When lists are drawn of Britain’ leading dramatists, Pinter, Hare and Churchill jostle for position. One name, though, is all too often absent: Alan Bennett. The 57-year-old London-based Yorkshireman hasn’t lost a trace of the working-class accent that was his birthright as one of two sons born into a Leeds butcher’s family. Bennett shares with that other playwriting Alan—i.e., Ayckbourn—an uncanny skill for anatomising his countrymen’s habits and foibles, but he has been even less frequently performed in the United States than his prolific peer.
Why? “Too English,” everybody says. The comment began to circulate with his first big success, Forty Years On (1968), which was never seen in New York. The Jujamcyn Company considered—and then passed on—a Broadway run of his 1988 West End double-bill Single Spies. Peculiarly, Bennett’s only real stab at Broadway came with what to his eyes was a “very bad” 1975 production of the farce Habeas Corpus, notable mostly for featuring an unknown actor named Richard Gere in its supporting cast. Off-Broadway, Bennett has drawn a complete blank.
The result is that audiences need to be in Britain to see Bennett’s work, which in some ways is no bad thing. Bennett is indeed a leading chronicler of the English character: “It’s the only thing I know,” he explains with typical understatement. But how incisively he knows it! Steep yourself in a festival of Bennett plays, films and texts, and no English figure—from a shop assistant right up to and including the Queen—is likely ever to look quite the same again.
Britain has what amounts to just such an impromptu festival on offer right now, with no fewer than three evenings of Bennett on simultaneous view. A staged presentation of three of his Talking Heads, chosen from among the six 1987 monologues which he filmed for the BBC, has just arrived on the West End for a 10-week run at the Comedy Theatre. (Only one o the monologues, Bed Among the Lentils, starring Maggie Smith, was aired in the U.S.) The show allows local audiences to reacquaint themselves with the milquetoast momma’s boy, Graham, in A Chip in the Sugar, acted unforgettably by the playwright; as well as the epistle-obsessed Irene Ruddock (played by Patricia Routledge on TV and on stage) in A Lady of Letters.
The National Theatre has two Bennett hits in repertory, both directed by Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon): the return engagement of his sellout 1990 adaptation of The Wind in the Willows and an original new play, The Madness of George III, starring Nigel Hawthorne. Coming after his 1988 one-act A Question of Attribution, which made history by daring to dramatize Queen Elizabeth not as a figure of caricature but as a complex woman in her own right, this confirmation of Bennett’s interest in royalty might surprise those familiar with his keen attention to society’s more ordinary and mundane inhabitants—the alcoholic vicar’s wife, for example, in Bed Among the Lentils, or the hobbling pensioner Doris (played by Thora Hird) in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, another in the Talking Heads lineup.
All of which proves Bennett’s fondness for subverting expectation, which he accomplishes on a personal level as well. Gracious and articulate, he nonetheless keeps contact with journalists to a minimum. When he does open up, his mild manner belies an angry, impassioned response to a surprising variety of topics, from Mrs. Thatcher’s decade-long hegemony (“I was so pleased to see her go—she had destroyed so much”) to the ongoing divisiveness of the British class system (“You grew up thinking, ‘You were who you were, and that’s where you were going to stay'”). Bennett, of course, left far behind the way of life of his parents, winning first a scholarship to Oxford and then achieving fame in the early ’60s as one of the Beyond the Fringe quartet alongside Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and his north London neighbor, Jonathan Miller.
One senses that his ascent through British society has given Bennett a unique angle on the subject, freeing him from the fear that might have kept others form tackling such a sacrosanct topic as the Royal family. But the houses of Hanover and Windsor don’t begin to account for his chosen terrain. For TV, he has written about Proust (102 Boulevard Haussmann, with Alan Bates) and about Kafka (The Insurance Man, starring Daniel Day Lewis), and again about Kafka in 1986 in the Royal Court play, Kafka’s Dick, whose title, yes, does refer to a penis, and not a private eye. His screenplay for Prick Up Your Ears, Stephen Frears’ film biography of Joe Orton, examines the most celebrated murderous liaison of the ’60s, yet here again biography functions as a guide to larger issues of national temperament. Far from a gossipy “and then he said”-style saga of a doomed gay couple, Prick Up Your Ears works as a comment on a kind of permanent English drear, evident in everything from Orton and Halliwell’s Islington bedsit to the psychological constrictions against which Orton’s work sent such shock waves at the time.
“To me it always seems like I’m thinking of things to write without them fitting into any scheme. They don’t seem to add up, although I supposed they can be made to,” says Bennett, who takes an unsurprising line as the last person willing to perform exegeses on his own output. But common to all his writing is a reluctance to take people, or situations, at face value. The weekly puppet show Spitting Image may poke regular fun at the Royals, but Bennett’s Elizabeth II emerged as the canniest of critics, as adept at spotting fraudulent human beings (the spy Sir Anthony Blunt, her art advisor) as fraudulent works of art. Played inimitably by Prunella Scales (in a performance preserved for John Schlesinger’s 1991 TV version), HMQ was possessed of a quiet and confident wit dismissing Buckingham Palace as “one of one’s houses” and eager not to be painted by Francis Bacon lest she emerge as “a screaming queen.” If Bennett is willing to find shading in convenient objects of parody, he’s equally unwilling to play the sentimentalist. His working-class folk in Talking Heads are seen clear-headedly and in the round, as much victims of individually wayward psychologies as of the forbidding cloak of class.
His National Theatre duo furthers this argument. The Wind in the Willows may have twice represented the theatre’s Christmas extravaganza, but Bennett folds into his view of Kenneth Grahame’s River Bank a gentle critique of Britain’s social and sexual mores. (“I’m not sure some of the audience like that,” he chuckles when asked about it.) His George III not only gives Nigel Hawthorne the role of his career to date, but it attempts to be nothing less than a modern-day King Lear, a connection made explicit in a second-act scene in which George and his minions read Shakespeare’s tragedy aloud. That it doesn’t fully succeed scarcely surprises—how many plays equal Lear?—but Benneth’s take on England once again does.
A lament for a bygone grandeur, The Madness of George III is a play about depletion writ large and small, produced—in a cunning paradox—on an overtly epic scale. “It’s really just the story of George III getting ill and getting better,” Bennett remarks of the play, giving himself the lie. No Alan Bennett text is ever “just” about anything, any more than the current spate of Bennett-iana is “just” an accident. At a time in which British writing seems increasingly programmatic, Bennett seems to be leading his own quiet revolution—which may well turn out to be just glorious.
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