One of the best-known English playwrights of his generation, David Hare was born in a small town in Sussex in 1947, studied at Oxford University, and began his career as a dramatist in 1968 with a play based on the diaries of the German-Czech writer, Franz Kafka. This play, like his other early work, was done in the so-called "fringe theater" in England, a rough equivalent of America's Off-Off-Broadway.
His first international success came in 1978 with the production of Plenty, a play about the post-war spiritual decline of its chief character and the parallel waning of England's national purpose and moral clarity. Plenty was made into a motion picture in 1985 with Meryl Streep in the leading role.
Other titles among Hare's more than 35 dramas are Fanshen, a 1975 exploration of the communist revolution in China; A Map of the World (1982), which looks, in the words of Judy Oliva, at the tensions between "the Third World and the West, fiction and reality, irony and commitment, reason and passion, the personal and political"; and Pravda (1985), a study of corruption in British journalism. Skylight was first performed in England in 1995.
Hare has been forthright in describing himself as a political writer:
It seems to me that adults are interested in politics and that if the theatre is to be an adult place, then a dimension that must be there is some political sense in the characters themselves. . . . I have an historical view, which is that people are who they are because of the time and the political factors at work.
What this means, in the eyes of one critic, is that Hare is engaged in an "ongoing" exploration of "the effects of public institutions on private lives." We are all shaped by the social, economic, and political forces of our times, Hare insists, and his plays are instruments for investigation the nature and consequences of that relationship.
Skylight takes place in a threadbare flat in an out-of-the-way and rundown section of London. Because the action occurs during a snowstorm, we are constantly being reminded of the apartment's inadequate heating and general lack of comfort and amenity.
This bare-bones environment is itself almost a fourth, non-human character in the play. It is one of the ongoing sources of conflict between the main characters, Kyra and Tom.
To Kyra, who inhabits the flat, the place is more than adequate. Its spartan meagerness reflects the monkish idealism that has led her to reject a successful life in business for a job teaching school in a poor neighborhood. The place reflects her character.
For Tom, a successful businessman and Kyra's former lover, the apartment is an affront to the possibilities of human life. As a restauranteur, he appreciates good food and physical pleasure, the comforts of warmth, fine clothes, and luxury cars. To embrace, as Kyra has done, a life intentionally shabby and meager is to fly perversely in the face of happiness.
One of Hare's critics has noted that there is "a cyclical nature in much of Hare's work," expressed through opening and closing scenes that strongly echo one another. This is certainly true of Skylight.
The play comprises four scenes, all for two characters. The first and the last, both relatively short, involve Edward, Tom's eighteen-year-old son, and Kyra. The middle two involve Kyra and Tom.
In the first scene, Edward arrives at Kyra's door with a mission: he wants to tell her about his mother's death and his father's emotional disintegration, and to ask her to help with the latter. He turns to her because, as we learn, she had been a virtual member of their family until her sudden and unexplained disappearance from their lives some years earlier.
Since his mother's death a year ago, Tom, her widower, has become more withdrawn and melancholy: "There's always this doom. This heaviness. He comes home every night. Wham! He lands on the sofa." As he has fallen deeper into his post-marital funk, he has abandoned any active relationship with the world. Whenever he needs goods or services, his son says, he simply turns to the Yellow Pages. "It's Citizen Kane!" Edward declares, "Only with Yellow Pages." (Edward refers here to the famous film directed by Orson Welles. In it Charles Foster Kane, an American millionaire, ends up living in grotesquely luxurious seclusion in his mansion in Florida.)
Eventually Edward asks why Kyra abandoned them, and her answer, though indirect, is clear: "Think. Just think. It's probably the first thing you think of. And it's the reason." In other words, she and Tom had been having an affair, and Alice, Edward's mother, had found out about it.
Neither shocked nor angry at this revelation, Edward is only resentful that Kyra cut herself off from the family without notice or explanation, which he finds, in some ways, worse than his mother's death. However, he fundamentally likes and respects Kyra, and even expresses envy at the simplicity of her life: "I mean, I think in a way you're so lucky, living like this . . ." This sentiment, as the audience will soon learn, marks him off as distinctly different from his father.
The scene ends with no clear resolution. Kyra asks not to be drawn into Edward's conflicts with his father, but Edward's final words before walking out her door leave open the possibility of her future involvement, "Kyra, I wish you would bloody well help."
Scene two brings a second visitor, this time Tom himself. His reunion with his former lover is at first tentative and uneasy, but grows increasingly warm and engaged as the scene develops. The first thing we notice about Tom and Kyra is the physical contrast between them. According to the stage directions, she is "just past thirty. . . . quite small, with short hair and a practical manner," dressed in sturdy and unglamorous clothes. Tom, on the other hand, "is near fifty, a big man. . . . He wears beautiful casual clothes. . . . He has an air of slightly tired distinction."
These differences in age and appearance are the outward symptoms of deeply-rooted differences in temperament and belief. We soon learn that Tom is a driven, energetic businessman, someone Kyra characterizes as "excessively manly." He is also openly critical of Kyra's flat, keeping his coat on to demonstrate the discomfort of the unheated rooms.
Tom is clearly dissatisfied with his life. Initially, this dissatisfaction takes the form of grievances against his son and, more generally, against the pervasive moral disarray of modern life. His son, he tells Kyra, has called him "a brainless animal," and accused him of "Just doing business without knowing why." Tom's passionate response to this accusation reveals one of his central beliefs:
. . . perhaps I'm not brilliantly contemplative, perhaps I do not stop like some Oxford smartarse philosopher to ask myself the purpose of it all. But the rough effect of all my endeavor . . . has been to embody this unspeakably crude assumption that it's still worth human beings trying to get something done. . .
He complains about bankers and business consultants who also stand in the way of that thrust toward accomplishment that defines his life, seeing in contemporary England an arena of entrepreneurial frustration, a place where people in power seem to believe that it would be "easier if we all did nothing at all," and where they are always devising "new ways of punishing initiative."
Throughout the first part of their scene together, Tom seems to be the driving force, giving the longest speeches, moving the action forward through his verbal energy. But then the balance shifts when Kyra invites Tom to stay for dinner and the conversation turns personal.
She and Tom reminisce about their first meeting when she was only 18 years old, about the instant bond that formed between them, about the happy years during which Kyra became a virtual member of Tom's family as well as a close collaborator in his business. And all this while, we learn, she and Tom were having an affair, unknown to Tom's wife, Alice. For Kyra, this secrecy was the most attractive aspect of their relationship:
. . . if you have a love, which for any reason you can't talk about, your heart is with someone you can't admit--not to a single soul except for the person involved--then for me, well, I have to say, that's love at its purest. . . . Because it's always a relationship founded in trust.
The affair could endure only as long as Alice remained unaware of it. Once she discovered the truth, the purity of the secret would be destroyed. And it is because Alice did make that discovery that Kyra walked out of Tom's life.
The scene moves with the oscillating patterns of attraction and repulsion of a mating dance. Moments of intimacy and warmth, such as Kyra's description of their secret affair, or Tom's declaration of need for Kyra alternate with passages of tension and disagreement. Thus Tom, the food expert, derides the cheese Kyra is planning to sprinkle on their pasta, ridiculing it in the same way he did her apartment and her job. And when he offers to send his driver out to buy a proper piece of parmesan, Kyra is scandalized by the fact that Tom has left his chauffeur sitting alone in the cold. Irritated by her rebuke, Tom snaps at her:
This ridiculous self-righteousness! I mean, to be fair, you always had it. But also, I knew, I knew it wasn't going to get better. And, let's face it, it was only going to get worse after you decided you wanted to teach.
And always behind their attempt to reestablish connection with each other is the figure of Alice, the betrayed wife and friend, who spent a terrible final year dying of cancer. Having found out about their affair before her illness, Alice faces death determined not to forgive Tom. Tom, meanwhile, tries to atone by building her the perfect room in which to die. It is after a feature of this room that the play is named:
I built this extraordinary bedroom . . . with this wonderful sloping glass roof. The Common outside. Fantastic! We gave her the picture she wanted, exactly what she wanted to see.
But even this beautiful skylight can't assuage Alice's pain, physical or emotional. According to Tom, she never forgave him for the affair, and instead simply cut herself off from him completely. Thus, both she and Tom are utterly alone as death approaches, and Tom has no idea how to cope with this emotional catastrophe:
Sitting by the bed. Just awful. Looking at Alice, propped up on the pillows, her eyes liquid, cut off . . . I'd think, oh shit, if Kyra were with us, if Kyra were here. . . . she'd know what to do. . . . But you ran and left us.
With this revelation, the atmosphere in the room changes drastically. Having confessed his absolute dependency on Kyra, Tom asks, almost beggingly, "Will you tell me, will you tell me, please, Kyra, what exactly are you doing here."
At that moment both know they have opened long-closed doors of intimacy between them. Kyra tells Tom to send his driver away. He does, and they fall into each other's arms, Tom declaring, "Kyra, I'm back." Their embrace ends Act I.
Act II opens at about 2:30 in the morning, several hours after the previous scene. After their love-making, Tom and Kyra are initially at ease with each other, emotionally expansive, ready to reveal even more about themselves. Kyra describes the satisfaction she derives from her life as a teacher in a poor neighborhood. Tom talks more about Alice's death, about how, a week before the end, she rejected his gift of flowers because they no longer loved each other.
As the intimacy deepens, and as Tom and Kyra seem to be on the way to mending their broken affair, Kyra lays down a condition for their continued relationship: "you have to know that I have made certain decisions. And these are decisions you have to respect." This seemingly simple and commonsense request, however, reopens the never-quite-sealed can of worms that lies at the heart of their troubles: their fundamental differences of outlook and temperament.
Tom responds with characteristic sarcasm:
You've chosen to live in near-Arctic conditions somewhere off the North Circular. No, really. Why should I have any problem with that? I promise, I'm deeply impressed with it. I assure you, it gives me no problem at all. Put a bucket in the corner to shit in, and you can take hostages and tell them this is Beirut!
And so, once again, the pendulum swings in this unstable relationship, this time toward separation. Tom eventually provokes Kyra into a fierce defense of her life, and an equally uncompromising attack on his. She ridicules him as one of a new breed of the self-pitying rich that inhabit the Thatcherite landscape of England, and accuses him of looking down on teachers and social workers whose jobs are, she asserts, far more difficult than his.
Blow leads to blow, until Tom accuses Kyra of using her leftist love of the people to compensate for her inability to love an individual person. "You love the people because you don't have to go home with them. You love them because you don't have to commit."
This charge leads to the final collapse of their fragile reconciliation. Kyra declares that there is a gulf between them that cannot be bridged and asks Tom to leave. But before he goes, they confront for one last time the reasons why she deserted him three years earlier. Why, Kyra wants to know, did Tom leave her love letters in a place where Alice would be bound to find them? Tom claims it was oversight, but Kyra thinks it was because he wanted to force their affair out into the open so that she would marry him. And that was the one thing she had begged him never to do. So, she explains, she felt compelled to walk out of Tom's life because she believed she would never be able to trust him again.
We had six years of happiness. And it was you who had to spoil it. With you, when something is right, it's never enough. You don't value happiness. You don't even realize because you always want more. . . . I love you, for God's sake. . . . But I'll never trust you, after what happened. . . . There's no peace in you. I know this. For me there is no comfort. . . . The energy's wonderful. . . . But with the energy comes the restlessness. And I can't live in that way.
Moments later, Tom walks out the door, supplying the formal ending to their affair.
The last scene of the play has Edward returning as Kyra rushes to get ready for school. He brings with him the one comfort she confessed to missing from her previous life with Tom: a deluxe breakfast. As she prepares for school, she describes the force that motivates her work as a teacher: "there's only one thing that makes the whole thing make sense, and that is finding one really good pupil. . . . One private target, and that is enough." Having declared her credo, she joins Edward at the table for the breakfast that inaugurates her new life, with Tom now finally behind her.
Plot and character are virtually inseparable in Skylight. To recount the play's events, that is to say, is essentially the same as describing the psychology of the play's people. Thus, what has been said above about plot is also an analysis of character, and no more needs to be added on the subject
The play's title suggests a number of ideas. Tom built a beautiful, skylit room for his wife to die in. That skylight seems to be a window that reveals a vision of things as we would like them to be. For Alice, it provides a glimpse into a world of natural order and calm, unruffled by the human betrayal and physical suffering she has endured. But the vision always remains on the other side of the skylight's glass panes, ultimately beyond reach.
Perhaps Tom and Kyra are looking at each other through skylights of their own. Each represents something the other finds desirable, but each is separated from the other by a barrier that is finally impassable. For Tom, there is Kyra's beauty and integrity. But the latter is what provokes his anger and incomprehension. For Kyra, there is Tom's energy, but that in the end amounts to a restlessness she finds intolerable. Like Alice, they can only look at what is on the other side of the skylight; they can never possess it.
In addition to the personal themes, there are political issues that pervade the play. Skylight was written in the aftermath of the Thatcher era in British politics. Margaret Thatcher, England's Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, is a tacit presence standing between Kyra and Tom. It is her pro-business agenda that Tom refers to when he reminisces about a time in the near past when, as an entrepreneur, "you could feel the current running your way." And it is to Thatcher's attack on the apparatus of the welfare state that Kyra refers when she denounces the contempt in England for teachers and social workers.
So, to a considerable extent, the tensions between these two lovers are the tensions between right-wing and left-wing England writ small. The play seems generally balanced in its appraisal of the two sides, though in the end it seems clear that the playwright, despite the fact that his life as an international literary celebrity more nearly resembles Tom's, really approves of the committed, ascetic, morally-serious choices made by Kyra.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why does Edward admire Kyra's style of life?
2. Why is Tom angry at bankers?
3. Why, in Tom's eyes, has Kyra agreed to live in such an out-of-the-way and threadbare place?
4. Why does Kyra think she has done so?
5. What is the significance of Tom's advice about the chili?
6. Why was Kyra especially pleased by the secrecy of her affair with Tom?
7. Should Kyra have acted as she did when the affair was disclosed?
8. What is your judgment of Tom and Kyra's conduct toward Alice?
9. Could Tom and Kyra be happy together?
10. What is the significance of the breakfast brought to Kyra by Edward?