Playwright Alan Bennett Explores His 50-Year 'Habit'

Richard Griffiths i i

The Habit of Art explores the darker side of artistic life. One moment, Richard Griffith's bedraggled W.H. Auden is pontificating on the significance — or insignificance — art and the next he is passing gas. Johan Persson hide caption

itoggle caption Johan Persson
Richard Griffiths

The Habit of Art explores the darker side of artistic life. One moment, Richard Griffith's bedraggled W.H. Auden is pontificating on the significance — or insignificance — art and the next he is passing gas.

Johan Persson

Playwright Alan Bennett has had the habit of art for at least 50 years — ever since he burst on the scene in the satirical 1960 revue Beyond the Fringe. The 75-year-old has written dozens of plays and screenplays, and he's regarded as something of an English national treasure.

Bennett's latest work is called The Habit of Art and it looks at what fuels the artistic process, even into old age. The play will be broadcast in high-definition video at movie theaters across America starting Thursday, as part of the National Theatre's NT Live series.

The play's set, in London's Lyttleton Theatre, is a dead-on replica of the National Theatre's rehearsal room one. The furniture is bruised and battered, stage managers check to make sure all the props are in the right place, and actors mill about, while one of them practices a monologue:

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"I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men, their fears and their failings. I've had enough of their vision, how they altered the landscape. We stand on their shoulders to survey our lives. So, let's talk about the vanity. This one, the connoisseur of emptiness, is tipped for the Nobel Prize, yet still needs to win at Monopoly. That playwright's skin is so thin he can feel pain on the other side of the world, so why is he deaf to the suffering next door? Proud of his modesty, this one gives frequent, rare interviews in which he aggregates praise and denudes others of credit. Artists celebrated for their humanity, they turn out to be scarcely human at all."

The Habit of Art is all about the shortcomings, failings and, above all, the humanity of artists — both the ones on that stage and the ones they're portraying, which include two British icons, poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. It's a play-within-a-play.

"You see the actors playing the parts of Auden and Britten and the other two people in the play-within-the-play struggling with their habit," says director Nicholas Hytner, who has collaborated with Bennett on five plays and two films. "So, it's a kind of series of concentric circles about the practice of art."

John Heffernan, Frances de la Tour i i

Alan Bennett set the entire play in a rehearsal room to allow fictional crew — including John Heffernan and Frances de la Tour — to deliver the would-be footnotes to the play-within-a-play of Auden and Britten's. Johan Persson hide caption

itoggle caption Johan Persson
John Heffernan, Frances de la Tour

Alan Bennett set the entire play in a rehearsal room to allow fictional crew — including John Heffernan and Frances de la Tour — to deliver the would-be footnotes to the play-within-a-play of Auden and Britten's.

Johan Persson

Bennett says he originally wanted to write a play about an imagined meeting between these two brilliant men — the metaphysical poet Auden and the polished composer Britten — at a time when they were both in Oxford in the early 1970s. The two artists were in twilight of their lives, but they still continued to work, even when their inspiration was at a low ebb.

Bennett hit upon the rehearsal-room idea, so the actors could tell the story in a natural way and deliver the footnotes, as it were — "putting this other frame round it and making it a play-within-a-play, so that the actors playing the parts could say, 'Did he really pee in the basin? Or he did he really do this or say this?' And so then, they can have the discussions about the material in the rehearsal form."

Actor Elliot Levey plays Neil, the author of Caliban's Day, the play-within-the-play. He says one of his favorite lines is when Auden says: "In the end, art is small beer. The really important things in life are earning one's living and loving one's neighbor." Levey adds, "He then farts, perfectly grotesquely."

The Habit of Art doesn't shy away from the less attractive biographical elements of these two great artists' lives — Auden's slovenliness and predilection for male prostitutes, or Britten's yearning for beautiful young boys. "The play does ask about the gap between the mess that is often an artist's life and the grace that is often the consequence of that artist's talent," explains director Hytner. "The play also asks about the degree to which that mess produces that grace."

Britten and Auden worked together and influenced each other early in their careers, Hytner says, but "by the end of their careers they were artists of a different stamp and they were men of a different stamp and they were gay men of a different stamp: Auden, utterly open, cavalier, undisciplined about his sexuality; Britten, terribly held in. So, there's a faceoff about both what sexuality should be and what the artist should do with that which is important and that which fuels his art."

Matt Wolf, theater critic for the International Herald Tribune, says he loves the play for "its looseness and its bagginess and its rudeness and its refusal to be polite." He adds, "I think this is a very personal play. I don't actually think it's particularly about Britten and Auden. I think what it's about is Alan Bennett paying tribute to his own life, as an artist."

Hytner doesn't disagree, though he thinks The Habit of Art is autobiographical to the degree that all art is autobiographical: "Neither Auden nor Britten is anything like Alan Bennett, but what I think he's doing through them is working out an internal dialogue which he continues to have; an internal dialogue about the kind of artist he feels he should be. Should his art conceal or should it reveal? And I don't think that he is coming to any conclusion, and I think great writers don't. I think they pose the questions and they reveal the dilemmas; they don't deliver messages."

For his part, Bennett says with advancing age comes certain privileges: "I like the fact that when you're older you can, more or less, say what you want! And I'm not concerned about making a fool of myself, as I used to be or most of my life, really. I don't care any more."

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