1 February, 2010Issue 11.2Theatre

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All Work and No Play

Paul Sweeten

foerThe Habit of Art
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre until May 2010


Alan Bennett has written enough great plays to have set himself up for a proverbial fall from greatness. At this time in his career, certain responses are to be expected, chief among them the dismissive and worn out, “His earlier stuff is better.” It’s true that the author of Talking Heads and The History Boys invites unreal expectations, and so whatever came next would be an audience’s chance to dislike something, to balance the record, to relax in the knowledge that a national treasure is as fallible as the rest of us: a mixed bag, only human. We’d forgive him, of course. We’d say “nobody’s perfect”. Hearing that Alan Bennett was writing a play about the life of W.H. Auden, we would be forgiven for thinking “this is it”. This is the one that lets the side down. But even with these great expectations—the difficult 39th album—The Habit of Art, now showing at the National Theatre, reconfirms Bennett’s status as one of our finest playwrights.

When finding their seats, audiences would be forgiven for thinking they had wandered into the wrong side of the theatre. The stage looks authentically backstage: a half-made set of MDF doorframes and unpainted cupboards, stray chairs and loose papers, an Oxford gown limp on a coat hook and enough clutter to make the flat in Bottom look minimalist. This mess can be partially explained by the play’s rather complicated structure. From beginning to end it is a play-within-a-play, and so what we are looking at is in fact a set-within-a-set. A group of actors have been left to their own devices, abandoned by their director and given the task of rehearsing for a new drama showing at the National Theatre.

The scenes the players rehearse centre around the lives of W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. Auden has returned from New York and faces a lonely retirement in his Christ Church lodging when Britten comes to discuss a new opera he’s working on—what will later become Death in Venice. Richard Griffiths plays the actor called Fitz, who is playing Auden, and Alex Jennings plays an actor called Henry, who plays Britten. It’s all very meta.

There is much in-character dialogue between Auden and Britten, but also much disruption of the rehearsal. For a third of the play, actors play actors, and the piece remains concerned with acting itself, writing itself—that is, with the habit of art. As a result, this is a play to “get” or “not get”; one with those terribly taxing things—layers—and one which will turn-off a good many theatre-goers merely for being too elaborate.

Despite these narrative entanglements, Auden and Britten are, as most would agree, what the play is about. Bennett has bookended, at least for the time being, what has been almost ten years of successful and successive biographical entertainments. And no subjects have been more to the public’s taste than great artists. There’s the Jackson Pollock film and the Shakespeare film, the Jane Austen film, the Beatrix Potter film, the Truman Capote film and, most recently, a film about John Keats. Biographical plays are fewer, certainly, though there’s Shadowlands and The Invention of Love. And now we have The Habit of Art.

This is a biographical play with a difference. As the writer of the play-within-the-play makes clear, the portrait of Auden offered to us will leave any audience asking, “Where is the poetry?”. There’s no sign of it. Not in the script, not in Griffiths’s portrayal, nowhere. It’s not what we would expect from a play about a poet. Consider Bright Star (2009): when Ben Wishaw isn’t quoting or being quoted to, he stares wistfully into the middle-distance with a poetical glint in his eye; nightingales can be heard in the air and at any moment one expects a butler to walk in and ask, “What should I do with this Grecian urn?”

Instead of a bibliographical sign post, Bennett’s Auden is an intellectual curmudgeon—so far beyond the concerns of the material world that it’s difficult to tell where his laundry pile ends and his costume begins. Griffiths plays him droll, tired, a year from death, with the faintest suggestion that behind the Oxford man, the homosexual and the lonely soul, there is a poet struggling to see the worth in his art. But he is an Oxford man before he is a poet, a homosexual before he is a poet, and lonely before all else. Griffiths’s performance is truly exceptional in its subtlety, and is wonderfully matched by Jennings, in whose Benjamin Britten there is more of the artist on display. He is passionate, erudite, plays the stage piano freely but without excess, and is in full danger of earning himself the title of Quintessential Englishman, 1972. However, the dynamic (which seems the only word for it) between poet and composer is not given any serious attention until the second half of the play.

The meta-narrative of The Habit of Art, with its almost ridiculous complexity, is fulfilling enough to sustain the first hour. But full as it is with Bennett’s signature wit and ear for dialogue, we begin to ask where it’s all going. Particularly, where is our Auden? We know the man was a genius, so where is his profundity? Interruptions to the rehearsal are as frustrating as waiting for Godot as we desperately want the actors to get on with it and show us Auden being a poet.

Yet he never recites a line. Instead, with half an hour to go, Bennett gives us permission to forget about the rehearsal. Forget the layers, he says. For a long scene Britten and Auden converse without interruption, and we are given a heavyweight debate which is both surprising and moving. The men discuss their art, their habit. What they reveal about their artistic processes satisfies and at once disintegrates every layer concerned. We realise that all this time we have been watching the pursuit of great art—the unconfident poet, the uncertain composer, but also the struggling actors playing them. The Habit of Art itself is a struggle, yet behind its barefaced devices is a playwright reaching for something beyond a postmodernist puppet show. All great art begins with the unshakable habit, and this seems to be Bennett’s meaning.

In the closing moments, Auden and Britten briefly revert to Fitz and Henry, who leave the stage before coming back to bow as Griffiths and Jennings. At this point, you would be forgiven for leaving the National-within-the-National thinking you had come out on the wrong side of comprehension. You might ask, “Where was the poetry?” and also “Where was the play?”. But Bennett’s great affirmation is to the pursuit of art rather than art itself. In the absence of a single stanza of poetic verse, the drama makes clear that in acting, writing, and music, in the words of Auden himself, “what matters is the work.”

Paul Sweeten is reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford.