Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

buy us books !
Amazon wishlist

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Breath of Life

David Hare

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Breath of Life

Title: The Breath of Life
Author: David Hare
Genre: Drama
Written: 2002
Length: 93 pages
Availability: The Breath of Life - US
The Breath of Life - UK
The Breath of Life - Canada
  • The Breath of Life was first produced at the Theatre Royal in London, 4 October 2002, in a production directed by Howard Davies and starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B- : decent, simple two-person play, without quite enough tension to it.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 9/6/2003 John McCallum
Daily Telegraph A+ 17/10/2002 Charles Spencer
The Economist . 16/11/2002 .
The Guardian . 16/10/2002 Michael Billington
The Independent D 16/10/2002 Rhoda Koenig
Independent on Sunday . 20/10/2002 Kate Bassett
New Statesman . 28/10/2002 Sheridan Morley
The New Yorker C 28/10/2002 John Lahr
The Observer . 20/10/2002 Susannah Clapp
Sydney Morning Herald A+ 6/7/2003 Bryce Hallett
The Times A 17/10/2002 Benedict Nightingale
TLS . 25/10/2002 Robert Shore

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus whatsoever: some think it's great, some were very disappointed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Unfortunately we are stuck with the women he left behind. They are caught up in their past with such complete self-absorption that by the end we are almost cheering for Martin, for all his mid-life-crisis opportunism. (...) The politics of the past 40 years apparently now boil down to the issue of whether or not writers should write books about their friends. (...) But it is very depressing." - John McCallum, The Australian

  • "The play is one of Hare's finest (.....) (A) play that is bitingly funny and often deeply affecting. The piece also confirms one of my suspicions about Hare. He is best known as a state-of-the-nation chronicler, writing dramas on big public themes. But he is at his best when he gets up close and personal" - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "Martin figures as enough of a spectre to inflame the feminists in the audience. The point is, wouldn't two such clever and self-possessed women know enough not to define themselves by a man, particularly one whose virtues seem more and more dubious as the play proceeds across two increasingly mournful acts ? But what Sir David- (...) is in fact addressing is what Madeleine at one point calls "the wreck of memory" and the often painful way in which the present is forever linked to the past." - The Economist

  • "(T)he result, although smoothly written and superbly performed, is more than a shade hermetic." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Why, indeed, are any of us, much less two great actresses, at this vague and arid exercise masquerading as a play ? (...) With all this moaning and musing, an extraordinary amount of information is withheld." - Rhoda Koenig, The Independent

  • "What's engaging about Hare's plays these days is not only that they're intimate compared with his "state of the nation" epics, but also that they can ramble at an easy pace, eschewing schematic clashes. However, the disadvantage is that you're often left wondering where it's all heading. (...) (D)on't expect much more than a sophisticated sitcom with poignant moments and a garnish of socio-political aperçus." - Kate Bassett, Independent on Sunday

  • "David Hare has been, and will again be, the author of much stronger scripts than this one; but what he has constructed here is a wide-ranging, comic and often angry duologue. (...) In the end, The Breath of Life is a moral debate and a morality play about our loss of morals. It is also a vicious and viciously funny play about survival amid lost lives and lost loves, as well as the eventual realisation that if you live in the past, at least you always know what is going to happen next." - Sheridan Morley, New Statesman

  • "Although these two stellar performances have a sparky chemistry, Hare's play never ignites. He drizzles glib dialogue over their encounter; like coulis on a plate, it makes the dish look more appetizing than it actually is. (...) Hare, with his suave idiom, substitutes the sounds of intellectual authority for the experience of emotional inquiry. This is like the trompe l'oeil of the boulevard: to make the shallows look like depths." - John Lahr, The New Yorker

  • "David Hare's play (...) is unfocused and wispy. Every time you think it's going to be about something, it evaporates. (...) The question of how people make sense of their own histories -- by seeing them as stories or accumulating facts -- is floated, but drifts away unexamined." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer

  • "The intimate, cocooned play is more contained than some of Hare's previous efforts, although many of his familiar themes of identity, memory, desire, love and disillusionment surface as the beautifully measured, stylishly written piece progresses. The Breath of Life is not unlike a musical score for two watchful, seasoned players in which the act of telling becomes as significant as the act of listening. (...) Hare's richly textured work is both moody and humorous (...) The language of the play -- never straining for effect or overwrought -- is superb" - Bryce Hallett, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The edgy, guarded conversation turns from the failings of America to the culture of narcissism, from the nature of novel writing to a shallow society's mania for loft conversion, yet always returns to their joint obsession: Martin. The piece is elegantly, shrewdly and wittily written" - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "Continuing the experiments of Hare's most recent work, it is formally spare, with only two characters, and action that takes place in a single location in the course of just one evening. Despite this compression, there is a curious lack of focus. (...) What makes the action dramatically inert is that Hare has provided his characters with too much past and hardly a sliver of future" - Robert Shore, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       The Breath of Life covers less than a twenty-four hour period, and there are only two characters that appear on stage. Madeleine Palmer lives on the Isle of Wight, and Frances Beale has come to visit her. They are both in their sixties. Madeleine is a retired museum curator, while Frances recently found success as a writer.
       Although the two women are the only ones to appear in the play, there is another strong presence: that of Martin. A lawyer, he was married to Frances and had an affair with Madeleine. Now he has found a new woman, an American, and moved with her to Seattle.
       The two women had only met once previously and so they don't know much about each other or their relationships with Martin, and much of the time is spent recounting their experiences with Martin. Madeleine is the more independent and confrontational one, and she is suspicious of Frances' reasons for coming, worried that the author merely wants to collect material for her next fiction. Madeleine doesn't like fiction, she has a "fundamental objection" to it: "That it isn't true." Frances has found success as a novelist, but though she is interested in collecting material this isn't something she wants to treat as a fiction:

What I really want is to write our story. But not as fiction. I want to write it as a memoir.
       The two women take stock of their lives, specifically as defined by and around Martin. Madeleine, in particular, insists she never wanted to be defined by the man in her life, but it's what happened, in slightly different ways, to both these women.
       Frances looks for closure in writing this memoir, but it's not as easy as all that. It's fiction that might offer some escape and finality, but Madeleine doesn't care for it (arguably a fatal flaw) and Frances is incapable of recasting this particular story in fictional form. And there's little room for fiction left in the world they inhabit:
Frances : The weird thing is, you're right. People aren't interested in fiction any more.
Madeleine : But that's what I said. That's the point I was making.
Frances : Stories bore them.
Madeleine : It's true.
Frances : It's as if the story itself is no longer the point.
       (This particular point was no doubt particularly effectively demonstrated when the play was first performed in London, with the illustrious actresses Judi Dench and Maggie Smith -- both now grand Dames -- appearing together for the first time since the 1950s. It is hard to imagine many in the audience paying particular attention to the story, as they surely focussed instead on the backstory (much heralded in the media at the time) of these two actresses together on the stage again.)
       Hare offers some good dialogue, with testy Madeleine the greater success. Still, it's not that fascinating an account or confrontation, the absent man not convincingly such a dominant presence in their lives. The women's relationships with Martin are reasonably well evoked, but it all seems a bit much ado about nothing (Martin simply does not impress as such a powerful figure -- nor does his moving to Seattle seem a particularly great loss). Fiction, one suspects would have been the answer to everyone's problems after all. (That may have been what Hare means to convey; if so, he doesn't choose the most compelling way of going about it.)

- Return to top of the page -


The Breath of Life: Reviews: David Hare: Other books by David Hare under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama under review

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       English playwright David Hare was born in 1947. He has written many plays and screenplays and won numerous prizes.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2004-2009 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links