Alan Bennett is something of a revered institution in England (dating back to Beyond the Fringe), but is less well-known and far less often-performed in the US. I have seen movie versions of some of his plays: “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys” received some attention and his screenplay for Stephen Frears’s “Prick Up Your Ears” was very good, along with his television work, most notably “An Englishman Abroad,” “A Question of Attribution,” and “Talking Heads.”
I was lucky enough to score tickets to “A Lady in the Van” with Maggie Smith in the title role in London. It was a big hit that does not seem to have been imported to the US. Bennett’s 2009 play “The Habit of Art” jumped all the way from London to San Francisco, where it is receiving an excellently acted production by Theatre Rhinoceros, which I saw last night.
The play is about the difficulties of putting on a play about a visit to retirement digs at Oxford of poet W[ystan] H. Auden (1907-73) from his long-estranged former colleague, Benjamin Britten (1913-76). Auden is becalmed with no projects, but with the habit of writing continuing. He thinks that Britten is coming to ask him to write the libretto for an opera version of “Death in Venice.” (which Myfanwy Piper , who had already written the libretto for Britten’s adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” had already written, and which he brings along in a ring binder). Multiple times, Auden mentions that its author was his father-in-law (Auden having married Erika Mann to get her British citizenship as the Nazis were about to stri her of German citizenship). He also mentions several times that the inspiration for the boy/angel of death was an eleven-year-old, not the fourteen-year-old of the novella. Britten is proposing to cast a16-year-old (though I wonder how many 16-year-olds in 1972 Britain had not had a change of voice…)
The play’s Britten worries (1) that critics are going to see this as another opera about the corruption of innocence (though he maintains that the innocent one is the man, not the boyd) and (2) that the choice of subject matter reveals too much about the composer’s own penchant for pre-adolescent boys (though it seems he never had sexual relations with any of the boy-singers with whom he worked). Auden recommends not caring with critics and audiences think and doing what he wants to do, all the more so since Britten announced to Auden that he is dying.
Auden dominates the conversation, as he always had, though the four-year age difference was more important early on. But words are Auden’s medium, notes Britten’s (BTW, there is a discussion between Auden’s words, some of which he has scorned, and Britten’s notes, which he has continued to love, though I think that at least de facto he suppressed some early work, too).
There is also the future biographer of both gay cultural eminences, Humphrey Carpenter, whose attempted interview is first misinterpreted as and then interrupted by an appointment with a “rent boy” (“callboy” in American English: a male prostitute working through an agency).
I think that a play with those four in 1972, plus the butler of the college would be better as well as shorter than the play about putting on that play that has the actor playing Carpenter going on about his character, and the stage managers filling in for actors who will speak as the chair, the mirror, and the bed in the bed-sitter. The playwright vexed by the authors has some good lines and long-suffering facial expressions, but I’d jettison this whole setup, and reduce the running time from 140 minutes (plus intermission).
This could also reduce the number of endings from three to two (or even one). I thought the first one was best and the third one worst, though the second one does add something, the perspective from years on of the rent-boy (who does not want to be defined as being that; it is something he does and plans to stop and have grandchildren to tell about his youth). It helps that the rent-boy is played by Justin Lucas, who has a compact, built body to show off (he was also in the Rhino production of Steven Sondheim’s “Roadshow” earlier this year).
Bennett and actor Donald Currie make the aged Auden more interesting and sympathetic than I’d have anticipated. Director-actor Fisher as Britten and the butler is also very good, though I was already interested in Britten’s orientation and suppression of acting on it. (Actor David Hemming was one of the favored boys and vouched for Britten not in any way molesting him.)