Turned out not to be a review: The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett

Disclaimer: I started this review with goodish intentions, and it went all pear-shaped as I went on with it. I am so sorry. I nearly didn’t post it, but then I thought, Well, what if someone who reads this blog loves W.H. Auden and lives in Washington DC, and without this blog post they wouldn’t know to go see The Habit of Art when it’s on at the Studio Theatre in the fall of the year? So I’m posting it anyway. I am so, so sorry.

One point I’ve beaten to death on this blog is that comparisons are odious. Yet do I stop making them? No. My brain will not consent to stopping making them. They get made automatically, somewhere deep in my brain’s processing centers. So it goes. The Habit of Art, poor thing, was lined up against The Invention of Love, my copy of which I gave away without pausing to consider that not having it would make me wild to reread it. It and The Habit of Art have similar premises and similar titles, and even the similarity of letting characters comment on the action as it unfolds; but The Invention of Love features Oscar Wilde and my favorite line in all of literature. The Habit of Art never had a chance.

The Habit of Art is about W. H. Auden in his latter years at Oxford, chatting to Benjamin Britten and Humphrey Carpenter; or rather, it’s about a play about W. H. Auden. The characters are actors putting on a play that’s been written about Auden, and the precise form of the play is still under debate by everyone: the author, the actors, the stage manager, the absent director.

Oh, look, I just don’t feel right about reviewing this play. I was going to say how the observational, revisionary aspects of the play felt awkward and self-conscious, and the kooky aspects of the play-within-a-play, though labeled as kooky by the characters, came off really silly, and I couldn’t figure out what anyone’s stake in it all was so there wasn’t enough emotional heft. But every time I wrote one of these things, I followed it up by saying how much better Stoppard had done it in The Invention of Love. I am obviously incapable of evaluating this play. I have no idea whether it was good or crappy. Some of the stuff may have gone over my head because I don’t know anything about W.H. Auden or Benjamin Britten, but mostly the play just pissed me off by not being The Invention of Love.

I can say almost definitely I’d go see if it New York put on a production of it. Almost certainly, obviously depending on my financial situation. If they do have a production, a year or two from now, and I do go see it, I will come back and reassess. If that happens I will really try hard to be fair.

(But let’s be honest. Now that I’ve seen Arcadia, The Invention of Love is probably the play I want to see most of any play in the world. If The Habit of Art comes to New York, with its many, many surface similarities to The Invention of Love, I don’t know how I can stop myself from resenting it.)

  • I hear you about the comparisons. My only way around it (because I think they are odious and inescapable too) is to make a comparison sandwich. So on one side, something better, and on the other, something worse. It sort of evens it out a bit, unless one is stuck unable to find anything worse…

    • Litlove, that is a really excellent idea. Of course I am now unable to think of any other comparable thing to put on the other side of The Habit of Love. I’ll have to have a think about other plays that deal with authors.

  • I also tend to make comparisons sometimes, and I just can’t help it. It sounds lie your experience with the first play made it almost impossible for you to review this one as clearly as you wanted to.

    • I sometimes wish I could read all my new books with clear eyes, like without having any history of having read anything ever before. But that would be nonsense. I wouldn’t be able to catch any allusions then. So I guess it’s better to have things available to make comparisons against.

  • This is why rereading and re-watching is good (the latter when you can afford it) and part of why some people think they can’t enjoy or understand great art. They thought they were going to get CATS and instead they get some Alan Ackbourn play they’ve never heard of and that’s irritating. Also, I’d forgotten Auden was at Oxford in my excitement about the Inklings tour we’re planning for this July, and I do love Auden.

    • This is a huge thing I miss from my library at home, being able to check out TV shows on DVD. Here, you have to check them out one disc at a time, and you only get the one disc after putting a hold and waiting months and months. Watching new TV shows on DVD is harrrrrrd in NYC. I should get Netflix.

      I medium love Auden. He said mean things about Robert Browning once so he’s not my friend anymore.

  • Ela

    I think Auden is harder to make a case for than Wilde – his works are less well-known, for one thing – and because he’s generally unlikeable (he nipped off sharpish to the US when the war started and stayed there for the duration, for which he’s not remembered fondly in the UK). He was hugely influential over Britten in his early career, though I think they fell out (possibly not Auden’s fault – Britten fell out with everyone, except Peter Pears).

    I went through a major stage of Britten-worship a few years ago, rather tempered by reading Carpenter’s biography, and would probably have loved Bennett’s play. Though I can’t say I’ve seen any of his stuff, not even ‘The History Boys’.

    • Gosh, I wouldn’t have thought of disliking him for running away to the US. He wouldn’t have been able to fight in the war if he’d wanted to, would he? Or am I mistaken about his age at the time?

      If a girl were interested in seeing what there is to worship about Britten, what might she read to find out more?

  • Unless there’s a scheduling glitch, I will be seeing this at Studio because I see everything at Studio for free as an usher (it is a very good gig)! I hadn’t gotten around to checking next season’s schedule, though, so thanks for the link/reminder!

    Studio has a good track record with Alan Bennett–I liked their History Boys much better than the movie–and the lead is a good actor, so I’m optmistic.

    • That is a FANTASTIC gig of which I am exceedingly envious. You’ll have to come back and tell me how it is, once you’ve seen it! Inquiring minds want to know.

  • But…what exactly IS your favorite line in all of literature???

    • Oh, I thought I’d put it in a tag! But I did not. It’s at the end of The Invention of Love, where Housman is reflecting on his life putting all his eggs in the classical scholarship basket. And he says, “What emotional storms and oh, what a tiny teacup.” And that is my favorite line in all of literature. If I were the sort of girl to get a tattoo, that’s the tattoo I would get.

  • Katy

    This reminds me of when I went to see Proof, and it just seemed like a mediocre version of Arcadia, so I automatically disliked it. I think the moral is that if Tom Stoppard has done something brilliantly, all other writers should steer clear of it.

    • Oh Proof. I’d like to see the play of Proof — I feel like I saw the film, but now I don’t remember anything about it. But your moral is a true moral. That should be the moral of everything.

  • I am one of those people who live in DC who would love to see this and would have probably missed it had it not been for your post!

    • Well, yay! I’m glad I helped! If you do see it, make sure to post about it because I am hella curious about it.

  • Amy

    Public service announcements — I love it! I’m another DC person who might be enticed to see this one. Thanks!

    • Well, don’t go see it if you hear it’s bad. I am not convinced enough by the play itself that I would ardently recommend it, but for myself I would be curious to see it.

  • It is so hard not to compare! I put just about every adventure in the jungle nonfiction story up against The Lost City of Z which is unfair since that book was pretty awesome and it’s hard to be that awesome again.

    • Oh, I do that same thing with everything that sounds even a little bit like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That book already won that category!

  • Red

    Nobody can fault a person for drawing a comparison. It is a useful device that can illuminate and inspire a deeper understanding of the subject at hand. But to base a review of a play solely on the premise that — tragically — it’s not another play? It’s flabby reasoning and poor writing.
    Apologies accepted.