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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

A Question of Attribution

Alan Bennett

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To purchase A Question of Attribution

Title: A Question of Attribution
Author: Alan Bennett
Genre: Drama
Written: 1988
Length: 37 pages
Availability: in Single Spies - US
in Single Spies - UK
in Single Spies - Canada
  • An inquiry in which the circumstances are imaginary but the pictures are real
  • Published (and generally performed) together with An Englishman Abroad (see our review) as Single Spies
  • A Question of Attribution was made into a TV film in 1992, directed by John Schlesinger, starring James Fox
  • A Question of Attribution was first performed on 1 December 1988, in a production directed by Simon Callow and starring Alan Bennett as Blunt and Simon Callow as Chubb

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Our Assessment:

A : an excellent play about reality and appearances -- very clever, very entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 3/3/1989 Nicholas de Jongh
The NY Rev. of Books . 13/4/1989 Noel Annan
Punch . 6/1/1989 Sheridan Morley
The Washington Post . 2/7/1989 David S. Broder

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)arker and more stiltedly academic, depends almost entirely for its impact on Scales's imitation of the sovereign and the viewers' knowledge (only hinted in the script) that Blunt is a spy." - David S. Broder, The Washington Post

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:

       A Question of Attribution is generally performed together with An Englishman Abroad (see our review) as Single Spies. An Englishman Abroad focusses on Guy Burgess, while A Question of Attribution has another of the Cambridge spies as its central figure: Anthony Blunt, who remained in England and whose identity as a spy only was made public much later.
       Blunt was an art historian, director of the Courtauld Institute -- and caretaker of sorts of the royal art collection (he is "in charge of the Queen's pictures"). The play is set in the 1960s, before Blunt was exposed and disgraced.
       Much of the play involves the interplay between Blunt and Chubb. Chubb is, in a manner, interrogating and debriefing Blunt, trying to determine the identity of other English spies. But he is a proper Englishman too, and the interrogations take the form of rather chummy conversation. Bennett manages to keep their relationship in an odd sort of balance, each with surprises for the other, never exactly sure how much to trust the answers (or questions).
       Part of the play also takes place at Buckingham Palace, where Blunt takes one of his students to replace a picture that he wants to study. The Queen is supposed to be elsewhere, but her engagement is cancelled and she comes across Blunt at work. The repartee here is superb. (There is some danger here that audiences seeing a performance of the piece will focus too closely on how well the actress imitates Her Majesty, rather than accepting all this as fiction and focussing on the words instead.)
       A Question of Attribution is also about art, and uses art as a reflection of, specifically, Blunt's life (and his precarious position at the time). "Appearances deceive", Blunt warns. Like so many things: "Art is seldom quite what it seems." And Bennett uses this notion brilliantly in his play.
       Bennett uses two paintings in particular: Titian's Allegory of Prudence and a Triple Portrait, previously attributed to Titian. The play is perfectly built up around them, leading to the beautiful and chilling discovery at the end of additional unseen figures -- a perfect reflection of the Cambridge spies (and including the notorious fifth man).
       As Blunt tells the Queen:

Because something is not what it is said to be, Ma'am, does not mean it is a fake. It may just have been wrongly attributed.
       The piece is pitch- (and picture-) perfect, down to the deadpan Colin, Buckingham Palace footman. A Question of Attribution is both very funny and very clever -- while managing to avoid being merely clever for the sake of cleverness. It is, in all respects, a great play.

       (Note also that Alan Bennett himself played Blunt in the original London productions. Those lucky enough to have seen him in the role -- as some of us were -- recall it as among the finest theatre experiences we have had.)

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Single Spies: A Question of Attribution - the TV film: Reviews: Alan Bennett: Other books by Alan Bennett 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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