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Playwright Alan Bennett in Boston Globe

On April 22, NT Live will broadcast Bennett’s play “The Habit of Art” to cinemas worldwide.  For details: www.ntlive.com 

April 18, 2010

When London theater comes to a Brookline screen
By Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff  

British playwright Alan Bennett is best known in this country for “The History Boys’’ and “The Madness of George III,’’ both of which he adapted into films. With Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore, he also wrote and starred in the influential ’60s satirical revue “Beyond the Fringe.’’

His latest play, “The Habit of Art,’’ now playing to full houses in London, is directed by Nicholas Hytner and stars Richard Griffiths. A witty, touching examination of the power and frailty of artists, the limits of biography, and the role of theater, “The Habit of Art’’ presents an imagined meeting between the poet W.H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten near the end of their lives, after a 25-year break in their friendship — framed in an equally imagined play about that meeting, with the actors’ interactions in rehearsal breaking into the scene.

“NT Live,’’ the program that has already brought “Phedre’’ and other National Theatre productions to screens around the world, will air a live, high-definition broadcast of “The Habit of Art’’ this Thursday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

From his home in London, the affable, modest Bennett, 75, talked last week about “The Habit of Art,’’ the habits of artists, and other subjects, from Hollywood to talking furniture. Here’s a condensed version.

Q. “The Habit of Art’’ is already a play within a play. How do you think it will change the audience’s experience to add another layer to all that, to make it a play within a play within a film?

A. I don’t know, really — I’m waiting to see. I’ve no notion myself.

Q. What led you to write the play in this form?
A. I wrote it as, as it were, a straight play, just the scene in Auden’s room. And it seemed a bit heavy, and I had to keep putting in explanations — the characters explaining to each other what they already knew, which is death to drama. After about two drafts, it occurred to me that if I did it as a play in rehearsal, the actors could be asking for explanations and they could be put in that way, with the author explaining to the audience as well as the actors all the things they needed to know. Also, it could be made funnier.

And the form suggested the blank-verse sort of excursions into the actors’ lives, and the kind of encomium to the National Theatre at the end, which is really from the heart — from me. It widened the possibilities.

Q. And made it possible to have such surreal touches as having Auden’s wrinkles speak, too.
A. That, and the furniture talking as well. Doing that, I thought, well, I wanted to do the exposition, but I didn’t want to have to go through all the boring business of it. I think both Nicholas Hytner and myself were most worried whether the audience would twig to it, but they got it right away.

Q. Were you having a bit of fun at the expense of that sort of experimental theater?
A. Well, when the actor playing the chair says, “I am a chair,’’ you know exactly in what sphere of theater you are. You’ve been there before. And the actors showed what could be done with it.

Q. It often seems that way, that the actors really bring the play to life in rehearsal.
A. Oh, yes, of course. It seems wooden, and then they do things with it you’d never imagine.
[John] Gielgud in “Forty Years On,’’ which was my first stage play proper — he transformed speeches which I thought were almost academic on the page and gave them life.

It’s also one of the pleasures of it. In the plays I’ve done in the National Theatre, we always have a reading when we’ve got a script more or less ready for rehearsal, with whatever actors are there at the time in other plays. But the first time we did that, with “The Madness of George III,’’ Nigel Hawthorne [who later starred] did the reading. And with him particularly, it was the first time you saw that this was more than you’d ever imagined it could be.

Sometimes it’s quite flat. The reading of “History Boys’’ was disastrous, I thought. But Nicholas Hytner thought it was fine, so I thought, all right.

Q. You and Hytner have worked together several times. What makes your collaboration work?
A. I always think that with him he’s very good at getting the mixture right between encouragement and criticism. If you get too much encouragement, then you think it’s all right, and you don’t need to do so much work. If you get too much criticism, it’s the same thing — it kind of quenches your endeavor; you don’t want to go on. He manages to get the mixture right, so that I’m encouraged to go on.

He’s very good with actors. You don’t get the sense when he comes into rehearsal that he’s sometimes carrying all the burdens of the National Theatre. All that is just left at the door, and so it’s his play, in a real sense. You’re putting aside life, and it’s just what’s happening there in the rehearsal room. And that’s joyous, really.

Q. And this play takes place entirely in the rehearsal room — with bits of the actors’ lives popping in.
A. Significantly, in the director’s absence. If the director had been present, he wouldn’t have allowed them to go down all these alleys.
That was also an aspect of how it was written. He would send back drafts with his notes on it. “Too much of this,’’ “Do we need that?’’ Gradually I realized I could feed these into the rehearsal format — and he began to write this play! It was a while before he twigged to it — and then he thought he deserved a credit.

Q. This play seems very much concerned with the question of one’s legacy, of what lives on in art after the artist dies. Is that the concern of a writer in later life?
A. I don’t think it’s particularly my concern. I don’t really think I have any life after I’m gone, and it doesn’t really bother me.

Britten, I think, did care about it. Auden, you never really knew. He was very wrapped up in himself always, but he wasn’t self-regarding in that way. Hs life wasn’t very much fun at the end, not being able to write — or not able to write poetry; he wrote an immense amount of criticism — it happens to poets more.

Q. Elsewhere you quote Auden saying, “Real artists are not nice people.’’ Do you believe that?
A. I think he did. Except he was so — not pleased with himself — but he was such an entity.

Q. So which is more important?
A. Being the artist or being nice? Oh, no, you’ve got to be the artist, and never mind what people think of you.


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