The Habit of Art


The young Alan Bennett.

I have long been a homebody. When I get home after work the last thing I want to do is go somewhere.–even when I like the place I am going. I used to go to orchestra concerts and operas all the time. Less often I would go to plays or participate in other evening activities. In recent years, maybe over the last decade perhaps, I go to fewer and fewer such events. Often I miss some really wonderful things because I can’t budge myself from being cozy at home. So when I saw that Alan Bennett’s play The Habit of Art was playing at the Studio Theatre here in DC I thought I should give it a go. Not only do I love Bennett’s work in its many forms but the subject of this one also interested me. The Habit of Art deals with an imagined conversation between estranged friends W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. I know little about author Auden but I know lots about composer Britten.

With all good intentions I bought myself a ticket. I even planned to go while John was out of town. At least I thought I did. For some reason I bought my ticket for the night John was returning home from an 11-day business trip. You can imagine how hard it was for me to tear myself away from John, Lucy, and home on John’s first night back in town. But, contrary to some previous bad behavior and lots of lost money over tickets not used, I actually did manage to get myself to the theater and I am so glad I did.

I found Bennett’s The Habit of Art so much more interesting than his play The History Boys. I will, however, admit that part of my dislike of The History Boys had to do with the fact that I saw it on a big proscenium stage on Broadway. I just don’t like seeing theater in that kind of venue. Having cut my theatrical teeth in the audience of the (original) Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with its thrust stage immediacy, I am left cold by productions in more traditional theater spaces. Anyhoo, being in the second row of the gently thrusting Studio Theater for The Habit of Art was intimate indeed.

The more vigorously thrusting stage at the
original Guthrie in Minneapolis

Ah, but the play’s the thing. (But wait, it is only the fourth paragraph and you are already going to write something about the play itself? Wow.) I am not sure that I found the overall theme of The Habit of Art to be particularly profound, in fact there were moments where I found it slightly cringe-worthy in its theme of “somebody always gets left behind”. But, as with so many things by Bennett, the beauty (and fun) is not so much in the overall message but in the details and the language. He is a master of dialogue and nuanced, pithy, poignant, and hilarious observations of everyday things.

The Habit of Art presents a play within a play which makes it somewhat hard for me to convey the plot. Unlike some other plays within plays, this one is rather intricately woven together in a way that really blurs the lines sometimes. And I think Bennett goes out of his way to toy with the conceit. Set in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre in London a group of actors rehearse a play about Auden and Britten. While I enjoyed the play within the play as it explored the lives of Auden and Britten, I think I appreciated the play outside the play even more. As I struggle to write this I realize I won’t come close to conveying how this all works out and how much fun it is. But it is fun. One of the funnier moments that illustrates the moving back and forth between the play and the play within in the play happens when actor Fitz who is rehearsing his role as Auden audibly farts. He looks at the stage manager and says “That was Auden farting, not me.”

The set was wonderfully cluttered and English, right down to the fire exits and the acting was generally very good. Since most of you aren’t local, I won’t go into too much detail about the actors. Ted van Griethuysen played the actor playing Auden and was fantastic. However, Paxton Whitehead who was also fantastic as the actor who was playing Britten is someone you have all seen before. That is if you have watched popular US sitcoms or films over the past 20 years. On those sitcoms (Friends, Frasier, Mad About You, etc.) he is generally forced to play stereotypical caricatures of the British gent, but here he was able to be a much more normal version of the same.

Ted van Griethuysen and Paxton Whitehead. Photograph by Scott Suchman

With all of its quiet references to various aspects of English life, music, literature, drama, and pop culture, I do wonder how much of it was picked up by the rest of the audience. If you don’t know 20th century British classical music, do you really get the discussions of Britten’s music or the references to Walton and Tippett? And if you haven’t been so lucky to attend the bunker-like National Theatre in London would you pick up on the references to the Lyttelton, Cottesloe, or Olivier? I wanted to ask for a show of hands to see how many people knew what RADA is. But in the end, as much as I loved these references, I am not sure they mattered given how well the audience enjoyed the show. That is, except for the guy next to me who began checking his watch about 30 seconds into the first act and didn’t let up until it was all over.

Seeing something this enjoyable makes me think I need to get back into the habit of art.

9 thoughts on “The Habit of Art

  1. Frances October 14, 2011 / 6:54 pm

    You've made me wish I had been there. And reminded me to get back in the habit of art as well. I feel that the type of thing I used to do frequently is now only a 5 or 6 times a year kind of thing. Am I just tired? Or am I (sigh) just getting old?


  2. harriet October 15, 2011 / 3:49 am

    Sounds great. I'm a terrific homebody too so I totally understand how hard it must have been to go out, especially given the circumstances. Glad you did, for your sake and for this excellent review. Thanks.


  3. Jim Murdoch October 15, 2011 / 6:11 am

    I am also a homebody. I have only seen a handful of live plays so few that I could easily list them: three Becketts, one Pinter, one Woody Allen and five Shakespeare. I don’t understand why more plays are not recorded and made available for television audiences. It has been done. Had it not been done I would never have seen Peter O’Toole in Jeffery Barnard is Unwell but it is a rarity and one that makes me angry actually considering how much tripe is broadcast that must cost more that it would to send an outside broadcast unit out for a night’s entertainment.

    I am a huge fan of Alan Bennett’s work. I wonder how familiar you are with his early television plays. I wrote a couple of long blogs back in March 2010 introducing people to his work and there are numerous clips and links. If you’re interested you can see the first part here.


  4. Teresa October 15, 2011 / 9:08 am

    One of the reasons I signed up as a volunteer usher is that I'm a homebody at heart, but I also adore going to live theatre. The ushering commitment forces me to go, and the fact that it's free appeals to my inner cheapskate.

    Anyway, I agree with all you say about this production. The overall message of it was nothing special, but the performances and the staging were fabulous. All in the details, as you say. I saw The History Boys in that same house, and I loved it just as much. Studio is a favorite for me largely because of its small houses. I've thought a lot of their shows wouldn't play so well in larger theatres.


  5. winstonsdad October 15, 2011 / 9:44 am

    this sounds great I loved history boys it is one of my favourite pieces by bennett I like talking heads best they were such touching pieces full of the quirks of life ,all the best stu


  6. JoAnn October 15, 2011 / 9:27 pm

    You may be describing a phenomenon of aging… once you return home, it gets harder and harder to go out in the evening! We've made an effort this year to get back into the arts with season tickets to the opera and individual tickets to other events.

    I've never seen Alan Bennett's plays, but loved The Uncommon Reader and The Clothes They Stood Up In.


  7. Toby Worthington October 17, 2011 / 11:07 am

    Much as I admire Alan Bennett's work (and got to
    see him in A Question of Attribution, and A Chip in
    the Sugar) for some reason or other, The History Boys
    left me cold. It seemed a contrivance from first to last
    and I wasn't buying one word of it~despite the eye
    candy contribution of Dominic Cooper. It is Bennett's
    monologues which reign supreme over all his output.
    Subtle and sly, they unfold gradually and in the end
    you are simply knocked out~ in the best possible way.


  8. Darlene October 17, 2011 / 12:21 pm

    I was listening to a Richard Bacon podcast recently in which he was talking to James Corden. Corden said that Mr Bennett would read poetry to the cast while filming was going on for The History Boys. Can you imagine how wonderful that would have been?

    Glad you made the effort to get to the play, it sounds wonderful.


  9. Thomas at My Porch October 17, 2011 / 12:30 pm

    Frances: I think they have extended the run to the 23rd. At least you have kids as an excuse.

    Harriet: I think I have to make more of an effort.

    Jim: I definitely need to look into his early stuff and your post is a great place to start that is for sure. My knowledge of Bennett begins with the Talking Heads. And even then I am more familiar with the audio recordings than the video. Julie Walters' portrayel of a D-list actress is my favorite, but I can't remember the name of it at the moment.

    Teresa: I ushered once at the Studio but I have no idea what I saw that night. No idea. My favorite at the Studio was Caroline, or Change by Kushner. Such a great cast. Saw another gay-themed one there that was painfully bad.

    Stu: I love the Talking Heads series.

    JoAnn: I could blame it on aging but it started in my twenties. I think I am just prone to intertia.

    Toby: I agree about The History Boys. I got to see Maggie Smith The Lady in the Van which was great but I was a little jet lagged for the performance.

    Darlene: That would be cool indeed.


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