The Habit of Art

Published

Two of our contributors: Laura Stockwell;English Literature student from the university and Ed Pulley; Architecture student examine Alan Bennett’s recent play.
Laura Stockwell

“I have the Habit of Art” states W.H.Auden in Alan Bennett’s new play. This latest addition to Alan Bennett’s charming repertoire of wit is, in my opinion, one of his very best.
The structure of the play is complex. Bennett takes the idea of a play-within-a-play to the extreme. It seems like an over-complicated ploy, but it works impeccably well. The play details a rehearsal of a play called Caliban’s Day being performed at the National Theatre, London. In this play, we see the imagined meeting of W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, in Auden’s Christ Church abode around the end of his career in 1972. The constant interruptions from the actors to the on-stage playwright make the story line, at first, hard to grasp. But overall, these disruptions add to the humor of the play as a whole, and through them the voice of Bennett is heard.
The play deals with many issues, most strikingly the theme connected with its title: that imagination and creativity come naturally for an artist. Bennett demonstrates this perfectly in his imagined encounter between the pair, who could not be more different. Auden is portrayed as a sexually liberated and dominating intellectual, whereas Britten is the definition of abstinence. Despite these differences, the pair unite in their creative impulse and both enjoy the ‘Habit of Art’.
It is slightly disappointing to realise that such an event did not really take place. If it had, who knows what may have become of this brief encounter between Auden and Britten.
It is interesting to note that Alan Bennett never actually met either Auden or Britten. Bennett says of the play, “to write a play about them is a way of having a conversation with them that I would never have been capable of having at the time.” If only such a conversation had been able to take place. If ‘The Habit of Art’ is a result of what could have been said, it is hard to imagine what genius could have occurred if it had.
Although not the original cast, the touring National Theatre cast were stunning. Desmond Barrit’s performance of Auden stole the show. Despite not resembling Auden physically, his portrayal of the character was exquisite. Malcolm Sinclair played the reserved Britten very well, and demonstrated the stark contrast between himself and Auden. Production Manager,Diane Willmott, created fluidity and made the complex structure of the play easy to follow.
Any Alan Bennett fan will not be disappointed by this play’s witty perfection, but to those of you who are Bennett virgins, ‘The Habit of Art’ is a perfect place to start your love affair. The flawless comedy of Bennett can not be matched by anyone, and ‘The Habit of Art’ is a superb example. So next time it is around go and join in a conversation with the “Boys of Art”.

Ed Pulley
Entering Glasgow’s Theatre Royal (Upper Circle), the excitement I had been feeling, due to the five-stars plastered throughout the Clockwork Orange, (the subway , not the recent production at the Citizens) boiled over, almost scolding my fellow audience members. Firstly because the Upper Circle had its own bar, and secondly because of the fantastic set which I was surprised to see in full light, unobscured by a curtain.
The setting is within a shabby and cluttered living area, which embodies the bedroom, kitchen and dining area of Auden’s Christchurch lodgings. Set as a play within a play, the scene is surrounded by all the necessary theatre paraphernalia, from stacks of chairs and rows of monitors to a fire exit, allowing the audience to see glimpses of the characters ‘on’ and ‘off’ the set. Desmond Barrit plays the part of the actor playing the poet W. H. Auden; constantly dying for a cigarette and repetitively mentioning his need for a “wee” whilst moaning that the only toilet he uses is “far way” for fear of being overheard. Simultaneously he plays the overbearing, loud and smelly Auden longing for a rent boy. As the actors arrived casually on stage, it became apparent that we would be witnessing a rehearsal, and not even an important one; rather one that the director has not been able to make and which coincides with a Chekhov matinee in which some of the cast are performing. This allows the observer to experience the input of the stage manager Kay, a failed actress who provides direction, supports the emotionally frail actors and fills the roles made temporarily vacant by the Chekhov down the hall.
The story revolves around an imagined meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in 1972 just before their untimely deaths in 1973 and 1976 respectively. After a productively creative relationship in late 30’s America, their friendship had collapsed, but it appears that for Alan Bennett, it was a relationship that allowed the resurrection of many themes evident in his previous work. The love of boys shared by Auden and Britten is manifested in the former by the “sucking-off” of rent-boys while the latter sits naked on the edge of his student’s baths. We are left wondering: what about the boys? The unfinished, shabby set, with visual access to the backstge area mimics the insight we are offered into the pair’s less than honourable lifestyles whilst the finely polished set (which we assume will feature if the play within this play is every stage) is the memory of an artist, viewed only from one perspective, cleverly designed to conceal the chairs, monitors, fire escapes, stage managers and boys needed to sustain the artist’s habit.
Celebrating the unregarded is just one thread woven through this beautifully complex tapestry. Mr. Bennett invites you to unravel many more.