Category Archives: The Habit of Art

Αλαν Μπένετ «The Habit of Art»

  • National Theatre (Lyttelton)
  • www. nationaltheatre. org. uk

The Habit of Art

The Habit of Art Alex Jennings and Richard Griffiths in The Habit of Art

Tsunami of jokes … Alex Jennings and Richard Griffiths in The Habit of Art. Photograph: Elliott Franks

WH Auden, the Oxford oracle, is peeing into his washbasin. He’s waiting for a rent boy to arrive in his college rooms; he’s stuck over his stanzas; he looks not so much like a bag person as a crumpled plastic bag. A floor above him, Benjamin Britten, sleek as a whippet, is at the piano, with poker back and pumping arms, cajoling a young treble into song: «Oh lift your little pinkie!… It’s meant to sound horrid. This is modern music.» Set in a rehearsal room, watched over by a playwright, observed and explained by a biographer of both Britten and Auden, Alan Bennett‘s imagined late meeting between composer and poet has inverted commas around every invert. It’s a gloriously sustained, constantly shifting piece of irony. Irony doesn’t, of course, preclude pathos. After The History Boys, the Musical Men.

Bob Crowley’s clever, messy, open-to-the-backstage design is, as is everything in Nicholas Hytner’s fleet production, at least two things at once: a set within a set for a play within a play. Richard Griffiths comes on dying for one twice over: as the actor playing the poet, anxious to get off and do his voiceover for Tesco, he’s desperate for a cigarette; as the candid, repetitive, smelly old Auden, he is longing for the rent boy. Alex Jennings is trim and buttoned-up as Britten; as the actor who plays the composer, he is lissome, arch and knowing.

Both Griffiths and Jennings are terrific, though neither of them are particularly like the famous men they play: they are actors not impersonators. Michael Gambon, originally down to play Auden, was jowl-casting. Griffiths, who stepped in when Gambon was taken ill, doesn’t have those lugubrious dewlaps: he’s dishevelled but dainty, both swarmingly anxious and buoyantly breezy. The non-resemblance becomes one of the points and jokes of the play. History and biographers can’t get it right, Bennett implies, and to rub it in he makes his commentating biographer spectacularly unlike the real-life model. Adrian Scarborough’s Humphrey Carpenter is a beaky, neat, plaintive chap. Carpenter was exactly not like that: apparently bumbling, actually ultra-industrious, his default mode was affability rather than querulousness; he would never have carried such a spruce satchel – he used rather to heave his many manuscripts around in multiple plastic bags. He explained that he had to work in radio rather than telly because «I always come out looking like everyone’s mad aunt».

The dissimilarity is outed by an actor who carps that the real Humph was handsome. The Scarborough Humph, wheeled on to fill in biographical details and explain what’s true and what’s not, has another complaint. «I’m just a device,» he sobs. He’s right. Bennett’s play is full of devices and intricate ploys. The meeting between Britten and Auden is encircled by wonderfully comic dramatic tosh. Tables, mirrors, even the creases on Auden’s face are personified, and mimed to the accompaniment of silvery chimes. John Heffernan, as an assistant stage manager stepping up to fill a vacant acting spot, is particularly droll as he manfully, sceptically, assumes the part of a talking chair.

It’s striking that, despite all its sardonic surroundings, the central encounter – which touches on broken friendships, Thomas Mann, coming out of the closet, boys, and the grim necessity of continuing to write – still registers as moving and true. It has, of course, a history behind it: The Habit of Art takes off from Bennett’s earlier work both in its preoccupations and in its casting (Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour). It’s not a sequel to The History Boys, which since it triumphed at the National five years ago has spun across the Atlantic and into celluloid. Still, there are notable overlaps: the teacher who fumbled his pupils was looked on with indulgence in that play; here, faced with Britten’s sexual primness as he composes Death in Venice, Auden suggests that some sexual liaisons between older men and boys might be better called not corruption but collaboration. Oxford (which National theatre audiences will know is not a town but a university) looms large. And the difficulty of being a writer’s biographer was first floated by Bennett more than 20 years ago in Kafka’s Dick.

Actually, though, the lure of a Bennett play doesn’t lie in historical themes; it comes from sentences, riffs and free-standing blasts. Audiences go to hear not just his voice, ventriloquised through his characters, but his views. Bennett has just as many arguments and ideas as David Hare, though they aren’t honed and sequential. The structure is precarious, sometimes ramshackle as it skips from scene to scene. But that ricketiness ceases to matter when it is engulfed by a tsunami of jokes, a tidal wave of argumentative statements, a gorgeous gust of opinion.

Which attracts first-rate performances. Stephen Wight as the rent boy for one. And Frances de la Tour for the other. As the stage manager who has to run the show, her nonchalant, sceptical intelligence rolls through the play, as it did in The History Boys. She can suggest without saying a word both determination and depression. She does so with a drop in her mellifluousness, but also with a slight curve of her long spine: she bends as if she’s just been socked in the back with some slightly familiar bit of bad news. No one has ever made «Love you» sound so completely lowering. No one has ever made lowering sound so funny.

  • «The Habit of Art». Ο Οντεν φαντάζεται μια συνάντηση με τον Μπέντζαμιν Μπρίτεν, που δεν βρίσκεται πια στη ζωή, και η φανταστική αυτή συνομιλία ανάμεσα στον ποιητή και τον μουσουργό ζωντανεύει επί σκηνής. Το έργο του Αλαν Μπένετ, που ξεκινά με μια συνέντευξη του ηλικιωμένου Οντεν με τον μελλοντικό βιογράφο του, πραγματεύεται με χιούμορ και διεισδυτικότητα τόσο τις πανανθρώπινες ανησυχίες για το θάνατο και τη σεξουαλικότητα όσο και την αγωνία της καλλιτεχνικής δημιουργίας (η ακατάβλητη «συνήθεια της τέχνης»). Η παράσταση, σκηνοθετημένη από τον Νίκολας Χάιτνερ, έχει κερδίσει τους ύμνους της κριτικής, με ιδιαίτερη έμφαση στους πρωταγωνιστές: τον Ρίτσαρντ Γκρίφιθς, που ερμηνεύει τον Οντεν, και τον Αλεξ Τζένινγκς στο ρόλο του Μπρίτεν.

The Habit of Art


‘I thought it unlikely that he would be able to equal the success of The History Boys but The Habit of Art is another absolute cracker, often wonderfully and sometimes filthily funny, but also deeply and unexpectedly moving.’

‘I can think of few plays that combine wild laughter, deep emotion and technical ingenuity with such bravura. The Habit of Art is a smash hit if ever I saw one.’

‘Somehow Richard Griffiths makes you care about Auden’s frailty and dried up talent while also playing an actor who can’t remember his lines and hates the awy Auden is presented.’

‘With extraordinary pananche, Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner, keep us equally interested in both the rehearsal process and the portrait of Auden and Britten.’

‘Alex Jennings is superb… Frances De La Tour, as the stage manager and Adrian Scarborough as the biographer Humphrey Carpenter, give performances of comic perfection.’


‘Alan Bennett’s immaculate new play-within-a-play has the audience bawling with laughter throughout.

This sad, funny, whimsical piece about age and fading dreams is immaculately executed and represents the National at its very best.’


‘Bennett the maestro returns with a multi-layered masterpiece.’

‘Richard Griffiths is superlative.’

‘His hotly anticipated and hilariously provocative new play, The Habit of Art.’

‘The play mixes hard-won wisdom with a rollicking irreverence and recklessness.’

‘A cracking production that flirtatiously keeps the audience up to speed with the outrageous amount of information and allusion.’


‘Hugely entertaining drama… ingeniously teasing and entertaining… a great late play.

It is an irresistibly droll and critical rumination on artistic principles, the craft of biography, public reputations and private lives, competitiveness and self-censorship… hugely enjoyable.’


‘A brilliantly written and delicate duel of mutual wariness.’

‘His (Richard Griffiths) take on Auden reveals depths and an understanding of the poet’s complex character.’

‘The ever-excellent Richard Griffiths is Fitz, the actor who plays the world-weary Auden. Griffiths handles the roles with skilful aplomb… Alex Jennings plays actor Henry who, in turn is a prim, even prissy Benjamin Britten. Knees pressed together, he presents a portrait of a fussy, even pedantic Britten. Together the two actors display considerable comic touches and timing with Bennett’s clever wordplay Frances De La Tour produces a strong and often hilarious performance.’


‘The veteran playwright offers a wise and deeply moving distillation of a life spent in the service of the arts with this compassionate, often brilliantly funny, account of the fallible people who create it.

It is gorgeously propelled by revealing performances all round.’


‘A new play by Alan Bennett is a dramatic treat like nothing else. It’s like sipping champagne in a big armchair beside a crackling fire…

The glorious quality of the writing – brimming with humanity and humour – and Nicholas Hytner’s flawless production carry you along in a wave of pleasure.’


‘Alan Bennett has written another play with his characteristic mixture of wit and wistfulness.’

‘Beautifully acted… (Richard Griffiths) becomes a vivid metaphor for the poet.’

‘A superbly fluid production by Nicholas Hytner is beautifully acted… a deeply moving play.’

‘Bennett’s poignant paean to power of the artist.’


‘Alan Bennett’s fictionalised encounter between two giants of the 20th-century culture is full of ideas – and great jokes… a gloriously sustained, constantly shifting piece of irony…Both Griffiths and Jennings are terrific.

A tsunami of jokes, a tidal wave of argumentative statements, a gorgeous gust of opinion.’


‘A richly thought-provoking piece… deft, amusing and so intelligently and generously crafted that it makes you feel clever just watching it.

Nicholas Hytner’s direction is a perfect match for Bennett’s charm, and the performances are a treat.


‘An intricate, funny, discursive new play… There are funny lines galore.’


‘Richard Griffiths is spellbinding.’