Review: The Habit of Art Is Only Partially About Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden

Alan Bennett’s 2009 play finally makes its US premiere as part of 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway season.

Matthew Kelly and Stephen Boxer star in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, directed by Philip Franks, at 59E59.
(© Carol Rosegg)


Yes, 59E59 Theaters is presenting the US premiere of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art as part of its Brits Off Broadway season. But this isn’t a new work from the Madness of King George III and History Boys scribe. The Habit of Art premiered in the UK in 2009, so it has taken 13 years for it to reach American shores in this production from Original Theatre. Once you see the show, for better or worse, it’s easy to see why.

On one level, The Habit of Art is a work of fictionalized biography. It revolves around an apocryphal meeting between two legendary British artists, composer Benjamin Britten and writer W.H. Auden, in 1972 while Britten is working on what would end up being his final opera, an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. As Bennett has written this encounter, many references abound to historical figures and events, like tenor Peter Pears and writer Chester Kallman, the significant others of Britten and Auden, respectively; and the UK’s criminalization of male homosexuality until 1967. He makes little effort, however, to make such references broadly accessible to non-British audiences. That is as it should be with a conversation between two British citizens, but it also means that it might be useful to read up on both artists before seeing the play.

Robert Mountford, Jessica Dennis, and Veronica Roberts appear in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, directed by Philip Franks, at 59E59.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Bennett, however, has more on his mind than biographical wish fulfillment. The play is framed around a fraught rehearsal session for a production of a play titled Caliban’s Day, which features this imagined Britten-Auden summit. Bennett’s play, then, is also a backstage comedy-drama, with veteran actors like Fitz/Auden (Matthew Kelly) and Henry/Britten (Stephen Boxer) clashing with the playwright, Neil (Robert Mountford), over certain scenes and lines, and stage managers Kay (Veronica Roberts) and George (Jessica Dennis) desperately trying to keep all the egos in check. (Benjamin Chandler rounds out the cast as Tim, an actor who plays Stuart, a so-called “gentleman caller” of Auden’s.)

Neil’s play also partly revolves around an interview that biographer Humphrey Carpenter (acted by Donald in the play; John Wark plays them both) conducts with Auden (in real life, he wrote a biography of Britten as well). It’s Carpenter who utters the play’s first lines, voicing his desire to cut through the Great Man aura around them both and find the flawed human beings within. The Habit of Art thus operates on a third level: as a meditation on the nature of biography, suggesting questions about how much historical accuracy and verisimilitude matter in the search for broader truths.

That’s a lot of thematic territory to cover in one play, and Bennett isn’t fully able to bind all three levels into a coherent whole. Though the rehearsal scenes crackle with a sense of authenticity and bonhomie, the characters aren’t distinctive enough to refresh what ultimately comes off as backstage-drama clichés. More frustrating is the occasional sense that many of the meta-theatrical bells and whistles are obscuring what might have been an intriguing two-hander between Britten and Auden: Britten frightened of what his Death in Venice might reveal about his own predilection for younger boys, and Auden still somewhat bitter about the rift that developed between them after the failure of their opera Paul Bunyan in 1942.

John Wark, Matthew Kelly, Stephen Boxer, Benjamin Chandler, Robert Mountford, Jessica Dennis, and Veronica Roberts appear in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art off-Broadway.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Still, if The Habit of Art is a mess, it is at least an admirably ambitious one. Certainly, with the theater world continuing to bring shows like Good Night, Oscar and the Neil Diamond jukebox musical A Beautiful Noise to the stage, the questions Bennett raises about the limitations of biographical fiction remain ever pertinent. And even when he threatens to slip into didacticism, Bennett’s wit still sparkles throughout. A couple scenes featuring the two stage managers — one in which they recite poetic odes to Auden’s New York City furniture, another in which one plays Auden’s Words and the other Britten’s Music — are amusingly playful, as is an unexpected exchange between Auden and Carpenter that’s all about…dicks.

Under Philip Franks’s direction, the cast brings a breeziness to the material that helps the play’s two hours and 10 minutes fly by. Among the sterling seven-member cast, Kelly as Fitz/Auden stands out, exuding a worldly wisdom about life in the theater world that still hasn’t diminished his palpable creative passion. And designer Adrian Linford contributes to the genial atmosphere with an appropriately cluttered set design and some inventive costumes — especially the musical scarf one of the stage managers dons during the aforementioned Words/Music scene. One other positive note about The Habit of Art is that it might inspire one to explore Auden’s and Britten’s masterpieces. Ultimately, Bennett suggests, those are where the truths about these artistic titans really lie.

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The Habit of Art

Closed: May 28, 2023