Opening in October, 2002, and originally starring stage legends Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, this two-person play by David Hare is totally dependent on superior acting. Set on the Isle of Wight in a Victorian seaside house, now fallen on hard times, the action takes place in Madeleine Palmer's flat in the course of one day and night. The tension is established in the opening lines with Frances Beale's arrival. Madeleine is resentful and inhospitable, and Frances hopeful and a bit romantic. Frances, we soon discover, is an author who has decided to write a memoir, not her usual fiction, about the long affair Madeleine had with Frances's ex-husband, radical lawyer Martin Beale. She wants to talk with Madeleine about "literary ethics" regarding the proposed memoir.
A broad social satire in which the two women reveal themselves to be quite different in outlook but united in their desire for "the word the Americans use...closure," they explore their separate relationships with Martin, their views of English and American society, and their views of writing, and fiction, in particular. They poke fun, superficially, at the legal profession ("Lawyers are like priests [in America]."), the American pre-occupation with diets ("Does this chicken have skin on it?"), retirement destinations for the elderly, gentrification, and the belief that because Americans are richer, they consider their "dramas" more significant.
It is in the women's attitudes toward fiction, well developed, that we also see the primary differences in their relationships with Martin. Madeleine, a realist, does not read fiction, believing that the most important story is who the author is underneath the story. Fiercely independent, Madeleine had met Martin in Alabama during the civil rights struggle but did not need him to "affirm her life." Though Frances married him, had children, and was the perfect wife and mother, Madeleine believes Frances's life has not had meaning and that she has become a writer in order to "give things significance which do not have significance." A novelist like Frances, Madeleine believes, "reorders...Things acquire weight, they acquire meaning," that does not exist in everyday life.
Wry and full of hilariously ironic comments, the play is also a poignant story of two women who loved the same man. As they compare notes and come to new understanding of Martin, each other, and who they have become, the reader is entertained on many levels, not least of which is the sophisticated analysis of writing, fiction, and its place in our lives. The dialogue sparkles, and the tension-filled relationship between the women is plausible and convincing. Mary Whipple