Afternoon. A large rehearsal room in the National Theatre. Already set up is the interior of the Brewhouse, Christ Church, Oxford, lodgings into which W. H. Auden had moved in 1972. There are a couple of easy chairs, a cluttered kitchen unit and piles of books and papers on every available surface. The room is a mess.
Above the room and set back from it is another stage on which is a grand piano. George, the ASM, is checking props when Donald, who is playing Humphrey Carpenter, enters, and murmurs to him. The ASM takes Donald’s script in order to prompt him.
Carpenter (hesitantly) I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men, their fears and their failings. I’ve had enough of their vision, how they altered the landscape. We stand on their shoulders to survey our lives. So. (As Donald.) … Yes?
ASM (prompting) ‘So let’s talk about …’
Carpenter So let’s talk about the vanity. (He quickens up.) This one, the connoisseur of emptiness, is tipped for the Nobel Prize yet still needs to win at Monopoly. That playwright’s skin is so thin he can feel pain on the other side of the world … so why is he deaf to the suffering next door? Er …
ASM‘Proud of his modesty …’
Carpenter Yes. Proud of his modesty, this one gives frequent, rare interviews in which he aggregates praise and denudes others of credit. Artists celebrated for their humanity, they turn out to be scarcely human at all.
ASM I thought Stephen had cut all this?
Donald He has … which is fine by me, only I just feel, like, the play needs it. You know?
The cast filter in while Kay, the Stage Manager, in her fifties, sets up for the rehearsal of the play, Caliban’s Day. Fitz (who will play Auden) is in his sixties and Henry (who will play Britten) is slightly younger.
Fitz Am I smoking this afternoon?
ASM Is Fitz smoking this afternoon?
Kay Tomorrow, we decided.
Fitz, who is putting on carpet slippers, pulls a face.
Fitz Worth a try.
Donald My speech about biography …
Kay (waving him away) I’m doing the setup, love.
Tim (who will play Stuart) comes in wheeling his bike, helmeted and in Lycra etc.
He changes. He’s in his twenties.
Also entering now are Charlie (a child of ten),absorbed in his Nintendo, Joan (his chaperone), Matt (sound operator) and Tom (rehearsal pianist).
Kay (who has seen it all before) We’re minus Penny.
Fitz Oh. No Penny.
Kay And Brian. Both in the Chekhov matinee.
Fitz Is she? I don’t remember her.
ASM Cough and a spit.
Kay I’ll read in for Penny. Henry, can you read Boyle?
Henry Will do.
Kay And George.
Kay You do the rest.
ASM Oh, great!
Fitz That’s all very well, but no Penny means no cake. You can answer this, Henry.
Tom Coffee, Fitz?
Fitz Why is it that whoever’s got the smallest part is the one who brings in the cakes to rehearsal?
Henry Because they’re still human beings?
Fitz You see, in my whole life in the theatre I have never brought in a cake. Look at him, they say in the canteen; there is an actor who has never brought in a cake.
He was in Coriolanus. No cake.
He was in Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three. No cake.
He was in The Birthday Party. No cake.
The phone rings on the stage management table.
Kay (on the phone) Hello? … Leeds!
Fitz The first production I was in here, I was painted bright blue.
I was an Ancient Briton.
Kay Oh precious! LEEDS!
Henry I’ve been painted pink.
Kay (to various people) LEEDS!!
ASM Pink! What was that in?
Henry Hospital. I had scabies.
Kay Very good, darling. (Puts phone down.) Bad news, people. The director cannot be with us. Even as we speak Stephen is on his way to Leeds, having forgotten he was due to host a conference.
Henry What on?
Kay The relevance of theatre in the provinces.
Fitz Good. So we can go home.
Kay What Stephen suggests we do is run the play …
Enter Neil, the Author.
Henry indicates the new arrival.
Kay What Stephen suggests we do – hello, darling – is run the play with those of us who are still a little uncertain of the text, Fitz, paying particular attention to the words which I’m sure we would want to do anyway if only out of courtesy to our author, who has just joined us. Good afternoon, Neil. Where’ve you been, darling? We’ve missed you.
Author Newcastle, actually.
Fitz Newcastle? Really? What were you doing there? It’s all vomit and love bites.
Author I was judging.
Author Playwrights, actually.
Fitz I am saying nothing.
Kay Now, Fitz, have you your slippers?
Fitz (displaying them) I have. I also have my prosthetic cigarettes, my elephantine urine-stained trousers, my disgusting handkerchief and my plastic bag. The question is, have we got the mask?
Author What mask?
Kay gives Author a wide smile and carries on.
ASM The mask is coming.
Fitz They’ve been saying that for the last week.
Tim (whispering to the ASM) Will I be doing the – (seeing Charlie and whispering) sucking-off?
ASM Will we be doing the sucking-off?
Author Sucking-off? What scene is that?
Kay silences him with an uplifted hand.
Kay Darling, can we not play it by ear?
Kay indicates Charlie.
Sorry. Though these days they probably know more about it than we do. All right, Charlie?
Charlie nods without looking up from his game.
Kay Right, everybody? Charlie, are you all right? Is Charlie all right?
Joan (reading) Charlie’s fine.
Author (to Kay) Sucking-off?
Fitz If we’re starting, I suppose I should have gone to the loo, but it’s so far.
Henry Far? There’s one just outside.
Fitz No, I can’t use that. I don’t like to be overheard. In the whole of this bloody building there is only one loo I can use.
Henry Which one is that?
Fitz I’m not going to tell you. You might start using it.
Kay OK, everybody.
Author Where’s Stephen?
Donald (indicating speech) Kay?
Kay (to Donald) Your speech, love. I know. I haven’t forgotten.
Kay’s attention to Donald (playing Humphrey Carpenter) should already signal that Donald is high maintenance.
Running Act One. Ready! LIGHTS UP!
Auden and Carpenter are listening to the love duet from Tristan and Isolde on the record player.
Carpenter When you were singing that as a child, were you aware that your mother was taking the part of Tristan and you were singing Isolde?
Auden Oh yes.
Carpenter And were you aware of the implications?
Auden I was. I’m not sure she was. My father made no comment. He was a doctor.
Carpenter I am talking this evening with Mr W. H. Auden, formerly Professor of Poetry at the University and newly returned to Christ Church.
Auden Am I addressing the nation?
Carpenter Radio Oxford.
Auden Why poets should be interviewed I can’t think. A writer is not a man of action. His private life is or should be of no concern to anyone except himself, his family and his friends. The rest is impertinence. Yes?
ASM (prompting) ‘I was once rung from Hollywood …’
Fitz, playing Auden, should keep correcting himself … and occasionally be prompted. He is far from word perfect.
Auden I was once rung from Hollywood by Miss Bette Davis. She said, ‘Mr Auden, I’ve just been reading one of your poems.’ I said, ‘I’m glad to hear it, madam, but it’s two o’clock in the morning,’ and put the phone down.
Chester has never forgiven me.
Chester is my partner. Is that the word you use?
Carpenter People do.
Auden You can’t be arrested for using it?
Carpenter shakes his head.
Not even in England? Progress.
Fitz (to Author) People will know, author, this is 1972?
Author If they have any intelligence.
Fitz Because you couldn’t be arrested for having a partner in 1972.
Author Auden is being ironic. He means it and he doesn’t mean it.
Fitz Yes. I know what irony means.
Henry (on the upper stage) Actually, you could be arrested for having a partner in 1954, which is why the police interviewed Britten.
Fitz Yes. All right.
Henry And 1972 wasn’t such a paradise either. ‘How old are you? How old was he?’ They don’t let up that easily.
Kay On we go.
Henry Someone was had up only last week.
Donald Thank you!
Carpenter (throws a black look at Henry) Benjamin Britten is in Oxford today.
Auden says nothing.
Auditioning choirboys. You worked together?
Auden still says nothing.
In the thirties?
Auden I know when it was. Why?
Carpenter I wondered whether there was a programme in it. You and him, collaborating.
Auden That would come under impertinence, I think. My business not yours, though collaborate we did and very happy it was, too.
On the upper stage Britten is at the piano with a chapel acoustic. A boy standing beside him sings a verse from ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ (‘O lift your little pinkie and touch the evening sky / Love’s all over the mountains where the beautiful go to die’).
Excerpted from The Habit Of Art by Alan Bennett.
Copyright © 2009 by Forelake Ltd.
Published in 2009 by Faber And Faber, Inc. An Affiliate Of Farrar, Straus And Giroux New York.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright, essayist, and storywriter whose play The History Boys won six Tony Awards. He is also the author of the Academy Award–nominated screenplay The Madness of King George. He lives in London, England.