A disappointing evening at the Lowry, seeing Alan Bennett’s play, The Habit of Art, a theatrically complex piece, structured around an imagined late meeting between Benjamin Britten and WH Auden. Although there were flashes of laugh-out-loud humour, overall we found the play sprawling and rather tedious, with a particularly clunky last scene.
On stage we see a set within a set for a play within a play: in a rehearsal room, watched over by a playwright, observed and explained by a biographer of both Britten and Auden, we see the actors performing the inner play (called Caliban’s Day) on a set whose centrepiece is Auden’s study in the Brewhouse, a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, Oxford in the early 1970s.
This is a National Theatre touring production, directed by Nicholas Hytner (as was the much better play, The History Boys). Benjamin Britten, played by Malcolm Sinclair, is struggling with his new opera, Death in Venice, that he fears might be sailing too close to the wind for his Aldeburgh audience with its theme of older man attracted to young boy (14 years old in Mann). Britten seeks advice from his former collaborator and friend, Auden (Desmond Barrit). During this imagined meeting, their first for twenty-five years, they are observed from the wings, and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer (Humphrey Carpenter), the playwright and a rent boy hired by Auden.
The play promises to deal with many questions – being an artist, growing old, the ethics of biography, coming to terms with your homosexuality in a judgemental society, and the overlooked ‘Caliban’ ignored in accounts of great artists’ lives. But it doesn’t really work – the ‘Caliban’ idea seems particularly tacked on and undeveloped, while scenes in which Auden’s furniture – and even the lines on his fissured face – talk are, frankly, risible, even within the framing device.
It’s almost as if, having decided that his play has too many problems to solve, Bennett erected protective scaffolding around it by showing his initial playscript being rehearsed and commented upon. Thus, any problems that the play has become opportunities for comedy; clunky lines, clumsy scenes or devices that don’t come off, can be passed off as ridiculous. Bennett seems to have admitted as much in an article in the London Review of Books.
The second act has the best scene, in which Britten and Auden discuss their varying approaches to their creative work. But even here, the issue ultimately turns upon the less universal and more inward-looking question of how they each deal with being gay, both in creating their art and in their personal lives. The play closes with a deeply unsatisfying and clumsy final scene which suddenly brings the previously undeveloped character of Stuart the rent-boy, the ‘Caliban’ figure, centre stage in what Bennett has called a plea for recognition and acknowledgement of the outsider, the uninvited guest.