At the Manhattan Theater Club, NYC

Stage: Hampton's 'Philanthropist'

by Frank Rich, New York Times, October 14, 1983

Philip, the title character of Christopher Hampton's "Philanthropist", teaches philology at an English university. As befits his calling, he loves to create anagrams: let someone give him the words "Shakespeare" and "Hamlet", and he'll instantly deliver the phrase "make the real shapes." But Mr. Hampton, who wrote this farce in 1970 at the age of 24, is far cleverer still: "The Philanthropist" is a theatrical double-crostic.

Perhaps most interesting, "The Philanthropist" is also a debate about what the theater should be. In a brilliant opening scene, Philip (David McCallum) and his best pal, Donald (Anthony Heald), critique a play written by their friend John (Brent Spiner). It's a play that ends with a suicide that splatters "great gobs of brain and bright blood" on a white-washed living room wall. Philip and Donald gently question the credibility of such a melodramatic ending -- only to be rocked by Mr. Hampton's own coup de theater, a shocking twist that gives lie to any armchair chit-chat about what can and can't happen on stage.

In the scenes to come, we learn that Mr. Hampton has still another trick up his sleeve: "The Philanthropist" itself is an anagram of yet another play -- namely "The Misanthrope". Philip, we discover, is the exact opposite of Moliere's protagonist. Where Alceste tells one and all just how little he thinks of them, Mr. Hampton's philologist likes everyone and is incapable of rendering a negative judgment of any sort. Indeed, Philip is a philologist precisely because he can't make the literary judgments required to teach literature: he's never read a book he didn't enjoy. As a result, he's landed in the only academic job that "combines the boredom of the science faculties wit the uselessness of the arts faculties."

...Mr. Heald, recently graduated from "Quartermaine's Terms," is splendid as the the etiolated don who divides people into two categories: "those who live by what they know to be a lie, and those who live by what they believe, falsely, to be the truth."

Philip, who was played by Alec McCowen on Broadway in 1971, falls into the second of these two camps. As recessive and bland as Mr. Gray's Quatermaine, he must be the soul of passiveness. Mr. McCallum's performance is often wholly credible without being inventive: it's difficult to draw an audience to a nonentity, and the actor doesn't always find the tiny details that might complete the job.

But Mr. Hampton has another point to make about Philip, and once he does Mr. McCallum's performance grows. As the playwright sees him, the philanthropist ends up no better than the misanthrope: Philip's kind words bring him the same hostility and ostracization from society as do Alceste's tart ones. Once Philip recognizes that fact -- that liking everyone is half the battle of life, "but the wrong half" -- an affecting bitter tinge washes over Mr. McCallum's milquetoast manner.

And after this protagonist states his final anagram -- "imagine the theater as real" for "I hate thee, sterile anagram" -- both he and the author leave word games behind for some passions that are real indeed. "The Philanthropist" ends not with a verbal flourish but with a casual gesture -- one that looks like a disturbing, lifelike anagram for the bloody, theatricalized suicide so lightly mocked in the play's opening scene.