The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett is set in the present (it was written in 2009) during a small theatrical company’s rehearsal of a play about an imagined meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten at Auden’s rooms in Christ Church in 1972.
In the play-within-the play, the two protagonists and erstwhile friends (in life, they stopped speaking to each other on 1942), reflect on their lives, their relationships and their respective arts.
IGW (poetic friend) and I saw The Habit of Art at Oxford Playhouse last Thursday. The highlights of the evening were Matthew Kelly’s monstrous Auden and David Yelland’s fastidious, sociable, quietly spoken Britten.
We see Auden and Britten as stars surrounded by concentric circles of acolytes, admirers, observers and epochs. In 1972, the broadcaster, journalist and biographer Humphrey Carpenter appears initially to interview Auden and remains as an unacknowledged observer to the encounter between the two artists. The head-to-head between the poet and the musician takes us back to their original friendship in the late 30s and early 40s. Meanwhile the actors and production team add their own commentary from the present day.
It’s taken me the best part of a week to make sense of this play. My best guess is that it’s about two views of what makes art.
One is what Auden calls “the habit of art”. In 1972, his place as a great poet is assured, but his work is no longer fashionable and he has deteriorated into a barely housetrained misanthrope. His only audience is a rent boy who doesn’t know who he is, Carpenter who knows who he was and a couple of college servants who clear up after him and don’t really care. But, he argues, that doesn’t make any difference to his art – he writes out of habit and his poetry still has a value, even if nobody reads it.
For Britten the acolytes are essential. Peter Peers, boys with unbroken voices, their nervous parents, the Aldeburghians who turn a blind eye to his still discomforting proclivities and, of course, his audiences.
In the closing moments of the play, Bennett appears to side with Britten – “there is”, declares the Assistant Stage Manager, “no play without an audience”. Or is it that some types of art require audiences and others don’t?
This is a clever play rather than a good one. I loved the structure and the scenes between Auden and Britten were Bennett at his best, but we had to wade through an awful lot of tedious and, frankly, self-indulgent musings about the lives of Oxford rent-boys and a fair amount of waffle from the on-stage production team to get there. The central scene between Auden and Britten was worth waiting for, but only just.
The art of writing is the art of cutting – if you are to hold your audience, then every minute has to count and on this occasion, Bennett failed to cut both the play and the mustard.