Alan Bennett’s new play explores the art of creating art…
The recent news of the death of the reclusive man but enduringly great and globally famous writer JD Salinger, coupled with having just put down Carey’s biography of William Golding and finished AS Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book, meant that the themes running through Alan Bennett’s hugely enjoyable new play at the Lyttleton, The Habit of Art, could not have seemed more relevant when I went to see it the other night. N.B. It’s sold out but you can get £10 tickets in an area called the ‘slips’ – pretty good view and lots of legroom.
The action takes the form of a play within a play, the play within centering on an imagined meeting, twenty-five years after they irrevocably fell out, between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in the former’s disgracefully messy Oxford rooms where he is wiling away his later years. Entitled Caliban’s Day it portrays the unlikely reunion of the two men and their discussion about creativity, art and the self.
But before you groan at this potentially hackneyed format, wait. Here it is the perfect device and is beautifully used to enliven, illustrate and add comedic value to the play’s central concern: what is the relationship between great art and its creator?
The setting is a rehearsal for Caliban’s Day, dangerously close to its opening night. The actors are getting nervous and difficult, the director – the most powerful figure in any rehearsal room – is conspicuously absent, away on business, and has left instructions to just ‘run it’. The smug but insecure writer of the play, however, is present, much to everyone’s annoyance. The producer, brilliantly played by Frances de la Tour, is the only one keeping the show on track by masterfully keeping all the ‘creative’ and ridiculous male egos in the room in check.
The interplay between realised drama and the rehearsal room is enjoyable and playful. It’s all here: the illusion of theatre; the friction between a writer and the release of his work into the world; the egos of actors and writers, and yet their slavish devotion to their craft; the powerful desire for success and yet disdain and fear of it once it has arrived.
The cast is magnificent featuring the aforementioned de la Tour, Richard Griffiths not overdoing it as the actor who is Auden, and Alex Jennings as the actor playing the uptight Britten.
Ironically in a direct inversion of the historical characters, Bennett makes Griffiths’s actor more conservative, less camp, constantly asking for the more lewd references to be removed, whilst Jennings’s actor character switches effortlessly from his excellent portrayal of the uptight and precise Britten, to camp comments, advising that the rent boy who in the play is visiting the openly lascivious Auden in his rooms should be carrying a shoulder bag for lube, etc, and telling a suspiciously autobiographical story about ‘a friend’ at drama college who became a rent boy to pay the bills.
Bennett purposefully interrupts the flow of the play ‘within’ just at moments when he knows the audience will just be totally absorbed in the conversation between Auden and Britten – which is most enjoyable. Suddenly you’re snapped back to the rehearsal space as someone forgets what’s next, tells a rude joke or complains about a line. The illusion of art is before us. We may be moved to tears by a actor’s performance, but the chances are they’ll be thinking how badly the thing is written and wondering how the talentless queen, stage left, ever the got the lead role.
The power politics within this theatrical company provides a microcosm of those found in art, and Bennett uses the inter-textual quality of his work to discourse and explore the nature and desire for control and power in art – and, by its very nature, the impossibility of this.
In the play, Auden discusses how he cannot break ‘the habit of art’: he writes every day, but no one wants to read it now; whereas his earlier poems are so well-loved that when he wants to tinker with them he upsets people greatly, as if they own those poems, as if they are no longer his. The narrator in Caliban’s Day is both men’s future biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, who further emphasises this, telling Britten and Auden that they – the public – are all just waiting for you to die so that they can draw a line under you. (For further comedic effect the actor playing the assured pompous narratorial voice of Humphrey, in the rehearsal is comically neurotic, bemoaning the fact that as the narrator, he is just a device, and trying to make the part psychologically convincing… much to everyone’s despair.)
But his presence as the narrator is important: it is natural for the critic and the reader to compartmentalise in order to understand and essentially to control the meaning of a work within their own experience; the author/creator can never be satisfied with this. It is the unresolved struggle between art and audience.
It reminds me of Golding complaining endlessly about Lord of the Flies as the only work he was known for, even though it brought him the fame and money he so wanted, his despair over criticism for his work, the autobiographical themes running so strongly through his work and yet his irritation that anyone should pick up on these; of Salinger: an iconic author locking himself away in New Hampshire apparently driven mad by his own success and the lack of perceived distance available in the world between work and its creator; and Byatt’s eventually heartbreaking story of a son who ultimately becomes a victim of art – used and destroyed by it.
There is a fascinating exchange between Auden and Britten in the play within, adding a further dimension to this idea, where Britten expresses his concern over his planned operatic work of Death in Venice, which, would you believe, is causing a few raised eyebrows amongst the devoted ladies of Snape Maltings back in Suffolk. The conversation gives rise to an even more complex multi-layering – two actors playing two actors playing Auden and Britten discuss a work that is considered an autobiographic account portrayed as fiction in a scene entirely imagined by Bennett.
The divide between self and art is certainly not a simple one – just as everything in The Habit of Art can swerve from the sublime to the ridiculous in an instant. As they argue, Britten is insistent that Mann is the victim of the Apollo-like boy and plans a scene in the opera where Apollo appears … An idea Auden swiftly mocks, saying simply and directly to Britten the man, ‘You just like young boys’ [sic]. But Britten cannot deal with this.
Perhaps it is a comment about the dangers of hiding behind art, however unsubtly, as a way of not coming to terms with oneself by raising desire to a higher echelon of meaning, or perhaps it is suggested as a good way of communicating that desire. I’m not sure.
But the message of both plays is clear: Auden, garrulous, honest, and didactic rambles on to the tightly taciturn Britten – fine, fine, forget what I said, use Apollo, do whatever you have to, but you must go on, you must do whatever it takes to make the opera happen…. You must go on! He shouts it to him down the stairs.
As it happens the imaginary Auden needn’t have worried – the opera opened in Suffolk in June 1973, the same year that Caliban’s Day is set. The habit of art, however painful, is a hard one to break.