A Semiotic Analysis of ‘The Secret Rapture’ A Play by David Hare

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Tadeusz Kowzan’s sign systems can help to explain how theatre can create meaning, as in ‘The Secret Rapture.’ In Act I, Scene I, in the opening stage directions the curtain comes up on almost complete darkness. This relates to the play’s dark and foreboding nature and the theme of death.

Marion’s silhouette appears at the doorway which is repeated later on in the play when Irwin visits Isobel in the final showdown when he murders her. Marion enters the scene and is described as wearing a business suit, this makes her look every inch the power shouldered Iron Lady. This provides a contrast with Isobel who is causally dressed in a shirt and blue jeans. Isobel’s clothes are mainly blue, which is a significant colour. Later on in the play when Isobel wears a blue coat it represents the Virgin Mary which links in with Isobel as an allegory of Christ. There is another binary opposition between Marion and Isobel, Marion is dark haired and Isobel is younger and blonder, so therefore Marion could be linked to evil compared to her sister who is seen as purer and very innocent. The fact that Isobel is in the dark is significant; it shows that she embraces and identifies with death. However, it also shows that the world is dark after her Father died.

The bedroom represents Robert’s influence on the house and 1960’s values; ‘panelled, gloomy, dark, old fashioned. It is absolutely tidy…’ This emphasises the ideas of tradition and order, ideas that once Robert has died, become withdrawn because the whole family is placed into chaos. Another sign system that is significant is voice inflection, in that there is a contrast between Marion’s screaming and shouting ‘My God!’ to Isobel’s softer, quieter tone, ‘I needed some peace.’ Marion is more emotional and exclaims more; ‘For God’s sake.’ ‘Oh, this is awful,’ Which reveals her feelings towards the situation; she is nervous, she hesitates and pauses often and even admits she finds it hard to ’strike the right attitude.’ Whereas Isobel is very calm and uses simple words to express herself. She is very nostalgic and speaks about her Dad in his last moments, ’I’m sure Dad didn’t mind…’ 
Movement is significant in ’The Secret Rapture’; for example Marion moves very awkwardly and gingerly and she keeps her distance from both Robert’s body and Isobel, whereas Isobel is close to the body of her Father revealing a strong bond between her and her Father and she is very quiet and still. There is also lots of awkward silences between the sisters.

An object of significance in the opening scene is the ring that Marion bought for her Father, Marion wants it back but she feels really awkward asking to take it. She wants it because it is valuable and she doesn’t want Katherine to sell it off. However Marion is very greedy and concerned with materialism, but she is concerned with materialism, but she is concerned that Isobel will think that she is selfish; ‘I know when I took it just now, it must have looked bad.’ The ring symbolises the love Marion had for her Father but now that he has died it doesn’t really mean anything.

Both Marion and Isobel have different views on death, Marion finds it difficult, Isobel talks about it in terms of spirit: ‘There’s actually a moment when you see the spirit depart from the body.’ David Hare explains, “In ‘The Secret Rapture,’ I tried to write a play in which death is present. I just was very conscious that we don’t proceed on a line towards death and that the image is that we live our lives and then at the end death is waiting for us, whereas if you get into middle age, which I am, then you become conscious that death is in everything.” The play presents the consciousness of death as an alternative to a non-spiritual, materialistic society.

Matt Wolf, a theatre critic declared that the play was ‘directly inspired by the decade old economic and moral climate of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.’ The 1980’s in David Hare’s Britain is viewed as a period of greed, conservative politics and middle-class social policies. In the play, Marion French belongs to Britain’s conservative party, led by Margaret Thatcher who was a strong and sometimes controversial leader. Marion represents what Simon Jenkins describes as, ‘The familiar images of the 1980’s: the yuppie, black-suited, hair cropped short, mobile phone clamped to his ear, loads of money…totem of a busy, transient, ruthlessly individualistic, go-getting age.’

The idea of expanding businesses was popular in the 1980’s in which everyone was joining the ‘gravy train’ making as much money as possible. This is evident in the play with the decision to allow Tom’s company to overtake Isobel’s firm. The play shows how the ‘economic base’ was changing in the 1980’s and the way this was affecting the quality of people’s lives and their values. It exposes the idea of false ideology in the imaginary representation of the real conditions of existence which is shown in Tom’s proof of the takeover, ‘our motives are wonderful. We happen to believe in you.’ The play does not deal with the widening gap between the rich middle class and the poor working class which was a significant feature of the 1980’s.

In ‘The Secret Rapture’ there is a series of central thematic conflicts and issues. Isobel and Marion have opposing value systems; Marion represents the values of Thatcherism and Isobel represents the values of the 1960’s because of her intense relationship with her Father. She wants creativity not profit and this represents an ideological conflict linked to rivalry between the sisters, Marion’s materialism versus Isobel’s spirituality. As David Hare says, “I’ve found myself drawn more and more to feeling that there is something which isn’t what we have been conditioned by. If a writer doesn’t have a sense of the other, by which I mean spirit or soul, I don’t want to know.’

David Hare wanted to show the predicament of goodness in a materialistic world, “I wanted to show how goodness can bring out the worst in all of us.” Because of Isobel’s love and loyalty for her father she allows Katherine and the others in the play to take advantage of her, she is giving over power to people who are very manipulative and will destroy the world she has created. In a sense she has a desire for martyrdom, she has sacrificed herself to evil, as David Hare explains “It had struck me how less virtuous people often feel that the good are criticising them for their failing when, in fact, all they are truly listening to is the stirrings of their own troubled conscience.”

The play is essentially symbolic of the character, Isobel Glass. She has a literal identity as a grieving daughter and an abused caretaker for her stepmother Katherine. But she also has an abstract identity, through her words and actions she resembles a saint figure who lives a pure life. On the other hand, Tom and Marion are two deceptive people; they represent the power hungry and the self-righteous respectively. 
The play draws parallels between Isobel and the life of Christ. From the end of scene two, her life parallels that of Christ. She knows that Katherine is out destroy her; however she must do ’What Dad would have wished.’ Isobel’s idea of love is very Christian, whereas Irwin has a very selfish idea of love and his love turns to sexual violence. Isobel’s response associates her with Christ; ’Hold my heart in your hand.’

‘The Secret Rapture,’ has more strong female characters than male characters. This emphasises the idea in the 1980’s of feminism and the changing role of women. It shows that the men are weak; however; Katherine represents a prostitute figure who has been saved by Robert which shows human values to be based on more than 1980’s values of social and material success. There are different responses to the relationship between Katherine and Robert, Marion claims that ’An old man was taken for a ride,’ whereas Isobel has a more romanticised view, ’The great thing is to love.’

When asked about the play’s curious title, David Hare replied, “In Catholic theology, the secret rapture is the moment when the Nun will become the bride of Christ: so it means death, or love of death.” Nuns much like saints, face their deaths after a lifetime of sacrifice.

To conclude, In ‘The Secret Rapture,’ David Hare presents a piece that never breaks down into melodrama, yet forces the reader and viewers alike to rethink ideas of faith in goodness and in all religions, spiritual and material.        


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