alcoholic stepmother, Katherine. Because of her love and loyalty for her father, Isobel allows Katherine and the others in the play to take advantage of her, and she quickly loses her boyfriend, her business, and ultimately her life.
Hare wrote The Secret Rapture near the end of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s ten years in Page 269 | Top of Articleoffice. During that time, Hare suggests, the rich got much richer, while the rest suffered more and more. Still, the play is much less about politics than some of Hare’s earlier work. The relationships between the characters, and Isobel’s singular morality, are the real driving forces. The Secret Rapture is available in The Secret Rapture and Other Plays, by David Hare, published by Grove Press in 1998.
David Hare was born on June 5, 1947, in St. Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex, on the southeastern coast of England. When Hare was a boy, his father was a ship’s purser on a passenger liner that sailed among England, India, and Australia. The time his father spent away from home left Hare alone with his mother and sister. Surrounded by women as a child, Hare developed an appreciation for the noble qualities he found them to have. A noticeable trend in his writing from the very beginning is the presence of strong female characters, such as those found in The Secret Rapture. The playwright’s first success, Slag(1970), as well as Plenty(1978), Wetherby(1985), The Bay at Nice(1986), Wrecked Eggs(1986), Strapless(1989), and Skylight(1995), all have strong, typically virtuous women characters. “I’ve written about women a lot because my subject has often been goodness,” Hare told interviewer Michael Bloom in American Theatre magazine. “The idea of men being good seems to me to be slightly silly.”
Hare began his career in the alternative, or “Fringe Theatre,” movement of London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Fringe Theatre was different from the mainstream, usually government subsidized theatre of England. Fringe artists were interested in experimentation with dramatic styles; inexpensive production in nontraditional spaces, such as warehouses and apartment lofts; and the liberated, sometimes political, youth culture of the era. As a new artist on the Fringe scene, Hare earned a small salary as the literary manager for the Royal Court Theatre in 1969, where he also met some of Britain’s most experimental, antiestablishment new writers and actors and launched his own career as a playwright. Some of his earliest plays were filled with political criticism and satire. England’s Ireland(1972) is a collaborative documentary play about the political controversy and bloodshed caused by the English occupation of Northern Ireland. The Great Exhibition(1972) derives its name from its
pathetic leading character, a world-weary, washed-out politician who has failed at his career and his marriage and, in a last attempt at gaining notoriety, decides to become a flasher in London. Fanshen(1975) is an adaptation of William Hinton’s novel about the Chinese Revolution, and Plenty(1978) is an original work about the failure of Great Britain to live up to its post-World War II promise.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Hare became popular with a much wider audience, as his work started to premiere at the Royal National Theatre in London. He wrote a series of plays criticizing the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the greed and self-interest he saw in British society. The Secret Rapture(1988) is an example of how Hare pitted virtuous figures against the destructive influence of this “decade of greed.” One of his best-known accomplishments during this time was a trilogy of plays about British social institutions: in Racing Demon(1990), Hare tackled the Church of England and won an Olivier Award for Best Play in London’s West End and a Tony Award for Best Play on New York’s Broadway; Murmuring Judges(1991) indicted Britain’s legal system; and The Absence of War(1993) completed the series by portraying modern English politics.
Prime Minister Thatcher left office in 1990, and the Conservative government was finally voted out in 1997. As his political targets started to fall away, Hare turned his attention away from social criticism and toward more intimate, personal plays. Skylight(1995) and Amy’s View(1996) portray individual relationships between a woman and her lover and a girl and her mother, respectively. The Judas Kiss(1998) is a biographical story about playwright Oscar Wilde, and Hare’s most recent play, Via Dolorosa(1998), is a one-man, staged autobiography in which Hare himself performed in London and New York.
Hare has remained quite popular both in England and America. When The Blue Room appeared in New York in the fall of 1998, it joined The Judas Kiss, Amy’s View, and Via Dolorosa as one of four new Hare plays to appear on Broadway within a single year.
Act I, Scene 1
The Secret Rapture begins in near darkness. Isobel Glass is seated quietly next to the deathbed of her father, Robert Glass, who died only a few hours before. Although the family has gathered together downstairs to mourn and to begin making funeral arrangements, Isobel decided she needed some peaceful time alone with her father and her thoughts.
Her calm is interrupted by her sister, Marion French, who has ventured up to Robert’s bedroom to retrieve a ring she had given him just before his death. In their first exchange, the differences between the two sisters are stark and obvious. Even though Robert was married (to a woman considerably younger than he), Isobel was there nursing him in his final days and hours and even dressed him after he passed away. Marion, on the other hand, had only come to visit a few times. Instead of offering her father companionship, she sought to express her love for him by buying him an expensive ring. She wants it back now, she claims, because she is afraid that Robert’s young wife, Katherine, will sell it, along with everything else in the house, to support her drinking habit.
Marion is clearly agitated—a state that defines her character. She is brusque, judgmental, and quick to anger. Isobel, on the other hand, seems all calmness and concern. She does not criticize Marion for taking the ring or for not being there when their father died. In fact, she goes out of her way to try to comfort her sister. Nevertheless, Marion thinks that Isobel must disapprove of her actions.
The two women are joined by Marion’s husband, Tom French, who has come to bring them back downstairs. Initially, Tom seems to play the part of the peacekeeper. He is extremely religious. He believes that Jesus watches over him, even going so far as to help him when he has car trouble. He tries to reassure the sisters by telling them their father is now “in the hands of the Lord.” As Marion’s anger at both Isobel and Katherine rises, he refuses to take sides, calmly telling them, “I’m sure you both must be right.” But Marion will not be calmed. Although Isobel has not raised her voice or said a single cross word against her sister, Marion insists that she makes her feel as if she is always in the wrong, and she storms out of the room.
Sensing that Tom is embarrassed by his wife’s actions, Isobel points out that it is probably part of Marion’s grieving process. Tom comments that Marion gets angry frequently, even though she seems to have everything she could want. She is a member of Britain’s successful Conservative Party government and is probably destined for a highlevel cabinet position. Since they seem to be making a meaningful personal connection, Isobel asks Tom for a favor. She explains that she cares about her sister very much and wants Tom to let her know if Marion should ever become seriously angry with her. Tom agrees, and the two leave together to join the rest of the family outside in the garden.
A few days later, Isobel, Marion, Tom, and Katherine are gathered on the late Robert Glass’s lawn, just after his funeral. Since Robert never attended church, Isobel had located a priest for the service who did not know him. Although she provided the man considerable information about her father, apparently he used very little of it and somehow got much of the rest wrong. None of the family members is happy with the service.
While they reflect on the afternoon, a number of Robert’s neighbors from the village stop by to pay their respects, but the family agrees they would prefer to be left alone. Isobel greets the mourners at the door to let them know the family’s wishes and suggests that they all go down to a nearby pub.
With the service ended and the guests ushered away, Marion launches a conversation about what Page 271 | Top of Articlethe future holds for Katherine. They have all been wondering what she might do with herself and with the modest estate she has inherited from her husband. Katherine admits she has led a reckless and often irresponsible life. She has faced a drug problem, is suffering from alcoholism, and has never found a proper career or even held a job for long. However, she maintains that her time with Robert changed her and that she is ready to straighten up and face the future. She announces that she will go to work with Isobel.
Isobel is as surprised as any of the others to hear about Katherine’s plans. They had not discussed such an arrangement, and Isobel’s small graphic arts firm only employs three people with limited business. Katherine, though, has recognized a trait in Isobel that will not allow her to say no to someone in need. It is a trait that will eventually be her downfall.
Just as the conversation is getting serious, Marion’s cell phone rings, and she takes the call. Her action reveals important facets of her character: she is a borderline workaholic, more committed to her career than her family and not very sensitive to the feelings of those around her. Even Katherine complains about her rudeness. She says that she must tell everyone she meets that Marion is only her “stepdaughter” and that she has nothing to do with Marion’s awful connection to the politics and greed of the Conservative Party. The politics of the characters in The Secret Rapture are another way Hare compares and contrasts them with each other. Marion and Tom are successful “Tories,” members of Britain’s Conservative Party, which was in power throughout the 1980s under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To the extent that they are political at all, the other characters in the play, including Isobel and Katherine, seem to detest the Conservatives and their greed and may be more sympathetic to Britain’s Labour Party.
After Marion heads off into the house, the others discuss Katherine’s bombshell announcement that she intends to go to work with Isobel. Katherine is prepared to pack up and go to stay with Isobel that very night, but Isobel is unprepared to commit to offering Katherine a job. Isobel’s uncertainty brings out Katherine’s vulgar side. Dying for a drink and frustrated that she is not getting her way, Katherine curses Isobel and tells her she is a fraud for pretending she is decent and caring when she is really just like all the rest. Then she storms into the house.
A moment later, Marion appears, finished with her call. She tells Tom and Isobel that Katherine is inside with a bottle of liquor she had stashed under a floorboard, complaining that Isobel won’t give her a job. Tom goes inside to try to take the alcohol away, leaving the two sisters together.
Marion blames Isobel for Katherine’s tantrum and her return to drinking, telling her all she really had to do to help was pretend to go along with Katherine’s plans. Isobel objects that dishonesty is no way to help the situation and asks why Marion couldn’t offer her a position somewhere. Of course, Marion has an easy out. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she tells her sister. “I’m in the Conservative Party. We can’t just take on anyone at all.”
As the women argue, Katherine returns, followed quickly by Tom. She is calmer and more contained now that she has had a few drinks, and she tells everyone the story of how she and Robert Glass met. She was in a bar in another town, drunk and trying to pick up men. She had been at it, she says, for weeks. Robert showed up and took her back to his house in Gloucestershire and let her stay in the spare room. They became fond of each other, and eventually she married the much older man. “People say I took advantage of his decency,” Katherine admits. “But what are good people for? They’re here to help the trashy people like me.”
Again, Katherine’s words are prophetic—Isobel will soon go to work where her father left off. She relents and tells Katherine that she can come to London and start to work with her the next day.
The third scene begins a few weeks later in Isobel’s studio in London. Isobel and her partner, Irwin, are working on a new project: a book called the Encyclopedia of Murder. Irwin is trying to complete a graphic illustration of a gunshot wound. As they work and talk, a letter slides under the door. It is a letter of resignation from Gordon, the third employee in the firm. Irwin reveals that Gordon is resigning for a couple of reasons: he is secretly in love with Isobel and can no longer stand working so close to her, knowing he cannot have her; and he can’t stand Katherine’s abusive behavior in the workplace. In just a few short weeks, it seems, Katherine is already wreaking havoc in Isobel’s life.
Irwin is also in love with Isobel, though it is different for him, he claims, because, unlike Gordon, Page 272 | Top of Article“I have you.” Later, Irwin’s possessiveness of Isobel will take on significant and serious meaning. For now, he just expresses a loyalty and a love that cause him to remain, in spite of Katherine, who may be ruining the company and their relationship.
Suddenly, Katherine appears with armfuls of flowers. Though she says she bought them from a man out front, predictably she has not paid him yet and dispatches Irwin to settle her bill. While he is gone, she announces to Isobel that she has sold Robert’s house and plans to use the money to buy a flat in London, just around the corner from the studio. On top of this “good news,” she says she has secured an exclusive eighteen-month contract to design the book covers for one of their publishers. All she had to do, she explains, was take the older man out to dinner and flirt with him all evening.
Isobel, of course, is shocked. She is shocked that her father’s house has just been suddenly sold and shocked at the tactics Katherine is using to get the business of the respectable customers she has dealt with for years. She is frustrated by the greed and the cruelty of those around her and asks why they can’t all just slow down and have a decent period of mourning and grief for her lost father.
Even Irwin, though, tells her it is time to move on and let it all go. He counsels her to forget about her sense of duty to her father, leave mourning behind, and to fire Katherine before she does any more damage with their customers. Despite all the harm Katherine has already caused, though, Isobel is not prepared to let her go. Her father loved this reckless, passionate woman, and that is enough for Isobel.
Just as Isobel and Irwin are again warming up to each other, Katherine drops another bombshell. Tom, it seems, would like to invest money in their company and allow them to grow the business. Already Katherine, who doesn’t even really know the business, is talking about hiring extra artists and buying a bigger place in the center of the city. The same woman who only a few weeks before was complaining about the greed in the world now laughs, “We could be making money like hay. Everyone else is.”
Isobel finally reaches her limit and tells Katherine her behavior has been inappropriate. Katherine offers to leave if Isobel will only ask her. Irwin even tries to see her out on Isobel’s behalf, but in the end Isobel again determines that Katherine must stay.
The fourth scene is set a few days later in the living room of Robert’s house. Everyone has gathered to pack up the house before it is sold and to sign the legal documents that will turn control of Isobel’s company over to Tom and a board of directors in exchange for his investment in their growth.
At the beginning of the scene, Marion and her assistant, Rhonda Milne, have just finished a meeting with a delegation from the Green Party. They had invited them out to Robert’s country house to give them the impression that Marion, who is a junior minister at the Department of the Environment, actually has a country background. The Green Party delegates are interested in containing the use of nuclear power, because of its potential effects on people and the environment. Predictably, the position of Marion and the Conservative Party is that people need power and nuclear energy is a cheap and efficient way to provide it. “Come back and see me when you’re glowing in the dark,” she tells her adversaries.
One at a time the others arrive; first Isobel, then Irwin, who complains about the way people in the country are always shooting at things, and finally Tom, who immediately presents Isobel with his business proposal and asks her to sign it. She hesitates a moment and points out that this is a big and unexpected step for her small company. She is worried about growing too quickly and especially about losing control of her work. Marion points out that Tom is the president of Christians in Business and certainly a man who can be trusted.
Echoing Katherine from the previous scene, Marion and Tom both point out that everyone is making money and that it would practically be a sin in God’s eyes for them not to use their talents to make money as well. Then there is the issue of Katherine. Again, Marion calls on Isobel’s overdeveloped conscience to care for their father’s widow. Ironically, she asks Isobel, “What sort of life is it if we only think about ourselves?” She pressures Isobel to agree to giving Katherine a permanent seat on the new board of directors.
Isobel tries to enlist Irwin’s aid, but in one of the most pivotal moments in the play, Irwin wavers and admits that he does like the idea of the investment and that he has great faith in Tom’s word. Seeking not to lose ground, Marion quickly tells everyone that Irwin confided in her that he and Isobel were going to get married; and in recognition of the marriage and Irwin’s talents, she and Tom are Page 273 | Top of Articleproposing to double Irwin’s salary. The recognition that Irwin was dealing with Tom and Marion on the side and knew about the salary arrangement before coming to sign the papers is too much for Isobel. She is crushed into silence.
Marion, Tom, and Rhonda pack up and leave, telling Isobel and Irwin to think about the offer. Left alone, Irwin tries to reason with Isobel, telling her that she was the one who changed everything by bringing Katherine on board. He assures her that he loves her and would never do anything to hurt her, while off in the distance the sounds of the hunters’ guns are coming closer.
Act II, Scene 5
The second act begins several months later in Isobel’s new offices in London’s fashionable West End. The room is filled with artists’ desks and is expensively decorated. It is evening, and Irwin and Rhonda are alone, sipping champagne. Rhonda, it turns out, is a bit like a younger Katherine. She is free spirited and adventurous, and she loves to stir up trouble. The trouble she is stirring this time is with Irwin. As she tells him stories about her sexual relationships with politicians, the two draw closer and closer together. They are quite likely just about to have sex there in the office when Isobel unexpectedly returns early from a business trip.
Irwin awkwardly starts to explain that Rhonda came by to see the new offices and to use their shower, since her water had been turned off. It is an obviously awkward situation, but Isobel seems uninterested in hearing about what Irwin and Rhonda had been up to. Instead, she goes about her business in the office. While Rhonda goes off to shower, Irwin again tries to get Isobel talking about Rhonda, about his artwork, about the way Isobel has been ignoring him for weeks now. She tries to resist the conversation but finally tells Irwin that she returned from her trip because she had a call that Katherine got drunk with some important clients. One of them told her that they would not be buying their latest project, and she’d tried to kill him with a steak knife.
Isobel is obviously tired and stretched to her limits and now must again deal with Katherine’s mistakes, but Irwin pushes on. He demands a conversation with Isobel about their relationship problems and her unexplainable support for Katherine, who is so clearly ruining her life. In an important moment of recognition in the play, Isobel admits that she is “being turned into a person whose only function is to suffer.” Still, she can’t seem to turn herself around. The one decision she has made, though, is that she no longer loves Irwin and that she will stop pretending that she does.
Interestingly, Isobel complains that Irwin makes her feel guilty and saps her strength because he demands so much of her. Katherine, and even her sister, Marion, do much the same thing with even more devastating effects, but she has not turned her back on them. This contrast is not lost on Irwin. “Tell me why you will sacrifice your whole life for Katherine?” he demands to know. To Irwin, Katherine is not just chronically dependent on other people, like Isobel and her father; she is actually evil and intentionally sets out to destroy the lives of generous people who come to her aid.
Irwin’s point seems to unsettle Isobel momentarily and to cause her to think about the right thing to do. During her pause for reflection, Rhonda returns from the shower, ready to go out to the movies. In an unexpected and strange move, Isobel announces that she and Irwin would like to go along, and the scene ends.
Three weeks later, Marion, Tom, Irwin, and Isobel are scheduled to meet in Tom’s office. Obviously, Isobel’s business is struggling, losing a lot of money, and Tom and his investors have decided to pull out. They have been offered a considerable amount of money for the office space, and they are ready to sell to make a profit.
Irwin has arrived, prepared to do whatever is necessary, but he explains that Isobel will not join them as long as he is in the room. Three weeks earlier, she walked out in the middle of the movie, drove to the airport, and caught the first plane leaving the country. She came back very quickly, bought her father’s house back, and has been living in Katherine’s apartment, looking after her ever since. She refuses even to speak to Irwin. Painfully, Irwin admits that he is still deeply in love with Isobel, the “one certain source of good” he has known in his life.
Isobel arrives at the office building and phones Tom. Irwin leaves so Isobel can join them. Tom tells her about his proposal to sell the business, but she is unfazed. She observes that Tom will be writing the whole venture off his taxes so that instead of losing any money, he will actually be making quite a profit, but she is not angry. Even though all of her Page 274 | Top of Articleworkers will be laid off and she will be losing her business, it seems she has come to expect that kind of behavior from Tom and most of the world.
Tom offers her a small, rent-free office at the base of a parking garage where she could start over again, but Isobel recognizes that it would be foolish to try, particularly without Irwin. Irwin, she realized, is obsessed with her, so she has decided to completely cut him off and make it final. Now, she has determined, she must do what her father would have wanted and take care of Katherine.
In a frightening bit of foreshadowing, Marion screams at Isobel that she should “Hide behind your father for the rest of your life. Die there!” And Isobel responds that she probably will.
Some time later, perhaps a few weeks, Isobel and Katherine are in her apartment late one evening having dinner. Isobel has obviously been doing all of the cooking and cleaning and shopping for the two of them, while Katherine hurls abuse at her. She complains about the meals and about the boring lives they lead now that she no longer drinks and they never go out together.
The two prepare for bed. Katherine of course takes the bedroom, leaving Isobel on the sofa. Isobel warns Katherine that she must remember to lock the door and use the deadbolt, since Irwin has somehow managed to get a key to the apartment and might come looking for her. Katherine pretends not to know anything about that, but once the lights are out, she quietly unlocks the door.
This is obviously something Katherine and Irwin have arranged. Almost immediately, he slips in through the door and confronts Isobel. She calls for Katherine, but there is no response. Irwin wants to know if he can just sleep with Isobel, but she refuses, saying it will only make him unhappier. He is obviously quite disturbed, and he pulls out a handgun, telling Isobel he plans to kill himself with it.
Isobel tells Irwin that even if he forced her to have sex with him, he would never get from her what he really wants. They will never again have the relationship they once had. As they argue, Katherine finally emerges from the bedroom to check on them. Isobel tells her to call the police or go get help from someone in the street, but Katherine refuses. Finally, Isobel herself gets up and walks out the door, closing it behind her. As soon as it closes, Irwin fires five shots through the door, killing Isobel on the other side.
The final scene of the play provides a sort of denouement,a closure of some of the loose ends of the plot and its characters. Marion, Tom, Katherine, and Rhonda are back at Robert Glass’s house, uncovering the furniture and restoring it on the day of Isobel’s funeral. Her death seems to have taught them some lessons, though whether their lives will completely change remains uncertain.
When she learns that all the people of the town want to walk together to the funeral, Marion realizes that everyone seems to have valued Isobel, except them. She receives a call from the Ministry and, for the first time in the play, refuses to take it. Even Tom admits that he has “slightly lost touch with the Lord Jesus.” Marion cannot bring herself to go to the funeral, but before Tom leaves, they embrace, kiss, and even caress each other. It is the only moment of physical passion either of them has shown in the play, and it only seems possible after Isobel’s death.
Left alone in the room after everyone has gone to the funeral, Marion laments the loss of her sister, though what she wants now is not entirely clear. “We’re just beginning,” she says to herself. “Isobel, why don’t you come home?”
Marion is Isobel Glass’s older sister and one of the play’s important antagonists. Somewhere in her late thirties, Marion has climbed the ladder of British politics and secured herself a position as a junior minister for the Department of the Environment in Britain’s Conservative Party. In the 1980s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives (or “Tories,” as they are called in Britain) earned a reputation for greed and a lack of concern for social issues such as poverty, homelessness, and the environment. Like the political party she belongs to, Marion seems interested mainly in money and power and unconcerned with the welfare of others.
While Isobel spent a great deal of time caring for their father in the weeks before his death, Marion Page 275 | Top of Articleonly visited occasionally. In place of concern and affection, she tried to show him that she loved him by buying him an expensive ring. Then, just hours after his death, she returned to take it back. She is a workaholic and takes business calls even in the middle of family crises. As her husband, Tom, observes, she seems to have everything she could want, including a prominent position in a successful government; nevertheless, she is constantly angry and lashing out at others. She loses her temper with Isobel many times in the play and even scolds her husband now and then. When she is visited by members of the Green Party, a political group interested in the environment and stopping the use of nuclear energy, she viciously tells them, “Come back and see me when you’re glowing in the dark.” As some critics pointed out, Marion’s character is so one-sided that she is in danger of becoming just a walking stereotype of Thatcher’s England.
As much as anyone else in the play, Marion drives Isobel toward her tragic end by taking advantage of her, playing on her conscience, and abusing her. She seems to hate Isobel for her goodness and for not being like everyone else in the world—concerned mainly with self-interest. Marion admits that she lacks the passion other people, like Isobel, seem to have for the world and does not understand what motivates them if not materialism or power. In the end, though, Marion seems changed by Isobel’s death. In the final scene, she does not wear the conservative business suits she has appeared in throughout the play but a simple black mourning dress. She declines to take a business call from her department and, in her one moment of physical passion, embraces and kisses her husband before he leaves for Isobel’s funeral. The final words of the play are hers: “We’re just beginning,” she laments. “Isobel, why don’t you come home?”
Tom is Marion’s husband and acts mainly as a foil to the female characters in the play. In literature, a foil is a character that illustrates, mainly through contrast, the important traits of other characters. For example, Tom seems soft-spoken and sometimes overeager to please. When Marion and Isobel are quarreling, rather than taking sides, he tells them, “I’m sure both of you are right.” By contrast, Marion and Katherine are loud, brash, and highly opinionated. Tom has a head for business and makes a lot of money in investments and new ventures. Isobel, on the other hand, is afraid of risk and is more interested in doing quality work with her small graphics firm than in growing it just to make money.
Tom’s most defining characteristic, however, is his religious faith. Some of his first words in the play are words of comfort spoken to Isobel just after her father’s death. “He’s fine,” Tom tells her. “He’s in the hands of the Lord.” Tom claims his steady manner and his business success are the result of welcoming Jesus into his life. He even thinks that Jesus helped him repair his car when it was broken, and he builds a pool in his backyard just for baptisms, to convert others to his faith.
As the president of Christians in Business, Tom claims he tries to do business “the way Jesus would have done it.” However, his practices seem to be something less than charitable. He and Marion convince Isobel to accept investment money for her small graphics design company so that it can grow larger. They reason that the expansion will allow them all to make some of the money that everyone else is making in Britain in the 1980s, while at the same time giving Katherine a solid position and a chance to start her life again. Then, when the company starts to fail, Tom lays off all the new workers, giving them just a few weeks’ worth of wages and sells off their new office space for a large profit. On top of that, it turns out that he is writing the whole investment off as a tax break. Instead of losing money, he actually makes quite a bit, while Isobel loses her business and many people lose their jobs.
Like Marion and Katherine, Tom seems to be deeply affected by Isobel’s death. As he helps the two women restore Robert Glass’s house on the day of Isobel’s funeral, he tries to comfort his wife the way he tried to comfort Isobel in the first scene. “The Lord Jesus...” he begins to say, but his voice trails off, and he admits that he has “slightly lost touch with the Lord Jesus.”
Isobel is by far the most complicated character in The Secret Rapture. She is relatively young, somewhere in her early thirties, and modestly successful. She owns her own graphic design firm, with two other employees. Unlike her sister, Marion, Isobel is not interested in making a lot of money or Page 276 | Top of Articlein the politics of the popular Conservative Party government. Instead, she is interested in living a simple life, doing what is right, and helping people in need whenever she can.
Her determined sense of morality led some critics of the play to dub her “Saint Isobel,” and even the other characters remark, not always kindly, on her almost other-worldly virtue. Her actions do seem to be those of a saint. She stays with her father to care for him in his final days. When he dies, she takes the abusive Katherine under her wing, providing her with a job and unlimited chances to redeem herself. She accepts mistreatment from Marion and the loss of her business through Tom’s treacherous business dealings, without passing judgment on either of them. The only person she hurts in the play is Irwin, though even that action seems based on a moral decision: he has betrayed her, and she does not think it would be fair to him to continue to pretend that she loves him.
Besides her complicated morality, Isobel’s character is also difficult because of her role as the play’s tragic protagonist. As some critics noted, her suffering and downfall should generate sympathy, but she is often such a strong character that it is hard to believe she is the victim. Writing for the Times Literary Supplement, John Turner observed, “Isobel, with her amazing and admirable verbal ferocity, is winning too much of the time to excite pity.” Turner notes that Isobel easily dispatches Rhonda when she finds her dallying with Irwin in their office and that she boldly faces the homicidal Irwin, even hurling insults at him, just before he kills her.
Matt Wolf, another critic, suggested that Isobel suffers the fate, not just of a tragic heroine, but of a martyr. “It’s no accident that Isobel’s surname is ‘Glass,’” Wolf pointed out in a review of the play in the Wall Street Journal, European Edition. “As the tragic outcome of the play makes clear, she holds the mirror up to the baseness of those around her, even at the cost of her own life.”
In the end, it is only Isobel’s sacrifice that changes the other characters in the play. Her death causes Tom to question his relationship with Jesus and causes her sister, Marion, to finally feel some passion and connection to another person. Much like a saint who performed good deeds in life only to be killed for his actions, Isobel’s love and morality begins to have an effect only after she is gone.
Katherine is the young, unstable, alcoholic widow of Robert Glass. As she admits to the other characters in the play several times, she had no direction in her life before she met Robert. She was a drug and alcohol abuser. She had never held a real job, and her relationships with men revolved around brief sexual experiences, possibly even prostitution. Ever since she was a child, Katherine has felt inferior to those around her. As a result, she tends to act out in unusual, sometimes alarming or even dangerous ways.
Robert, she claims, turned her life around and gave her a sense of purpose and dignity for the first time. As a result of Robert’s death, Katherine is alone again, and she must turn to the others for support. Katherine is not a sympathetic character; there is very little to like about her. Because of her neediness and her erratic behavior, though, she becomes the play’s central motivating character. She sets in motion all of the play’s action.
Katherine begins by taking advantage of Isobel’s loyalty to her dead father. She convinces Isobel to give her a job in her small graphic arts firm. Then she drives out one of the firm’s other employees and strains the relationship between Isobel and Irwin by criticizing his work and mistreating their customers. It is largely because of Katherine that Tom and Marion decide to invest in Isobel’s company, even though Isobel does not want to expand it. Then, at a crucial moment in the company’s growth, she gets drunk and tries to kill an important client, dooming the company to financial failure.
Throughout the play, Isobel tries to help Katherine and to give her every opportunity to redeem herself. However, Katherine continues to abuse Isobel and to take advantage of her. At one point, Irwin even warns Isobel that Katherine is actually evil and that she is “dreaming of ways to destroy you.” In the end, Irwin is right. When Isobel has nothing left and is living with Katherine in her apartment, taking care of her and hiding from Irwin, it is Katherine who unlocks the door and lets Irwin in. As a result of this betrayal, Isobel, Katherine’s savior, is murdered.
Rhonda is the only minor character in The Secret Rapture. Somewhere in her early twenties, Page 277 | Top of ArticleRhonda is quite attractive, highly intelligent, bold, and outspoken. She is Marion’s assistant in the Department of the Environment and seems to share Marion’s conservative political views. She contributes two important things to the play.
First, Rhonda is a reflection of how Marion and her Conservative Party are affecting the lives of the next generation of Britain’s leaders. Rhonda has recognized the power of the Conservatives and has attached herself to that power. She is ambitious, eager to profit, and doesn’t seem to mind taking advantage of other people. She helps arrange Marion’s countryside meeting with the Green Party representatives and relishes the way Marion insults them and sends them back to the city.
Second, Rhonda is a temptation for Irwin and a clear sign to Isobel that their relationship is over. While Isobel is supposedly away on a business trip, Rhonda arranges to meet Irwin alone in their new offices one evening. She is supposedly there to see the new space and to use their shower, since her water has been unexpectedly turned off. However, her visit turns into a seduction as she and Irwin share a bottle of champagne and she recalls some of her sexual exploits. Sounding a little like Katherine, Rhonda admits that Marion keeps her around because she “likes the idea that I cause chaos.”
Unlike the major characters in the play, Rhonda does not seem changed by Isobel’s death. On the day of Isobel’s funeral, when everyone is gathered at Robert’s house in appropriate mourning clothes, Rhonda appears wearing a short black skirt. She is still fielding phone calls from the Ministry for Marion, though Marion now refuses to accept them. She is puzzled by the town’s reaction to Isobel’s death. When she learns that they all want to walk through the village as a group, she comments, “It’s like everyone valued her.”
When he first appears in the play, Irwin seems to be Isobel’s mild-mannered and devoted sometime boyfriend. He works as the principal illustrator at Isobel’s small graphic arts firm. Initially, he recognizes the problems Katherine is causing for Isobel and their company, but he continues to support Isobel and her desire to help her father’s widow. When Katherine begins to criticize his work and mistreat their clients, though, Irwin urges Isobel to cut her loose. He even tries to tell Katherine to leave, but Isobel allows her to stay.
The strain Katherine places on their relationship apparently begins to affect Irwin, and he begins to act in unpredictable ways. Behind Isobel’s back, he meets with Tom and Marion about their proposal to invest in her business. He tells them that he and Isobel are planning to get married, and for his help in convincing her to agree to their proposal, he accepts their offer to double his salary. Isobel sees his actions as a betrayal and decides she no longer loves him.
Frustrated at Isobel’s lack of attention and affection, Irwin meets Rhonda in their offices one evening when Isobel is supposed to be out of town. Though their encounter may have begun innocently enough, by the time Isobel surprises them by returning early, they have been drinking champagne together and are on the verge of a passionate embrace. Irwin makes one last plea to Isobel to show him some affection and to get rid of Katherine before she destroys everything, but Isobel is determined and tells him that it is over between them.
When the time finally comes for Tom and Marion to close down Isobel’s company, Irwin admits that Isobel, not his career or anyone else, is his “whole life.” He is still in love with her, though she will not even appear in the same room with him. Irwin’s obsession finally turns to violence. He stalks Isobel to Katherine’s apartment, where he confronts her with a gun and demands one last time that she take him back and restore things to the way they were before. When she refuses and tries to go for help, he murders her. Her life has ended and so, apparently, has Irwin’s torture. “It’s over,” he mutters. “Thank God.”
In an interview with Anne Busby published in the program for the original production of The Secret Rapture, Hare revealed that the title of the play means “that moment at which a nun expects to be united with Christ. In other words, it’s death.” Nuns, much like saints, face their deaths after a lifetime of sacrifice. They do not live in luxury and
collect the material possessions most people desire. Rather than enjoying some of the sensual pleasures of life favored by ordinary human beings, they spend their days tending to people in need and serving God.
There are many parallels between the life Isobel leads and the lives of nuns or saints. Like them, she has a strong, unwavering sense of morality, and she is more interested in ideas and relationships than in material wealth. Perhaps most important, she makes continual sacrifices for others, and those sacrifices eventually lead to her own death. She becomes, in essence, not a nun or a saint, but a modern martyr.
Most of the other characters in the play are materialistic. Marion and Katherine urge Isobel to go out and make money like everyone else. Tom Page 279 | Top of Articleproclaims that, “God gives us certain gifts. And he expects us to use them.” Even Irwin compromises his ideals in order to double his salary and urge Isobel to expand her business. Isobel, though, is interested only in enough success to keep her happy and comfortable and in doing what is right for others. When she does finally agree to go into business with Tom, it is only because she feels outnumbered and because she feels an obligation to keep helping Katherine.
It is this urge to help others that is perhaps Isobel’s single most defining feature. Isobel stayed at her father’s house to care for him in his final days, while her sister Marion only appeared occasionally. She waits as long as she can before rejecting Irwin, because she would rather not hurt him. Then, when she does turn him away, she rejects him completely because she feels it is the only way for him to recover quickly. Most important, after her father’s death she devotes herself entirely to caring for Katherine, even though Katherine shows herself again and again to be unworthy of Isobel’s kindness and sacrifice.
By the end of the play, through her steadfast commitment to her beliefs, Isobel has lost her boyfriend, her business, and, finally, her life. The positive effect of her sacrifice is that the changes she could not achieve while she was alive seem to be accomplished by her death. Katherine, Marion, and Tom are all affected by her loss. They begin to realize that her virtue and her way of viewing the world were assets and that their own lives have been misdirected.
Several characters in The Secret Rapture know or discover something about their own strengths and weaknesses as they grapple with some kind of dependency. The most obviously dependent character in the play is Katherine. As she herself admits, she has been chemically dependent, either on drugs or alcohol, for most of her life. She has always felt “mediocre.” As a student in school, she struggled to keep up with her classmates academically. Then, as a young woman, she struggled with her weight and appearance and had several failed relationships. To cope with her frustrations, she turned to drugs and alcohol and eventually became dependent upon them. Though she tries to resist drinking once she starts working for Isobel, she can’t help it when she is faced with a difficult situation, such as the client in the restaurant who rejects her business offer. Faced with yet another failure, she takes a drink, transforms into her wilder nature, and attempts to kill the man with a knife.
Katherine is also very dependent upon other people. She had been moving from relationship to relationship, trying to find a man who could somehow get her on her feet and give her direction. Then she met Robert Glass, Isobel and Marion’s father. He took her in and became not only her husband but also her caretaker. Katherine had never held a real job, and even when she lived with Robert, she simply helped him out around his bookshop. He provided her with what she needed to survive—food, clothes, and a place to live. She, in turn, seemed to provide him with some adventure that was missing in his life. Still, as Katherine admits, “People say I took advantage of his decency. But what are good people for? They’re here to help the trashy people like me.”
Katherine unquestionably takes advantage of Isobel’s decency. When Robert Glass dies, Isobel takes his place, and Katherine becomes dependent upon her. Katherine needs Isobel for some of the same reasons she needed Isobel’s father—to give her the basic necessities of life and perhaps to serve as an object for the abuse she doles out. At the same time that Katherine moves in, Irwin Posner, Isobel’s coworker and sometime boyfriend, reveals his dependency on Isobel. At one time, Isobel was interested in Irwin, but once she feels he has betrayed her, she rejects him completely. Irwin’s dependency for Isobel’s attention and affection becomes a dangerous obsession, which eventually leads him to murder her.
Marion and Tom display different, but not lesser, kinds of dependencies. Marion has never felt passion and has never understood other people’s feelings. As a result, she has become dependent upon her personal pursuit of power, money, and prestige. Tom, on the other hand, seems naturally adept at business and making money, but at some point in his life that wasn’t enough. He turned to religion and became a born-again Christian, and now he depends heavily upon his relationship with Jesus to guide him. Both Marion and Tom are affected by Isobel’s death and begin to view their dependencies differently. Marion is less concerned about her career, while Tom admits that he has “slightly lost touch with the Lord Jesus.”
In literature, a symbol is something that represents something else. It contains both a literal meaning and an abstract meaning and is often used by the author to communicate complex ideas. In The Secret Rapture, the central symbol of the play is a character, Isobel Glass. She has a literal identity, or meaning, as a grieving daughter, a kindhearted business owner, and an abused caretaker for her widowed stepmother, Katherine. But she also has an abstract identity, or meaning. Through her actions and words, she resembles a saint-like figure who lives a pure life, sacrifices for others, and dies a martyr.
The first image of the play is of Isobel in a darkened room, mourning over her father in his deathbed. She was there when he passed away and tells her sister Marion, “There’s actually a moment when you see the spirit depart from the body... Like a bird.” Isobel is instantly established as a pious, devoted daughter who senses things most people cannot.
Isobel is essentially a good person, committed to doing what is right and to helping other people. In “Saint Isobel: David Hare’s The Secret Rapture as Christian Allegory,” Liorah Anne Golomb observed, “Even her name, a variant of Elizabeth, has as one of its meanings ‘consecrated to God.’” The basic goodness in Isobel’s character, though, is both a blessing and a curse. When Marion is guilt-ridden for rushing up to her father’s bedroom to retrieve a ring she had given him not long before his death, Isobel acts as a sort of confessor to her sister. She does not pass judgment on her or scold her for seeming to care only about material possessions. Still, Marion is overwhelmed by Isobel’s virtue, and she complains, “You make me feel as if I’m always in the wrong.”
Throughout the play, again and again Isobel tries to do what she feels is right in various situations, but, each time, she encounters only criticism and abuse. She hires a priest for her father’s funeral, though the man never attended church, and is criticized for not simply cremating him and throwing him into the English Channel. She assumes responsibility for Katherine, her father’s widow, accepting the reckless woman into her life, much as a saint might go after a sinner in order to save his or her soul. She hires Katherine into her small graphic arts firm, tends to her mental and physical needs, and is rewarded by losing her business and ruining her life.
In her relationship to Irwin, Golomb believed Isobel even begins to resemble Jesus, with Irwin playing the part of the traitor Judas. When Isobel and Irwin meet with Tom and Marion to discuss their business proposition, Golomb noted, Irwin kisses Isobel’s cheek before joining the conversation. Soon afterward, it is revealed that he has sided with Tom and Marion in exchange for having his salary doubled. His kiss is like the kiss Judas offered to Jesus just before betraying him, and his salary increase is like the thirty pieces of silver Judas accepted for betraying his teacher.
Once Isobel rejects Irwin and refuses to be seen with him, her decision is absolute. Like a nun or a saint, Irwin suggests, “My guess is she’s made some sort of vow.” Then, at the end of the play in the final moment before Irwin kills her, Isobel says on her way out the door, “I haven’t got shoes. Still you can’t have everything.” Her last words echo the popular belief that Jesus walked to his crucifixion barefoot.
Of course, it is in her death that Isobel takes on the most important symbolic significance. Just as saints who give their lives to good deeds and are killed for their beliefs become more powerful as martyrs in the minds of their followers when they are gone, Isobel’s virtue begins to affect those she left behind on the day of her funeral in the final scene. Marion, Tom, and Katherine all begin to realize how important Isobel was and how their own lives can become more meaningful if they now begin to live more as she lived.
Denouement is a French word that means “the unknotting” or “unraveling.” In literature, a denouement is a final scene that occurs after the high point, or climax, of the plot. It typically explains any unanswered questions and offers a glimpse at how the characters’ world may have changed as a result of their actions.
The final scene of The Secret Rapture is a perfect example of a denouement. The climax of the play is past. Isobel is dead, and Irwin has even declared, “It’s over. Thank God.” All that is left is for Tom, Marion, Katherine, and Rhonda, the other surviving characters in the play, to gather together for Isobel’s funeral.
Significantly, they all meet at Robert Glass’s house, where the events of the play began some months before. The house had been sold by Katherine and repurchased by Isobel, and now they are restoring it to the way it was when Isobel and Robert were both still alive. The most important function of this denouement, however, is not to show the effects of Isobel’s death on the physical environment but on the souls of the characters.
Rhonda has not changed. While the others are properly dressed in dark mourning clothes, she is dressed in a short skirt and jumper and is still fielding Marion’s phone calls from the Ministry. Katherine, though, is uncharacteristically quiet and subdued as she goes about the room, putting things back on their shelves where they were once before. At her husband’s funeral, she was drunk and obnoxious, but she seems to have more reverence and respect for Isobel’s memory. Even Tom’s faith has been a little shaken. He tries to offer Marion some comforting words from Jesus but then admits, “I don’t know. I’ve slightly lost touch with the Lord Jesus.”
Marion, who may have had the furthest to go, seems to have changed the most. She now refuses to take phone calls and conduct business on the day of her sister’s funeral. She also seems to have had an emotional breakthrough. She had never been able to feel or express passion, but Isobel’s death seems to have sparked feeling in her. She embraces her husband warmly, even sexually. And the last words of the play are a plea from Marion. “Isobel,” she asks, “why don’t you come home?”
In a review of The Secret Rapture in American Theatre magazine, prominent London theatre critic Matt Wolf declared that the play was “directly inspired by the decade-old economic and moral climate of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.” Though Hare’s intimate family drama draws much of its power and appeal from its complex characters and ultimately tragic plot, Wolf’s point is well made. The 1980s, both in David Hare’s Britain and in the United States, are now viewed as a period of greed, conservative politics, and negligent middle-class social policies, and The Secret Rapture reflects this environment.
There are many similarities between the economic and social development of America and Britain during the 1980s. Both countries elected conservative leaders who believed in strong religious and national values and who opposed high taxes, high government spending, and too much control of private enterprise. In short, they believed that people would be better off if government interfered less in their lives. These are the same values expressed by Marion and Tom French and by most of the other characters in The Secret Rapture.
Ronald Reagan, a Republican, was elected president of the United States in 1980. Reagan believed in “supply-side” economics. This theory suggested that the economy would grow healthy if most people paid lower taxes and the government spent less money. The money people saved on taxes would be spent on products, services, or investments, which would boost the economy. Unfortunately for many, the largest tax cuts went to the wealthiest Americans, while those who earned less than the national average actually ended up paying the government more. At the same time that he was cutting taxes, Reagan was also spending less on social programs like job training, welfare assistance, child day care centers, and programs for the elderly. Reagan and the Republicans believed in strong family values, and they claimed programs like these weakened families by causing people to become dependent on the government rather than on themselves and their families.
In an attempt to promote even more economic growth, Reagan also eased government control over, or “deregulated,” many industries, such as banking, communications, and energy. This actually had both positive and negative effects. Because they had fewer regulations to follow, banks could invest in riskier ventures; media corporations, such as large newspapers and radio and television stations, could merge their operations; and oil companies could search for new sources of energy in previously protected lands. Profits generated by many of these companies soared, making money for the people who worked for the companies and for investors in the companies. However, relaxed safety standards and government oversight eventually also led to more bankruptcies, investment losses, large monopolies, and environmental hazards.
In Britain, Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979. Like Reagan in America, she believed in strong family and national values and in less government involvement in the economy and people’s lives. Thatcher believed in “monetarism,” which was quite similar
to Reagan’s “supply-side” economics. Monetarism meant carefully controlling the supply of money, lowering tax rates, and removing restrictions on how businesses could expand. Thatcher immediately began privatizing industries, like health, transportation, and education, which had been government-run in Britain for decades. She also started cutting government subsidy to welfare programs, public health, and the arts.
The economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher affected the lives of individual citizens in different ways. In America, it is generally believed that the wealthiest individuals and corporations profited the most from what became known as “Reaganomics,” while middle class wages and investment income improved significantly and the poor, particularly minorities, fell behind. In Britain, the effects had quite a bit to do with geography. Thatcher’s policies delivered the most benefits to the financial industry, real estate, and technology companies, which were all largely based in London and southeastern England. In those areas, wages increased and new businesses flourished. The economic boom of the time is what prompts Marion in Hare’s play to tell Isobel, “There’s money to be made. Everyone’s making it.”
At the same time, Thatcher and the Conservatives were antiunion and favored manufacturing industries less. After a yearlong coal miners’ strike in 1984-1985 was defeated, labor unions faced a difficult time in Britain. Without strong unions and government subsidies, large portions of Scotland, Wales, and northern England that relied on manufacturing for survival began to face extremely high unemployment rates. Poverty and crime statistics skyrocketed together, causing a social upheaval that eventually contributed to Thatcher’s defeat in the election of 1990.
For the most part, critics in Hare’s native Britain recognized The Secret Rapture as a clever attempt at a modern tragedy, set squarely against the social and economic impact of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decade-long term of office in the 1980s. They generally praised the work for both its political commentary and its intimate, personal storytelling.
Writing for the Sunday Times just after the play opened in London, John Peter declared, “Hare has
written one of the best English plays since the war and established himself as the finest British dramatist of his generation. The Secret Rapture is a family play; it is also the first major play to judge the England of the 1980s in terms that are both human and humane.”
In the Observer, Michael Ratcliffe observed, “Hare’s painful, witty, and moving new play The Secret Rapture is a morality of modern behavior in which the people who have all the answers face, buy out, and destroy the people who thought there were no questions to ask.”
However, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, American critics found less to understand and like about the play. In the New Republic, reviewer Robert Brustein complained, “The only thing I found provocative about The Secret Rapture, David Hare’s new play at the Ethel Barrymore, is its title.” While British reviewers appreciated the way Hare infused personal tragedy with political commentary, Brustein complained that the playwright’s political agenda did more harm than good. He felt that the characters lacked depth and that they “exist primarily as symbolic reflections on life and character in Margaret Thatcher’s England.”
Similarly, Mimi Kramer in the New Yorker wrote, “On the face of it, Hare’s theme seems to be family relations; unfortunately, he approaches his subject so complacently as to make a mockery of character and human experience. The people who inhabit his play are more than just caricatures; they’re political stereotypes.”
Whether they liked or disliked the play, both British and American critics seemed particularly intrigued, and sometimes troubled, by the character, and the contradictions, of Isobel. As Hare himself declared, with Isobel he set out to create a truly virtuous heroine in the midst of societal corruption and evil. But according to some critics, Isobel’s virtue did not generate the sympathy required of a central tragic character.
In Plays International, John Russell Taylor suggested, “Some are certain that Isobel is a saint, a wholly good woman beleaguered by a naughty world. But she would seem to lack the ruthlessness of the real saint. Most of what she does she does from cowardice and the inability to resist.”
Gerald Weales, writing for Commonweal, noted, “However tantalizing as a character, Isobel never achieves the force, the presence of those who surround her. Her desire to withdraw, to find a quiet place... and the restraint which she brings to even her most assertive gestures make her a character for whom action is reaction. For this reason, a distance remains between Isobel and her family, her lover and, unfortunately, the audience.”
Kramer simply found Isobel boring. “The central character of The Secret Rapture,” she wrote, “the terminally good Isobel, seems a woman afflicted by a congenital inability to say anything interesting about anyone. She is surrounded by curious enough people.... But Isobel can’t seem to pass judgment on any of them.”
One fascinating and unique critical issue arose when the play appeared in New York for the first time. In London, The Secret Rapture had been directed at the National Theatre by Howard Davies, but Hare himself chose to come to America to direct the Broadway version. Frank Rich, the well-known New York Times critic, had seen the play in London under Davies’s direction and praised it. However, his review of Hare’s work in New York was scathing. “Mr. Hare, serving as his play’s director for its Broadway premiere at the Barrymore, is his own worst enemy,” Rich declared. He found fault with Hare’s new casting, the revised set design, and the slow pace and monotonous tones of the actors. He ended his review by remarking, “I don’t understand how a dramatist so deep in human stuff could allow so pallid an imitation of life to represent his play on a Broadway stage.”
Ultimately, the production only ran for nineteen previews and twelve performances. Hare was so angered by Rich’s review that he sent him a harsh letter, complaining that his column had closed the play and that Rich was power-hungry and irresponsible. Rich responded that his job as a reviewer was to tell the truth as he saw it to his readers. The very public debate between the artist and his critic raised some important questions about theatrical criticism in New York, where the New York Times reviewer, whoever he happened to be, certainly did wield a great deal of power. In a climate where fewer and fewer new plays were making it to Broadway, was it the responsibility of reviewers to criticize them in such a way that audiences would still attend? Or should they remain true to their opinions, however harsh they may be, and report only what they believe, regardless of the financial consequences? The issue has still not been resolved, and a bad review in the Times can still close a production within a few performances of opening night.
Lane A. Glenn
Glenn has a Ph.D. and specializes in theatre history and literature. In this essay, Glenn explores David Hare’s play through Aristotle’s classical theory of tragedy found in the Poetics and Arthur Miller’s modern vision described in the essay “Tragedy and the Common Man.”
When David Hare’s The Secret Rapture opened at the Royal National Theatre in London in October 1988, critics attempted to categorize the play as something familiar. Some pointed to the exaggerated portrayals of the ambitious, self-interested politician, Marion, and her almost clownishly religious businessman husband, Tom, and called the play political satire, or a contemporary comedy of manners. Others recognized the play’s deeply rooted Christian symbolism and termed it a philosophical drama about contemporary life in Britain. Writing for the Sunday Times, John Peter remarked, “The Secret Rapture is a family play; it is also the first
major play to judge the England of the 1980s in terms both human and humane.”
For his part, the playwright himself was quite direct on the subject of style. In an interview with Robert Crew in the Toronto Star, Hare indicated that he was interested in writing about the psychological effect of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government on the people of Britain in the form of a tragedy. “We don’t have many plays with heroines or many tragedies in England at the moment,” said Hare. “It is commonly said that it’s not possible to write a tragedy nowadays and I was interested to see whether it was.”
Hare had good reason to be uncertain. The classic definition of a tragedy was developed by the ancient Greeks more than 2,000 years ago. While the form was revived successfully by Shakespeare and a few of his contemporaries during the Renaissance, by the turn of the twentieth century, critics and writers alike were declaring tragedy a dead art—something that could still be read in the texts of classical writers but no longer written and performed for modern audiences. In order to determine if Hare succeeded at his task and created a modern tragedy, it is important first to understand the classical definition of the form, then to consider how it has been viewed in more recent years.
The most widespread and accepted classical definition of tragedy was described in 335 B.C.E. by the philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics. As it exists today, the Poetics is an incomplete work that has been translated from its original ancient Greek through many languages and many editions to its current twenty-six-chapter form. In it, Aristotle set out to define tragedy using the plays of classical
Greek dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as examples. Aristotle’s well-known definition of tragedy appears in chapter 6 of the Poetics:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear affecting the proper purgation of these emotions.
As Aristotle explains his definition and provides examples from plays of his time, such as Oedipus the King and Medea, a clearer definition of tragedy emerges that does seem to describe many of the plays of the classical Greeks and Renaissance writers like Shakespeare. A tragedy, Aristotle suggests, is a serious play. Its theme generally has universal interest and appeal. That is, most or all human beings can identify with the play’s concerns and can therefore develop an emotional attachment to the action and characters. The central character, or protagonist, is typically a person of high rank or stature, often a king or nobleman. This protagonist is essentially a good person who experiences some kind of decline in fortune that usually leads to suffering and death. The decline is caused by some error or frailty, referred to as the “tragic flaw,” on the part of the protagonist. Sometime before or during his suffering, the protagonist recognizes and understands his error. And, finally, the downfall of the protagonist arouses emotions such as pity and fear in the audience and effectively purges these emotions through the act of catharsis.
The best example of a classical tragedy, according to Aristotle, is Sophocles’s Oedipus the King. In this work, the protagonist is a king who, as a young man, is given a prophecy that he will one day grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. Rather than face this grisly fate, he flees what he thinks is his home and settled in a new land where he inherits a throne, a fortune, and a queen. When his new kingdom is faced with a terrible plague, Oedipus asks the gods for advice, and he is told that he must find the killer of the old king. As evidence and witnesses slowly appear, Oedipus begins to realize that he has made a terrible mistake. The family he ran away from was not his family after all. A man he thought was a ruffian and whom he killed on the road was actually his father, and the queen he married turns out to be his mother. Oedipus’s “tragic flaw” is his pride: he believed he could outwit the gods and escape his fate; then for a while he refuses to see the truth. He recognizes his errors, blinds himself, and then banishes himself into exile. An audience, Aristotle suggests, can easily find pity for Oedipus, particularly as he realizes his mistakes and fear that something similar could happen to them.
In many ways, The Secret Rapture does seem to resemble this classical definition of tragedy. It is undoubtedly a serious play with universal themes. It begins with a funeral and ends with a funeral, and in between it addresses topics such as alcoholism, family loyalty, and obsessive love. These are all concerns that most people can relate to, and they may cause audiences to develop emotional attachments to the characters involved. The central character of the play, Isobel, is not someone of high rank or stature. In fact, the highest-ranking character in the play is probably her sister, Marion, who holds a junior minister’s position in Britain’s government. Still, Isobel is essentially a good person who experiences terrible suffering, followed by a sudden, violent death. Her “tragic flaw” may be her goodness. She is so committed to virtue and to doing what is right that she invites the abuse of those who are not as good as she is.
Isobel does seem to experience a flash of recognition when she understands the error she is making. Just before rejecting Irwin, she tells him, “I’m being turned into a person whose only function is to suffer. And believe me, it bores me just as much as it bores you.” Her insight, however, appears long before her worst suffering and doesn’t seem to affect her in any significant way. Finally, when her downfall arrives and Irwin murders her, it is quite sudden, and she is strong and commanding until the very end, leaving some question as to whether the audience experiences pity and fear for her in some sort of cathartic moment.
Even with all its similarities to classical tragedy, it is clear that The Secret Rapture is a very different play, culturally, than Sophocles’s Oedipus the King or Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On the surface, it may not seem to matter that Isobel is not a queen and that the fate of a kingdom does not hang in the balance. But classical tragedy, according to many critics, does demand more from its characters and its audiences than the ordinary lives of ordinary people. That is why, as Hare observed, “it is commonly said that it is not possible to write a tragedy nowadays.” We may long for the emotional catharsis offered by a well-crafted tragedy, but we are more interested in the lives of these ordinary people and the way they parallel our own than in the lives of remote kings in even remoter kingdoms.
It is this cultural contradiction that led to the belief, for much of the twentieth century, that tragedies can no longer be written. In a famous 1929 essay titled “The Tragic Fallacy,” Joseph Wood Krutch declared, “Tragedies, in that only sense of the word which has any distinctive meaning, are no longer written in either the dramatic or any other form.” Krutch believed that tragedies could not exist in their pure form in the twentieth century because the view most people held of themselves and the world had changed so drastically. “If the plays and the novels of today deal with littler people and less mighty emotions,” Krutch maintained, “it is not because we have become interested in commonplace souls and their unglamorous adventures but because we have come, willy-nilly, to see the soul of man as commonplace and its emotions as mean.”
Krutch believed that true writers of tragedy cast their plays with kings and set them in courts and on battlefields because they really believed in human greatness and that we now cast plays with common people and set them in houses and shops because we no longer believe in nobility, either its outward appearance or its inner virtue. To illustrate his point, he compared Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which a Danish prince seeks revenge on an uncle who murdered his father and stole his throne, to Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, in which a plain young man discovers he inherited syphilis from his father, returns to his little village, and persuades his mother to poison him. Although the experiences of Ibsen’s protagonist in Ghosts may be closer to reality for most people, Krutch insists that the play cannot be a tragedy, because it lacks the noble spirit and does not end in an uplifting or cathartic way.
Quite likely, though, Hare was less concerned with a strict, classical interpretation of tragedy when he wrote The Secret Rapture and more concerned with how the play would resonate with his London audiences in 1988. On a scale ranging from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Ibsen, his style is undoubtedly more similar to that of the author of Ghosts than to the two playwrights whose lives were more affected by the comings and goings of kings and kingdoms. Yet by a more recent definition of tragedy, he still may have succeeded at his task.
In 1949, just after his masterpiece Death of a Salesman opened on Broadway, American playwright Arthur Miller wrote an essay for the New York Times called “Tragedy and the Common Man.” Miller had been taken to task, by critics who thought like Krutch, for calling Death of a Salesman a tragedy. In his essay, Miller defended not only his play but tragedy itself as a form of drama perfectly accessible to modern playwrights and audiences.
Miller rejected the notion that tragedies must be written about and for noblemen. “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were,” he stated. Far from having to exact murderous revenge or save a kingdom, Miller felt that tragic protagonists earned the title simply from struggling to find their rightful place in society. And instead of needing fate, the gods, or some catastrophic event to prompt them into action, Miller suggested, “the fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity, and its dominant force is indignation.”
The “tragic flaw” in a character, then, could simply be the character’s insistence on maintaining his or her dignity, sometimes in the face of overwhelming odds. It is this struggle between the ordinary individual and the world around us, Miller suggests, that creates the pity and the fear normally connected with tragedy. Miller wrote:
The tragic right is a condition of life, a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens—and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies.
Miller believed that, in the end, the tragic protagonist’s struggle, though doomed to failure, suggests optimism and reinforces the best qualities of human existence. Perhaps most important of all, Page 288 | Top of Articleit conveys a belief in the continual evolution and perfectibility of all humankind, kings and commoners alike.
Viewed through this critical lens, The Secret Rapture appears much closer to Miller’s definition of tragedy for the common man than to Aristotle’s noble art form. Isobel is certainly an ordinary enough person, particularly as compared to the other characters in the play. While her sister Marion is a fast-climbing politician in the national spotlight and Tom is a born-again successful and wealthy businessman, Isobel is content to operate a small graphic design company and tend to the needs of her family and friends.
Although she seems to weather most storms rather well, Isobel nevertheless suffers many indignities in the course of the play. She is initially coerced into taking care of Katherine and offering her a job, only to be betrayed by her again and again. No one seems prepared to honor the memory of Robert Glass, her father, the way she feels it should be honored. At one point she is forced to plead with Irwin, “Are we not allowed to mourn? Just... a decent period of mourning? Can’t we have that?”
Perhaps worst of all, Irwin betrays her to Marion and Tom when he deals with them behind her back and accepts a salary increase to convince Isobel to accept their business offer. The cumulative effect of all this mistreatment is a tremendous assault on Isobel’s dignity, Miller’s “fateful wound, from which the inevitable events” of the play spiral. Isobel’s indignation at this treatment causes her to rebel against the world around her. She completely shuns Irwin, ignores her floundering business, and turns to the work she believes her father would appreciate: taking care of Katherine.
Whether it seems to the rest of us that Isobel has made a wise choice or not, her choice is definitely a decision to spurn the “stable environment” offered by Marion, Tom, and Irwin, and to thrust for the freedom she believes she will find in doing what she thinks is right. In the end, Isobel’s earthly struggle does fail, but we are left with a faint sense of optimism—the impression that Isobel’s sacrifice has affected the lives of those around her for the better. Marion’s final words, some of the last words of the play, suggest Miller’s notion of evolution and human perfectibility. “Isobel,” she cries. “We’re just beginning.”
With that, the tragedy is complete. Isobel, a common person, a good person to the very end, has wielded her virtue and fought for her dignity against a world that seems to care only for itself and its profits; and in the struggle, she has changed that world, if only a little bit.
Source: Lane A. Glenn, Critical Essay on The Secret Rapture, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Liorah Anne Golomb
In the following essay, Golomb examines similarities between the characters and story in The Secret Rapture and Christian motifs.
If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. (John 15:19)
In his latest play, The Secret Rapture, David Hare has given us a central character, Isobel, who is distinctly not of the world. Even her name, a variant of Elizabeth, has as one of its meanings “consecrated to God.” Dramatically, Hare took a great risk in centering his play on Isobel. She is weak, pliable and abused (a stark contrast to Hare’s usual headstrong women such as Susan in Plenty or Peggy in A Map of the World), yet in order for the climax to have any impact, we must feel that something has been accomplished by her destruction, not that she has been one of life’s doormats who deserves what she gets. If Isobel were merely a good woman who could not exist in a corrupt world the necessary sense of loss at her death might not be evoked, but Hare has raised her to the level of saint and martyr. Her death has a purging effect on the other characters, so that while there is loss there is also hope.
Hare begins to establish Isobel’s spirituality in the first moments of the play. Isobel, sitting with the body of her recently deceased father, tells her sister Marion:
There’s actually a moment when you see the spirit depart from the body. I’ve always been told about it. And it’s true. (She is very quiet and still.) Like a bird.
While Hare develops Isobel’s spiritual nature, he places in contrast to her several varieties of rather earth-bound sinners, each traveling down a different path in search of salvation. Marion, the elder sister, is a Tory junior minister entirely caught up in materialism and the exhilaration of power. It is by way of this character that Hare most directly voices his familiar political dissent. Marion is so extreme in her right-wing views that she needs no opposition to make her look the fool; she is quite capable of Page 289 | Top of Articledoing it herself, as when she proudly relates her retort to members of the Green Party who opposed her standpoint on nuclear energy: ‘“Come back and see me when you’re glowing in the dark.’”
As we meet Marion she is trying to recover a ring which she had given to her father. In justifying her actions to Isobel (who, significantly, in no way indicates that she requires justification), she explains:
For God’s sake, I mean, the ring is actually valuable. Actually no, that sounds horrid. I apologize. I’ll tell you the truth. I thought when I bought it—I just walked into this very expensive shop and I thought, this is one of the few really decent things I’ve done in my life. And it’s true. I spent, as it happens, a great deal of money, rather more... rather more than I had at the time. I went too far. I wanted something to express my love for my father. Something adequate.
Marion cannot express her feelings emotionally; instead, she equates love with a valuable object. The speech also puts Isobel in the role of confessor. Marion is driven to confess by her own guilt—guilt which she experiences because she is in the presence of such goodness. Isobel never criticizes Marion, and even agrees that she should have the ring, yet later in the scene we find that Marion is still tormented by guilt:
MARION I’m not going to forgive you.
MARION You’ve tried to humiliate me.
MARION You’ve made me feel awful. It’s not my fault about the ring. Or the way I feel about Katherine. You make me feel as if I’m always in the wrong.
ISOBEL Not at all.
MARION Oh, yes. Well, we can’t all be perfect. We do try. The rest of us are trying. So will you please stop this endless criticism? Because I honestly think it’s driving me mad.
It is Marion who has been seeking forgiveness, indeed, absolution, of Isobel. When she senses that her sins have not been cleansed, she turns her guilt outward and blames the confessor. Saints, it appears, can be very difficult to live with.
The second sinner in Hare’s catalogue is Marion’s husband Tom, a born-again Christian and Chairman of a committee which strives “to do business the way Jesus would have done it.” Tom is a rather comical example of one who uses scripture to his own advantage. The Lord has indeed moved in mysterious ways when Tom, in the first scene,
explains to Isobel how the Lord Jesus delivered the exact automobile parts he needed in order to repair his car so that he could give Marion the news of her father’s death:
TOM [...] I go to the car. Won’t start. I open the bonnet. Spark-plug leads have perished. I can’t believe it. I think, what on earth am I going to do? Then I think, hey, six days ago an old mate called in and left, in a shopping bag, a whole load of spare parts he’d had to buy for his car. (He smiles in anticipation of the outcome.) And, you know, as I go in and look for it, I tell you this, I don’t have a doubt. As I move towards the bag. I’ve never looked inside it and yet I know. It’s got so I know. I know that inside that bag there is going to be a set of Ford Granada leads. And then you have to say, well, there you are, that’s it, that’s the Lord Jesus. He’s there when you need him. I am looked after.
In addition to exploiting his comic value, Hare uses Tom to highlight Isobel’s authentic Christian existence, which, interestingly, does not seem to include Christ. Isobel rather rejects Christian ideology at every turn. She is politely skeptical of Tom’s faith, but more significantly, she fights against being placed in the roles of saint, martyr and savior which the other characters in the play, particularly her lover Irwin, would have her take on. Her strongest denial of these roles occurs in her last scene as she rejects Irwin’s desperate effort to reinstate himself into her graces:
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ISOBEL [...] And you have this idea that I can’t accept.
IRWIN What’s that? (She looks hard at him a moment.)
ISOBEL You want to be saved through another person. (There’s a silence.)
ISOBEL It isn’t possible.
Despite her protestations, Isobel makes one deliberate choice during the action of the play, and that is to forsake her own well-being by taking upon herself a burden, a cross to bear; specifically, a soul to save. Until she makes this choice she is an inactive character playing no part in her own destiny—indeed, a doormat. The burden which Isobel chooses to take upon herself is Katherine, her father’s young widow. Katherine represents the Lost Soul and therefore the greatest challenge to those who would be saviors:
And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them.
But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?
And Jesus, answering, said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:29-32)
It is not the part of Jesus that Isobel has consciously chosen to play, but that of her father Robert. Katherine sets herself up as the soul in need of salvation, naming Robert as her benefactor and personal savior, and indirectly challenges Isobel to carry on for her father:
KATHERINE [...] I met your father first in the Vale of Evesham. Yeah, he stopped one night in a motel. It was appalling. I don’t know how I’d ended up there. I was working the bar. Trying to pick men up—not even for money, but because I was so unhappy with myself. I wanted something to happen. I don’t know how I thought these men might help me, they were travellers, small goods, that sort of thing, all with slack bellies and smelling of late-night curries. I can still smell them. I don’t know why, I’d been doing it for weeks. Then Robert came in. He said ‘I’ll drive you to Gloucestershire. It will give you some peace.’ He brought me here, to this house. He put fresh sheets in the spare room. Everything I did, before or since, he forgave. (She sits, tears in her eyes, quite now.) People say I took advantage of his decency. But what are good people for? They’re here to help the trashy people like me.
A moment later, after a significant pause, Isobel decides to take Katherine into her home and into her graphic arts firm. That Katherine is an alcoholic, unqualified, unsocialized and irresponsible, are flaws which Isobel chooses to ignore, although she is well aware of them. Whereas Marion could only show her devotion to their father in materialistic terms, Isobel will show it through emulation of his good works. If Robert could unconditionally forgive all of Katherine’s sins, then Isobel will too, even if it leads to her own destruction.
From the moment of Isobel’s decision at the end of Scene 2, the action of The Secret Rapture roughly parallels that of the life of Jesus, with Isobel in the title role and Irwin playing the part of Judas. At the meeting in Robert’s house in Scene 4 Isobel is being persuaded to sign her business over to a board of directors headed by Tom. There is a great sense that Tom, Marion and Katherine have conspired against her, but she still has one ally, Irwin—or so she thinks. As Irwin walks into the living room he greets Isobel and Hare’s stage directions read: “He kisses her cheek before going to sit down.” It is the kiss of Judas, of betrayal. Irwin, it is revealed a few pages later, has sided with the others in exchange for a doubled salary, the thirty pieces of silver of the modern world.
What follows is one of the more problematic aspects of the play. Isobel can easily refuse to sign the agreement; Tom, Marion, Katherine and Rhonda (Marion’s assistant) have even left the stage, thus removing the immediate pressure to sign. This is the moment when we must, in order to have compassion for Isobel, feel that when she signs the agreement she does so not because she is weak and resigned to the will of others, but because she accepts the destiny which has been written for her. Isobel here stands before an invisible Pilate and refuses to state her case and save her own life. The agreement which she will sign when the lights go down at the end of the act amounts to a renunciation of her creative and financial independence, a stripping away of both her earthly possessions and her worth as a human being. By signing, Isobel makes it convenient for the others to relegate her to the background and effect her metaphorical death.
In trying to justify his betrayal and gain Isobel’s forgiveness, Irwin points out Isobel’s own share of the blame, and by her silence, Isobel accepts not the blame but the futility of engaging in a struggle for self-preservation:
IRWIN Isobel, please. Just look at me. Please. (She doesn‘t turn.) Things move on. You brought in Katherine. Be fair, it was you. It changed the nature of the firm. For better or worse. But it’s changed. And you did it. Not me. (There is silence.) I wouldn’t hurt you. You know that. I’d rather die than see you hurt. I love you. I want you. There’s not a moment when I don’t want you.
Irwin proceeds to suffer a fall from grace to which he will never be restored, and he undergoes Page 291 | Top of Articlean immediate character change. Suddenly he becomes obsessed with gaining love and approval from Isobel, and at the same time his sins multiply. It is as if he is competing with Katherine for Isobel’s love by trying to prove himself more needy, since he knows he is not worthy. The second act opens with Irwin, immediately after having made the above pledge of devotion, flirting with a skimpily-clad Rhonda. They are unmistakably on the verge of physical intimacy when Isobel walks in. Isobel recognizes Irwin’s action as a call for her attention but rather than oblige him, as she constantly obliges Katherine, she withdraws. Irwin then plays, as Hare puts it, his strong hand—he confronts Isobel with the truth about Katherine:
IRWIN I know, you think she’s just unhappy. She’s maladjusted. She hates herself. Well, she does. And she is. All these things are true. But also it’s true, Isobel, my dear, you must learn something else. That everyone knows except you. It’s time you were told. There’s such a thing as evil. You’re dealing with evil. (ISOBEL turns round, about to speak.) That’s right. And if you don’t admit it, then you can’t fight it. And if you don’t fight it, you’re going to lose.
It is my sense that Isobel knows full well that she is going to lose to the force of evil as embodied in Katherine, but her need to sacrifice herself in the attempt to save Katherine’s soul overpowers any desire she might have to save her own skin. At this point in the play Katherine has already destroyed Isobel’s independence, her business, and her love affair; there is not much more she can take except Isobel’s life. Isobel must decide whether to give it to her or not, and in the next scene she reveals the decision she has made to Tom and Marion while on a meditative retreat to Lanzarote:
ISOBEL [...] You can’t get away. You think you can. You think you’ll fly out. Just leave. Damn the lot of you, and go. Then you think, here I am, stark naked, sky-blue sea, miles of sand—I’ve done it! I’m free! Then you think, yes, just remind me, what am I meant to do now? (She stands, a mile away in a world of her own.) In my case there’s only one answer. (She looks absently at them, as if they were not even present.) I must do what Dad would have wished. (She turns, as if this were self-evident.) That’s it.
Whether or not one cares to extend the immediate meaning of “Dad” beyond Robert to God the Father, it is clear that Isobel has put herself in the same position in relation to her father that Jesus held in relation to the Holy Father: she intends to be his emissary on earth.
Irwin has sensed the sort of experience Isobel has had, and earlier in the scene he tells Marion that he believes Isobel has taken a vow. A parallel can certainly be drawn between Isobel’s escape to Lanzarote and the transfiguration of Jesus which occurred on his sojourn to the mountain; Jesus, too, is instructed by his heavenly father and given a clear sense of purpose, and while “his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow” (Mark 9:3), Hare brings Isobel into the scene with the direction “She is also changed. She wears a long dark blue overcoat and thin glasses.” Indeed, Isobel does seem to have taken vows, not only to continue caring for Katherine, but in the sense that a novice takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The next scene finds her serving Katherine in a sparsely furnished flat and eating a simple meal of shepherd’s pie. Katherine rejects the food, saying: “Your cooking is unspeakable. It’s all good intentions. F—shepherd’s pie. It sums you up.” On one level we have Isobel compared to a bland plate of mashed potatoes and ground meat, and as a surface appraisal of Isobel’s character, it is not far from the mark. Isobel lacks the volatility of Katherine, the outrageous single-mindedness of Marion, and the sensuality of Rhonda. She possesses instead a quiet strength, easily mistaken for banality. The additional comment about “good intentions,” however, invites a play on the word “shepherd.” Isobel, after all, has become Katherine’s shepherd, her caretaker, her guardian.
Marion’s reaction to the idea of a vow is both comic and revealing. That promises are things meant to be made, not kept, is evident in her response to Irwin:
MARION I don’t believe this. This is most peculiar. What is this? A vow? It’s outrageous. People making vows. What are vows? Nobody’s made vows since the nineteenth century.
Surely Marion vowed a thing or two on her rise up the political ladder, but actual integrity is a concept quite foreign to her. We have seen in her speech about the ring just how many false passes she makes before she hits upon the truth, but a trait which may be merely an amusing character flaw in others is far more devastating in an influential politician.
It is worthwhile here to take a step back to the first scene in the play. Marion has asserted that Katherine took advantage of Robert’s kindness and love. Isobel responds: “Honestly, I don’t think it matters much. The great thing is to love. If you’re loved back then it’s a bonus.”
A comparison of two translations of a familiar passage from the first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians provides some interesting insight into Isobel’s statement and into her decision to sacrifice herself to Katherine. The first is from the King James Version; the second, from the New American Bible:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. [...]
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (I Cor. 13:4-7, 13)
Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not jealous, it does not put on airs, it is not snobbish. Love is never rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not prone to anger; neither does it brood over injuries. Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love’s forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure. [...]
There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. (NAB I Cor. 13:4-7, 13)
The retranslation of the term “charity” as “love” in the second passage clearly expresses Isobel’s attitude towards Katherine. Her love is unconditional and charitable and fulfills all of the conditions set forth by Paul. The more difficult Katherine makes it to be loved, the more Isobel must love her; her forbearance is truly limitless. Irwin’s love for Isobel, on the other hand, is self-centered and self-serving; it lacks the quality of charity. He loves Isobel because she is good, but unless he can love that which is not good, his love is without meaning. In his last scene with Isobel, Irwin in his desperation has strayed so far from the true definition of love that he mistakes it for sex and begs Isobel to sleep with him. Isobel, however, continues to refuse him the salvation he seeks:
ISOBEL Force me. You can force me if you like. Why not? You can take me here. On the bed. On the floor. You can f—me till the morning. You can f—me all tomorrow. Then the whole week. At the end you can shoot me and hold my heart in your hand. You still won’t have what you want. (Her gaze does not wander.) The bit that you want I’m not giving you.
The Sacred Heart imagery in this speech is not accidental. Isobel is playing out the final moments of her drama, and as she notes with some amusement when her hour has come, “I haven’t got shoes. Still you can’t have everything.” The belief that Jesus walked to his crucifixion without shoes, although not specified in the gospels, is common; for example, note this passage from Waiting for Godot:
ESTRAGON (turning to look at the boots.) I’m leaving them there. (Pause.) Another will come, just as... as... as me, but with smaller feet, and they’ll make him happy.
VLADIMIR But you can’t go barefoot!
ESTRAGON Christ did.
VLADIMIR Christ! What has Christ got to do with it? You’re not going to compare yourself to Christ!
ESTRAGON All my life I’ve compared myself to him.
Christian teaching demands that each of its followers compare himself to Christ and re-enact, throughout his life and at various times of the year, certain of the events of Jesus’ life. Isobel, while never making the comparison between Christ and herself, has led a truly Christian existence. That she must be destroyed while Katherine, the sinner, goes free is an indication that spiritual goodness cannot coexist with the material world. Her death becomes sacrificial, as the crucifixion of Jesus is felt to have been: it is the blood of the lamb which whitens the robes (Rev. 7:14).
Irwin’s reaction immediately after he shoots Isobel is perplexing: “It’s over. Thank God.” After spending the past two scenes virtually deranged because he can’t have the woman he professes to love, it seems odd that he should be relieved by her death. Perhaps he has destroyed his only means of salvation, as he views Isobel to be. But he has released his burden as well. His cross—trying to live up to Isobel’s standards—has been a hard one to bear. “I have no worth,” he tells Isobel at his most desperate moment. “I can’t feel my worth. When I was with you, it was there.” Isobel in fact brought happiness to no one during her life. The pain of impossible love suffered by the offstage character Gordon is one manifestation of this. As Marion tells her:
MARION [...] Everywhere you go, there are arguments. God, how I hate all this human stuff. Wherever you go, you cause misery. People crying, people not talking. It overwhelms me. Because you can’t just live. Why can’t you live, like other people?
Alternatively or perhaps additionally, Irwin’s ejaculation may be an expression of relief because Isobel has been released from her trials and been made, finally, pure spirit. Gospel text of Jesus’ final words on the cross vary widely. Matthew and Mark record the very human plea, “My God, my God, Page 293 | Top of Articlewhy hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34), while that set down in Luke lacks desperation but still betrays human concerns: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). John, however, provides the simplest and perhaps most spiritual report of the last words spoken by Jesus before the resurrection: “It is finished” (John 19:30). In accordance with the dramatic motif of the Gospel of John which will be discussed below, these words end the action of Jesus’ life on earth, but they signify the joy of being freed of the corporal as well. When asked about the meaning of the title of the play David Hare responded, “It’s that moment at which a nun expects to be united with Christ. In other words, it’s death.” Placed in the context of Christianity death becomes a blissful experience, the happy reward for a life of suffering, and Irwin’s strange gratitude makes sense.
Although her presence on earth created division and misery, Isobel’s death has ironically had a cleansing effect on the other characters. Once she is gone a certain peace does take hold of them. It seems that, despite her declaration to Irwin that one could not be saved through another person, salvation does indeed take place. In the last scene Tom, Marion and Katherine restore Robert’s house as though it were a shrine to him and Isobel. In a manner reminiscent of the walk to Calvary, the villagers, we are informed, want to walk to the funeral en masse. Marion and Katherine, heretofore bitter enemies or worse, self-serving allies joined against Isobel, share a closeness which they had never before experienced, and while Tom declares, “I’ve slightly lost touch with the Lord Jesus”, we know it is only Jesus the Businessman he is abandoning. Passion, too, is restored to Marion and Tom as they reaffirm a love and desire for one another that has not been evident before the final moments of the play. Overall there is a sense of health, of well-being. At last Isobel’s worth is recognized, and as the play closes Marion attempts to resurrect her sister: “Isobel. We’re just beginning. Isobel, where are you? (She waits a moment.) Isobel, why don’t you come home?”
Hare ends the text of the play here, but interestingly, in the National Theatre of Great Britain production directed by Howard Davies, Isobel is successfully resurrected. She appears upstage on a diagonal from Marion, and both sisters have their arms outstretched and are moving towards one another. Davies’s addition leaves one with a very strong sense that Isobel has in fact experienced the Secret Rapture.
Thematically, The Secret Rapture marks something of a departure for Hare. He has seldom failed to include politics in his work, and overt references to England’s economy do exist in the play; for example, the question of the ethics behind investments is raised, and Scene 6 largely concerns Isobel’s realization that her business has been used as a tax write-off. A strictly political interpretation, however, yields rather unsatisfying results. One theatre monthly ironically titled its cover story preceding the New York production, “A Kinder, Gentler David Hare,” and we may well wonder what sort of socio-political statement the playwright intended to make. This is not to say that Hare needs to provide answers in his plays, nor has it been his practice to do so. His preferred style has been to present the problem and allow the audience to draw the conclusions. A Map of the World(1982) intelligently presents a dialectic on poverty in developing countries while at the same time allowing the cracks in both sides to be seen. Fanshen(1976) tells of both fine intentions and resultant failure during economic reform in China. But The Secret Rapture is politically a one-sided play, pitting Isobel’s innocence and goodness against Marion as quintessential Tory capitalist, and it works thematically only until the last scene. It is one thing to destroy the last vestige of pre-Thatcher England and quite another to depict the hawk as turning vegetarian after it has had its chicken dinner. The political dimension here seems almost obligatory; Hare knows that the best arguments give some credence to the opposition, and Marion is too much of a caricature to be taken seriously. True, greed, short-sightedness and the perverse passion for “clambering on the back [of the gravy train] and joining in the fun” are the elements which caused the corruption of Irwin and the destruction of Isobel. But Isobel, eternally passive, might have been taken down by much weaker forces. The Good Individual is rarely suffered to exist, and Jesus is but one example from history of this phenomenon; several others come from the realm of public service. Yet Marion’s remorse makes Hare’s ending, if taken politically, seem naively optimistic. Surely we are not to conclude that the loss of an individual will shake the conscience of the oppressors, or that passive resistance will eventually win the war. Hare explains his new concerns in The Secret Rapture this way:
[I]t became clear that personal character is more important to me than ideology. My anger about what’s happened to English society didn’t change. The difficulty of changing people became more clear. I’m bored by propaganda, either from the left or right. But Page 294 | Top of Articlegoodness makes me weep. I see Isobel that way. So I said, Why don’t I write about goodness? Why be a smartass?
Although some have suggested that Hare titled his play more for its cryptic resonance than with intent to suggest a parable, these words, taken together with the title, make it difficult to ignore the validity of the analysis given here. In choosing to write about goodness, Hare could find no parallel with which his audience would be more familiar than the drama of Jesus.
It is not inappropriate to discuss the life of Jesus in dramatic terms as I have done here. The Gospel According to John introduces the concept that Jesus’ betrayal was divinely scripted:
I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me. [...] Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.
He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. [...]
He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night. Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him. (John 13:18, 24-27, 30-31)
John differs from the synoptic gospels in that here Jesus purposely places Satan into the body of Judas in order to fulfill the predetermined terms of the Scriptures; that is, so that the drama can unfold as written. The Secret Rapture is of course a drama, but in addition to the usual dictates of characters fulfilling roles, we have Isobel’s choice to enact a specific part leading towards a specific and predestined end. We can question, as with Jerry in Albee’s The Zoo Story, whether or not Isobel has knowingly moved towards her own demise. The answer in Hare’s play is that it can at least be said of Isobel that she does nothing to rewrite the script. The play opens with Isobel as a figure of goodness and she remains so throughout, significantly, while everything around her changes. She comes to a crossroads where she has the option to abandon her destiny, yet she chooses to follow the path laid out for her by some Divine Playwright, ostensibly her father. It is her devotion to her role and her refusal to accommodate her own worldly needs that entitle Isobel to the status of saint.
Source: Liorah Anne Golomb, “Saint Isobel: David Hare’s The Secret Rapture as Christian Allegory,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, December 1990, pp. 563-74.
Aristotle, Poetics(c. 335 B.C.), translated by S. H. Butcher, in Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Gratowski, edited by Bernard F. Dukore, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 31-55, originally published by Hill and Wang, 1961.
Bloom, Michael, Interview with David Hare, in American Theatre, November 1989, p. 33.
Brustein, Robert, Review of The Secret Rapture, in New Republic, November 20, 1989, pp. 29-30.
Busby, Anne, Interview with David Hare, in the original program for The Secret Rapture, Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, 1988.
Crew, Robert, “Interview with David Hare,” in File on Hare, compiled by Malcolm Page, Methuen Drama, 1990, p. 75, originally published in the Toronto Star, February 11, 1989, Sec. F, p. 3.
Golomb, Liorah Anne, “Saint Isobel: David Hare’s The Secret Rapture as Christian Allegory,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 33, No. 4, December 1990, pp. 563-74.
Hare, David, “Love, Death and Edwina,” in File on Hare, compiled by Malcom Page, Methuen Drama, 1990, p. 75, originally published in Listener, September 15, 1988, p. 38.
Kramer, Mimi, Review of The Secret Rapture, in New Yorker, November 13, 1989, p. 111.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, “The Tragic Fallacy,” in Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Gratowski, edited by Bernard F. Dukore, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., pp. 868-80, originally published in The Modern Temper, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929.
Miller, Arthur, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” in Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Gratowski, edited by Bernard F. Dukore, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., pp. 894-97, originally published in New York Times, February 27, 1949.
Peter, John, Review of The Secret Rapture, in File on Hare, compiled by Malcom Page, Methuen Drama, 1990, p. 77, originally published in Sunday Times, October 9, 1988, sec. C, p. 8.
Ratcliffe, Michael, Review of The Secret Rapture, in File on Hare, compiled by Malcom Page, Methuen Drama, 1990, p. 77, originally published in Observer, October 9, 1988, p. 43.
Rich, Frank, Review of The Secret Rapture, in New York Times, October 27, 1989, p. C-3.
Taylor, John Russell, Review of The Secret Rapture, in File on Hare, compiled by Malcom Page, Methuen Drama, 1990, p. 75, originally published in Plays International, November 1988, p. 23-24.
Turner, John, Review of The Secret Rapture, in Times Literary Supplement, October 14, 1988, p. 1148.
Weales, Gerald, Review of The Secret Rapture, in Commonweal, December 1989, pp. 671-72.
Wolf, Matt, Review of The Secret Rapture, in Wall Street Journal, European Edition, October 21-22, 1988, p. 12.
———, “Thanks a Lot, Mrs. Thatcher,” in American Theatre, January 1989, p. 50.
Eyre, Richard, Utopia and Other Places, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1993.
Richard Eyre was the artistic director of Britain’s Royal National Theatre from 1988 to 1997. He directed several of Hare’s plays at the National during that time. This autobiographical collection of essays includes Eyre’s thoughts on actors and the theatre, British politics, and the importance of social class in England.
Homden, Carol, The Plays of David Hare, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
This analysis of selected plays and films by David Hare, including his trilogy Racing Demon(1990), Murmuring Judges(1991), and The Absence of War (1992), suggests that Hare is one of the leading playwrights of Britain’s post-World War II generation.
Kerensky, Oleg, The New British Drama: Fourteen Playwrights since Osborne and Pinter, Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977.
This book is a survey of Britain’s emerging new playwrights in the late 1960s and 1970s, including David Hare, Howard Barker, Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, Peter Shaffer, Tom Stoppard, and others.
Oliva, Judy Lee, David Hare: Theatricalizing Politics, ProQuest UMI, 1990.
This comprehensive analysis of more than twenty of Hare’s plays, television scripts, and films pays special attention to how the playwright’s selection of content and style create a critique of politics and British society.
Page, Malcolm, comp., File on Hare, Methuen Drama, 1990.
This collection of excerpted criticism of Hare’s plays, taken largely from theatre reviews in London and New York newspapers and magazines, also includes a chronology of Hare’s work.
Zeifman, Hersh, ed., David Hare: A Casebook, Garland Publishing, 1994.
This collection of essays about Hare’s most important plays is accompanied by a chronology of his work and a bibliography of Hare interviews and criticism.