If ever I consider my cultural sins (and there are some long winter nights), one which looms large is my unfamiliarity with Alan Bennett.
If ever I consider my cultural sins (and there are some long winter nights), one which looms large is my unfamiliarity with Alan Bennett. I tried to watch Talking Heads when I was too young (probably still am), and I missed the many revivals of his work last year. I have, of course, seen The History Boys, as has everyone, but on watching the Habit of Art at the National on Tuesday, it seemed that the plays went so well together that just these two could make a convincing primer.
The earlier play is about the conflict between a tick-boxed education for the sake of a career and a free-wheeling education for the sake of itself; pedagogy and pederasty contrast and comingle. The Habit of Art is – as a play within a play – about a meeting between W.H. Auden, the poet returned from America and now festering in a Christ Church cottage, and Benjamin Britten, composer and boy-fancier. Again, pedagogy and pederasty mix as the purpose of art – whose love is an education – comes to the fore.
Both plays – in their original casts – have Richard Griffiths as the portly (okay, ship-like) advocate of the give-a-damn figure and Frances de la Tour as the astringent, emotionally-involved bystander, and that aids comparison, even if the Auden role was originally for Gambon.
Whereas the History Boys felt rather too schematic at points – a good education is a combination of pragmatism and love – the joy of the Habit of Art is that is far more ambivalent, or at least open-minded. Auden, like Hector of the History Boys, cannot resist young men (there is some very firm flesh on display), except he does not justify it with recourse to learning and it is not an abuse of position: it is desire, the strong eternal motivator. Britten, on the other hand, sublimates his desire for boys (not men, boys) by letting them sing as he plays. It is far more disturbing.
For Bennett's Auden, the art is in what one truly feels, which is why he disdains his earlier poems, formally virtuosic but sentimentally dubious. (“We must love one another or die,” he scoffs.) Britten wants to be monumental, Auden despairs of his monumentality.
Within this dialogue and without, we see Bennett examining the purpose of art and its habit – whether it is a lifetime's irresistible battling against it or the fear of not doing it – but the play is also a deeply wounding act of self-flagellation on Bennett's part.
The structure is that the Auden-Britten dialogue is a play being rehearsed, and the author is watching. This author, a brash figure who doesn't see the point of the actors, is clearly not Bennett entirely but you cannot help but feel that he is raking over his own tendencies (self-perceived or real) to be precious about his words, to interfere with the actors, to inject pompous allusions into a naturalistic script.
(This also puts Bennett in an odd position, which he largely makes the best of: how to show that the internal playwright is a crass dramaturge without making the whole play go bad. Aside from the ridiculous ghostly commentators within the Auden play, the rest of the Auden play's dialogue is classic Bennett.)
There is possibly even a criticism of the History Boys, whose irritating tele-don provides commentary on Hector; here the author has written for the Auden play Humphrey Carpenter, a character who starts as Auden's interviewer but then slips outside (in his later role as biographer of both men) to comment on the action, teasing and taunting the characters. He has a great comic turn at the start of the second act, but it is almost a riposte to his framing of the earlier play, or – of course – our desire to have everything explained by the script.
Richard Griffiths is triangular as Auden (I mean, he looks like he was made in the Toblerone factory), and Alex Jennings makes Britten almost viler than you can imagine, clothing his frailty and boundless concern for reputation with a creeping desire for Auden's approval and a scorn for his former librettist's words.
Seeing the History Boys and the Habit of Art side by side (as it were) shows not just Bennett's preoccupation, or skill as a dramatist for that matter, but his internal dialogue and how it fights itself and develops. Bennett may be reaching the end of his career, but he shows no signs of standing still.