Ben & Wystan

Alan Bennett’s THE HABIT OF ART, April 22, 2010
National Theatre, London—via simulcast at NYU

Is squalid solitude prerequisite to habitual art? A case can be made, no doubt. Yet it was strange to see Auden portrayed so slobbering, forgetful, corpulent—a man in a barely buttonable cardigan, wobbling with fat and pissing into his kitchen sink. Still more dispiriting to feel, after two hours of stage talk, that whatever potential insight into the Britten-Auden relationship, or into Auden or Britten individually, or into habit or art, had been waylaid by throwaway bons mots, obligatory allusions, tweetable bits of philosophy, and well-wrung jokes about rent-boys. The mise-en-abyme was meant for art to permeate art, for the imagined scenario to stay open-ended—okay—but here the meta meddled and one was left with a sense of emptiness. (Past its artful phrasings, the play did not feel much more vivid and penetrating, say, than that other recent account of an Auden-generation pair, the far less sophisticated but earnestly sympathetic documentary Chris & Don (2007).) Giving literal voice to Auden’s wrinkled facescape: the sole brilliant fantasia.

Of course reviews have been (just about) uniformly glowing. Light bawdiness, quippy literariness: so theatre, so English.

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