The Habit of Art

February 28, 2010

I don’t generally believe in adding footnotes to my poems, but this one might be incomprehensible to some people without an explanation.

For the past few months the National Theatre in London has been very successfully presenting a play by Alan Bennett, called The Habit of Art. This imagines a meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten towards the end of their careers. Since it is by Bennett, it contains many good jokes, but I feel it does the poet a disservice.

Originally, I gather, the play was to have been a straight confrontation between the two men. Apparently the bosses at the National didn’t think this worked, so changes were made, to show Britten and Auden as characters in a play within the play. This allowed a lot more joking at the expense of Auden, who in his old age became repetitive, forgetful, and, according to Oxford gossip, smelly.

The use of a distancing device means that we get little more than an external view of Auden. He becomes a figure of fun, mostly, and while Bennett pays lip-service to his past talent as a writer, the audience is never made to feel this.

The trouble is that this play is symptomatic of a tendency in English culture, to use the lives of writers as an excuse for peddling mild smut. You find it most weeks in the posher Sunday papers, with revelations of the peccadillos of some minor Bloomsbury figure, or gossip about the divorce of a fashionable novelist. You find it also on Radio Four, the very home of British Philistinism, which most weeks has some dramatised feature or other about the romantic life of some author or other. The absurdity of this struck home to me a few years ago, when I heard an announcement of a dramatisation of the unhappy marriage of George Meredith. Now Radio Four listeners do not read George Meredith. Hardly anyone reads George Meredith these days (though Harry Richmond is well worth having a go at, and so is Beauchamp’s Career). But he was literary, and there’s a juicy adultery story, so it gets served up to the public…

I dispute Bennett’s portrayal of Auden as utterly past it in the early seventies. I saw him interviewed on television at the time and he was lucid and entertaining. And I think that his late verse is very good. Much less flashy than his early stuff, but he had come to distrust flashiness. The work still bubbles with ideas, but they are reined in by the apparently prosy syllabics. These poems have (I think) a music unlike anything else in English poetry.

Well, Bennett is England’s favourite playwright, and his work will survive my strictures, but I wanted to say what I felt. And to be fair the play does have quite a few very funny lines, and the speech towards the end where the rent boy justifies his trade is, I think, very good indeed.

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