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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Kicking The Habit of Art

Friday, November 19, 2010

There are many interesting things one could say about Alan Bennett's thoroughly enjoyable play The Habit of Art. One that struck me most, however, was the way in which a faintly retrospective air hangs over the whole thing: looking at a stage set in a backstage rehearsal room, it is almost as if this play is a reflection on Bennett's career and the public perception of him as a dramatist.

This is, more than anything, a play about playing. It has a multi-layered quality, so that we see actors playing the part of actors, who are rehearsing for a play about W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, who are in turn playing up to the personalities that the public expect them to possess: Auden the untidy, dishevelled but loquacious poet; Britten the inspiring conductor who is suffering from composer's block at the end of his career. This reflexive quality is exacerbated by the touring production which I saw. Firstly, performed in Newcastle's Theatre Royal, there is an ironic edge to the fact that the rehearsal is supposedly for a play for the National Theatre; this makes us think about the way in which theatres themselves impose expectations on actors, the audience of the National expecting to see only big name stars and intelligent productions, both aspects of which are somewhat lacking in the play within The Habit of Art. Secondly, Desmond Barrit plays Auden in the touring production, but he is highly conscious of Richard Griffith's inhabiting of that role in the original National Theatre one; thus Barrit plays as Griffiths playing as Fitz, the actor who plays Auden.

All these metadramatic elements frame one of the key themes of the play, the question of who owns a role: is it the playwright, is it the actor, or is it the character he or she is playing? Fitz objects to the depiction of Auden as being more concerned with the ideals of the body - bluntly, oral gay sex - than with those of the mind and the language. Contrary to Fitz's protestations, the writer of the play insists that the corporeal, sexualised Auden is validated by his letters, though it is hard to ignore the fact that the writer himself might have been mislead by his reliance on another artificial rehearsal of Auden's life, in the form of Humphrey Carpenter's biography of him (Carpenter too forms part of the play, though the actor playing him objects to his mere bit-part chorus role).

It is within these contexts, then, that we can start to see the play as a reflection on Bennett himself, and the way in which as an established (and establishment) playwright, Bennett too may seem to play a role, and that rather than writing about and influencing public life, Bennett is increasingly conditioned by that same public's perceptions of him. Although unlike in Bennet's earlier plays about the process of drama, such as The Lady in the Van, Bennet himself does not make an appearance, the characters of slovenly Auden and neat and tidy Britten are his analogues.

Quick-witted but camp, gay but faintly melancholic, the late Britten and Auden are surrounded by a faded mythology. Britten made his name as an avant-garde composer, but his place at the leading edge has been assumed by Tippet (and we are conscious that Britten today is a staple of that most populist of musical variety shows, the Last Night of the Proms). In the 1940s Auden emigrated New York in search of artistic freedom, and to escape the War, and has returned to Britain full of tales of the sexual freedom and poetic acclaim he had found in the United States, only to be seemingly half-disappointed that Britain in the meantime has become a sexually tolerant place, whilst his poetry is at best respected (by the BBC, no less) rather than greeted with ovations. Auden hates his own poetry being quoted back at him, which adds another layer to the dramatic role-playing: Barrit plays as Griffiths playing as Fitz, who plays a poet struggling to avoid inhabiting the role that he once defined, and that now defines him. Living in the cosy semi-retirement offered by Christ Church, Oxford, both Auden and Britten want to recuperate the controversy that attached itself to their earlier gay personas and artistic avant-gardism, and to avoid donning that dressing gown for the evening of their lives which has two damning words sewn into it: National Treasure.

Bennett himself, soft-spoken Northerner, mildly camp but not self-congratulatorily homosexual, possessing the dubious and simple virtue of having been around for a long time, is often talked of in just such terms. As Michael Billington complained, they make him "sound like a theatrical Queen Mum radiating beneficence over a grateful populace." However, this satirical observer of the foibles of national life deserves more than to be treated as the doyenne of the W.I. In another light, the self-reflexivity that many of his plays exhibit, none more so than this one, might a few decades ago have been seen as sharply postmodernist; as a realist writer true to the ironies of common conversation, he is unsurpassed.


The Habit of Art, then, is something of a paradox. This play could be seen as dominated by the anxiety of his own influence, about the formulaic repetition of old parts, stale dramas, hackneyed writing. Yet it also, paradoxically, must rank among Bennett's finest, for whilst this is a play about the habits of art, it also kicks against the habits of a lifetime in an ironic, self-conscious way that is poignant, metadramatic rather than melodramatic.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:43 am

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