22 April 2010: Bennett, The Habit of Art

Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, London. Performed Live, transmitted in HD to Amherst Cinema, Amherst, MA

A wonderful, thought-provoking play, which is also extremely funny without losing any of its power. “The habit of art” is a phrase attributed to the famous English poet W. H. Auden, who explains that the way art is created is through habit, on the part of artists, poets and others, who simply get on with it. “On.” It is the same word that stage managers use when a rehearsal is being run: “On.” That is, continue. The point about rehearsal is relevant here because the play stages a rehearsal of a play that is about to open but is still quite disconcertingly in flux. The play is about Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten, who had collaborated some years before on an ill-fated opera, for which Auden wrote the libretto. The setting is Auden’s “pig sty” quarters in college, in Oxford. In the course of the play, Auden is paid a visit by Britten, who is lonely and frustrated and needs much cheering up in order to get on with the new opera on which he is now engaged. Through much indirection, and almost nonstop talking on the part of Auden, the play explores human relationships in much detail, almost always with a view toward how they relate to the creation of art.

This is a very difficult play to summarize. Perhaps one should resort to taking Auden’s own advice: an effective play, or opera, should be able to be summarized in a single sentence, in just a few words. Let me give this one a try: “Benjamin Britten revisits his former colleague W. H. Auden, looking for encouragement, and gets some, though probably not enough.” If that does not sound highly promising, then see the production, to understand how the author Alan Bennett’s genius as a dramatist transforms this material into the stuff of art.

A word about this play as a rehearsal play. There is a wonderful inside-and-outside quality to it. We never forget that we are, technically, watching a rehearsal. But, of course, this is actually a play in performance. After the performance is over, we could reflect on the formal quality, but while the play is actually being performed, notwithstanding its indicated nature as a “rehearsal,” we become deeply immersed in the “reality” of it all. That’s all well and good, but Bennett gets much more out of it than this. There is a kind of typical British undercutting of seriousness going on here, such that Bennett allows Auden to say some deeply serious things, while at the same time, or immediately after, there is a hiatus in the proceedings, or an intrusion of some kind, that reminds us that we are watching a rehearsal. Thus, the continuity of constant performance here allows us to absorb this serious material while at the same time we are being mightily well entertained by the discontinuity, often comical, or at least undercutting the seriousness, that is characteristic of rehearsals. This is the true mode of the drama as Bennett conceives of it. The rehearsal has all the trappings of the theatrical: the stage manager sitting at the side, calling the shots; the assistant stage manager acting as prompter, feeding lines when called on; the author of the “play,” sitting in, and less than happy over what the actors are making of his precious play; and, most importantly, the struggle that the actors themselves undergo to make what must be, in just a few more days, a finished performance.

This last factor reaches its height late in the second act, when all of a sudden the actors are presented with a new ending. The actor playing W. H. Auden (“Fitz”) thinks that the end of the play should be a reading by his character of a well-known and conclusive-sounding poem by Auden himself. In fact, he reads the poem, and we have the feeling of conclusiveness that Fitz thinks is the most appropriate ending. But he is in the minority (not that this is a democratic undertaking); the author wants something else. We end up with possibly as many as three alternative endings; and, because this is a rehearsal, a tryout of possibilities before one is hypothetically finally settled upon, we get all three. In this way, Bennett shows himself a master of dramatic form and simultaneously a master of the theatrical medium. Clearly, he gets much more mileage out of his subject by construing it as unfinished, potential, not fully formed, instead of giving us the finished play, which he could easily have done but which would have been much less interesting even though still a viable and satisfying play. Using the rehearsal form, Bennett is able to say much more about the way human beings relate to one another, able to observe the full human dimension that gives meaning and significance to art.

Let me add a further point about the rehearsal form, a point that could come under the heading of “the rhetoric of paradox.” In many instances, just as the audience is becoming immersed in a serious sequence, a break or intrusion occurs; Auden forgets a line, or there is an entrance required for an actor who is not there because he is performing in a Chekhov matinee at the moment. So the audience is reminded of the “rehearsal” nature of the proceedings. Far from ruining the moment, this interruption has the paradoxical effect of drawing the audience even more fully into the “real” substance of what is going on.

The acting is quite wonderful throughout. Richard Griffiths, hugely obese (or outrageouosly well padded), is a spellbinder as Auden, smoking innumerable cigarettes (which the actor does not, however, light) and drinking mind-destroying martinis. The Benjamin Britten character, “Henry,” is portrayed with spot-on accuracy by Alex Jennings, who manages the difficult feat of imbuing his character with primness and pathos simultaneously; impeccably dressed in British “casual,” consisting of non-matching but not really clashing elements, jacket, tie, high collared under-vest, dark trousers, medium brown shoes, nondescript and muted shirt, all of which make him look eminently respectable but belie the fact that he has much money and has arrived in a very large limousine. He looks more like an Oxford don than a famous composer. Adrian Scarborough is cast as the fictional Humphrey Carpenter, “Donald,” who has the distinction of having written biographies of both principals, and whose unglamorous mission it is to hover, comment, intrude, and make inappropriate and self-serving suggestions about how the play might be jazzed up and broadened in its appeal. Scarborough fulfills this unglamorous assignment in a just-right way; he is perhaps the most convincing of all the actors (which is saying a lot), partly because he seems exempt from the inside-outside format to which the rest of the cast is bound.

(I should interject a further comment here about Bennett’s strategy, seeming to put even further distance between his audience and the action enacted in the play by having a biographer representing “present time,” and thereby indicating that the action in which Auden and Britten meet again is something that happened quite some time ago and is part of the past chronicled in Carpenter’s biographies. This, too, is part of the paradoxical rhetoric of the play; we refuse to accede to the premise that this all happened long ago, insistent on the you-are-there “now-ness” of the proceedings, notwithstanding the intrusive presence of the biographer.)

More good acting: The rent boy, Stuart, who calls on Auden in the course of the first act, is surely the most interesting male prostitute I have ever seen on stage (well, how many have I seen?). He is played by an able and quite natural actor named Stephen Wight, who is probably thirty years old and is playing a character who is almost that old himself, but who talks about how he will be able to tell his grandchildren that he once serviced the famous poet W. H. Auden — and, as it would seem to turn out, the famous composer Benjamin Britten as well. There is an apparent “normalcy” about all this that is very comical and appealing, partly because it asks us to hearken back to the days of the early to mid-twentieth century when homosexual behavior had to be carried on in absolute secrecy. But, wait: isn’t that where we “are” now? Bennett manages to have things both ways.

The “offstage” characters are equally adept, most particularly Frances de la Tour, the stage manager, “Kay,” who has a most expressive face, with deep, limpid eyes, and enough age in it to represent long experience and wisdom. At the end of the play the playwright gives her a longish speech in which she explains to the author, “Neil,” played by Elliott Levey as someone who first and last is anxious, something poignant about mortality. I found this one speech a bit overdone, a little heavy-handed, perhaps the one instance in the whole play in which Bennett lost control. Yes, we know that all life ends in death, but the action of this play, which traverses in stage time two-plus hours, in fictional time half a day, and in reference many years, captures that point well enough without having to hammer it home.

This is a way of saying that The Habit of Art is a nearly flawless work. And the direction, by Nicholas Hytner, is also flawless, transparent, beautifully timed, and constantly revelatory of character, action, and complex meaning. He deserves to be the artistic director of the National Theatre — and he is. The design, by Bob Crowley, is magnificently tawdry, and the costumes while fully suitable to the characters are simultaneously descriptive of personality and type. In short, this is an abundantly, I might even say radiantly, clear production, taking into account as well the unobtrusive lighting by Mark Henderson. Alan Bennett has been extremely well served by the actors and production staff; he in turn has given them a play that they can exploit for all it is worth without exceeding the balance by a step.

Hytner was asked, in the course of a brief introduction on a balcony overlooking the Thames Embankment, what his response was to the so-called experiment of global HD broadcasts. Without getting terribly excited, he allowed that it seemed to be a success. Other people around the world would get more excited about this opportunity than he seemed to do. Words like “wonderful,” “magnificent,” “marvelous,” come to mind. The next and final offering in this year’s series is the extravagant Victorian comedy by Dion Boucicault, London Assurance. It is not to be missed.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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