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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


The Habit of Art

Alan Bennett

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To purchase The Habit of Art

Title: The Habit of Art
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Drama
Written: 2009
Length: 96 pages
Availability: The Habit of Art - US
The Habit of Art - UK
The Habit of Art - Canada
The Habit of Art - India
  • The Habit of Art was first performed at the National Theatre on 5 November 2009, in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings
  • With an Introduction by the author

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Our Assessment:

A- : most enjoyable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A- 18/11/2009 Michael Billington
The Independent . 18/11/2009 Paul Taylor
New Statesman . 26/11/2009 Andrew Billen
The NY Times . 20/11/2009 Matt Wolf
The Observer A 22/11/2009 Susannah Clapp
Sunday Times . 22/11/2009 Chirstopher Hart
The Telegraph A 18/11/2009 Charles Spencer
The Times B 18/11/2009 Benedict Nightingale
Wall Street Journal . 23/9/2011 Terry Teachout

  Review Consensus:

  Found it very appealing

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he play has enough layers to make Pirandello blanch. At times, there is so much scaffolding you can't always see the main property. (...) Bennett's play is at its strongest when it deals with the theme implicit in its title: the idea that, for the artist, creativity is a constant, if troubling imperative." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Thereís an implicit contrast between this Britten opera -- which with its arty symbolism and Apollonian evasiveness feels like a case not so much of self-outing as of putting a cat-flap in the closet door after the moggy has bolted -- and the rollicking irreverence and recklessness of The Habit of Art, which mixes hard-won wisdom about such matters as the meaning of collaboration, the dubious value of biography (Carpenter wrote a life of Britten, too) and flurries of delirious silliness." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

  • "What stops The Habit of Art being the melancholy, Chekhovian one-act play it might have been is all the funny business Bennett places around it." - Andrew Billen, New Statesman

  • "This may not be the tidiest evening Mr. Bennett has ever put before us but who cares ? In a substantive way, The Habit of Art feels every bit as personal to him as The Tempest, a text of seminally vexatious importance to Auden, clearly was to Shakespeare" - Matt Wolf, The New York Times

  • "Actually, though, the lure of a Bennett play doesn't lie in historical themes; it comes from sentences, riffs and free-standing blasts. Audiences go to hear not just his voice, ventriloquised through his characters, but his views. Bennett has just as many arguments and ideas as David Hare, though they aren't honed and sequential. The structure is precarious, sometimes ramshackle as it skips from scene to scene. But that ricketiness ceases to matter when it is engulfed by a tsunami of jokes, a tidal wave of argumentative statements, a gorgeous gust of opinion." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer

  • "But his handling of the framing device in general tells you almost everything about Bennettís particular talent. Itís deft, amusing, and so intelligently and generously crafted that it makes you feel clever just watching it. At the same time, itís completely lacking in the kind of political subversiveness that Brecht got out of his theatrical games, let alone the existential dizziness and disturbance of Pirandello. Nevertheless, Bennett gets a great deal of fun out of it -- as do we." - Christopher Hart, Sunday Times

  • "The Habit of Art is another absolute cracker, often wonderfully and sometimes filthily funny (this is not a show for the prudish), but also deeply and unexpectedly moving." - Charles Spencer, The Telegraph

  • "So much of The Habit of Art is so engaging, it seems churlish to point out its basic problem: which is that even the excellence of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings canít stop one feeling that Bennett doesnít fully trust his material. He isnít confident that his portraiture can sustain a full-length play." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "As messy as it sounds on paper, Mr. Bennett makes everything clear onstage, and he has also written a fabulous star-turn for the lucky actor who plays the lucky actor who plays Auden. (...) So why is The Habit of Art, which was a smash hit in London, receiving its U.S. premiere in Washington instead of New York ? Perhaps because it doesn't quite work -- at least not as well as it should." - Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Habit of Art nests one play -- Caliban's Day -- within another, as the action consists of an (oft-interrupted) run-through of this play about W.H.Auden and Benjamin Britten. Bennett handles the two levels and various layers masterfully (and very amusingly): one might imagine play-rehearsal plays have been done to death, but Bennett proves otherwise.
       The theatre-world of rehearsals is nicely captured: stage manager Kay trying to keep everyone happy and everything moving along, the director absent (off to Leeds to host a conference he'd forgotten about), the playwright making an (unwelcome) appearance. The author is, of course, dismayed at what is being made of his work -- "It's like chimpanzees meddling with a watch" -- while some of the actors also have their own ideas about how to enhance the piece, with the actor playing Humphrey Carpenter offering a tuba-rendition, played in drag, after the break ("I wanted to make it plain that Carpenter was a man of many parts").
       Caliban's Day features the old Auden in his (incredibly messy) lodgings at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1972. He has appointments with both a rent boy and BBC journalist Humphrey Carpenter (who would go on to write biographies of both Auden and Britten) -- leading, of course, to the obvious mix-up (which all take rather in stride). Later, Auden also has a meeting with his former collaborator, Benjamin Britten, who cut him out of his life (as he was apparently wont to do) but now looks for some advice regarding his Death in Venice opera, which he isn't getting much support for elsewhere.
       Auden gets to reflect on art and life and old age, a perfect mouthpiece for Bennett. "In the end art is small beer", Auden says, but he's also in the habit of it and can't escape it -- and even if he can't stir things up quite as he once did: "Still, I rankle, which is not unsatisfying."
       Throughout there is also the issue of the men's homosexuality and passions -- which, in Britten's case, extends to rather too young boys (though he's much too proper to ever act improperly on that impulse -- he just composes about it (and auditions lads for the part)). With that slightly world-weary tone of been-there and done-that, Auden and Britten can comment on the state of current and old affairs, their own predilections hardly of much note or concern any longer. (It's not just in Caliban's Day itself the subject is addressed: Bennett also has the actor playing Britten show himself to be particularly knowledgeable about the rent boy scene of yesteryear.) Their partners elsewhere, Auden and Britten certainly seem way past any romantic prime (though Britten does seem slightly wistful about that); as the sex-scenes with the rent boy suggest, Auden is at this point simply going through some rather easy motions -- when they fit his schedule -- and there's practically nothing more to it.
       As almost always, Bennett's writing is crisp and fast and funny, but thoughtful too: he can manage farce straight out of Frayn's Noises Off, but adds a layer or two of more serious material to it. If the structure can seem slightly tired, the words and action excuse it: this is bright and wonderfully entertaining stuff, a very fine play about art and aging.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 September 2010

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The Habit of Art: Reviews: W.H.Auden: Benjamin Britten: Alan Bennett: Other books by Alan Bennett under review: Books by Humphrey Carpenter under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author, playwright, and actor Alan Bennett appeared in Beyond the Fringe and has written numerous highly acclaimed works.

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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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