Imagining Auden & Britten
by Richard Dodds
In his play The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett imagines a late-life meeting between poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in which the former collaborators fuss at each other over, among other things, openness about their homosexuality. As he wrote the play, Bennett, never particularly secretive about his own gayness, found himself more in sympathy with Britten's restrained approach to being gay.
"It's not something that rules my life, and I don't want to be in anyone's pigeonhole," the 79-year-old author of such plays as Habeas Corpus, The Madness of George III, and The History Boys said from his home in London. "I wouldn't be like Ian McKellen, for instance. He makes gay activism a part of his life, and I just want to get on with my work."
Bennett was on the phone in support of Theatre Rhino's current production of The Habit of Art, which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2009, and is having its Bay Area premiere under John Fisher's direction at Z Below Theatre. Fisher also plays Britten, and Donald Currie has the role of Auden.
With his own mention of McKellen, Bennett further recalled the time McKellen put him on the spot several years before Bennett had officially come out as gay in a 2005 autobiography. McKellen had organized a benefit performance against an anti-gay Thatcher-era law, and Bennett accepted McKellen's invitation to participate.
"He asked me more or less in front of a very large audience whether I was gay or not, and I said my concern has always been that there was very little sex of either sort. I said it's like asking someone who just crossed the Sahara Desert whether they wanted Malvern water or Perrier water." For the record, Bennett has been with his partner Rupert Thomas, a magazine editor, for 22 years – "so that's fairly well established," Bennett said with the wry humor first revealed as a member of the legendary Beyond the Fringe satirical group.
But despite Bennett's claim that his sexuality is "almost incidental" to his creative output, he acknowledged that he was drawn to the Auden-Britten pairing in The Habit of Art very much because of their contrary means of homosexual expression. In the play, set in 1973, one of the rent boys that Auden was famous for hiring shows up at an awkward moment at the apartment Oxford has provided its famous son. Britten has come there to seek Auden's advice on whether or not to continue on an opera based on Thomas Mann's novel Death in Venice, fearing that it reflects too closely his own pederast interests and could harm his reputation.
While there is no record of Auden and Britten meeting in later life, the two had in fact collaborated on several operas in the 1930s, and to Bennett, a reunion was at least historically plausible. "Indeed," the playwright said, "when Britten was working on Death in Venice, somebody said that the ideal person to do the libretto would be Auden, and of course, that didn't go down well at all with Britten."
Nor does it when the fictional Auden suggests that Britten has corrupted the whole idea of Death in Venice by thinking of the old writer Aschenbach as the innocent corrupted by the adolescent tempter Tadzio. "You fancy it the story of your life," Auden tells Britten. "You like boys, Ben. No dressing up Tadzio as a vision of Apollo can alter that fact."
In developing the script with director Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, Bennett found that his principal characters were providing needed background for the audience by repeating things they would have already known. To solve this problem, and to provide himself with some opportunities for outright fun, The Habit of Art became a play about putting on a play about Auden and Britten. We are in fact watching a rehearsal that the actors who play Auden, Britten, and other characters interrupt with various complaints about their dialogue and situations.
"Do we need talking furniture? I know I'm old-fashioned, but why does the furniture talk?" complains the actor playing Auden. "This is a poet. The world talks and everything in it," replies the weary, unnamed playwright.
Later the actor playing Auden's sexual hire for the night worries, "I'm too old. I'm supposed to be playing a rent boy, and I'm not a boy at all." The patient stage manager assures him, "It's only a phrase. You're a rent person. It's theater, love, the magic of."
In addition to laughs that the rehearsal framing device provides, there is also humor in the serious play about Auden and Britten that is being rehearsed. "The play does take up a lot of themes," Bennett said, "but I think the driving theme is that you must go on, go on creating. And if you can, you feel that's your salvation."
Looking at Bennett's resume, with scores of credits in theater, television, film, and books – including a recent London hit titled Cocktail Sticks – it doesn't seem he has had any trouble going on. "It may look like that now, but it never seems like it at the time. Each time it feels like, 'Oh, I can't do this.' You really don't have a choice if you want to go on living, but it takes everything you've got."
Bennett said he doesn't particularly worry about age, though he said when he buys something as simple as a kitchen appliance, he is conscious that it will probably outlast him. "And I'm conscious of how far the world is drifting away from me, how much I don't understand, and how you get pushed aside."
Bennett and Thomas make their home in Primrose Hill, a fashionable London neighborhood lately fancied by film stars and pop singers – though their names mean nothing to him. "Every morning there's a group of paparazzi on the street," Bennett said, "and I walk straight past them, and they never turn their heads."
Theatre Rhino's production of The Habit of Art will run at Z Below Theatre through April 13. Tickets are $15-$35. Call (866) 811-4111 or go to www.therhino.org.