Wednesday 30 December 2009

The Habit of Art

My brother has already reviewed The Habit of Art, and while we don't always see eye to eye (and some critics have raved), I find myself coming to broadly similar conclusions.

My overwhelming reaction is one of disappointment. This isn't a dreadful play, or an unbearable night in the theatre, far from it, but when compared to Alan Bennett's greatest works, such as A Question of Attribution, Forty Years On, The Madness of King George III and, of course, the recent and superb blockbuster The History Boys, it stacks up poorly.

We are presented with a rehearsal room at the National Theatre as the cast run through Caliban's Day, a play musing on a fictitious 1973 meeting between the poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Many of the problems are summed up by the writer himself in this London Review of Books piece:

When I took it up again I found the problems to do with too much information had not gone away, but it occurred to me that the business of conveying the facts could be largely solved if a frame were put round the play by setting it in a rehearsal room. Queries about the text and any objections to it could then be put in the mouths of the actors who (along with the audience) could have their questions answered in the course of the rehearsal.

I can't help but feeling that the play we are seeing is not the play Bennett wanted to write, but rather what he could, supported by elaborate scaffolding. This is the more apparent in the long stretches of the Britten Auden meeting that go uninterrupted. Now, I'm a great fan of metafiction when done well, but for it to work it really needs to more than support for material that cannot stand alone.

Whether or not you find it funny depends very much on your sense of humour. Auden may well have had dirty pants strewn around a squalid apartment and he may have peed in the sink, but I don't find that kind of toilet humour especially funny. If you do, you may well enjoy the piece much more. There are some very good jokes (such as when the stage manager takes an actor to task for wanting to be reading in character, so he doesn't have to learn his lines, and says he'd have done it as Oedipus but for the character's blindness). Sadly, such gems are too few and far between. This is no Noises Off.

Other laughs come, for example, from the terrible anthropomorphic poetry as the chair, bed and shaving mirror discuss their relationship with Auden. This may be amusing, but it's also unsatisfying: the writer clearly isn't dreadful, as the rest of the play within the play shows, and it isn't intended to amuse the audience within the play, so why is it there? The line about "f-ing elves", in relation to Tolkien's work is extremely funny too, but Bennett has stolen this old joke from Hugo Dyson without attribution, especially bad form given the myriad devices within the play that could have provided it.

The actor playing Auden and Britten's biographer Humphrey Carpenter also does an amusing drag act at the start of act two. The trouble is that it feels hopelessly out of place - would an actor, close to the start of the run, really turn up and suggest something so out of character be added; true he has made valid complaints about the character in act one, but the routine bears no relation to them. More likely, Bennett just likes this sort of thing. And there's nothing wrong with that per se, the trouble is that while it works for The History Boys to act out scenes from Brief Encounter, here it just doesn't fit.

Anyone expecting a great deal of insight into either Britten or Auden is likely to be disappointed. There are flashes, especially when Auden discusses what he dislikes about his earlier poetry, or when Britten talks about needing to write something before he knows what to write. But too soon we are back to, for example, Auden forgetting what he's just said (an interesting quirk of his short term memory that seems suddenly and massively more pronounced in the second act).

Given Britten has gone to Auden for help with his latest opera, and there is much discussion of libretti, it becomes increasingly puzzling that no mention is made of their operatic (and largest) collaboration Paul Bunyan. The more so as Britten went on to revise it not long after the play is set.

Compared with other imagined meetings, such as Copenhagen, there is a sense that there is more to be explored than has been explored. Of course, that comparison is somewhat unfair, in that much greater and weightier issues were under consideration there, but it does not invalidate the point.

We do get some good insight into the position of the writer and their marginalisation as the play moves towards performance. Others, though, have done this better: take, for example, Adaptation (written by Charlie Kaufmann) or the wonderful line by Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing where Josh says "I feel like a writer on a movie set." as he stands around with nothing to do (it may be almost thrown away, but it speaks volumes).

The structural problems are especially apparent at the end when, as Bennett serves up three of them, it is clear he wasn't sure how best to do it. The result is unsatisfactory. The rent boy's closing monologue about the forgotten contributors to art feels very familiar (I have a sneaking suspicion that it was echoed in The History Boys somewhere, but don't have my text to hand to check).

I've not really mentioned the actors. I can't, and don't, fault them: all involved handle superbly what is on the page. Frances de la Tour has won particular praise for her portrayal of the stage manager and, true, she's very watchable and highly amusing as she cossets fragile actors and subs in for those lost to the Chekhov double bill. The trouble is that, in function, she resembles no stage manager I've ever come across. True, I've only worked backstage on amateur productions, but one of our party who stage manages professionally was also pretty unimpressed.

There are a lot worse ways to spend an evening at the theatre, but I don't think the National Theatre should kid themselves that they have another money spinner of the order of The History Boys on their hands.

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