WH Auden (Richard Griffiths), Humphrey Carter (Adrian Scarborough) and Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings)
(Photo Credit: National Theatre - (nationaltheatre.org.uk)
I saw an Encore screening of National Theatre's The Habit of Art written by Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hynter. It was premiered at the Lyttelton Theatre in November 2009 followed by a UK Tour. It was a great opportunity to see another Alan Bennett's play and I knew I would be in for a treat! The play is within a play! It explores the characters of W H Auden (Richard Griffiths) and Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings).
It certainly was a play that was well researched and represented by Alan Bennett. Bennett never spoken to Auden but remembered seeing and hearing him from his Oxford days even though it didn't make an immediate impact in his life. After Auden's death in 1973 it seemed to Bennett that there was a lot more to the poet other than his published literature.
Like Auden, Bennett never met Britten but obviously knew that both he and Auden collaborated professionally (Night Mail, Ballad of Heroes (1939) and Paul Bunyan (1941)) but eventually their partnership ended under a cloud. It is felt that Bennett could relate to the ups and downs of collaboration and competition. Britten's desire to be true to oneself is parallel to Bennett who isn't afraid of pushing the 'invisible boundaries' (post era censorship from 1968).
Alan Bennett relied heavily on Humphrey Carpenter's biographies on Auden and Britten. Carpenter never met Auden and Britten which gave the Bennett the impetus to write The Habit of Art and create the imaginary meetings scenes between the artists and biographer (Adrian Scarborough).
The Habit of Art explores more that art. The play explores W H Auden and Britten and their unique, extraordinary and eccentric lives through their poetry and art. Bennett also analysed their strong personalities especially the 'imaginary' meeting between Auden and Britten when the latter sought advice about his opera, Death in Venice. Throughout the play I feel W H Auden and Britten were so different in personalities and yet share a lot in common through their habits of arts, creativity, sexuality, aesthetic values and their outlook on life.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Habit of Art and I got to appreciate W H Auden and Benjamin Britten a lot more. It tied in nicely after seeing Opera North's productions of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream and Death in Venice. Most importantly I appreciated Alan Bennett himself, his creativity and talent as a playwright. I fully respect and love his approach towards subjects which are complex but relevant to share. It is evident that the content of his plays were well received by audiences alike. It's interesting to see legendary artists of the past influence and inspire playwright to write this play.