A new Alan Bennett play is always an occasion in London. THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE and HISTORY BOYS had long, sellout runs and went on to be films. His new play, THE HABIT OF ART, directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre as usual is the hottest ticket in London right now and will go out into movie theaters around the world as a high definition telecast in April. Last night's audience was filled with leading theater and television actors and directors.
At the heart of this rich, complex, funny play is a 1972 meeting in Oxford between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in Auden's unkempt Oxford flat. Auden, celebrated for his poetry of an earlier era, is now an eminence but no longer the poet he once was. He lives more on pontificating than poetry. On this particular day he awaits a visit from a rent boy, but instead Humphrey Carpenter, who will eventually write biographies of both Auden and Britten, arrives on his doorstep, eager to interview the poet for the local BBC station. After visits from Carpenter and the rent boy, Britten arrives, rekindling a friendship that he severed decades before. Lonely and frightened, Britten wants moral support in the writing of his new opera, DEATH IN VENICE, a work which deals more overtly with Britten's repressed pedophilia than any of his other works. Auden wants to rewrite the libretto to make it more direct, closer to Britten's own predilections: Britten basically wants someone to tell him he's on the right track.
Somewhere in the revising of his work, Bennett decided that the play needed a means of questioning its own assumptions. Now this meeting between Auden and Britten is presented as the rehearsal of the play. The actors portray actors playing Britten, Auden, Carpenter, the rent boy and others. We see the prcoess of them questioning their characters as they go through their own artistic process. Some of the play we see them rehearse is powerful, some downright pretentious and silly. So we watch a work of art, the play, recreate an artistic process, the rehearsal, which presents the meeting of two great artists, poet and composer, who discuss their own artistic process. Bennett, with Tom Stoppard the most gifted of his generation of living writers, makes all this work.
At the heart of the play is the intersection of art, sex and mortality. A lot of the discussion of Auden and Britten is about their sexual predilections. We see the encounter of Auden with a rent boy and, provoking some nervous coughing from audience members, a candid discussion of Britten's love for boys. Along with his partner, Peter Pears, boys are Britten's source of inspiration. For Auden, the rent boy is a business transaction without even sexual satisfaction. If love for boys is at the heart of Britten's work, desire for young men is at the heart of Bennett's recent plays. The relationship between teacher and male student in HISTORY BOYS is partly sexual. The most powerful scene in the play is young Dakin's attempt to seduce his teacher. Here the rent boy becomes a focal character. He is supposed the stand naked at the end of the play, a Caliban, the ordinary non-intellectual person. He wants his place in the story recognized: "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." Auden responds: No. You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know any more. You want what Caliban always wants.: you want to be knowing." At the end Henry, the character playing Britten, wants to leave with the actor playing the rent boy. Life and sex go on. The place of flesh in art is one of Bennett's concerns here, particularly for old men. The playwright in this fictional rehearsal is a young man, but this is a play only an older man could write, about age, sex and what the dying body does to the imagination. Fitz, the actor playing Auden complains that the play's focus on Auden's physicality -- peeing in the sink, discussing cocks with the rent boy -- diminishes the poet, but it is the humanity of these figures, warts and all, that interests Bennett. The filthy, farting Auden is a contrast to the immaculate, uptight Britten. Auden discusses sex with the rent boy: Britten discusses music with him. Of course, the rent boy knows a lot about sex and nothing about music.
DEATH IN VENICE is a great work in part because it is so close to Britten's own experience of unrequited desire. The music has both a yearning quality and a sense of constraint, as if it constantly wants to break free. It is perfect for the story as Britten imagined it. Britten died shortly after completing it in the arms of his long time partner, Peter Pears, for whom the role of Aschenbach was written.
THE HABIT OF ART is given an impaccable production. The setting is a replica of one of the National's large rehearsal rooms with a playwood mock up of the play's setting in the center. There is no conventional theatrical lighting, only harsh rehearsal light. Richard Griffiths who had such a success with HISTORY BOYS, plays Auden (the part was supposed to be played by Michael Gambon, but illness forced him out of the production early on in the rehearsal period). For me, watching Griffiths onstage poses problems. He's fine in the part, but one has to deal with his grotesquely obese physical appearance. I find him such a physical turnoff that it distracts me from his performance and the play. Ah, the erotics of theater! Alex Jennings is fine as Henry, the slightly effeminate gay actor playing Britten. Frances de la Tour, who can do wry better than any other living actress, plays the all-knowing stage manager who gets the last word, a lovely speech in celebration of theater. Stephen Wight is charming as the overly idealized rent boy -- the play and the production need to give the character a few more rough edges.
At one point I thought about how a British audience can appreciate this rather graphic (in language) play about gay men and wondered how it will fare in Puritanical America. Yet Bennett's approach to homosexuality is not without its vexations. One of the most intelligent (and talented) British actors I know was infuriated by HISTORY BOYS, on one hand a play focusing on repressed and openly gay characters but without the possibility of happiness of fulfillment in a same-sex relationship. This actor was sitting a few rows in front of me at THE HABIT OF ART and I wonder if this pleased him more. After all, W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten were in long term relationships with men who were creative partners as well as domestic partners. Chester Kallman collaborated with Auden on the libretto of Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, now a repertory staple, as well as other works. Pears was Britten's chief interpreter (I had trouble with Britten's operas at first because I didn't like Pears's voice or mannered style -- it was a revelation to hear other tenors in the roles Pears initiated) and his companion for almost forty years. They are buried together. One assumes these relationships brought some love and joy to these men, but there is no hint of it in the play. Instead we are presented with lonely men whose only desire is for youth. This is a distortion of the truth of these men's lives which is unfair to these men, to gay men in general and to the audience.