Intimate: Richard Griffiths (left) and Alex Jennings as W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten
"Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue." So wrote W. H. Auden, and Alan Bennett quotes him in the introduction to the text of his new play at the National Theatre, The Habit of Art. That is true, very often (with honourable exceptions, such as Chekhov), and it seems to be the problem both with this play and with another one about art, Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Line.
The artists at the centre of The Habit of Art are Auden and Benjamin Britten. They are now old and ill, but were intimate friends and collaborators — and perhaps lovers — when they were young. In real life, after 1942, they were permanently estranged. In Bennett's play, they meet again in 1972 in a slovenly artist's grace-and-favour flat at the back of Christ Church, Oxford, where Auden is the college's guest. Britten is visiting Oxford and comes after so long to see Auden, to discuss the difficulties of writing what will be his last opera, Death in Venice. They discuss much more. All this is a play within a play: around the drama of Auden, Britten and a visiting rent boy is another drama set at the National Theatre, among the cast performing the play.
The result is a wonderfully entertaining evening. Anyone who is tired of Bennett must be tired of life. He writes plays that are full of wit and witticisms. Habit is often very funny and sometimes extremely moving, even if it does lack the scope and the perfection of The History Boys. The actors, particularly Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, are so accomplished and exquisitely sensitive to the nuances of comedy and of pain that it is hard to imagine how the play could have been better performed, or indeed better directed or produced.
There are many subtle jokes and reflections in both the inner and the outer play. But even the less subtle are irresistible. "You aren't being asked to do anything," Auden tells a newly arrived young man, who is (unknown to the poet) an earnest interviewer. "You're being paid. This is a transaction. I am going to suck you off." "But I'm with the BBC," protests the young man. "Really?" says Auden. "Well, that can't be helped. Ideally, I would have preferred someone who was more a son of the soil, but it takes all sorts. In New York, one of the rent boys worked at the Pierpont Morgan Library." To which the young man replies indignantly, "I am not a rent boy. I was at Keble."