A Terrible Habit of Art

The touring National Theatre production of The Habit of Art (2009) by Alan Bennett was a massive disappointment. The play takes as its subject a meeting between Auden and Britten at the former’s Oxford residence in 1972. This is a subject which fascinates me, partly for the personal reason that I went to the same school as these two giants of English 20thC art (a fact which, almost unbelievably, Bennett omits – that Britten and Auden were at the same school, not my own insignificant presence, that is!). Rather than having a straight-forward dramatisation of this meeting however, Bennett elects to adopt the device of making it a rehearsal for a new play on the subject at the National Theatre. So we have the actors coming in and out of character; alterations to the script being made to the despair of the author (who is present at the rehearsal); discussions on how certain technical effects are to be achieved; reflection on the nature of acting and actors etc.. Other characters in the play within the play are Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of both Britten and Auden, and an Oxford rent-boy whom Auden has hired.

The Habit of Art is shallow and meretricious. It is also rather insulting in that it is very specifically written for the National Theatre and the closing dialogue centres on this fact; no attempt was made to rewrite this for a touring production (which it would have been very simple to do) and so this dialogue was faintly ridiculous, as well as insulting to non-London audiences. Bennett’s much-vaunted and assumed parochialism does not seem worth much in this context. The mechanics of the well-worn play within a play device were occasionally amusing but mostly tiresome, and one kept thinking how much better handled they would be by a real contemporary master of theatrical devices like Frayn or, above all, Ayckbourn. None of the speculations on acting were of any great interest or originality and mostly it was played for the rather easy laughs.

None of the above would have mattered (well alright it would have mattered, but it would have been forgivable) if the play had left the sense of getting either Auden or Britten right, or if its central arguments had been interesting or, most crucially, true. I am no expert in the lives of either Auden or Britten especially the former. No doubt he was a cantankerous, difficult, rude, opinionated old boor (and bore). And, yes, there is entertainment value to be squeezed from this and from the chasm between his best poetry and his life. However Bennett’s mistakes in respect of Britten made me wonder how much he really had researched or understood Auden. The most egregious and absurd mistake was in respect of Aldeburgh. Bennett presents this as though it were some kind of Tunbridge Wells, a synonym of English middle-class gentility to which Britten retreated and hid his sexuality. In fact Oxford is a far more respectable place than Aldeburgh, and in any case Britten’s residence there had nothing to do with its social standing (although he contributed enormously to the community) and everything to do with its geography, its wild desolate mingling of sky and sea and shingle beaches and marshland. Aldeburgh is a vital component of his music and his art and you can hear it again and again. If you do not understand that then you do not understand Britten and should not be writing a play about him. The poetry of Crabbe, the music of Britten – does Bennett really fail to understand the link and the link through them to Aldeburgh? Because he makes this enormous error I had little confidence in the rest of his picture of Britten.

The play did improve somewhat for periods in the second half when there was a long period given over to the discussion between Auden and Britten (the first half is nearly all given over to Auden) with few interruptions or break-outs from the play within a play. There were suggestions here of how powerful a play on this theme could actually be. No cheap laughs, no silly tricks. Yet even here Bennett fails to understand or present the arguments fairly. Auden and Britten are discussing the latter’s plan to write an opera based on Death in Venice, by Auden’s father-in-law (he married Erika to get her out of Nazi Germany) Thomas Mann (as Auden keeps reminding us – presumably to indicate that Bennett thinks he was suffering from mild Alzheimer’s by this time). Auden’s line of argument is that Mann’s (and Britten’s) story is somewhat ridiculous in the guises it adopts when at its centre is a story of a middle-aged man (Aschenbach, Mann, Britten) fancying boys: the various ‘artistic’ devices adopted are mere camouflage for this central truth. Britten protests that this is not what Mann wrote, nor what he intends to put in his opera. For him it is Aschenbach who is the innocent (and by extension we are meant to imply Britten himself). Now this is an interesting and complicated argument, and it does spark Bennett’s play to life for some brief moments. But this life sputters because the argument is not allowed to proceed and in any case is much too heavily weighted on Auden’s side.

Another conceptual problem with The Habit of Art centres around the play-wright and the play he has written. Within this play there are various technical devices, such as items of Auden’s furniture relating their story in verse, or, in the second half, Auden’s poetry and Britten’s music in a dialogue. These are mocked by the actors and the verse is bad. So is this Bennett having a rather crude swipe at some modern playwrights? On the other hand our sympathies are all with the writer as some absurd re-writes are introduced. But in general the impression is given that the play he has written is not very good. Which as I have explained it is not. But if this is the case why should we bother to watch it all? What reliance can we place on anything it says about Auden, Britten, art, poetry, sex, music or anything.

I must not omit however the play within a play’s (and the play’s) central argument which centres on the rent-boy. Broadly this argument goes that art is over-rated and what matters are people and particularly the people who, like the rent-boy, are ‘left out’. Now one problem is that I have absolutely no idea whether Bennett actually believes this as, like everything else, it is continuously undermined by jokes. But putting this on one side it is an argument for which I have no time whatever and the supposed contradictions which Bennett seems to be pointing up are so old and worn as to be clichés. Yes Auden was a rude and bullying old man (a very odd programme note relates with near glee how he once reduced Anne Sexton to tears, as if this was some sort of accomplishment): yes Britten’s relationships with young boys were questionable and his tendency to cut people out of his life ruthless. And one can produce countless examples of artists of every sort throughout the ages of who indulged in various kinds of bad behaviour  (Byron was hardly a model human being!). Yes, we should know about these things and biographers should write of them – it prevents us idolising people, which is always dangerous. But what matters in the end is the art – the music, the words, the paintings. These matter because they make our, mine and many millions, lives richer, deeper, finer. Oddly enough Bennett’s play proves this because the two moments when the play really comes alive at a more profound, uplifting level are when some music from the Dawn Prelude to Peter Grimes are played and when Auden reads words from his wonderful In Memory of W.B. Yeats….

 Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress;

          In the deserts of the heart
          Let the healing fountain start,
          In the prison of his days
          Teach the free man how to praise.

(http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544). The actor playing Auden protests that this is how the play ought to end, but in fact we have a soliloquy from the rent-boy about the people left out, followed by the business about the National Theatre mentioned above. But that is how the play ought to end! Of course it does not because Bennett’s view is fundamentally philistine. Art does not matter, or at least does not matter as much as jokes about cocks and peeing in the sink and so on. It does not matter as much as ‘people’. Which of course is true in one sense, a political one – but politics never come near Bennett’s play. However if you are writing a play about artists and wanting to say something serious it is not true. 

The Habit of Art is a mess as a play, but its most noxious aspect is its reduction of art to the quotidian, and is most damning indictment that one does not really come away wanting to hurry away and listen to Britten or read some Auden. It is a species of betrayal.

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