THE HABIT OF ART
spoiler alert - this preview review contains quotations and plot detail !
Well, it couldn't have been written by anyone else.
The perennial themes – the insecure outsider, literature, young boys. The trademark recycling - “I saw a bishop with a moustache the other day”: Forty Years On, forty years on – the caller misunderstood: Habeas Corpus – and even “Theatre, magic of ...” recalls Her Big Chance.
The heart of the play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, is the imagined conversation in 1972 between Wystan and Benjie, Auden and Britten. “I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men ...” Britten has called for re-assurance about his new opera, Death in Venice. Peter [Pears] disapproves. Auden is not only encouraging, but alarmingly keen to help, to write the libretto, and takes an editorial pencil to Myfanwy Piper's work. “Aschenbach is me, of course,” he muses, as the rent-boy reclines on the piano stool. Mind-boggling to imagine what that collaborative piece might have been. Auden has similar thoughts - “think what [Richard] Strauss could have done with it ...”. He recalls that Mann was his father-in-law, and the age of the boy Tadzio is discussed - “Mann writes him as 11, your opera has him as 14, you're casting him as 17 – at this rate he'll soon be drawing a pension !” But the passage where the two men relate the plot of the novella, which they both knew well, sounds false, and was one of the few longueurs.
Above Auden's “shit-heap” of a room, Britten's puritanical piano with a wooden chair by it. A rent-boy arrives from the agency. An auditioning treble sings from The Turn of the Screw. Both men, on their different levels, are seeing boys. The spires of Oxford thrust urgently into the sky behind. And surrounding the stage are giant manuscripts, notes.
But this is Caliban's Day, the play we never see. We are in a rehearsal room at the National, and the acting area is surrounded by desks, chairs and bicycles. The treble spends much time tinkering with one of the bikes, presumably not his own, at the back.
The director is absent. So it is up to Kay the Stage Manager – a superbly droll and ultimately tragic Frances de la Tour – and Neil the unwelcome Writer – Elliot Levey, looking not unlike Sher's History Man – to comment on the play and keep things moving.
This device – like the device in Neil's play of having Humphrey Carpenter as narrator – allows Bennett to try things out, consider alternatives, and make jokes at his own expense. Six o'clock strikes in the play, and all desire fades. And at six in the rehearsal room, Fitz [Griffiths/Auden] must go off to voice-over a coffee ad for Tesco. As Auden wrote : Without a watch he would never know when to feel hungry or horny.
An alternative ending is tacked on. Not Auden's In Memory of WB Yeats with The Sea Interlude in the background, but the boy, the outsider, excluded from the literary elite, and departing to the strains of Show Me The Way To Go Home. And then the Stage Manager, also excluded in her way, turning out the lights as she leaves.
The insecure Donald, who plays Carpenter, was beautifully done by Adrian Scarborough – he even got to appear as Carpenter's cross-dressed party piece, Dame Constance Fetlock, singing Douglas Byng's Doris, a Goddess of Wind.
Much fun is had with the pitfalls of working with the author, with the difficulty of learning lines, and with the rehearsal process, complete with prompts and reading in – two actors are off doing Chekhov, so we see Stage Management, and Jennings, filling in as the college servants, the furniture, the famous facial fissures and the children of the artists: their compositions. Some of this writing is dire, presumably satirically so. Elsewhere, though, the fictional playwright has written some superb passages, and here the device seems to fade to let Bennett speak.
It would be interesting to know how the shape of the play developed. At what stage did the rehearsal device appear, or Carpenter. Was the mask for Auden ever a serious possibility ? What difference did the replacement of Gambon make ? And did these two giants, contemplating death at the end of their career, have special resonance for Alan Bennett, who has now outlived them both by ten years or so ?*
"For a long time, years even," Bennett recently wrote, "it seemed to me I had nothing to put into what I wrote; and nor had I. I did not yet appreciate you do not put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there."
*Alan Bennett answers some of these questions in the London Review of Books
recorded in 2010, screened again in cinemas for the NT's 50th birthday: here are a trailer, plus a brief clip ...