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The Habit of Art

Saw a quite wonderful new Alan Bennett play at the Lyttleton:  The Habit of Art.  The title comes from a phrase the poet Auden used to talk about his own relation to writing—art’s become a habit for him, something one does whether with or without a grand plan.  It’s a way of living, not just the production of potentially great works. 

Most of the play is centered on Auden; the second half, however, brings Benjamin Britten in as a partner/foil.  Britten is trying to write an opera based on Mann’s Death in Venice, the story of an aging artist who falls in love with a 14 year old boy (who, in real life, was 11!).  The opera would be about his own sex life, or rather, he’d like to think, love life.  Auden hectors him about B’s wanting this work of art somehow to glorify and justify this love—but also as a way of staying in the closet.  Auden, by contrast, has been out for a long time, and mocks the notion that this would be a beautiful story.  Strip the sentiment—it’s just an older man’s passion for (a) youth.  Britten wants to say the older man is the innocent, seduced by the youth’s beauty.  Auden laughs at that as merest sentimentality and self-deception. 

Where the play is obviously a reflection on art, authored by a man who is late in his career, just as his heroes here are, and no doubt having the same conversations with himself, for me the real themes are two.  First, it’s about aura.  Auden complains about, while Britten seeks, the halo of glamour that comes with art.  For Auden, it is distorting, and the world of the digs around him reflects an almost conscious effort to demystify himself, turn himself into a misfit and a loser, the opposite of anything glorious or profound.  Of course, this very failure to heroify himself, under the effect of his aura, turns out to make him an even greater icon.  To know the details of his personal life (he pees in the sink, the place is in complete disarray and stinks, he evidently argued at some point that one should never use more than a single sheet of toilet paper, he hires rent boys, but he sucks them, not the other way around, and he does it by the clock [if not accomplished by six, then it’s just no fun anymore]) actually ADDS to his aura, which, ironically, is also what this play, even as it critiques aura, cannot help but do for him too.  For seeing all this we’ll know Auden is not a boring old man in a book of poems, but a wacky eccentric, full of surprises—one who just like us thinks some of his work is boring and pretentious. 

He and Britten are given lines about this too; Britten seems more at home with his aura—he has a limousine and driver, he is dressed well, bathed well—quite an attractive man.  On the other hand, he is plagued by it too—by the need to live up to it, to cultivate it, to escape the critique that comes along with it.  He is pictured as paralyzed in his composition—fear that the opera won’t be new enough, that the critics have labeled him as a “Innocence Lost” thinker, and since this new project is also about innocence lost, he fears what all will say once he’s written it.  Auden on the other hand wants him to come out, to use the reality of his own experience as a way of making his theme not a boring old topos, but a genuinely felt and lived reflection on reality—even if that reality is a homosexual love. 

Second theme to catch my attention is simply that of Will as the grounding imperative of art.  Butt to chair.  The ability to MAKE art a habit, not a special occasion to dread and put off and run dry about.  A kind of will to power as will to write. 

The production itself was brilliant, as was the acting.  Richard Griffiths as Fitz playing Auden (it is a play about doing a play—called Caliban’s Day—which also suggests that the play wants to be about the dark side, or repressed side, of us all, the Caliban side, here, their homosexuality and all that it meant to their careers and reputations) and Alex Jennings playing not just an actor Britten but also as an actor playing a couple other roles in the production as well.  Lots of talk of penises.  An amazing amount, actually, as well as several threats to reveal one to us.  Talk about phallocentric!  At the interval I turned to the woman sitting next to me, with whom I had struck up an acquaintance before the play began, and I said something about there being more talk of penises in this play than I had ever heard in any hour in my life—and I was amazed at how this huge audience just sat there and listened!  She laughed and said she thought that said a lot about how far conventions had shifted over the years.  Talk of genitalia everywhere, and people just laugh at the jokes.  Ho hum. 

Lights were interesting in that there were none.  Well, no effects, just a wash for the whole stage.  This was a play close to the Electric Workshop—no lights, no makeup, no special effects.  Lots of props, though, and all the rest, like blocking and so on.  Fitz (Auden-Griffiths) dominates the set—he generally sits center stage in the middle of the set within a set throughout, and all the others are more or less semi-circled around him.  Others come to him through the door on stage left, into a room that, since the play is still in rehearsal, is still being designed and completed—the stove isn’t in yet, for example—just a sign on the plywood for where it should go.  He’s dressed in a very raggedy and obviously not often laundered set of clothes, with baggy cardigan cast on over all.  Griffiths is very heavy to begin with, but he seems to be wearing an extra sack in front—though maybe that is just him.  He is to be grotesque, as Auden was, though in a different way: Auden had a skin condition that rendered him very, very wrinkled and weathered looking, a feature played up here.  They do a mask of him that Griffiths wears a couple times, but finally throws away as too uncomfortable (which makes it both “true” to life and also something they don’t have to be “real” about).  But the whole taken together is a grotesque—a bigger than life, exaggeration of a person, set off from normal people like you and me.  Yet that doesn’t destroy his aura at all, rather all of that only makes him even more special and marked as an “artist.” 

They have designed the set and lights and all to be very ordinary—as if to set off and guard against sentimentality by not indulging in special effects or deceptive focuses.  Throughout Bennett tries to imagine that he is not a vampire living off gossip about the greats.  But he is, though.  He has a dozen techniques, including the inclusion of the author of Caliban’s Day(the name of the play they are imagined to be rehearsing) to have various conversations all through—which is both himself and not himself, so when he wants to be sentimental and arty it will be the bad taste of the author on stage, and not Bennett himself, who is protected by the layer of irony.  This allows him both sentimentality and deniability.

Still, an interesting if also sentimental moment is a late speech by Kay, the stage manager (Frances de la Tour—and fabulous doing it), in which she talks about the National Theatre itself and all of its cultural trappings.  She mocks how it made its way to the Southbank with all its theatres and artsiness and clouds of cultural elitism.  She is remembering working with an early director (Richard Eyre?) who scorned all these trappings of sophisticated gentility and claimed that he would rather have been back at the Aldwych, where the NT was before the new theatre complex opened.  She is embarrassed by all the fancy stuff, and the aura-boosting nature of the entire enterprise (which the RSC shares, of course). 

But I see this as finally just another sentimentalism, even if it is a question that needs to be addressed.  For art is going to have its aura, it can’t not have an aura.  Art IS aura—a way of framing something to make it more-than-ordinary.  So you can’t do it and complain that it has an aura.  What you can do is pay attention to the aura, and try to keep its focus where it should be—on the way it allows you to resee, and see more deeply and clearly or ironically and critically the elements of our lives and culture that might otherwise pass unnoticed and unreflected upon, and therefore also unchallenged just as much an unappreciated. 

The woman sitting next to me had come from Switzerland specially for the weekend to see Griffiths and to see the play.  I thought to ask her at the end whether she thought the trip worth it—I didn’t, though, because it seemed on one hand silly—of course she did, but on the other hand potentially mean—suppose she didn’t quite, but was putting the best face on it, and I force her to recognize its shortcoming?  It’s a long way to come for a play, and no one would do it were there no aura, no specialness, no sense that this offers you something that you might never get in any other way.   Right.  Of course she did.  



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