Beyond a joke

The decline of Alan Bennett

10 November 2012

This week the National Theatre opened another new play — its seventh — by Alan Bennett. For those who know only his earlier work, Bennett remains the Queen Mother of British literature, a national treasure adored by all for his cosy charm and twinkly-eyed naughtiness. But anyone who holds this view has clearly not seen, or is blind to the failings of, his recent work. For me, sitting through new Alan Bennett plays has increasingly become like discovering that in old age the Queen Mother developed a sideline as a flasher.

Of course, the quality of all writers’ work varies. But few have fallen off so steeply or horribly as Bennett. At one point this original member of the Beyond the Fringe quartet appeared to have real creative longevity. The magnificent Single Spies, the television Talking Heads and some of the prose found deservedly vast audiences. But over the past decade something has gone wrong. The fly in the ointment became the main feature and, long before the recent book Smut, what once looked like honesty seems to have turned into something rancid.

The History Boys opened at the National in May 2004, won five-star reviews and multiple awards, was made into a film and launched the careers of its young stars. Ostensibly set in the sixth form of an all-boys grammar school in the north of England in the 1980s, several critics noted that it more resembled one from the 1950s when Bennett was growing up. In truth, however, it was not like any school from any decade. For a start, almost everybody in the school — teachers and pupils — either is, wishes to be, or can be persuaded to be, gay. And not just gay, but in the case of the teachers gaily abusive, and in the case of the pupils happily abused.

My problem with The History Boys is not that the scenario is unimaginable but that it feels to me like the fantasy of an ageing gay man. I watched the play in preview at the National and it seemed then, as now, unbelievable what audiences will laugh through if it comes from someone they have begun to trust. For instance, the ‘history boys’ all take their turn to sit on the back of their -elderly master’s motorbike. Each evening he gropes their genitals. The one boy (also, naturally, gay) who never gets selected for groping complains to the other boys about the ‘rejection’ he feels. A younger male teacher falls for one of the boys who, though himself straight, is so attracted to his teacher that he offers him oral sex. Even the uptight puritan headmaster, forced to ask the first groping teacher to retire, is given abuse lines for laughs. ‘Think of the gulf of years,’ he complains to another teacher of the motorbike incidents. ‘And the speed! One knows that road well.’ Rarely can our National Theatre have rung with so much merry laughter at teacher-on-pupil sex abuse.

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Uncomfortable for decades with speaking about his own private life, some time after Bennett’s autobiographical sluice-doors opened in the 1990s, his judgment of what constituted happy subject matter seems to have gone horribly awry. Anybody who thinks The History Boys an aberration should consider his next play. There, very similar sexual predilections are used to characterise, and in the final analysis, degrade without illuminating, two of the 20th century’s great artists. Directed, like all new Bennett plays, by Nicholas Hytner, The Habit of Art opened at the National Theatre in 2009. Apparently the result of a failed attempt to write a play about Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden, most of the jokes were so stale that not only their authors, but their authors’ biographers, are long dead. What was so striking, however, was not the humour but the manner of the assault on two artists Bennett once admired.

The play’s opening comprises some ‘business’ with a young man from the BBC who comes to interview the aged poet. Auden mistakes him for a rent-boy he is expecting. Much cosy National Theatre hilarity ensues. Of course, even if Auden did use rent-boys (and I can think of no biographer who writes about this), why sex should be — along with the elderly Auden’s famously tedious propensity for peeing in sinks — nearly the only biographical material we get is strange. Perhaps the answer, for Bennett and the National Theatre, is simple — that this is their perfect material: smut about highbrows, gossip about geniuses. How much cleverer than the readers of Heat magazine the National’s audiences can feel as they sink giggling into their seats.

A moment when a portion of a ‘Sea Interlude’ from Peter Grimes rings out is one of only a very few occasions in that play when the audience can recall the work of the subjects Bennett is so busily belittling. For while Bennett seems interested in his subjects as predatory gays, he seems oblivious to the fact that for most of us they are of interest only as artists. As Bennett’s preoccupations have reduced, his sole way into even the greatest subjects seems to be through the most sordid route.

Perhaps the new play — People — will break this mould and signal a return to form. It does not look promising. The few lines that the National has decided to pluck out for pre-publicity are these:

— How’re you doing?
— Not sure.
— Well why don’t you get on the mobile to your dick and find out.

Is that funny? I suppose it could be if you are shocked by rude words or do not expect to hear them in the National Theatre. But anybody who has seen any recent Bennett will know exactly what to expect. As with his other recent plays, the audience will commit to laughing, because they commit money to coming. But Bennett has become an object lesson in how a talent curdles. Anybody who cares about good work and great work would do best to re-read early Bennett and look away now.

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Show comments
  • Biggestaspidistra

    What is fascinating about Bennet is he’s not afraid to be an artist, such a rare and brave thing. Particularly for someone who has become successful and financially comfortable. Sometimes it leads him to greatness, sometimes it may fall a bit short, The Habit of Art was a great play, Still, years later, I haven’t quite digested it all. At a certain point it seems not to be about Auden, Britten or even Bennet, but about art, or purely art. We should be so grateful Bennet is writing for us, we’re privileged to see him succeed or even very occasionally fail. I cannot wait to see his new play.

    Now Mr Murray there’s more than a touch of bitterness in all this, that is the stuff that curdles, so be careful. It was Humphrey Carpenter, Auden’s biographer who was mistaken for a rent boy. Well documented, so at least do a little homework.

  • saint-loup

    All this from the author of a loving biography of Lord Alfred Douglas. What first attracted you to this celebrated antisemite, pederast and composer of mediocre sonnets, Doug?

    • Daniel Maris

      LOL Saint-Loup!

      Interesting side note: Donald Sinden was propositioned by Lord Alfred after in the late 1940s but turned him down (according that is to his own account).

  • Sarah

    Never liked him. One of these banal entities the British seem to take to their hearts because the media have told them to.

  • Eddie

    I absolutely HATED The History Boys (though I only saw the film not the play).

    Why? Because as you rightly say it portrays life at a grammar school in the 80s that is more like life at such a school in the 50s embellished by an old man’s gay fantasies. The Americans love this stuff – it confirms their prejudices about the British, but then they do not even know what a grammar school is!

    As someone who went to a grammar school in the 80s, I can assure you life was nothing like The History Boys.

    • Sarah

      Whereas you can get by on thin air to confirm your prejudices of Americans.

      • Eddie

        Errr…yes, dear. Time for one of your happy pills – you know, the ones you have to take for your twisted mental bigotry and psychosis.

        My post is not hating Americans – it is merely stating that Americans will have even less idea than a moron like you about what a grammar school is and was, and what they were like in the 80s.
        Very many people comment on the fact that the Americans love nostalgic class-based British drama – like this or Downtown Abbey or other romatic women’s emo-porn, where all those ugly fat chavvy women can pretend to be princesses in their escapist melodrama-fest.
        Now Sarah, go away and try not to make comments about things about which you know nothing. Why not post on mental illness? Sufferers are experts, apparently.

  • Matthew Whitehouse

    I don’t apologise for my feelings or opinions, but this is what i think. Homosexuality is a perversion, one that can be controlled by stronger minds but minds that wonder – often wonder to depravity. Ok, Shoot me now. I can feel you all lining up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Iain-Hill/100000917822376 Iain Hill

    You should drink less coffee, and perhaps try milk. It helps dispel sourness!

  • Alfred

    I loved the History Boys but thought it could quite happily lose all of the gay content which I found spoilt it. But then my mother tells me that she wondered what all the fuss was about at the Lady Chatterley trial, she of course had only read the edited version.

  • mikewaller

    I think his “A Question of Attribution” and the TV “Talking Heads” works of genius. Indeed, I cannot think of anything that he has done that I have not liked. Having not seen them, I cannot comment of the quality of his more recent stuff.

  • Daniel Maris

    Perhaps Bennett is suffering from Betjeman Syndrome – Any regrets? “I wish I’d had more sex”.

    The History Boys, not that I’ve seen it, does sound pretty puke-inducing but I’ve liked a lot of his work. He often has a genius for understanding the workings of the lower middle class mind.

    I think that Douglas is right and brave to point up some of the hypocrisies of the modern world – such work is never well rewarded!

  • Ann

    Saw it last week & have advised friends not to waste their money. I found it unfunny with lavatorial, schoolboy sub-sexy humour & a cliche of a plot. I ask how much did this very big production cost The National?

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