As part of Brits Off Broadway 2023, Original Theatre Company and 59E59 Theaters present The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett.
There is something quintessentially British about an Alan Bennett play. The verbiage. The word play. The humor. The intricate mining of inner lives. The lack of surface anger and violence and subversion and sex that make contemporary American plays so…American.
The Habit of Art does have plenty of sex—or at least reference to rent boys and fellatio—but it is all couched within the tapestry of ‘Art’ with a capital A—poetry and music, to be precise—and the habits of its makers, who are two older, lionized gay male cultural figures, neither of whom spoke publicly about their very gay lives: W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. Auden may be known to American gays as the author of the “Stop All the Clocks” poem, arguably the finest about gay male grief:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The Habit of Art is written by Alan Bennett (The History Boys, The Madness of George III), who himself guarded his sexuality for fear of being pigeonholed as a ‘gay playwright’. It examines the strange lives of two successful creators and the strange role their sexuality played in their creativity. W. H. Auden, the poet laureate who employs rent boys who must appear on the dot of the appointed hour so that he can service them—not the other way around. Meanwhile, his friend Benjamin Britten is struggling with his new opera, Death in Venice, and fears it may out him, and he seeks advice from his former collaborator, Auden.
Their meeting is imagined, and part of a play within a play, the fictitious Caliban’s Day, which is being performed in 1972 by a regional British theater company with its own cluttered and obsessive approaches to rehearsal and performance. The characters in this framing device include the young male playwright trying to squeeze authentic life from letters and journals; the men’s future biographer; and a young man from the local bus station.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
All performances are miraculously restrained while being energetic. Amid the snipes and bickering and snatches of music and poetry are several resonant themes and important questions: What is the value of a life dedicated to art and how does the art interpret the life? How does the habit of sex fuel the habit of art and how does art fuel sexuality? How does aging and the looming specter of death affect the creative process? And who gets to represent the legacy of the artist?
The cast of The Habit of Art includes Matthew Kelly (Of Mice and Men), Stephen Boxer (The Crown), Benjamin Chandler (Passing From The Third Floor Back), Jessica Dennis (Henry V), Robert Mountford (Footprints), Veronica Roberts (The Daughter-In-Law) and John Wark (Dead Sheep).
This play is fun for theater lovers as we see the actors, both young and old, grill the playwright on the meaning and veracity of the words he has chosen for them, and bicker over toilet facilities, whether there will be any cake, or if the blocking will include smoking or “sucking off.” It’s kind of hilarious.
There is a fair bit of clutter to this play—visual and verbal and thematic—but there are startling moments of clarity, such as when Auden recounts an unlikely fan:
I was once rung from Hollywood by Miss Bette Davis. She said ‘Mr Auden, I’ve just been reading one of your poems.’ I said, ‘I’m glad to hear it, madam, but it’s two o’clock in the morning,’ and put the phone down. Chester has never forgiven me.
Chester is my partner. Is that the word you use?
Another moment includes the discussion of the usually working class, “sons of the soil” rent boys familiar to both Auden and Britten—who traveled by foot or public transport and carried baby oil, a towel, accessories in little bags, in a profession that went unnoticed and anonymous, in service of great (gay) men.
The Habit of Art features design by Adrian Linford, lighting design by Johanna Town, and sound and musical arrangement by Max Pappenheim. The director of this production, Philip Franks, has this to say about Bennett’s work:
“His wit and self-deprecation mask a writer of some savagery,… his subject matter is consistently challenging and brave. The Habit of Art is no exception. On the page, at first glance, it can seem cuddly and cosy – two witty old artists rubbing along in a framework of knowing injokes about rehearsals… However, as you give into it, the play deals head on with friendship, betrayal, loneliness, failure, and painfully uncomfortable sexuality. It is also hilariously and unsentimentally celebratory of work, art, the theatre, and survival. A wonderful, unforgettable play. In fact – and very funny.”
The Habit of Art is now on at 59E59 Theaters, Theater A, until May 28. Tickets here.