I might as well come right out with it, dissentient, fractious and uncharitable as it may sound. I don’t like Alan Bennett—popular British playwright, memoirist, and frequent reciter of his own words—whose latest work for the stage, The Habit of Art, was beamed from London’s National Theatre into movie houses around the world this month. He irritates me. Why, then, did I number among the sizeable crowd this satellite event drew at our local cinema? Truth is, I kind of like that he irritates—unless he does it with the sound of his voice, a querulous whine the exposure to which theater audiences, unlike radio listeners, are generally spared. In The Habit of Art, Bennett does it—that is, doesn’t do it for me—in the way he packages or frames what I think he is trying to capture.
At this stage in his career, Bennett is about as stuffy as an old whoopee cushion. Once in a while, he stands up to lecture, letting his characters—all stand-ins for himself—disseminate lines that stand out not merely by virtue of their brilliance but by the less-than-virtue of being borrowed for the occasion as if they were quotations taken from what could have been the draft of an unpublished essay. Then, sitting down again, he, in his frightfully British way of rendering himself human and opening up to us—and of confusing secrets with secretions—carries on about bodily functions as if he were out to revive the Carry On series. The habit? O, fart!
“That’s Auden farting, not me,” one of Bennett’s characters, Fitz, insists after doing so audibly. Whether caught breaking wind or urinating in the kitchen sink, that’s still W. H. Auden, the distinguished poet, with whose short yet (since?) intimate friendship to composer Benjamin Britten the play is ostensibly concerned. Ostensibly, because Bennett is not about to humor those curious about the private lives of two fellow gay artists, reunited in 1972 to discuss a collaboration that does not come off, by delivering some kind of Sunshine Boys routine. In its roundabout way, The Habit of Art refuses to be about any one thing. It isn’t Auden letting go. It’s an actor portraying him in a rehearsal of a play whose Author, also on the scene, seems unsure about just what it is all about—or at least unable to convince his players.
To say what he needs to say, Bennett’s Author feels compelled to move a biographer into the frame of what he is anxious to preserve as his composition; Bennett does the same in order to explore that frame and explode it. In other words, Bennett is rehearsing his failure—or inability or unwillingness—to restrain himself for the sake of art by acting out passages from his decidedly golden notebook.
A kind of Greek Chorus, the biographer is the Author’s device, just as the sensitive, defensive Author is Bennett’s. That is, the device is similar, but the purpose is different. In Bennett’s play, the unassuming actor assuming the part of the interviewing, interjecting biographer is aware of being a device and resents it. Since his character is based on a real person (radio broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter), the actor wants his role to come across as real even as he is made to walk in and out of Auden’s quarters like the Stage Manager in Our Town. Nothing seems real here aside from Bennett’s artistic struggle.
Although the actor does not have to emit gas to prove his character’s humanity, he—that is, the biographer in spite of his extra-autobiographical self—is confronted with Auden’s request for a sex act the performance of which was the job of the callboy for whom the biographer is briefly mistaken. Enter the callboy proper. He, not Auden or Britten, is the character referred to, albeit obliquely, in the Author’s play Caliban’s Day, the troubled rehearsal into the midst of which we are plonked.
Meanwhile, Fitz, the less than letter-perfect actor set to play Auden, is not amused by this Caliban, nor by Caliban’s Day, a dramatic monstrosity that also features talking furniture (“I am a chair and in New York / I seated his guests and took in their talk”) and an exchange between Auden’s Words and Britten’s Music, performed, in the absence of the two unfortunate thespians assigned those parts, by the jovial Stage Manager and her hapless assistant.
It is through Fitz that Bennett responds to the frustrations of theatergoers eager—if increasingly less so—to get closer to a poet whom, after witnessing this closed-door run-through of what is about to go on public display, it would be nigh on impossible to romanticize as bohemian: “There’s no nobility to him,” Fitz protests, “Where—this is what the audience will be thinking—where is the poetry?”
Not that I was expecting, even from an audiophile like Bennett, any reference to “The Dark Valley,” Auden’s 1940 contribution to The Columbia Workshop. Dramatically underscored by Britten’s music, Auden’s monologue for radio is a collaborative effort that speaks, more directly and poignantly than Bennett, of love, death, and the secrecy that is the death of love:
Under the midnight stone
Love was buried by thieves.
The robbed hearts weep alone.
The damned rustle like leaves.
Taking center stage instead is a professional sex worker. Bennett’s Author does his utmost to justify the callboy’s presence, insisting that his request performance is neither uncalled for nor gratuitous. As the only surviving witness of that fictionalized meeting between Auden and Britten, the young man is recalled from obscurity to tell us what he would want to get out of the exchange if he, a Caliban among Prosperos, were to have his day:
I want to figure. He goes on about stuff being cosy, England and that. But it’s not England that’s cosy. It’s art, literature, him, you, the lot of you. Because there’s always someone left out. You all have a map. I don’t have a map. I don’t even know what I don’t know. I want to get in. I want to join. I want to know.
Neither the Author, whom we are not encouraged to take seriously, nor Bennett, in all his tongue-in-cheekiness, convinces me that the boy truly wants to be in the know; above all, he wants to be known. And, for some reason—a touch of Death in Venice, Habit with its built-in commentary suggests—Bennett lets the youth voice his demands on behalf of all the faceless boys that Britten and Auden may have privately enjoyed while enjoying critical success.
But the boy—played by a self-conscious twenty-nine-year old—does not figure. If anything, he disfigures. He, like anyone who ever catered to Auden’s bodily needs, cleaned his kitchen sink or inspected his carcass, is generally “left out” for a reason. After all, is it really such a revelation that an artist may be rankly human, that, stripped of the artistry for which he is known, he stands before us as homo mephiticus?
Bennett, to borrow a line from myself, is “like a boar chasing Adonis for the sweat on his thighs.” That we are unknowable to each other is old hat. To add that, if we do get to know what others did not mean to share, we might end up with more—or less—than we need to know is hat decomposing.
Bennett means to share, though. He means to share what it means to create, to critique, and collaborate, what it means to be old, what it means to be gay, what it means to be public, to be private, to be popular, to be British, to be human. Now artsy, now fartsy, he means to let it all out, and say, too, how difficult it is to say anything, let alone everything and the kitchen sink. Yet, as Scream 3 drove home back in 2000, postmodern self-reflexivity is as dead as a nail in a mortuary’s door, a door that, if left open, releases nothing but the ptomaine wafting our way when storytelling is permitted to keep turning and feasting on itself.
However breezy this exercise in framing and dismantling may be, nothing quite this undisciplined and self-indulgent can be any longer mistaken for fresh air. It’s just a hard-to-kick habit of art, and a rather bad one at that.