Dan Sandman

24: The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 14/06/2013 at 12:00 pm

I should go to the theatre more often. Seeing a play live is like seeing a football game live: the action is close and intense. Regrettably, although I live in London, I rarely get a chance to see live theatre or live football. This is due, in part, to a lack friendly invitations, but mostly to a shortage of enthusiasm; the later coming from regularly discovering over-priced tickets for the best events. It seems that getting a cheap seat requires planning and organisation – the cinema is easier.

That being said, whenever I do get the chance, I love t see a good play being performed. I remember, when I was studying Drama and Theatre Studies at school, going out to The Globe and The National Theatre. And later, when I could find someone to go out with, revisiting these splendid venues; leaving with my mind having been transported to an imagined world and full of wonder.

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett, is a play about putting on a play. Fitz, Henry, Donald, and Tim are rehearsing, at The National Theatre, for a production, written about a fictional meeting between the poet W. H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten. Before, during and after this rendezvous themed around ‘the habit of art’ – a metaphor for an artist’s creative persistence – the two artists are observed by their future biographer Humphrey Carpenter and interrupted by a hired rent boy named Stuart. In turn, the action of the play within a play is interrupted by the various comments and complaints of Fitz and Henry; often directed at Author (Neil), negotiated by stage manager Kay, and compounded by the irritable actor Donald.

Fitz (to Author) People will know, author, this is 1972?

Author If they have any intelligence.

Fitz Because you couldn’t be arrested for having a partner in 1972.

Author Auden is being ironic. He means it and he doesn’t mean it.

Fitz Yes. I know what irony means.

Henry (on the upper stage) Actually, you could be arrested for having a partner in 1954, which is why the police interviewed Britten.

Fitz Yes. All right.

Henry And 1972 wasn’t such a paradise either. ‘How old were you? How old was he?’ They don’t let up that easily.

Kay On we go.

Donald Thank you!

Henry Because they’re still human beings?

Through humour, drama and extensive research; Bennett has written a funny play that explores ethical and philosophical questions. Should Britten’s art be viewed in terms of the questionable relationship he had with the young boys who sang for him? Does Auden’s ‘habit of art’ bear any relationship to his habit of purchasing rent boys before six o’ clock? What are Stuart’s reasons for doing the work he does? What are the challenges faced by a biographer, a play-write, a poet, a musician, an actor, or a male prostitute when approaching a subject? Ultimately, what is the habit of art?

As I was reading, I found myself sympathising with the difficulties of creating or performing any artistic work – whether it be poetry, music or drama. In the world of acting, problems can occur between people as ego relationships become strained. Poets can be in a constant grapple to describe the indescribable variety of life – probably best described by watching a nature show on television. Musicians, with or without an audience, can be found grappling for that perfect sound that will deeply express how we feel about things – from the simple words of a loveable pop song to the hiring of quire-boys for an opera.

It’s fun being on the side-lines, but being on the pitch is fun too.


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