Alan Bennett writes about his new play

By the time Auden came to live in the Brewhouse, a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, in 1972 I had long since left Oxford and in any case would never have had the nerve to speak to him. I’d first heard his voice in Exeter College hall some time in 1955. The lower end of the scholars’ table where I was sitting was only a yard or two from high table where the dons dined and, hearing those harsh, quacking tones without knowing whose they were, I said to my neighbour that it sounded like the voice of the devil. Someone better informed put me right. It was Auden, at that time still with blondish hair and the face yet to go under the harrow.

I don’t think I’d read much of his poetry or would have understood it if I had, but when Auden gave his inaugural lecture as professor of poetry the following year I dutifully went along, knowing, though not quite why, that he was some sort of celebrity. At that time I still harboured thoughts of becoming a Writer (and I thought of it in capital letters), so when Auden outlined what he took to be the prerequisites of a literary life, or at any rate a life devoted to poetry, I was properly dismayed. Besides favourite books, essential seemed to be a literary landscape (Leeds?), a knowledge of metre and scansion and (this was the clincher) a passion for the Icelandic sagas. If writing meant passing this kind of kit inspection, I’d better forget it. What Auden was saying (and he said it pretty regularly) was ‘All do as I do,’ which is what unhelpful writers often say when asked about their profession, though few with such seeming conviction and authority as the newly inaugurated professor of poetry.

He used to hold court in the Cadena, but it wasn’t a café I cared for. There were undergraduates I knew at whom Auden made passes, though I was still young and innocent enough to find a pass as remarkable as the person making it.

When he died in 1973 his death seemed to me less a loss to poetry – the poetry was largely over – than a loss to knowledge. Auden was a library in himself and now all this store – the reading, the categories, the associations – had gone down with that great listing clay-coloured hulk. And though much of what he knew he had written down and published, either as lectures or in reviews, there was always more, the flurry of memoirs and reminiscences of the poet and his talk that began almost immediately on his death not only a testament to his life but an attempt to salvage some of the wisdom he had discarded in conversation – and some of the unwisdom, too.

In The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll, a Christ Church don, wrote: ‘What I tell you three times is true.’ With Auden, also at Christ Church, it was the opposite. What Auden said three times you would begin to doubt and when he’d said it a dozen times nobody cared anyway. Auden somewhere makes the distinction between being boring and being a bore. He was never boring – he was too extraordinary for that – but by the time he came back to live in Oxford he had become a bore. His discourse was persistently pedagogic; he was never not teaching and/or showing off how much he knew, always able to make a long arm and reach for references unavailable to his less well-read hearers. As he got towards the end of his life his conversation and his pedagogy got more and more repetitive, which must have been a particular disappointment to his colleagues at Christ Church where, when he had been briefly resident in the past, he had been an enlivening member of the common room. Now he was just infuriating.

What they had been hoping for was, understandably, some form of enlightenment and entertainment. This was made plain early on in the The Habit of Art, in a speech by the Dean which had to be cut, as favourite bits of my scripts often are.

The Brewhouse is not a garret, quite; say sheltered accommodation rather. A granny flat. But mark this. If the college is minded to provide this accommodation it’s for nothing so vulgar as a poet in residence. This isn’t Keele, still less is it East Anglia. No. We see it as providing a niche – young persons nowadays might even call it a pad – for one of our most renowned graduates. If it is a touch spartan, blame the Bursar but then, the point of Parnassus was never the upholstery. Besides the hope is that undergraduates will find their way up the stairs to sit not in the chairs but at these famous feet. But remember, we are not asking the great man to do. His doing after all is mostly done. No. We are asking him to be. Count the poet’s presence here as one of those extra-curricular plums that only Oxford has to offer. Fame in the flesh can be a part of education and in the person of this most celebrated poet the word is made flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth.

But to everyone’s disappointment – the college, the students, Auden himself – it didn’t turn out like that. But say it had been Larkin at the same stage of his life – he wasn’t much fun either at the finish.

In 1972, when Auden arrived in Oxford, Britten was well advanced in the writing of Death in Venice, his last opera. Neither poet nor composer was in good health, with Auden six years older than Britten. I never met or even saw Britten, but find I wrote about him in my diary in June 2006:*

16 June. Having seen the TV programme on which it was based I’ve been reading Britten’s Children by John Bridcut. Glamorous though he must have been and a superb teacher, I find Britten a difficult man to like. He had his favourites, children and adults, but both Britten and Pears were notorious for cutting people out of their lives (Eric Crozier is mentioned here, and Charles Mackerras), friends and acquaintances suddenly turned into living corpses if they overstepped the mark. A joke would do it, and though Britten seems to have had plenty of childish jokes with his boy singers, his sense of humour isn’t much in evidence elsewhere. And it was not merely adults that were cut off. A boy whose voice suddenly broke could find himself no longer invited to the Red House or part of the group – a fate which the boys Bridcut quotes here seem to have taken philosophically but which would seem potentially far more damaging to a child’s psychology than too much attention. One thinks, too, of the boys who were not part of the charmed circle. There were presumably fat boys and ugly boys or just plain dull boys who could, nevertheless, sing like angels. What of them?

Britten and Peter Pears came disastrously to Beyond the Fringe some time in 1961. Included in the show was a parody of Britten written by Dudley Moore, in which he sang and accompanied himself in ‘Little Miss Muffet’ done in a Pears and Britten-like way. I’m not sure that this in itself would have caused offence: it shouldn’t have as, like all successful parodies, there was a good deal of affection in it and it was funny in its own right. But Dudley (who may have known them slightly and certainly had met them) unthinkingly entitled the piece ‘Little Miss Britten’. Now Dudley was not malicious nor had he any reason to mock their homosexuality, of which indeed he may have been unaware (I don’t think I knew of it at the time). But with the offending title printed in the programme, they were reported to be deeply upset and Dudley went into outer darkness as probably did the rest of us.

There’s a story told in Tony Palmer’s superb film about Britten, A Time There Was, of how when Kathleen Ferrier was working with the composer on The Rape of Lucretia there was quite a serious quarrel (though not with her). Britten tells the story against himself of how Ferrier took him on one side and said: ‘Oh Ben. Do try and be nice.’ And he says, slightly surprised: ‘And it worked.’ Both Britten and Auden’s works were in better taste than their lives. ‘Real artists are not nice people,’ Auden wrote. ‘All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.’

The Habit of Art was not easy to write though its form is quite simple, because so much information had to be passed over to the audience about Auden and his life and about Britten and his and about their earlier association. Thinking of Beyond the Fringe, now nearly half a century ago, makes me realise how I have projected onto Britten particularly some of the feelings I had when I was a young man, not much older than he was and thrust into collaboration (which was also competition) with colleagues every bit as daunting as Auden. Recalling their early collaborations (in another passage from the play since cut) Britten remembers his slightly desperate attempts to keep up with Auden and make a contribution besides the musical one:

In those days I used to bring along a few carefully worked out notions I’d had for the film shots and sequences but it was no good. Wystan, you see, could never admit that I’d thought of anything first.

‘Oh yes,’ he’d say as if I was just reminding him of something he’d thought of earlier. You could never tell Wystan anything, just remind him of it.

Either that or he’d scamper off with your idea and make it his own … and not merely an idea. A whole country.

Wystan was the first person to go to Iceland, did you know that? And Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Wystan did.

While this seems to me a true assessment of Britten’s early relationship with Auden it also chimes with my experiences in 1960. So, though in some ways I find Britten unsympathetic he, much more than Auden, is the character I identify with.

When I started writing the play I made much use of the biographies of both Auden and Britten written by Humphrey Carpenter and both models of their kind. Indeed I was consulting his books so much that eventually Carpenter found his way into the play. His widow, Mari Prichard, was more than helpful over this, though feeling – and I’m sure rightly – that I hadn’t done justice to him as a biographer or as a personality. I had had the same problem in The Madness of George III when trying to fit in another character who was larger than life, namely Charles James Fox. To have given him his proper due would have meant him taking over the play. And so it is with Humphrey Carpenter, my only excuse being that he would have been the first to understand this and to be unsentimental about it. When he turned up on the stage he tended to hang about and act as commentator, often speaking directly to the audience. This was useful as he could explain points of fact and saved the main characters from telling each other stuff both of them knew already but the audience didn’t. Even so there was still a good deal of explaining left to be done. It’s a perennial problem for dramatists and one which Ibsen, for instance, never satisfactorily solved, or, so far as I can see, ever tried to.

Towards the end of the play Carpenter mildly reproves Auden and Britten for being so concerned about their reputations, when their audience, Auden’s readers, Britten’s hearers, are anxious simply to draw a line under them both. They don’t want more poetry; they don’t want more music; they want – as they say nowadays – closure. Guilty at occasionally entertaining such thoughts myself à propos Updike’s relentless output, for instance, I was reassured to find myself not alone in feeling like this. On the death of Crabbe Lord Melbourne wrote: ‘I am always glad when one of those fellows dies for then I know I have the whole of him on my shelf.’ Which is, of course, the cue for biography.

This is the fifth play on which Nicholas Hytner and I have collaborated, not counting two films. Asked, as one inevitably is in Question and Answer sessions, what this collaboration consists in I can describe it in general terms: discussion on various drafts of the script for instance, decisions on casting and suchlike, but I can seldom be satisfyingly precise and nor can he. There are seldom rows or even arguments; neither of us, that I remember, ever sulks. It’s so amicable that directors or authors of a more abrasive or histrionic turn of mind might think that the creative process was being shortchanged. However, believers in creative conflict will be reassured to hear that this play has been different.

If Ibsen couldn’t explain things it’s not surprising that I found it hard, so, whereas Nicholas Hytner had liked the first draft, he was less keen on the second, the script returned neatly annotated with remarks like ‘Do we need to know this?’, ‘Too much information’ and ‘Haven’t we had this already?’

At this point (though not as a result), in April 2008, I had to go into hospital. This knocked me back a bit and the last thing I wanted to be worrying about was the play. I therefore asked for it to be taken out of the National Theatre schedule (it had been slated for October 2008) until further notice. When I took it up again I found the problems to do with too much information had not gone away, but it occurred to me that the business of conveying the facts could be largely solved if a frame were put round the play by setting it in a rehearsal room. Queries about the text and any objections to it could then be put in the mouths of the actors who (along with the audience) could have their questions answered in the course of the rehearsal.

There was an unexpected bonus to this in that, when as happened on the next couple of drafts, Nicholas Hytner raised objections, these queries, too, could just be passed on to the actors. ‘Do we need this?’ NH would write in the margin. And on the next draft he would find ‘Do we need this?’ (his own query) given to the actor. At one point he suggested cutting a pretty tortuous section on Auden’s (to me) impenetrable poem The Sea and the Mirror. We had a discussion about it and I duly cut it but then introduced the author as a character complaining about the cut. I found all this quite enjoyable, but it happened so often I began to feel the director almost deserved an author’s credit.

Less of this, more of that, the director is in the first instance an editor and so it is with Nicholas Hytner and myself. He likes action more than he does discussion so it’s often the more reflective passages that get cut though they’re not always lost. Sometimes they end up in the introduction or, greatly condensed, I manage to smuggle them back into the text – even though this may have to wait until another play comes along: the fractured speech about biography that begins the play was actually a casualty from Kafka’s Dick, written more than 20 years ago. Still, it’s a pragmatic process and I’m thankful never to have reached that eminence which would endow every sentence I write with significance and make it untouchable.

There is some talk in the play about Auden’s propensity to edit his poems, with his older self censoring what in his younger self he found dishonest or embarrassing. I think he was mistaken, but provided the original survives, which it does both in print and in his readers’ heads, it doesn’t seem to me to matter much, and just gives editors and bibliophiles something to talk about. To censor one’s work is tempting, though. While I was writing The Habit of Art an earlier play of mine, Enjoy (1980), was revived. At its first outing it wasn’t well received and were I writing it today there are things I wouldn’t include and dialogue I would do differently. That I didn’t cut it or alter it I would like to think was from reading about Auden falling into a similar time-trap. But if I left the play as it was, it was just through laziness and a feeling that by this time the director and the cast probably knew more about it than I did.

The stylistic oddities in The Habit of Art – rhyming furniture, neighbourly wrinkles, and words and music comparing notes – may just be an attempt to smuggle something not altogether factual past the literalist probation officer who’s had me in his charge for longer than I like to think and who I would have hoped might have retired by now. Or it may be that whatever oddities there are come under Edward Said’s category of Late Style. Feeling I’d scarcely arrived at a style, I now find I’m near the end of it. I’m not quite sure what Late Style means except that it’s some sort of licence, a permit for ageing practitioners to kick their heels up. I don’t always need that and I’m often mildly surprised when something I’ve included in a script almost as a joke gets treated in production as seriously as the rest. ‘Gracie Fields?’ I jotted in the margin of The History Boys and the next thing I knew they were rehearsing ‘Sing as We Go’.

The probation officer or the internal censor one is always trying to outflank chimes with Britten’s plea on behalf of constraint which, while true to his character, is also not unsympathetic to mine. With Britten censorship was home-grown, his personal policeman never off duty. Stage censorship itself was abolished in 1968, the year of my first play, so I’ve never been seriously incommoded by it. On the other hand, I regretted its abolition insofar as it seemed to me to deplete significantly the armoury of the dramatist. With censorship there was a line between what one could and couldn’t say and the nearer one got to this line the greater the tension: how candid did one dare to be? Would the men kiss or the women fondle? After censorship went, the dramatist had to manufacture tension of his/her own.

An author is sometimes surprised by what he or she has written. A play or a novel may start off as having nothing seemingly to do with his or her earlier work and then as it progresses, or even long after it is finished, it can be seen to relate to themes or persons written about in previous books or plays. It was only when I was finishing the play that I realised that Stuart, the rent boy, is only the latest of a succession of not always similar characters who have found their way into my plays, beginning with my second play, Getting On, where he’s related to the young jobbing carpenter, Geoff, who is another young man who feels himself shut out (and sees sex as a way in). He in turn is fellow to the rather pathetic young man, Eric, in The Old Country, whose complaint is similar to Stuart’s (and to Leonard Bast’s in Howards End). He’s less obviously out of the same box as Coral Browne, who, visiting Guy Burgess in his seedy flat in Moscow in An Englishman Abroad, pauses by a bookshelf (oh, those bookshelves!) obviously baffled by most of its contents and even more so by Burgess’s questions about Harold Nicolson, Cyril Connolly and London literary life. The wife in Kafka’s Dick is another unmetropolitan waif, and the sports-mad Rudge in The History Boys, rather than the sensitive Posner, is the real outsider.

I ought to be embarrassed by these recurrences and did I feel they had anything to do with me I might be. But these personages slip in through the back door or disguised as somebody else altogether and it’s only when, like Stuart, they want their say and make a plea for recognition and acknowledgment that I realise the uninvited guest is here again.

I ought to know who this figure is, but I’m not sure that I do. Is he myself as a young man at Oxford baffled by the academic world? Is he one of the young actors in my first play, Forty Years On, many of whom I feared would have wasted lives? Is he even one of the procession of young actors who have auditioned over the years to play such parts and who have had to be sent away disappointed?

Some of the yearning felt in this play by Stuart in the houses of his clientele reflects my own wonder as an undergraduate going to tutorials in the vast Victorian houses of North Oxford. I was there on a different, and more legitimate, errand from Stuart, but to see a wall covered in books was an education in itself, though visual and aesthetic as much as intellectual. Books do furnish a room and some of these rooms had little else, and there in a corner the don under a lamp. Sometimes though, there would be paintings, and occasionally more pictures than I’d ever seen on one wall, together with vases, urns, pottery and other relics – real nests of a scholarly life. And there were wonders, too: drinking soup, once, from 15th-century Apostle spoons, medieval embroideries thrown over chair backs, a plaque in the hall that might be by Della Robbia.

These days I think of such houses when I go to museums like the Ashmolean or the Fitzwilliam, where the great masterpieces are plumped out with the fruits of bequests from umpteen academic households: paintings (particularly in the Fitzwilliam), antiquities, treasures brought back from Egypt and Italy in more franchised days than ours, squirrelled away up Norham Road and Park Town, the components of what Stuart rightly sees as a world from which he will forever be excluded – and from which I felt excluded too, though with less reason.

[*] Published in the LRB of 4 January 2007.