By William Wolf


Two of the five plays that I saw at the National Theatre during my latest visit to London celebrated the arts, each in a different way. First let me say once again that going to the National is consistently rewarding, whether or not one likes everything one sees. This is one of the world’s great stage centers, where a point is made of trying to produce adventurous theater as well as giving new life to classics.

Approaching Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art,” directed by Nicholas Hytner and mounted at the Lyttelton, was like old home week. Our Drama Desk organization in New York had honored both Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour when they appeared on Broadway in “The History Boys.” Seeing them in a new work was reason enough to want to attend, and they fulfilled expectations, but “The Habit of Art” proved to be rewarding in other ways as well.

With an acerbic edge, de la Tour as Kay, the stage manager, firmly leads a cast through a run-through of a play in which the lionized poet W.H. Auden has a fictionalized encounter with composer Benjamin Britten. The portly Griffiths as the actor Fitz (Michael Gambon originally was to have the role) plays Auden and Alex Jenkins as the actor Henry portrays Britten, who is seeking Auden’s advice and help in his desire to create an opera from Thomas Mann’s novella “Death in Venice.” Auden yearns to write the libretto. The shifting between backstage banter, bickering and bitchery and the reading of the play itself proves to be an immensely entertaining format, and the colorful cast smoothly interprets Bennett’s witty situations and lines. Meanwhile, we savor depictions of Auden and Britten and the actors portraying them in this play within a play.

Bennett’s new work not only emerges as a tribute to Auden and Britten but as a contemplation about those who intersect with the lives of the greats and make contributions that go unheralded. It also pays tribute to actors who ply their craft in quest of greater roles and more extensive recognition, often by trying to build their parts into more than they are. Bennett endows such efforts with hilarity. Meanwhile, Elliot Levey as Neil, the author of the play being staged, has to keep warding off suggestions to make the work more popular. Kay doggedly keeps the process from getting out of hand.

Not surprisingly, homosexuality plays a role, with the suggestion that Britten and Auden shared a past. Auden is also expecting a “rent boy,” and accordingly, Bennett provides a plethora of jokes involving sexuality. Another key role is that of Donald playing Humphrey Carpenter, the renowned writer, broadcaster and biographer of both Auden and Britten. Donald/Carpenter is most effectively portrayed by Adrian Scarborough. Bennett is adept at applying his imagination to facts culled from history, and where there are no facts, simply making them up as well as injecting absurdist moments. The result is often uproariously funny, yet still enhanced by serious thought about the nature of art and those who create it.

Especially intriguing for me was the discourse concerning “Death in Venice” with respect to the protagonist Gustave von Aschenbach’s pursuit of the young Tadzio and its artistic meaning beyond the homo-erotic attraction. In the Cinema and Literature course that I teach at New York University I have students read Mann’s novella and then see the film that Luchino Visconti made from it. Bennett’s provocative dialogue is along the lines that our class discussion inevitably takes.

I hope that “The Habit of Art” can be imported to New York, although it is impossible to know how it would fare. “The History Boys” turned out to be well received, but lately the New York theater has been under intense pressure to have major, widely-recognizable stars in the cast.

I also hope that “The Pitmen Painters,” a co-production between the National Theatre. London and the Live Theatre, Newcastle, which I saw at the Lyttelton, makes it across the Atlantic. [I have since learned that the play will be brought to New York next fall and presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club.] Lee Hall’s play inspired by a book by William Feaver and directed by Max Roberts doesn’t have stars known to New Yorkers, but it does have a superb cast and it is a terrific work that stems from real events. In the 1930s a group of coal miners took an interest in art and began to paint. Their work became recognized and praised, and the phenomenon demonstrated that art can spring from anywhere. Their lives were greatly affected and Hall’s colorful play dramatizes their experience and its significance.

The play takes place in Ashington, Northumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne, London and Edinburgh between 1934 and 1947. I must confess that I had trouble cutting through some of the Newcastle accents. So did my wife, and she’s from England. But even if one misses some lines in the rapid dialogue, one can feel the intense spirit of the miners and grasp the drama and meaning of this moving work.

The miners become interested in painting when a tutor arrives to guide them, and there is much humor in their getting started and in their diverse personalities. These are union men, good and true, with loyalty to their fellow miners and to their traditions of working in the pits. A crisis arises when a woman who is fascinated by the work offers to become a benefactor to one of the men. The prospect of getting a regular stipend so he can paint is tempting, but the idea of being set apart form the others and the fear that he will be controlled and have his art corrupted cause a crisis of conscience. There is also resentment on the part of his comrades.

The play evokes excitement as recognition increases, and one is captivated by the way in which the miners are placed in the context of history. The ending is heartbreaking. World War II has ended, a Labour government has come to power and the miners exult in the hope for a socialist future with their dreams of a better life being gloriously fulfilled. Curtain. But a projected coda reminds us that their pits have since been shut down in the disappearance of the mining industry in Britain, symbolic of the subsequent overall letdown. However, the art of the Pitman Painters lives on through the homage paid by this engrossing play during which slides of their paintings are projected on a stage screen.

Thus in one season at the National there are two perspectives on art, one extremely sophisticated and connected to the higher echelons of academia and the world of classical music, the other an earthy example of art that can spring from the working class.


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