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Theatre in Review: The Habit of Art (Original Theatre/59E59)

Matthew Kelly, Stephen Boxer. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Perhaps the most fruitful way of thinking about The Habit of Art is to characterize it as a series of interruptions. The poet W. H. Auden, ensconced in a cottage at Christ Church, Oxford, can't manage to complete his assignation with a rent boy, thanks to the ill-timed appearance of journalist Humphrey Carpenter, looking to do an interview. But the latter is superseded by the entrance of Benjamin Britten, Auden's semi-estranged friend and collaborator, who has come to seek the poet's advice on a crucial matter. And, just when it seems that something dramatically interesting is about to happen, the play's author, Alan Bennett inserts an intermission. How many delaying tactics should a playwright be allowed in a single evening?

As it happens, Bennett helps himself to one more, a big one. The Habit of Art isn't directly about Auden and Britten. Instead, it centers on the members of a theatre troupe putting on Caliban's Day, a play about the last encounter, in 1972, of these major cultural figures. What unfolds is a fraught, rehearsal-room run-through: The director is absent. Actors call for lines and complain about the script. The playwright is furious to learn that certain passages have been cut and is driven to distraction by his noncompliant cast; chief among them is the actor playing Carpenter, who objects to being used as a mere device. His idea of building up his character involves entering in a dress, wielding a tuba. "I'm Doris, the goddess of wind," he announces. That's something they don't teach you at the Actors Studio.

Actually, the Doris gag is an allusion to Douglas Byng, a British cabaret performer who will be unfamiliar to American audiences. This may be one reason that The Habit of Art, written in 2009, has taken so long to reach these shores despite the warm reception accorded such previous Bennett works as Talking Heads and The History Boys: Its tone is autumnal, its humor donnish and insular, its naughty bits left over from another era. (Auden, mistaking Carpenter for his paid companion, says, "I am going to suck you off." Carpenter, baffled, replies, "But I'm with the BBC.") And its main theme is handled so gingerly that one wonders if Bennett's metatheatrical frame is yet another form of postponement.

Britten seeks out Auden after three decades because, having composed Death in Venice, he is facing significant pushback from colleagues and friends who fear the opera, with its theme of an aging scholar destroyed by love for a young boy, amounts to ruinous self-exposure. Auden will have none of that; instead, he is eager to write the libretto, constantly (and conveniently) forgetting that Myfanwy Piper has already done so. He insists he the man for the job, being Thomas Mann's son-in-law, sort of -- he married Erika, Mann's daughter, to provide her with a British passport as Europe slid into World War II. It goes without saying that the arrangement was a mere formality. Still, the poet adds, with no small self-satisfaction, "I am the only one of my family not to get divorced."

Indeed, Auden and Britten make an odd pair. Auden, prematurely elderly, living in spectacular squalor (he thinks nothing of urinating in the sink), and frantically scribbling with little success. "When I was young, my poems were often reports from the top of my head," he says. "I wrote the first thing that occurred to me, and it was poetry. Now when I take more care, and it truly is a dispatch from the heart ... it is not poetry at all." He adds, "I am no longer employable. I am venerated, monumental, shackled by my reputation. And I need to work or who am I?" The carefully closeted Britten is a member in good standing of the cultural establishment, laden with honors and creature comforts yet haunted by a sense of dissatisfaction. Both men in are in semi-marital relationships, although their partners are away; Chester Kallman and Auden are mostly living apart and Peter Pears is pursuing his singing career in Toronto. Only in their sixties, time has run out for them both: Auden is unwell, already from suffering from the heart ailment that will kill him a few years later. Auden will be gone in a matter of months.

Much of The Habit of Art turns on the erotics of creation: Auden's literary and sexual powers, inextricably linked, are winding down in tandem, while Death in Venice raises discomfiting questions about Britten's behavior around young boys. (As Bennett suggests, the composer's behavior, while unnecessarily provocative at times, probably stopped short of outright abuse.) Yet, even as the days grow short, the men have little choice but to persevere, making poems and music at any cost; their situation is paralleled with the company of Caliban's Day, forging ahead with their work despite endless annoyances and conflicts. (The play-within-the-play is at that inevitable point when it seems as if it will never come together.) But the split focus is distracting. It doesn't help that Caliban's Day veers between incisively written conversations and bizarrely symbolic passages in which Auden's furniture comes to life and addresses the audience -- you read that right -- or the spirits of Words and Music weigh in. Words, distressed that Auden has left some prominent pieces -- including "September 1, 1939" -- out of his Collected Poems, grumbles, "It makes the rest of the oeuvre very nervous...I mean, who's going to be next?"

It's all a jumble, featuring mordant thoughts juxtaposed with twee jokes and odd bits of theatre lore, and it's to the credit of director Philip Franks that it holds together as well as it does. The production is dominated by Matthew Kelly as Fitz, who plays Auden, grousing that nobody has brought cake to the rehearsal, insisting that Caliban's Day makes a caricature of Auden (a good point, actually), and noting with distaste that he is in full possession of his character's props, including "my prosthetic cigarettes; my elephantine, urine-stained trousers; my disgusting handkerchief; and my plastic bag." In the much less colorful role of Henry, who plays Britten, Stephen Boxer imbues his lines with wintry regret. Veronica Roberts is delightful as Caliban's Day's stage manager, nipping squabbles in the bud and noting, out of long experience, that actors "all have their little canteens of histrionic cutlery -- Larry's sudden fortissimos, John's tremolo." (If you don't know who Larry and John are, this is not the play for you.) Benjamin Chandler is solid in the underwritten role of Tim, who plays Stuart, the prostitute, standing in for all the young men who provided Auden and Britten with pleasure and inspiration but, in the long run, didn't really matter. "There's always someone left out," he notes.

The production, by the UK-based Original Theatre Company, certainly looks authentic thanks to Adrian Linford's set, a pile-up of props on an improvised ground plan located in what looks like a grimy church basement; his costumes are well-suited to each character. Johanna Town's lighting subtly executes a day-into-night transition that covers the play's running time. Max Pappenheim's sound design includes a preshow playlist featuring some of Britten's cabaret tunes, the love duet from Tristan and Isolde on a record player, and some stretches of piano music.

To be sure, The Habit of Art provides a fair amount of urbane entertainment; among other things, the name-dropping script includes catty comments about John Betjeman, Piper, and Marlene Dietrich. And there is something touching in the sight of two aging artists clinging to their trades in the face of time's diminishments. But, in trying to make its points, the play stutters noticeably, leaving it unable to develop its main themes. Still, even if its appeal will be limited to fans of Auden, Britten, and Bennett, along with any stray Anglophiles passing by, that will probably be enough to fill Theatre A at 59E59 for the duration of the production's short run. --David Barbour

(9 May 2023)

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