The Habit of Art's ideas pay off
By Alan Bennett. Directed by William B. Davis. A United Players production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Thursday, September 12. Continues until September 29
To quote the Buffalo Springfield tune, “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.” At least that’s true of Act 1 of playwright Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art: Bennett stuffs so many ideas—and so many levels of reality—into the act that it’s hard to get a bead on what the play’s about and why we should care. The second half of the evening, however, is much simpler, stronger, and more heartfelt.
In The Habit of Art, Bennett imagines a 1972 meeting between the out and irascible gay poet W. H. Auden, and the more closeted—and, at the time, more celebrated—composer Benjamin Britten. It’s 25 years since they’ve spoken. Just months before his death, Auden is peeing into his hand basin in his squalid rooms at Oxford and Britten is fretting about whether his new opera, Death in Venice, will bring too much attention to his sexual interest in underage boys.
As if that weren’t enough, Bennett frames all of this as a play within a play, Caliban’s Day, which is being rehearsed at the National Theatre of Great Britain. So the actors who are performing Auden and Britten break out of character to bicker with the playwright.
To complicate things further, each of these realities encompasses a range of styles. The heart of Caliban’s Day is naturalistic, but that script also includes a chorus figure—Humphrey Carpenter, who, in real life, wrote biographies of both Auden and Britten—and a bunch of goofy scenes in which actors personify Auden’s furniture, his words, and facial wrinkles. The rehearsal reality, also fundamentally naturalistic, sometimes bursts into broad satire: at one point, the actor playing Carpenter decides it would be a good idea to appear in drag while playing the tuba. Rather than enriching the mix, the broader elements dilute it: with so many complicated ideas on hand, why waste time with simplistic tropes?
In Act 1, ideas about biography, homosexuality, and theatrical culture clatter around like balls in a pachinko game. It isn’t until Bennett allows us to settle in to an extended conversation between Auden and Britten in Act 2 that The Habit of Art finds its heart. Britten’s terror that Death in Venice will expose him as a pedophile—or at least as a man with an unrealized lust for boys—speaks movingly to the painful negotiation between the artist and art: the necessity of being honest, and the challenge of integrating difficult and denied parts of our souls. And Auden is right in there, desperate to take over the opera’s libretto. Earlier, he has said, “I have to write, or who am I?” The play is not so much about the habit of art as it is about the often painful compulsion to produce it.
Despite stylistic inconsistencies in director William B. Davis’s approach, there are a couple of terrific characterizations here: Joan Bryans is seamlessly credible as Kay, the firm but maternal stage manager, and Murray Price makes a heartbreaking Britten. Admirable stillness and simplicity informs both of these pieces of work. John Prowse is somewhat showier as Auden, but Auden was a showier man, and Prowse and Price make pleasing music together.
Brian G. Ball’s set for Caliban’s Day—Auden’s derelict rooms—is a lovely mess.
The Habit of Art’s Act 1 defeated my attempts to engage in it, but Act 2 stimulated my head and touched my heart.