Monday 25 April 2016

The Habit of Art

I recently came across this short clip on YouTube featuring the late and much-missed Richard Griffiths playing the role of an actor (Fitz) playing the role of W. H. Auden in Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art. This prompted me to look up a  review I wrote back then for the W. H. Auden Society Newsletter, and I thought it worth re-cycling here in a shorter form as I expect most blog readers will not have seen the play which (as it turned out) was Griffiths' last stage performance before he died in March 2013.

It appears with the kind permission of Edward Mendelson, executor of the Auden estate and the Newsletter's editor.

The Habit of Art

Peter O’Toole once described the actor’s craft as “farting around in disguises” and there’s no shortage of flatulence and dissembling in Alan Bennett’s latest play, based upon an imagined encounter between Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden in Oxford in 1972. The Habit of Art opened to general acclaim at the Lyttelton Theatre on 5 November 2009 and played to packed houses throughout its run.

The play is set during one afternoon in a brightly-lit rehearsal room, a replica of the actual rehearsal spaces in the National which are normally off-limits to the theatre-goer. As the Lyttelton audience files in, so the actors drift on stage and what we get to see is in fact a read- through of another play, Caliban’s Day, which centres on an imaginary 1971 meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten, who is at an advanced stage in the composition of Death in Venice. While just six years separates the two men, Auden is already cracking up and his cheerfully repugnant personal habits are gleefully portrayed by Fitz (Richard Griffiths), a cantankerous prompt-dependent actor still learning the role and eager to get away early to do some lucrative voiceover work for Tesco. The actors clash with one another, with the Stage Manager (a wonderfully droll performance by Frances de la Tour), with the script, the props, and with the hapless author Neil, played with long-fused exasperation by Elliot Levy.
The arrival of a young Humphrey Carpenter to interview Auden for the BBC leads to a farcical mistaken identity:

Carpenter: I am not a rent boy. I was at Keble. 
Auden: Really? Well, that can’t be helped.

This gets a big laugh. The real-life Carpenter would of course go on to write important biographies of both Auden and Britten, but in the play cannot help but be a rather clunky device. Although he re- mains on stage throughout as a kind of recording angel, Carpenter is a wavering presence, serving principally to mediate chunks of bio- graphical data about the protagonists, but having little dramatic defi- nition. As we shall see rent boy and biographer are later mapped against one another.
Alex Jennings is impressive and convincing as a brittle, an- guished Britten, although one doubts whether the composer was real- ly as diffident and uncertain of his own genius as Bennett suggests, and Adrian Scarborough, a fine comic actor, does what he can with the underwritten part of Carpenter, who sets the tone in his opening lines:

I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men, their fears and their failings. I’ve had enough of their vision, how they altered the landscape.

This rather begs the question: why? Why do we want to learn about the shortcomings? Bennett’s rather unilluminating view is that “[b]oth Britten and Auden’s works were in better taste than their lives.”3 So we get all the dust and some of the Eros. Auden pisses in the kitchen sink, breaks wind noisily, summons local rent boys for punctual blowjobs, lives in squalor and for much of the play appears to be little more than a lavish repertoire of eccentricities, a bundle of autistic flaws rather than an assemblage of living qualities. Britten agonises over his attraction to boys, his unfulfilled desires, and there is some tense dialogue skirting the tricky issue of the protagonists’ ephebophilia, and the role of compliant mothers offering their adoles- cent sons as disposable muses. Auden in the play is cheerfully un- worried about the legality and probity of such desire, while Britten is all but incapacitated with guilt and shame.

The dissident Fitz tackles the Author about the warts and all ap- proach, pre-empting audience criticism:

Fitz: I just feel it diminishes him.
Author: “The facts of life are the truth of a life.”
Fitz: It’s like the peeing in the basin. We keep focussing on his frailties, putting a frame around them. It’s—as he says himself—impudent. It’s impertinent.

Richard Griffiths gamely stood in at the last moment when Michael Gambon, originally cast as Fitz/Auden was indisposed, and this production makes a virtue of that necessity. That Griffiths looks nothing at all like Auden, despite occasionally donning an eerie latex mask, is the stuff of much rather forced comedy. What Griffiths brings to the role of Fitz is a poignant sense of his own failing powers: his memory is starting to fade and an irascible temper barely hides a real sense of dread at some impending loss.

Bennett recycles some of the surrealist techniques originally deployed in The Dog Beneath the Skin, so we are treated to articulate poeticising furniture in a so-so pastiche of Auden’s 1930s theatre verse, and a direct address to the audience by two of the poet’s deep facial crevasses resulting from Touraine-Solente-Golé Syndrome (a nod to Right Foot/Left Foot in Dogskin). If the play fails to dazzle, this is partly because the structural conceit—a rehearsal of a work in progress— inevitably comes across as, well, unfinished. The distancing effect of the play-within-a-play is however largely forgotten in the second half as the central characters engage more closely, the Pirandellian scaffolding melts away and Auden and Britten talk them- selves to the brink of collaboration on the Death in Venice libretto. It is a thrilling and beautifully paced sequence as Auden warms to the challenge, unaware of Britten’s increasing dismay at the prospect. This all has the ring of truth.

A further problem of course is that Auden at this stage of his life had become a garrulous, clock-watching bore. The charismatic young man of the 1930s is touchingly recalled by Britten: “[Y]ou didn’t ever want to be with anyone else. And talking always. People went to bed with him to stop him talking . . . though it didn’t.”

Other flashes of Auden’s brilliance do occur—the odd aphoristic line, the occasional quote from the poems and in Fitz’s moving deliv- ery of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”—but what we have here is Auden diminished and at bay. Bennett’s take on genius is essentially philistine and crowd pleasing, and might be summarised as “he may very well be a clever poet but just look at the state of his underwear, if there is any.”

As to the Bennett/Carpenter line, perhaps in our dire celebrity culture we do want to see our public figures demeaned and degraded and exposed as fallible and all-too-human. By way of balance Bennett makes a case for the Ortonesque rent-boy, Stuart (Stephen Wight) as an excluded, marginal yet essential figure. But Stuart’s address to the audience, reminding informed spectators of Auden’s Caliban in The Sea and the Mirror, entirely fails to convince:

When do we figure and get to say our say? The great men’s lives are neatly parcelled for posterity, but what about us? When do we take our bow? Not in biography. Not even in diaries.

We are all rent boys then, more or less. Those of us who are not great men are necessarily excluded from posterity. This hardly seems the basis for complaint, and it is surely the achievements of writers and musicians that act as a consolation to our individual failure to enjoy even the Warholian fame-ration of fifteen minutes.

The Caliban echoes are rather lost in any case as the rent boy’s brief monologue is barely coherent, let alone eloquent. Bennett’s sympathies nevertheless seem to lie with Stuart, who confidently dismisses Henry James as “a tosser” yet doesn’t seem to know who Caliban is. He describes himself as “fodder for art.” Aren’t we all?

The playwright himself doesn’t seem to hold Auden’s work in especially high regard:, as he says in the introduction to the published play script:

I don’t think I’d read much of his poetry or would have un- derstood it if I had, but when Auden gave his inaugural lec- ture as Professor of Poetry [...] I dutifully went along, knowing, though not quite why, that he was some sort of celebrity

But Auden was never a celebrity, and certainly not in the degraded modern sense of the term. He was a very great writer who grew into premature curmudgeonly old age, developed some unat- tractive habits and died alone in a hotel room. For those of us who admire Auden— and to paraphrase the tosser, James—there are qualities only, and not flaws, and this perspective extends beyond the work to the life, no matter how ramshackle it seems by conventional bourgeois standards.

The Habit of Art may circle the globe to repeat the international success of Bennett’s previous play, The History Boys, although I feel it’s unlikely that a large popular audience exists for the spectacle of two Highbrows camply bickering, however brilliantly staged and however well portrayed by talented actors, farting about in disguises.

Quotations © Alan Bennet / Faber and Faber

This review first appeared in the W. H. Auden Society Newsletter issue  34, November 2011
Visit the W. H. Auden Society webpage  here.

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