Review – The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett, National Theatre

Thursday 12 November 2009

The Habit of ArtPoetry not really being his thing, Phil had never, to his knowledge, read any W H Auden. Until last night, that is, when he read one of the celebrated poet’s works in the programme for Alan Bennett‘s new play the The Habit of Art. He’s none the wiser about the poem, poetry or Auden.

Andrew, on the other hand, is far more literary having delivered a triumphant yet moving rendition of Colonel Fazackerley Butterworth-Toast as a precocious eight year old to a presumably stunned audience at the Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts.

Phil’s closest brush with poetry was at the National Gallery’s Sitwell exhibition when he was nearly mown down by Sir Stephen Spender’s wheelchair shortly after which in the gallery’s shop he got the chance to marvel at Lady Spender’s splendid ignorance of the logistics involved in writing a cheque. He did however, once appear in a school production of Benjamin Britten‘s Noye’s Fludde. Playing a wave. And he can still even sing Kyrie Eleison. And if you ask him very nicely he won’t.

All of which preamble brings the Whingers to their Monday night evening out at a preview of the most eagerly anticipated theatrical event of the year: the new Alan Bennett at the National Theatre.

And if that preamble seems even more cautious and circuitous than normal, that’s perhaps because Mister Bennett’s play is too. For this is a play within a play and occasionally the Whingers did wonder whether the esteemed National Treasure was a little disappointed that the play he really wanted to write (Caliban’s Day, about an imagined reuniting of the estranged Auden and Benjamin Britten late in their lives) didn’t quite have enough meat on it to warrant being, well, a play.

So instead we have a somewhat chaotic rehearsal for Caliban’s Day overseen (in the absence of the director) by the stage manager Kay (Frances de la Tour, excellent) 90 percent of whose energies must seemingly be devoted to humouring the actors. Sulking mostly in the background is the author Neil.

Phil would have preferred that we stay with the main story of Britten (Alex Jennings) visiting Auden to enlist his help with Death in Venice but Andrew was more than happy with Mister Bennett’s mischievous ribbing of the process of making theatre and its egos, frailties and silliness (not least the deeply lined WH Auden prosthetic mask). Phil, on the other hand, interpreted Britten’s struggle to write his opera and its mirroring in the troubles of the creatives trying to put the play together as Mister Bennett trying to tell us how hard it is to create art. He’s already chronicled that THOA wasn’t easy to write. Surely Britain’s National Treasure isn’t expecting his audience to sit through two and a half hours of introspective hand-wringing?

Fortunately, and as you’d expect, much of it is very funny. Despite the necessarily unattractive and evenly lit set (Bob Crowley) you arrive in the auditorium nicely assured you’re in comfy Bennett territory with Ambrosia creamed rice, Fray Bentos and a tin of Vim littering the set. When did you last see a tin of Vim? Probably, like Phil, in your mother’s hand as she scrubbed the kitchen floor with an old pair of underpants. And Jennings is particularly hilarious as the very camp actor and only slightly less camp Britten when he finally arrives at Auden’s shambolic Oxford cottage. Britten isn’t the only visitor that evening as there’s another gentleman caller in the form Stuart (the ever-excellent Stephen Wight).

There are also some rather enjoyable pops at the National itself. The suggestion that the Cottesloe could be converted into a billiard hall was presumably written to play to the Whingers’ gallery, even if they were sitting in the front row of the stalls. It’s the best suggestion they’d heard in years.

And there was an undeniable frisson when a woman (also in the front row) was unable to silence her mobile phone, and rather than locating it and turning it off waited until it went off again five minutes later. With Griffiths famous for reprimanding a similar transgressor from the stage the Whingers held their breath. But alas he managed to ignore it

There was a lot of head scratching among the Whingers entourage afterwards (Webcowgirl and Helen Smith among others) as to what exactly Bennett was getting at. Phil thought he might be having an oblique pop at modern X Factor style fame after Stuart’s speech about Auden and Britten’s celebrity and what would the rest of us be remembered for. But he won’t be going into print with that theory.

All the elements of The History Boys are in place: author, cast, director (Nicholas Hytner), designer. And whilst it’s nice to see Bennett releasing his theatrical corsets as he ages, few people, at the time, seemed willing to mention how decidedly dodgy that play was.

Whilst the Whingers would rather be holding tickets for a new Bennett than almost any other contemporary playwright, he probably needs to move away from foolish old men lusting after younger ones. The Whingers would hate to be the ones to suggest that Britain’s National Treasure is morphing into a gay Benny Hill. Bennett Hill perhaps? There, we didn’t say that did we?


Phil had been disappointed that ill health required Michael Gambon (initially cast as Auden) to pull out and be replaced by Richard Griffiths although, for various reasons, it seems quite the thing at the moment: Richard Briars and Adrian Scarborough (because he’s in The Habit of Art) had pulled out of Endgame, Kate Ashfield left Mrs Klein to be replaced by Zoe Waites and Matt Lucas was replaced by Con O’Neil in Prick Up Your Ears. There currently seem to be more withdrawals on the London stage than in a Catholic marriage.


52 Responses to “Review – The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett, National Theatre”

  1. John A Says:

    I saw it on Tuesday and thought it was absolute rubbish. No amount of turd polishing could turn this into anything other than the turkey it truly is.
    Not sure what the point of the play was. The audience around me was horribly home counties, did not see a single non upper middle aged white couple anywhere, all determined to laugh uproariously at the long since signposted lame jokes. I note it is also scheduled to tour in 2010. No doubt it will find that kind of audience everywhere and help keep the NT going as the London Olympic suck all funding money away from the arts.
    Would Gambon have made a difference? Probably not.

  2. Richard Says:

    Hmn. I agree with you about The History Boys: it was rather dodgy, and yet nobody (except Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph) seemed to mind. It appeared to be Bennett’s fantasy about being humped by the footer captain – allied to special pleading for letchy old Hector who leaves boys just under 16 alone, but ‘feels’ it his right to start pawing them after their 16th birthday.

    I still had a laugh and enjoyed it for its energy (although Bennett did better with 40 Years On in writing his own pastiche excerpts, rather than in The History Boys co-opting them from old Bette Davis/Celia Johnson movies).

    So this is a longwinded way of saying I shall not be joining the undoubted scrimmage to see his latest piece. I saw Britten’s The Turn of the Screw the other night at ENO, and that told me all I needed to know about Britten. I feel I know enough about Bennett already.

  3. sandown Says:

    It wasn’t just the boy-groping that was dodgy about “The History Boys”, it was also the “history” itself.

    The play is supposedly set in the early 1980’s, but almost all of the cultural references are derived from the late 1940’s, when Bennett himself was at grammar school. He updates the setting in order to bring the latter part of the play into our contemporary era, so that he can attack the modern breed of right-wing television historians. (Presumably Bennett thinks that only left-wing historians like himself should be allowed on television, just as only leftist playwrights are allowed in the subsidised theatre.)

    Also, a journalist who actually attended a Northern grammar school in the early 1980’s commented that no authority figure would have used in public the kind of bad language that is deployed in the play. But doubtless that permitted a liberal audience to snigger at the Establishment, to show how broad-minded they are. The suggestiveness of much of the dialogue in “The Habit of Art” may well afford them a similar opportunity.

  4. Jamie Stevenson, London Says:

    All three comments so far (John A, Richard, Sandown) spot on. What a relief to discover that I was not alone in my grumpiness. The Habit of Art brought home to me why I have crossed swords in the past with my 25-something sons over my partiality for Bennett whom they dismiss as a preserve of their father’s complacent middle class middle aged generation, a safe (i.e. just slightly edgy on the gay front but not too far) option so that Hytner can keep those grey-surfer pounds clicking through the NT cash tills. Only this time the cliches clunked so noisily (play within play, gallows humour between actors & playwrights, lonely old men & boy-lust) that even die-hard Bennett followers may be starting to tire of the formula. Classic Bennett one-liners were not attracting the deep-throated, seismic guffaws of yesteryear. The execution was as slick as ever with Frances De La Tour just brilliant and even getting away with that sickly final exit on a series of self-referential in-jokes about the National. No, the content’s the problem. Or rather the lack of any originality in it. I adore Bennett and his diaries and his talking heads and his rages against inhumanity and his self-mocking humour. But it is all becoming a caricature of a safe, secure, literary cardigan-wearing cultural class turning in on itself.

  5. Primroselil Says:

    Well I found it hugely enjoyable. As well as being very, very funny (eg the split second appearance of Brian from the Chekhov play), I found it quite poignant; Auden’s sad longing to be involved in a major project again. I may even go and see the play again!

  6. Alan Says:

    What do you do if you’re a playwright with doubts about the intellectual meatiness and depth of characterisation of your latest historical drama? Simple, set your play “within a play” and cast an actor as its writer. That way any inadequacies can be foisted onto your fictitious playwright and hey presto, at the same time you can fashionably claim to be deconstructing the whole act of biographical theatre itself. You can also artex over the whole thing with a gloop of knowing theatrical in-jokes, and give rein to the newly freed schoolboy within you with shovelfuls of knob gags.

    This, essentially is what has happened to Alan Bennett. His last outing (excuse the pun) was set in a schoolroom and now he has become a sixth former himself. The historical detail is reduced to a set of A level passnotes and the humour has the stamp of the tedious class joker (c.1975). It is quite clear that Bennett has scant affection for either of his two subjects: W H Auden and Benjamin Britten, and without that love or obsession visited on all great biographers we are left with nursery class cut-outs of two of the twentieth century’s greatest creative forces. Astounding theatre only happens when huge characters walk before us and pull us instantly into their alluring world, be it magical or horrific. The breaking of this spell cannot be compensated by the smart-arsedness of the interruptions or faux-profundity of the contrived setting.

    Bennett makes his play-within-a-play about a fictitious meeting between Auden and Britten in the early 70s (they had worked collaboratively earlier in life before a falling out). There could be fascinating things to explore in this, not least the nature of collaboration and the changing tide of friendship. But here mainly we have superficial repetitions of the hackneyed notions that Britten liked boys and that Auden was a dishevelled old cocksucker.

    We do hear some poetry, and an odd Britten tune, but the tinkling of Britten’s melodies from an electric keyboard makes a mockery of his genius, and Richard Griffiths’ (Fitz/Auden) vacant poetical recitation near the end does small justice to the power of Auden’s verse. Francis de la Tour as a stage manager, incongruously acting throughout like an assistant director, is an unconvincing mouthpiece for Bennett’s serial (yet sickeningly cosy) swipe at loviedom and Alex Jennings’ considerable talents are wasted as the stereotyped posh camp queen playing Britten.

    Bennett has long been paraded as “a national treasure” but in “The Habit of Art” he is a trinket compared to the crown jewels that were his subjects.

  7. Juliet Says:

    I had been looking forward to seeing The Habit of Art and was bitterly disappointed by the feeble play dished up at the Lyttleton. A shame as the subject matter had rich potential for a fascinating and thought-provoking evening.

    I too was mystified by the general guffawing – mainly whenever a ‘rude’ word popped up (which was quite often – yawn) – the ‘humour’ was adolescent at best.

    Richard Griffiths mumbled & lisped his way through the part of Auden – I would have preferred to see Michael Gambon in that role. I hated the self referential in-jokes about the NT theatres – horrible, horrible, horrible. I predict good reviews though (esp. from Charles Spencer) – partially motivated by wanting financial success for the NT and partially by a feeling that Alan Bennett is a ‘national treasure’ and shouldn’t be criticised. We’ll see …

  8. webcowgirl Says:

    I have to say after seeing this I was really surprised to think of Bennett as a “national treasure.” Auden and Britten were but this just was not at their scale. I guess he must really sympathize with poor Auden having run out of anything interesting to do. Ah well. Damn shame about Pinter kicking off this year.

  9. Patrick Brightman Says:

    I am not quite sure what play in what theatre starring which actors these critical remarks about Bennett’s Habit of Art can be referring to – because unless they are all singularly vapid and soul-less people with no sense of theatre, no sense of language and no sense of style, they cannot be talking about the ravishing Hytner production currently glittering in the National. Still in previews by the way.

    Easily Bennett’s best work to date – well, of a play with more than one character anyway – and vastly superior to the paedophiles-are-alright History Boys, the production at the National has their best ensemble this year working at perfect levels in a marvellous, enthralling and life-affirming work that should be seen by everyone.

    Every single cast member is absolutely perfect – including the man with no lines who brings the house down at the beginning of Act Two.

    It has so many things going for it, I can’t possibly list them all. The idea of the audience seeing art in action is terrific; the conceit of the rehearsal room triumphantly achieved; the flickering in and out of actor/role that occurs (not easy to do and pulled off with perfection by the cast) breathes life into the very essence of the work that Auden and Britten did – and make no mistake, this is NOT really a play about either man. It is, however, a masterpiece about writing, acting, directing, stage managing, music, and writing biographies. It both mocks and informs and is absolutely hilarious in parts and quite devastatingly sad in others. It demonstrates, through an intriguing and clever scenario, art in action (specifically what makes theatre work) and what makes art a habit – and shines a clear light on a fact that most people choose to ignore: acting is a job. Writing is a job too – and people can be differently driven to do those jobs – and Bennett clearly shows five authors and their different motivations at different times in their lives.

    It is endlessly fascinating and very entertaining. Its a play about trends, about suppression, about growing up, about being honest, about getting on with it, about why the arts are important in life, about desires, about occupations and professions, about cliche, about false expectations, about deceit, about courage, about fear, about ego, about theatre, about acting, about writing, about fighting for what you believe in: and its funny. And, yes, there are plenty of gay jokes – how fucking surprising! Its about gay men and actors!!!! Its also, unsurprisingly, about habits.

    Who else but Bennett could make a line such as “But I’m from the BBC” go down in history as one of the greatest moments of theatrical comedy on the English stage?

    The final coda – the scene between the author and the stage manager – is so deft and skilful, it is breathtaking. The creator and the carer of the art, together after mutual disappointment, being honest with each other but missing each other’s point and yet sharing a world perspective: that one scene is as eloquent about the question of what makes good art as almost anything ever written by anyone. The speech about actors and acting in the National – flawlessly delivered by Frances de la Tour – is exactly, perfectly, and profundly apt. And correct. And the author’s observation that someone is always left out – the same. Who is it here? It seemed to me the answer was crystal clear: but reading some of these commentators’ views, perhaps it was them.

    I don’t care if people don’t like it or think its a turd. That’s fine – people may think what they wish. Its a free country.

    But to those who think its drivel I simply say this: you don’t have the brains to understand and enjoy it. Or you didn’t get what you expected so you are sulking. Or you like to bash at “National Treasures”. Or drop dead – because if you can’t find something to enjoy and celebrate in this play there is no point in your living and going to the theatre.

    Take your pick.

  10. Richard Says:

    Patrick Brightman – calm down, dear.

    “It has so many things going for it, I can’t possibly list them all.”

    And yet you do it so well.

    “… the flickering in and out of actor/role that occurs…”

    I can hardly wait.

    “Who else but Bennett could make a line such as “But I’m from the BBC” go down in history as one of the greatest moments of theatrical comedy on the English stage?”

    The play is still, as you rightly point out, in previews, so it would seem posterity has yet to come calling.

  11. Patrick Brightman Says:

    Really Richard?

    You can’t wait? I thought you had already decided not to see it? You put it so well:
    “So this is a longwinded way of saying I shall not be joining the undoubted scrimmage to see his latest piece.”

    Trust me – I’m calm. I’m perfectly calm. I’m utterly under control.

  12. John A Says:

    I bow to you Patrick obviouslybrighterthaneveryoneelseman clearly I for one am too thick to ever be allowed inside theatre walls.

    Unlike you perhaps, I always go to theatre with a totally open mind. I admire Bennett but do think his genius lies in overhearing and comically amplifying what one could call 2 old lady bus queue conversations. Perhaps he didnt make auden and britten too oldlady like to pull this off in Habit of Art.
    I’ll get my coat.

    • JohnnyFox Says:

      Well said, John A.

      My mother once pinned Alan Bennett to the wall of Marshall and Snelgrove’s in Harrogate and chatted to him for an hour and a half. I swear it’s where he got most of his subsequent material.

      The appeal of his work is also hugely cyclical.

      ‘Enjoy’ was universally panned by the critics (probably including Billington who had had his feet under the Guardian’s table for barely nine years back then in 1980) but heralded as near-genius when (Sir) Alan was allowed to dust off his old tract and have it freshly ploughed by Christopher Luscombe.

  13. Patrick Brightman Says:

    Dear John

    A totally open mind?

    How did it go again? Let me see – oh yes:

    “The audience around me was horribly home counties, did not see a single non upper middle aged white couple anywhere, all determined to laugh uproariously at the long since signposted lame jokes.”

    Like you, I always go to the theatre with a totally open mind. Unlike you perhaps, mine is connected with the brain in my head and I use it.

    Here’s a friendly tip: people won’t always agree with you and sometimes they will be prepared to say so. You may not like that but it doesn’t mean that your contradictor is pretentious, condescending or wrong. Just someone prepared to stand up for their own views. And not afraid of a good laugh.

    Get your umbrella too.

  14. george Says:

    wow..this is generating some heat! How excitable some folk are! For what it’s worth, I thought it a well-crafted piece, full of delights and beautifully acted. But go judge for yourself – if you can get a ticket…

  15. John A Says:

    Friendly tip patrick brighterthanthebrighteststarinheavenman?
    You are the patronising one,
    if we dont like habit of art, in your words we are
    “ll singularly vapid and soul-less people with no sense of theatre, no sense of language and no sense of style”
    and then go on to foamingmouth add
    you don’t have the brains to understand and enjoy it. Or you didn’t get what you expected so you are sulking. Or you like to bash at “National Treasures”. Or drop dead – because if you can’t find something to enjoy and celebrate in this play there is no point in your living and going to the theatre.”
    What kind of friendly tip is ‘no point in us living and going to the theatre???

    As for my ‘complaint’ about the audience, I live in the home counties myself am white and no longer in the first flush of youth.

    I am happy to stick to my opinions, and have no problem with people having the opposite opinion of a play. But I find it risible that anyone should descend into personal attacks about my lack of brains, humour, taste, style or whatever. The plays the thing.
    I am also a member of the NT and see most of the productions there. Some I love, others, to name 2 for me turkeys over the past year or so, were Fram and Afterlife. Both I would argue, got commissioned because of the name of the playwright, not for the quality of the play. Ditto, in my opinion Habit of Art

  16. Jill Stevens Says:

    Wow. I was looking forward to the new Bennett as it was (going tomorrow – Tuesday – night) but all this excitability has made me quite desperate to see what I make of it. I’ll let you know (if anyone’s interested) later this week.

  17. Patrick Brightman Says:

    Dear Jill

    I hope you enjoy it and do let your view be known – whatever you think. Every theatregoer has an experience and view that is worth sharing and debating.

    I don’t care if people don’t like it or think its a turd. That’s fine – people may think what they wish. Its a free country.

    But to those who think its drivel I simply say this: you don’t have the brains to understand and enjoy it. Or you didn’t get what you expected so you are sulking. Or you like to bash at “National Treasures”. Or drop dead – because if you can’t find something to enjoy and celebrate in this play there is no point in your living and going to the theatre.

    Take your pick.

  18. Patrick Brightman Says:

    Dear Jill

    Technology got the better of me there – I only mean to submit the first paragraph – apologies.

  19. Patrick Brightman Says:

    Dear John

    I don’t usually contribute to blogs. The reason I did on this occasion was because of the risible remarks you made in your first post.

    Your statements “The audience around me was horribly home counties”, “all determined to laugh uproariously at the long since signposted lame jokes” and “No doubt it will find that kind of audience everywhere and help keep the NT going” were, in my view, highly personal and vicious remarks. Coupled with your assertion the play was either shit or absolute rubbish, your post meant that no one should see the play and that those who did and enjoyed it were either idiots of the “horrible home counties” kind or liked shit. It is difficult to think of more highly personal remarks.

    The facts that you live in the home counties yourself, are white and no longer in the first flush of youth do not permit or entitle you to so cruelly dismiss your fellow audience members in such a way.
    It was because of your post and some of the others that followed it, that I decided to make a contribution. Not to prove that you or anyone else was wrong – but simply to provide another point of view. And, hopefully, so that others would not follow your invitation/command to not attend the play.

    What I said in my original post, at the end of a lengthy explanation about my views of Habit of Art was this:

    “I don’t care if people don’t like it or think its a turd. That’s fine – people may think what they wish. It’s a free country.

    But to those who think its drivel I simply say this: you don’t have the brains to understand and enjoy it. Or you didn’t get what you expected so you are sulking. Or you like to bash at “National Treasures”. Or drop dead – because if you can’t find something to enjoy and celebrate in this play there is no point in your living and going to the theatre.

    Take your pick.”

    What those words do not do is say anything personal about anyone. They certainly say nothing about you – because, I did not know, and still do not know, whether you found nothing about the production worthy of enjoyment/celebration. For instance, you might have liked the actors, or some of them, or the design. In which case, my original concluding remarks did not apply to you.

    When I wrote those words, they were intended to be a humorous riposte to some of the posts which had gone before. Of course, words a writer chooses to use do not always have the reception intended: a point made eloquently in Habit of Art.

    So that there is no mistake about this, it was not my intention to say anything personal about anyone and, to the extent that anyone took genuine offence by anything I wrote, I apologize.

    Since my first post, however, you have, on two occasions, presumably because someone had the temerity to disagree with you, made quite childish but highly personal remarks based upon the name Brightman. The star of patronizing pretentiousness is firmly within your grasp.

    My first post contained no “friendly tip”. You deliberately mis-state and mis-characterize my words to make your most recent “points”. You should refrain from that.

    You are right about this: the play is the thing. Your original post, apart from containing statements that Habit of Art was shit or absolute rubbish, did not disclose any reasons or analysis – the elaboration of your criticism was left to that about your fellow audience members and those yet to see the play. Again, this was a motivation for my response. It is important that people know why someone does or does not like a piece of theatre. To simply dismiss it as absolute rubbish achieves nothing.

    Plays have long been commissioned on the basis of the reputation of a writer. Shakespeare was often commissioned to write on that basis. There is nothing wrong with such an approach to commissioning; nor could there be.

    Commissioners do not have crystal balls or their own TARDIS enabling them to see the future. When a play is commissioned, it can only be in the expectation that the submitted work will be of quality. The problem comes when a play which has been commissioned is produced even though it does not really warrant a production.

    In my view, the turkeys you identify – Fram and Afterlife – fall squarely into this category. I understand why they were commissioned but I do not understand why they were produced. I share your assessment of those works as turkeys. But that does not mean that they were shit or absolute rubbish. In both cases, despite not enjoying the plays, there were actors to be admired and designs to marvel at. Despite the texts as a whole, there were things to be savoured: examples of craft and skill at work in the theatre.

    It is good that you stick by your opinion and have no problem with people having the opposite view. We are, on that point, at one.

    If theatre is to live and thrive, people must be able to debate its value: sometimes passionately, sometimes longwindedly, sometimes humorously – whatever it takes really. Because what is crucial is that people go to the theatre and then make up their own minds, think about what they have seen and talk about it. Argue about it. Laugh about their arguments. Even cry about their arguments.

    Opinions about plays – robustly put – that is what is important.

  20. John A Says:

    Dear Patrick,
    Thank you for your more considered response. I do feel you have misunderstood what I originally wrote. Incidentally, this is the first time i have contributed to this kind of blog. It was purely the case that I saw HOA the evening before the WEW review came out.
    1. I never used the term ‘shit’ about HOA. ‘No amount of turd polishing’ refers to the saying that you can polish a turd as much as you like but it still remains a turd.
    2. Horribly home counties referred to the fact that the audience was an almost entirely homogenous mass. I would have been equally critical if the entire audience were homogenous in another way.
    3. It was never my intention to seek to dissuade or advise others from going. As i understand it, HOA is sold out for the current run. Therefore what I say would have no effect on ticket sales. Bums on seats are crucial for theatre to survive, especially in times of economic uncertainty and funding cuts. My comment suggested HOA was commissioned for commercial reasons, less so artistic ones.
    4. I never saw The History Boys, therefore many of the comments on that were not something I could comment on.
    5. I accept your criticism was defensive of HOA. But nonetheless you did come across as incredibly patronising. I go to the theatre very often and yes, there is usually always something to enjoy and admire even in the direst evening as theatre is an art form I love.
    6. You claim your words were intended to be a humorous repost. Did you not then also think mine and other bloggers before you, were written in the vein of this particular theatre blog?
    8. Playing on your name was, apologise if you took offence a reaction to what I perceived to be your patronising tone.
    7 I note you use US spellings. Is that because you are American or have a US spellchecker? The former might explain our being divided by a common language.
    8. You first used the term ‘friendly tip’, not me.
    Kind regards John

  21. A Clown Says:

    Crikey, this has certainly provoked a wealth of opinion, and all before opening night too!

    In the end, I don’t think I enjoyed this that much, even after thinking about it for a week. I just couldn’t find any connection into it, every time I started to get into the Auden/Britten scenes, one of them would slip out of character and break the mood. The device of the play within the play I found to be mainly played for the humour it could bring to the show, rather than making any particular statement about ‘the nature of theatre’, or at least a statement that was clear to me. Indeed if someone asked me what I thought was meant by ‘the habit of art’, I’m not entirely sure I could answer them…

    And I have to admit I found the raucous laughter very distracting, for sure it was chucklesome but very rarely did it deserve the hysterics it seemed to generate (Frances De La Tour pretending to be a mirror being one of those moment of course!).

  22. Max Says:

    Patrick Brightman,

    Let it go, for goodness sake. You loved the play. Others, including myself, very much beg to differ. This does not mean my mind is disconnected from my brain. Your passion for the piece is remarkable, but do you really need to go on blogging ‘f**k’ and ‘s**t’ in defence of your subject when nobody else is doing so?

  23. Caroline Says:

    Having now had the benefit of reading the previous comments, I’m glad I didn’t rush to post mine after walking out of the preview on 5 November. I’m sure my reasons would not have passed muster in some quarters but it’s clear that I was far from alone in being underwhelmed. This has to be the greatest theatrical disappointment of the year for me and I shall be very interested to see what the professionl critics say. Not an entirely wasted day, however, as the matinee of Enron I attended earlier was well worth seeing. You win some, you lose some…

  24. betsy Says:

    Well, Bennett’s last play was about how it’s OK to fondle young boys in the service of Education. This one is about how it’s OK to fondle young boys in the service of Art. What next? Faith? Book your tickets now for the Habits of Priests…

  25. Hensher Says:

    I was very disappointed by this predictable play, but perhaps it is too much to expect Bennett to surprise us at this stage of his life and career. I was never convinced that it was worth putting Auden and Britten (or 2 actors playing them) on stage, the metatheatrics were unoriginal and in-jokey and much of the humour surprisingly easy. The night I saw it the line “More fucking elves” (referring to Tolkein) brought the house down.
    I liked early Bennett, but both this and the History Boys I found tiresome, partly perhaps because of all the gayness. I don’t really care about it. I don’t know why.

    • jonny h Says:

      I couldn’t agree more. And glancing at the reviews today I find the response to the play is as predictable as the play itself. Bennett’s a celebrity and an institution so what we have here is an event. The reviews that appear are not reviews of a play, they are reviews of “the new Alan Bennett play.”
      I am reminded of Stephen Daldry who, when he was at the Royal Court, rejected John Osborne’s last play “Deja-Vu” on the grounds that if it had been submitted under an unknown person’s name it would never have been put on.

  26. Jill Stevens Says:

    I went last night. I enjoyed the play. I found it thoughtful, thought provoking, witty and fun.

    I’m not an easily-pleased theatre goer, although I will – always – find something to enjoy (otherwise it’s all a waste of time, money and my life!); I used to be a (albeit provincial) newspaper theatre critic.

    I do find guffawing a little disconcerting, but my husband tells me I am somewhat repressed when it comes to laughing out loud myself, so that may be it. And if some people find things really, really funny while I just find them wryly amusing, then so be it. I did, however, laugh out loud on several occasions last night.

    I wasn’t expecting anything very highbrow – perhaps just a few insights into the Auden/Britten relationship delivered by pretty good actors with some predictable Bennett humour. All was duly provided.

    Yep, liked it, had a lovely time. Isn’t Frances De La Tour wearing well?

  27. Patrick Brightman Says:

    Max – conformity is not something devoutly to be wished.

    John – not American (thank the Lord), not aware of using US spellings so there must be a US spellchecker masquerading as an English one if I do, thanks for your apology and, truly, I did think (because actually I thought some of the earlier postings were so caustic and acerbic they were meant to inspire humour) that to post what I did would be taken the same way. I was quite wrong about that though. Lesson learnt.

    I did not appreciate though, the distinction between turd and shit, and although it escapes me I accept that others find there is one. Unlike possibly Gwendolyn, my social circles are such that I have seen both turd and shit, but like Lady Bracknell find any differences to be immaterial.

    Henscher: actually the “more fucking elves” line was quite brilliant, encapsulating, as it did, Auden’s actual views about repetition of themes in popular works: one of the Habits of Art under discussion.

    I wish I had your skills of prediction: truly. My heart would be more stable I am sure. In my case, I had no idea, as the play went on, what would happen next. I sat there at interval happily, deliriously dumbfounded by the complexity and breadth of Act One and wondering, with such excitement, what Act Two would bring.

    Betty : nothing about this play says that it is okay to fondle young boys. The straight rent boy is not underage and nothing happens to him or to the choir boy. The rent boy may be young but there is no power abuse involved in the proposed sexual encounter between he and Auden. It is quite unlike History Boys in that respect and I, for one, think that alone makes it a better play.

    Clown : One of the points of the structure of the play is to break the audience’s usual Habit of Art by the device of the rehearsal-of-a-play-within-a-play which disturbs the audience comfort zone and challenges the way they react and appreciate the theatre. In a way, I am sure, Bennett would be thrilled that people don’t like the structure.

    johnny h : And Daldry was absolutely right so to do. Hytner should have done that with Frayn’s Afterlife. I suspect that The Lady in the Van would have been rejected if I had written it. Bennett is not perfect and obviously is capable of turning out turkeys -as I have said, I think History Boys is a deeply flawed, ultimately irresponsible and appalling work, albeit a very funny one. In my view, that should never have been produced without a re-write to remove the approval of teacher/schoolboy sex – but Habit of Art is an entirely different work. And the public LOVED History Boys.

    Caroline – the professional critics have filed. But I take no comfort in what they say. More often than not they are, in my view, wrong. Audiences determine the value and longevity of plays, not critics. One of the greatest things about this play is that people see it and talk about it – even if they talk to say how bad it was. At least they talk about it. How many people actually talk about Shakespeare when they see it these days? Depressingly few. How many great works have been initially rejected by critics only to be “rediscovered” years later?

    What a great day it would have been for me to see Enron (which I thought would easily take play of the year) followed by Habit of Art (which may prove to be competition for that title)

    I thank you all for your negative views of Habit of Art (well, those who have them) – hopefully others will be inspired to go see for themselves.

    Make a Habit of Art assessment.

  28. Patrick Brightman Says:


    So glad you liked it.

    There was no guffawing the night I went, but I guess when it occurs it will be theatre folk reacting to specific things. Like you, I found it occassionally laugh-out-loud funny.

    And yes, Frances is holding up fantastically well.

  29. JohnnyFox Says:

    When they give out the BAFTAs for Windbaggery on Boybuggery, Patrick looks-like-a-bright-man-sounds-more-like-Sarah is going to be right at the front of the queue.

  30. John A Says:

    Interesting comments Patrick.
    However just to totally clarify, yes you are correct turd and shit are effectively interchangeable words. What I mean by turd polishing, is that no matter however bright and shiny you dress something up, it still remains what it is underneath.
    Apropos critics, I find myself increasingly at odds with Billington these days. But then again the guardian is very much an oxbridge clique that looks after its own. The Bloomberg critic pretty much summed up my views, see link below
    I loved Enron too, and it would be my play of the year but for August Osage County which has to be the runaway winner on every count.

  31. JohnnyFox Says:

    Billington? The man who described the atrocious ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ as ‘Brechtian’?

    Interestingly it was his birthday on Monday. He was 70.

    I think that’s time to retire. Where did I put Rusbridger’s phone number?

  32. Patrick Brightman Says:


    Yes, saw the Bloomberg first this morning – before the others. The range of views is interesting. Fascinating even.

    Agree entirely – August:County Osage was blissful. For me though, it was the acting and the direction which made the writing sparkle. Enron had a simply wonderful text.

    JohnnyFox : Thanks. I’d love another BAFTA.

  33. jonny h Says:

    I think it’s possible that people who like the habit o’ fart – and Enron too – do not see a broad range of theatre, by which I mean “alternative,’ “fringe” and “experimental” as well as West End. The physical theatre in Enron, for example, is so outdated, hackneyed even – or it is to someone who has been seeing this kind of thing on the fringe for years. Billington and others have very likely not seen it before and therefore call it bold an innovative.
    Likewise the play within a play business in THOA. It sounded exciting when I read about it before seeing the play but I felt I’d seen it all before, and seen it better done.
    Ultimately my opinion or my taste don’t really matter. I am quite willing to admit I am just a jaded and cynical theatregoer.

    • Jill Stevens Says:

      I do see a very broad range of theatre, including fringe and experimental, National, West End and provincial. I see something about once a week and have been an eclectic drama lover for more than 40 years. I studied drama at university, too. And I still liked Habit of Art. Just goes to show, eh!

  34. John A Says:

    Not sure what you mean Jonny h.
    I hated HOA but loved Enron, which I saw in Chichester (a fact i mention purely in case the staging was different at the royal court, where I presume more people have seen it, and so we may be comparing 2 different things).
    Is innovation a good thing in its own right or even matter particularly. If you take classic plays, sometimes innovation works, sometimes it doesnt. Eg the young vic lear with Pete Postlethwaite, was brilliantly innovative in part (the rain storm) but what the f was that all about in other bits (spitting out Gloucester’s eye anyone?) Enron happens to be topical and very funny (to me). Was it hackneyed? Not an adjective that sprang to mind when i saw it.

  35. For the record, the play of the year is Jerusalem.

  36. nina Says:

    Can Patrick Brightman start writing his own blog so I can get on with reading this one?

    • Ant Grimbath-Prick Says:

      I think you’ll find it here, Nina

      Although I have one, you don’t need a degree in Linguistics to discern that the writing by ‘Warwick Thompson’ on the Bloomberg site is the same as that of ‘Patrick Bateman’ on this comment string – self-referential, same memes and tropes, open and shut case, guv, bang to rights.

      • Patrick Brightman Says:


        You may notice that Mr Thompson and I have completely different views about HOA.

        I have been in the same room as him but have never spoken to him and can’t think of a single reason so to do.

        I have a degree in linguistics too. But we must move in different social circles: I have never seen a meme.

  37. Patrick Brightman Says:

    Totally with you Andrew – Jerusalem was wonderful writing.

    In a moveable feast, final five probably are Jerusalem, Enron, August County Osage, Habit of Art and Cock. Wildly different styles.

    Such a different year from last, when really only Pitman Painters could win.

    Sorry nina.

  38. nina Says:

    Ah yes! Their shorthand typing skills were certainly a force to be reckoned with.

  39. jonny h Says:

    A reply partly to myself, as I am only using this to discover what I really thought about the play. I think in the end it’s mostly about my experience of the particular night I went. I am sure there are passages of brilliance in the script but I had a dull and unrewarding evening which was sort of summed up for me by the two teenage girls sitting in front of me. At one point one of them showed her mobile phone to her companion. She had written “BORING” on it. And then the same girl proceeded to parody the guffaws issuing forth from the ‘home counties’ crowd around her. A safe, cosy play is what I would call it. If you go wanting the cosily familiar then you won’t be disappointed, but that’s not what I go to the theatre for. I go to be challenged, surprised, made to think, disturbed even. I was like the man in the wrong suit at the wrong party.
    Finally, though, it doesn’t matter…yackety yackety yack

  40. Nicola Says:

    jonny h’s view about The Habit of Art largely echoes my own. The following night I went to see The Spanish Tragedy at the Arcola – a far from perfect production but “challenged, surprised, made to think, disturbed even” I certainly was! Well done to an amazing cast and team who really came up with a night to remember.

  41. Patrick Brightman Says:

    johnny h and Nicola – completely understand. No one person ever reacts the same way to a night in the theatre, and by its nature every performance of a play is different from every other performance of the same play. Really like the analogy of the man in the wrong suit at the wrong party – exactly how I felt at Pains of Youth.

    And Nicola I totally totally agree about The Spanish Tragedy. It was a remarkable night – yes, there were flaws, but the creative approach was so different, some of the performances so right and the violence so well-judged (as in frightening – that final suicide will stay with me for a long time)that it was just as you put it – a night to remember.


  42. Sara Says:

    Why does Patrick Brightman think every post requires an answer from him?

    I was in Noye’s Fludde too: an ostrich. And I too can still sing Kyrie Eleison. This wasn’t Sutton in the 1970s was it Phil?

  43. Caroline Says:

    I, too, see a range of theatre: provincial, fringe, off-West-end; in fact, I see few mainstream West End productions unless those at the NT count. Most of my personal “plays of the year” would therefore never figure on the official lists and and I prefer to see the original productions of plays which eventually transfer, so Enron was an exception. I wasn’t so impressed by Jerusalem, though – I left that one after the 2nd interval – was it ever going to end? And August, Osage County, was pleasant enough but nothing special in my book.

  44. Jeff Joseph Says:

    The problem here is that The Habit of Art is about nothing except Bennett’s polished technique. Are we supposed to mind that untalented people are not mythologised or that some people need to dilate endlessly about fellatio? What’s more, the presentation of Britten was embarassingly cliched and two-dimensional (the reference to Tippett was very distinctly ill-conceived and musically implausible) and the theatrical in-joking made one feel quite ill. Audience laughter sounded sickly and inauthentic.

    Bennett peaked with Talking Heads. His apparent metamorphosis into a tricksy grand old man of the theatre who would seem to need to render his obsessions overt is a sad thing.

  45. nilk Says:

    H of A was total tosh. £88 very badly spent. Alan should go home and keep mum. An insult to Auden–I had to read his poems again to make sure they were great, they still are thank God. the critics and public who loved this play are all tossers.

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