Last week we were very excited to be in the audience for The Habit of Art, the new play by Alan Bennett, during its short run at Birmingham Rep. There was a full house on Saturday night, and the audience seemed to be buzzing with anticipation.
The play has had mostly excellent reviews since it opened at the National Theatre in November 2009 – and it is a play which is deeply rooted in the National Theatre, being constructed as a rehearsal of a play at the NT. This play-within-a-play tells of a fictional meeting between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden, in Oxford, when Auden was “retired” in a house at the back of Christchurch, and Britten was in the throes of writing Death in Venice. This is a meeting of writer and composer, but it is much, much more than that. It explores the nature of biography, since a character of the play-within-a-play is Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of both Britten and Auden. The play offers the audience a chance to consider the nature of biography: do we actually want to know what someone was really like? Does a writer’s personality affect how we read his poems, for example?
Auden and Britten are both difficult subjects for biography: not always likeable, there are aspects of their lives (Auden’s somewhat seedy sex life, for example, and Britten’s unsavoury relationships with young pupils) which admirers of their work might prefer not to know. They are, this play suggests, great figures nonetheless; Bennett suggests in the writing of this play, as the figure of Carpenter also does, that they are figures who have remade the landscape of British culture, and cannot be ignored, even if their personal lives do not necessarily repay close scrutiny.
The play raises a number of other questions I could discuss: the transience of youth and enduring-ness of old age; the writing of poetry and music; the nature of theatre. I will restrain myself; do see this play while it is touring; Alan Bennett never disappoints, and this production, thought-provoking and engrossing, is a satisfying experience.