The Habit of Art

24 April 2010

Ever since I was first a budding thespian, I’ve been drawn to the work of Alan Bennett. I spent a very happy couple of days at a summer school at NIDA a few years ago learning part of one of the Talking Heads monologues – A Chip In the Sugar – and our drama coach and everyone in the class agreed that I was perfect to play a repressed middle aged Yorkshireman who lives with his mother and secrets dirty magazines under the mattress.

In that brief, horrifying moment, I saw a vision of my past – or possibly my future – but therein lies the brilliance and enduring appeal of Bennett’s work. He celebrates (or possibly just commiserates with) the mute inglorious nobodies of history, ordinary, emotionally reticent people living unremarkable lives and filled with pain and longing that’s largely overlooked by the unremarkable circumstances of their lives. His gallery of bag ladies, bored housewives and middle-aged trainspotters come close to tragedy, but they’re saved from outright despair by grim Northern humour and a shoulder-shrugging acceptance that life does, or must, go on.

I’ve always admired the way that Bennett has trumpeted, in his own quietly revolutionary way, the pangs of “aberrant” sexuality. The vicar’s wife who has an affair with a Bengali shop owner in Bed Among The Lentils probably comes the closest to actually having a fulfilling sex life. Most of his other characters just sigh quietly, cross their legs and channel their frustrated sexual energy into needlepoint, counting trains at the local station or the occasional leer at the milkman. Bennett himself came out – rather bravely – in the publication of his second volume of memoirs, Unfinished Stories, in which he wrote about life with his long term partner.

In recent years, Bennett seems to have taken a quantum leap forward in confidence and sexual openness with The History Boys, his massive stage hit that spawned a Broadway transfer and a faithful (though pretty unremarkable) film version. When I saw the play, I was amazed at how naturally and centrally gay sexuality sat at the heart of the play’s themes, and how (relatively) comfortable the characters were with the existence of men being attracted to each other. I also enjoyed the discomfort of a middle class theatre going audience having to deal with an unapologetic and graphic depiction of horny gay schoolboys and hornier gay schoolteachers, and absorb this as part of middle class entertainment. I liked the sense of The History Boys as both wish fulfilment (imagining a classroom where the class stud was happy to be admired and worshipped by the gay boys, and use his sexual power to mindfuck his teachers) and also as a grimmer, more traditionally Bennett-esque portrait of the shittiness of life as a closeted gay teenager.

The play (and film) also had the glorious pleasure of Frances de la Tour as the resident dry-as-toast female teacher, croakily dispensing caustic observations about the invisibility of women from history. In the context of the rest of the play, her part read as a bit of a mea culpa from Bennett, a last minute (and only partially successful) attempt to compensate for the absence of women in his own play, where men and boys exist in a homosocial universe that’s almost completely devoid of women.  It seemed to me at the time that this focus on men to the exclusion of women wasn’t something Bennett needed to be ashamed of or apologise for. In retrospect, I think he got the balance just about right – maybe he was commenting on the way in which homosocial worlds become imbalanced without women, underscoring the point by leaving women out; or maybe he was showing how the worlds of same-sex attraction exists on a different sphere from heterosexuality (especially in English boys’ schools, which seem to produce a high output of bumboys). In any case, noone’s complaining about a play with a role written for Frances de la Tour.

So it was with huge, panting expectation that I went to see The Habit Of Art, Bennett’s latest major dramatic work, again being produced at the National and again being steered by Nicholas Hytner, director of The History Boys. The play was based on an imagined meeting between two of Britain’s most famous mid-century homos: the composer Benjamin Britten and the poet W H Auden. They’d known each other as younger men, and collaborated on a libretto for one of Britten’s earlier operas. Bennett imagines them meeting again years later, in middle age, as Auden had returned to teach at Oxford after years living in America, and as Britten was tentatively embarking on his last opera, Death In Venice, itself based on Thomas Mann’s novella about a man falling in love with a teenaged boy. Bennett sets the meeting as a play-within-a-play, with a bunch of camp middle-aged actors rehearsing the Auden-meets-Britten story – it’s a neat way for Bennett to be able to cram in more biographical detail about Auden and Britten without needing to put it into the mouths of the characters themselves (where it invariably sounds wooden and expositional), and it gives him a chance to write lots of very funny Noises Off-esque comedy about camp old thespians having ego attacks, forgetting their lines, calling each other “love” and “dear” and generally being precious.

At the time the play is set, Auden is in advancing middle age, obese, living in a flat provided for him by the dons of Oxford, where he lives in an advanced state of student filth, peeing in the sink, smelling of wee and hiring rent boys to suck off before evening Mass and dinner. (He’s played, with great glee and commitment, by Richard Griffiths,  the corpulent star of The History Boys). While waiting for the rent boy to arrive, a dweebish BBC reporter turns up, Auden mistakes him for the rent boy, and, well, Bennett manages to make National Theatre audiences laugh hysterically at situation comedy wrung from the potentially distasteful subject of fat old men paying for sex with young men.

Bennett keeps the focus on gay sex throughout, clearly and unapologetically (making for a lot of uncomfortable squirming from the mostly middle aged Home Counties audience at our Saturday afternoon matinee). Auden represents, among other things, the messy reality of gay sex – real, vivid, red-blooded, unapologetic, carnal, and frequently dishevelled, unattractive and an affront to polite society. Britten, when he does turn up (played, deliciously, by the feline Alex Cummings), is the reverse. He’s the acceptable face of urbane homosexuality: polite, discreet, closeted and at great pains to avoid controversy or outrage. As written by Bennett, the two giants of post-war High Art each politely acknowledge in each other a shared past and a similar open-mindedness about their respective long-term relationships, but once done, it’s a conversational assault on each others’ way of life.

Auden urges Britten to be bolder with his Death In Venice libretto, to acknowledge the truth of the “transgressive” gay desire that fuels the story, and to avoid prettying up the story by making the boy older or the ending more optimistic. The debate widens, to Auden challenging Britten to acknowledge the truth of his own feelings about teenaged boys, and to admit that Britten’s “safe” non-sexual voyeurism (sitting chastely on the edge of a bathtub while watching a teenaged chorister take a bath) was just a smoke screen for feelings he’s too bourgeoise and closeted to admit to.

Bennett is, fairly clearly, on the side of Auden and freedom and unrespectability and free love, and is understanding but ultimately judgmental towards Britten’s prissy brand of closetedness. By the end of the play, you’re convinced that the grubby carnality of Auden talking about penises and having rent boys stand on chairs so he can give them blow jobs without having to bend over is a brave and unabashed embracing of life, whereas the chilly good taste of Britten with his ambiguous coterie of young men seems dishonest and a bit pervy.

Watching the play, I was dazzled that Bennett, now in his 80s, was leading the charge for openness about sexuality. It was as if an older, more strident, worldly self was taking the closeted ghosts of his past to task, and encouraging Graham (the saddo from A Chip In the Sugar) and his kind out into the glare of the spotlight. Even the rent boy got his own monologue in which he mused on the contribution of sex workers to the making of art, which was sweet, if somewhat improbable in terms of character development. Then again, theatre can be about the art of the possible rather than the merely probable, and giving a rent boy a monologue is a striking way of acknowledging the “little people” of history who don’t make it into the official biographies of Great Men, and a reminder that in any undertaking to tell a story, someone else’s story is usually left out.

And with that in mind, Frances de la Tour is on hand again, playing a stage manager of unfailing patience, who massages the actors’ frail egos, calls everyone “love”, makes the tea, and is on hand at the end to remind us, yet again, that women haven’t had much of a presence in this all-male world. She even switches off the lights before she leaves the stage – and from an actress, you can’t ask for much better than that.

So, I raise a limp wristed toast to Mr Bennett, for demonstrating that old dogs can have great new tricks, and for demonstrating a frankness and perceptiveness about gay sexuality that leaves writers many decades his junior in the dust. Bravo.

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