The Habit Of Art
by Alan Bennett
"Auden Do you always mean what you write?
Britten In the sense that Shostakovich somestimes doesn't? I think so. Don't you?
Auden I do now. But I didn't always. When I was young I used to leave meaning to chance. If it sounded right I let the meaning take care of itself. It's why I find some of my early stuff so embarrassing."
- Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art.
Reading a play is often more difficult than viewing a play. It is certainly different in many ways. Yesterday I had the opportunity to see the The Habit of Art By Alan Bennett as presented via a rebroadcast of National Theatre (of London) Live’s 2010 broadcast. Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play The Habit of Art, with Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings, was offered by the Music Box Theatre cinema as part of the National Theatre's 50th anniversary celebrations.
The story of the play is simple: Benjamin Britten, sailing uncomfortably close to the wind with his new opera, Death in Venice, seeks advice from his former collaborator and friend, W. H. Auden. During this imagined meeting, their first for twenty-five years, they are observed and interrupted by, amongst others, their future biographer and a young man from the local bus station. The actual play as written by Alan Bennett is a bit more complicated. It is staged as a play within a play, thus the audience sees the actors and the stage management perform a run-through of the play, late in its preparation for its formal presentation. This was somewhat more complicated in the reading than when viewing the play. One difference is the experience, when viewing the play, of the action of the play within the play seeming to evolve from the action of the characters who are making it happen. This is difficult to describe, but it was quite wonderfully amazing when experienced.
In addition to the main story of the Auden/Britten meeting the work of the actors is interrupted from time to time by discussions of changes to the script, questions of appropriate location of certain scenes and other issues that one might naturally encounter while preparing to stage a play. This aspect of the play was rather fascinating as the audience was provided a look inside the world of the theater. It reminded me a bit of the play "Noises Off!" by Michael Frayn in this aspect although it was not nearly as anarchic as that wonderful comedy.
The poetry of Auden is present in the character and he explains what he does succinctly and simply in the phrase "I have the habit of art." That being said, he has many other very human habits and the play highlights this very human side of Auden, as it does for Britten. The staging is exceptional and the acting superb with Richard Griffiths as Auden, Alex Jennings as Britten, and Frances de la Tour as the Stage Manager.
Alan Bennett’s play is as much about the theatre as it is about poetry or music. It looks at the unsettling desires of two difficult men, and at the ethics of biography. It reflects on growing old, on creativity and inspiration, and on persisting when all passion’s spent: ultimately, on the habit of art
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