The Habit of Art

A few nights ago I went to see Alan Bennett’s new play The Habit of Art at the National Theatre. I am an admirer of Bennett’s writing; his dry, subtle humour and piercing observations of human character are masterly. But this, is in an entirely different league.

The play makes use of a well-established theatrical device, a play within a play. The company are rehearsing a play which portrays W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten towards the end of their lives when Auden is seemingly redundant and living in a cottage belonging to Christ Church college, Oxford, and Britten is struggling to write his haunting opera Death in Venice (made more haunting by Deborah Warner’s wonderful production at ENO).
Richard Griffiths who plays Fitz/W.H. Auden is fantastic, especially considering that he came to the part late as Michael Gambon had to withdraw due to ill health. Both the characters of Fitz and Auden, who Fitz plays, are bolshy, opinionated and arrogant men who were highly successful within their creative careers; an actor and poet respectively. They are both in need of constant praise and, most of all, in need of success. Britten on the other hand (who is played by ex-rent boy Henry) is tentative, insecure and highly competitive but is similarly desperate for success.
The tie that binds the parallel plays is the thematic tie of art and the execution of art. Who is the artist? How does the artist create? And, more importantly, who is it who is not acknowledged in the creation of art?
The play that the company are rehearsing is called ‘Caliban’s Day‘. And it is to The Tempest that Bennett, the playwright of Caliban’s Day ‘Neil’ and indeed Auden refer to. Auden wrote a long poem called The Sea and the Mirror between 1942-44, which is a series of dramatic monologues spoken by the characters in The Tempest once the play has finished. Auden converted to Anglicanism which informed the writing of The Sea and the Mirror, as he presented his ideas as orientated by Christian philosophy. He makes it clear that Ariel (creative spirit) and Caliban (bestial worldliness) cannot exist without each other. Auden wanted to correct the blaming of the bestial for the imperfections of the spirit. In the Christian theology of The Sea and the Mirror, man is equally imperfect in mind and body; he is to be existentially anxious until death when he will know wholeness.

In Alan Bennett’s play, Auden and Britten both represent this combining of the bestial with the spiritual through a discussion over the creation of Death in Venice which Britten is struggling with due to the insinuation of paedophilia and the subsequent repercussions for the reception of the opera as he is driven by a desire to be loved. Auden acknowledges the need for honesty and the recognition of the importance of bestial urges whilst Britten, driven by the spiritual is repressed and projects disaster onto the acknowledgement of truth.

As this discussion takes place Auden’s rent boy Stuart, enters and is asked by Auden what he knows, Stuart answers that he “knows about dicks”. Stuart is uneducated, he ‘services’ the intellectual elite of Oxford for a living and is constantly looking in from the outside. He epitomises bestiality. However, it is to Stuart that both Auden and, eventually, Britten turn to for reassurance. Their creative spirits need the juxtaposition of Stuart and his body. Ultimately though, Stuart’s lack of knowledge about music and poetry comforts them as they feed off his ignorance to serve their creativity and reassure their intellectually founded arrogance.
Comparably, the company rehearsing ‘Caliban’s Day’ feed off the comfort that Kay (wonderfully played by Frances De La Tour) the Stage Manager provides. So, thematically across both plays – there is always someone forgotten who was instrumental in the production of art. Caliban is not lauded as he should be but he is part of the artistic process nevertheless as Kay and Stuart know.
Bennett references Auden’s poetry, Britten’s music and Shakespeare to create a play that exudes both intertextuality and humour. The play is funny – there are enough bawdy jokes to keep me going for a lifetime but more importantly the play is so multi-faceted that you leave the theatre hungry for more. Hungry to research the references and think about what was being said and this is what I loved. Added to that the fact that they played an extract from Britten’s Peter Grimes that I adore (Sea Interlude), this play was one of the events of my year. The ending which was given to Stage Manager Kay was reminiscent of one of my favourite extracts from The Tempest in which Prospero acknowledges that the spirits who create, melt into air as they are real beings after all:

These our actors, /As I foretold you, were all spirits, and /Are melted into air, into thin air; /And like the baseless fabric of this vision, /The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, /The solemn temples, the great globe itself, /Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; /And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, /Leave not a rack behind. /We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep.

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6 thoughts on “The Habit of Art

  1. A play that packs a punch. You are so very lucky to have so many excellent choices when it comes to theatre. I've only read two of Bennett's books and seen one movie but I really like his work.

  2. Being a huge lover of Bennett's work and an addict of Auden I must admit not having seen this play yet, I intend to in the not too distant future. I did, however, attend a very enlightening morning recently at the NT with Andrew Motion and Auden's neice Anita Money reflecting on Auden at Oxford. I will blog about it at some point during this year.

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