Secrets And Lies: The Joy Of 'Smut'

Smut

Stories

by Alan Bennett

Paperback, 152 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Smut
Subtitle
Stories
Author
Alan Bennett

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

"Acting is the most pernicious thing two people can do with each other," one of my college drama professors memorably declared. In the pair of droll novellas that make up Smut, Alan Bennett highlights the charm and cheek — yes, that kind of cheek, too — of dissembling.

Bennett, a British playwright best known for The History Boys, The Madness of George III and Beyond the Fringe, is of course no stranger to either the madness or fringe benefits of acting. In these two comedies of mismanners, he explores the boundaries between dissembling and outright lying, and between secret desires and maintaining outward appearances. He playfully probes two middle-aged, middle-class British matrons' impulses to don alternate identities — opening themselves up to the joys of illicit sex in the process.

Alan Bennett is an actor, playwright and author of The History Boys and The Madness of George III. i i

Alan Bennett is an actor, playwright and author of The History Boys and The Madness of George III. MJ Kim/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption MJ Kim/Getty Images
Alan Bennett is an actor, playwright and author of The History Boys and The Madness of George III.

Alan Bennett is an actor, playwright and author of The History Boys and The Madness of George III.

MJ Kim/Getty Images

"The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson" involves greening not in the environmental sense, but as in a restoration of freshness and vitality. Jane Donaldson is a 55-year-old widow who, in order to make ends meet after the death of her deadly dull husband, takes one of the weirder jobs you've never heard of — as a Simulated Patient, play-acting various illnesses and scenarios for doctors-in-training — which is better, I suppose, than being a med school cadaver.

This leads to some hilarious situations: a "dullish day" involves aping "thyroid deficiency, hiatus hernia and (non-extruded) piles." A more exciting day involves causing mayhem with a feigned stroke, not in the written script. Mrs. Donaldson, it turns out, has real flair. The supervising doctor, who falls for her shapely legs and extrapolates from her uninhibited acting to imagine spontaneity in more intimate realms, calls her "Bickerton Road's answer to Meryl Streep."

Mrs. Donaldson loves the "holiday from respectability." It's a holiday that really takes flight when her young lodgers make an outrageous offer in lieu of rent — an offer (which I won't spoil for you) that makes her job seem downright conventional. She knows the offer is "unseemly" and "wasn't her at all. But that was why she did it. It wasn't her."

Bennett is a pro at fearlessly taking his concepts to their wildest extremes while keeping a straight face. In The Uncommon Reader, he conjectured wryly about what would happen if the queen of England actually started to read and think for herself.

In the second story in Smut, "The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes," he orchestrates a juicy scenario in which every member of Muriel Forbes' family conspires — for his or her own personal reasons — to protect Muriel from the knowledge that her adored son Graham is gay. The resultant chain of deception involves blackmail, Internet porn, a financially savvy wife who plays dumb, a rogue cop and numerous unexpected couplings. This is a story in which everyone, outlandishly, changes partners and dances.

Bennett's ear for hypocrisy, as finely tuned as a therapist's, misses few opportunities for satire, skewering homophobes, vicars, unfeeling medical students, the lot. (Case in point — a desk sergeant's query to a mugging victim: "The gentleman who assaulted you. Did you notice if he was black at all?" The "at all" says it all.)

So, you may well ask, where's the smut? It's what lies beneath the veneer of respectability in this delightfully subversive little book, which puckishly celebrates dirty little secrets as a vital component in both sex and life.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.