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Playwright Alan Bennett has had the habit of art for at least 50 years. The prolific author of dozens of plays and screenplays is regarded as something of a national treasure in England. At age 75, Bennett's latest work is called "The Habit of Art."

And as Jeff Lunden reports, it examines what fuels that process even into old age.

JEFF LUNDEN: As the lights come up at the play's start, the stage of London's Lyttelton Theatre is a dead-perfect 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.

Unidentified Man: (Acting) 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.

LUNDEN: "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.

Director Nicholas Hytner explains the play-within-a-play structure.

Mr. NICHOLAS HYTNER (Director, "The Habit of Art"): So 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. So, it's a kind of series of concentric circles about the practice of art.

Alan Bennett says he originally wanted to write a play about an imagined meeting between these two brilliant men, the metaphysical poet Auden...

Unidentified Man #2: (Acting) Looking up at the stars, I know quite well that for all they care I can go to hell.

LUNDEN: ...and the polished composer Britten.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: In the early 1970s, the two artists were in the 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.

Mr. BENNETT: Once they saw the frame around it in 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.

LUNDEN: Actor Elliot Levey plays Neil, the author of the play-within-the-play.

Mr. ELLIOT LEVEY (Actor): One of my favorite lines in the play is when Auden says, in the end, art is small beer. Really important things in life are earning one's living and loving one's neighbor. He then farts, perfectly grotesquely.

LUNDEN: "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, says Nicholas Hytner.

Mr. HYTNER: 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. The play also asks about the degree to which that mess produces that grace.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (unintelligible)...

LUNDEN: while Britten and Auden worked together and influenced each other early in their careers, Hytner says...

Mr. HYTNER: 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 face-off about both what sexuality should be and what the artist should do with that which is important and that which fuels his art.

Mr. MATT WOLF (Theater Critic, International Herald Tribune): I love this play for its looseness and its bagginess and its rudeness and its refusal to be polite.

LUNDEN: Matt Wolf is theater critic for the International Herald Tribune.

Mr. WOLF: 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.

LUNDEN: Director Nicholas Hytner thinks "The Habit of Art" is autobiographical to the degree that all art is autobiographical.

Mr. HYTNER: 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.

LUNDEN: Alan Bennett says with advancing age comes certain privileges.

Mr. BENNETT: 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 anymore.

LUNDEN: American audiences can find out what Alan Bennett has to say when "The Habit of Art" begins broadcasts in high definition in movie theaters across the country starting April 22.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: To hear more from playwright Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner and to find out where "The Habit of Art" is playing, go to NPR.org.

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