A very English playwright: The return of Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett stages his first play for years this month, at the National Theatre. Paul Taylor, who has met him many times, looks at how the butcher's son from Leeds became Britain's best loved playwright, and tries to unravel his complex personality
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In one of his less felicitously phrased essays, the youthful Clive James once described the poet WH Auden, who had succumbed to premature old age in his ill-judged Oxford retirement, as a "fag at bay". Alan Bennett's eagerly anticipated new play, The Habit of Art (which opens on November 17 at the National Theatre), confronts Auden and the audience with a second "fag at bay", the composer Benjamin Britten. Back in the Thirties, the pair had been collaborators and emotional intimates, with Auden laying down the law on the inner protocols of getting laid and the need to unbutton, psychologically as well as sartorially, in order to do so.

There's a young rent boy in the piece, and the London Evening Standard has leaked that Humphrey Carpenter, the man who in real life was to become the biographer of both these great artists, gets confused by Auden for the rent boy. I think we can expect some riotous mistaken-identity sequences, as well as more thoughtful musings, if the title is anything to go by, on the nature of creativity in the ageing maestro.

The Habit of Art is Bennett's first full length stage play since The History Boys, which opened in May 2004 and went on to become a spectacular, award-winning, success on both sides of the Atlantic, with a prolonged and recurrent shelf-life in the West End. It has earned the National Theatre (run by Nicholas Hytner Bennett's collaborator and director of choice since they first worked together on another mega-hit, Wind in the Willows, in 1990) 5m. Public money from the Arts Council certainly drew a handsome return here a fact which should be borne in mind by any Tories waiting in the wings and sharpening their axes. It is a delightful thought that Bennett's art has helped at the National to subsidise, say, the theatrical ambitions of an experimentnal artist like Katie Mitchell.

The new play has the potential to become another critical and financial smash. But, as usual with Bennett's more recent works, the National is guarding the script carefully (it won't be printed until after the press night) and the author is in his latter-day Greta Garbo mode. The publicity material has become a bit more forthcoming since Michael Gambon, who was to have played Auden, was forced to withdraw through poor health, and was replaced by the star of The History Boys, Richard Griffiths.

This swap produced the admission that the two main actors in the piece Griffiths and Alex Jennings are, in fact, playing actors who have taken on the roles of Auden and Britten in what sounds like a rehearsal of a piece about a fictional encounter in the poet's lodgings in Christ Church, Oxford, 25 years since they last saw each other.

By this stage, to judge from the two Carpenter biographies, the balance of power between the men, had altered considerably. Britten was a very sick man, but he was still hard at work composing his most ostensibly autobiographical opera, Death in Venice. Auden, no poster boy for Fitness First, was in better nick physically but in the doldrums creatively and socially. Having been fêted in the Fifties as professor of poetry, he had made the big mistake of supposing that lightning can strike twice. His retirement to his old college, Christ Church, was the expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Never brilliant at listening, he had become a public address system for ever more repetitive obiter dicta and hobby horses. The dons beat a retreat into their dformation professionnelle: spite. You can see their point, though. There are only so many times you can be dogmatically told that everyone pees in their sink, no matter how they may deny it, before you yearn to pee over the bore who is haranguing you in this manner.

The Habit of Art brings Humphrey Carpenter on stage as a character, so it is evidently going to be concerned with the tricky problems raised by the biographical treatment of artists. Bennett has always been ambivalent about the value of life-writing, as can be seen most graphically in his 1986 play Kafka's Dick. The author of The Trial had asked Max Brod to destroy all his papers. Did he mean it? Do writers (one thinks of Philip Larkin and his shredded diaries) ever unequivocally mean such an injunction to be taken literally? Spirited back to life in a modern Kafka buff's sitting room, this anguished question-mark of a man is compelled to feel the full force of the fact that, as one of the characters says, "in England, gossip is the acceptable face of culture". Of course, Kafka's Dick is itself not immune from that charge, mischievously carrying the disease it is out to cure.

Bennett is a butcher's son brought up in Leeds, an Oxford scholar and junior don who was launched into the showbiz stratosphere by Beyond the Fringe, in which he was the shy blonde one and, in some ways, the man least likely to prolong the gig into an independent career. The rest is history; or rather an impressively dedicated personal history in which Bennett, astutely working with his own contradictions, shows he has, arguably, more staying power and creative depth than the rest of the Fringe team, who have variously succumbed to drink, triviality, death, opera and the diffuse life of the polymath.

Big breakthroughs for Bennett came with his first West End hit, Forty Years On in 1968, and the TV transmission of the first series of Talking Heads in 1987. This latter, with solo performances from actors of the calibre of Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge, brought home to a wider public his matchless ear for how small-talk can be psychologically telling far beyond what the speaker imagines is being told.

A watershed emotionally and creatively came about 20 years ago when Bennett met Rupert Thomas, now the editor of World of Interiors. It was a relationship that matured into (unformalised) marriage when Thomas became a crucial support to Bennett during the years in the 1990s when he fought off bowel cancer. Though it was pretty obvious to anyone not born yesterday that the writer's sexuality was far from straightforward, Bennett's inveterate dislike of clear-cut labels made him loath to identify himself with any one orientation. Famously, when asked by Ian McKellen whether he was gay or straight, he answered that it was like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he preferred Perrier or Malvern Water.

But the cancer disburdened him of many of his inhibitions about self-revelation. And love, in the least corny of ways, seemed to modify the slightly defensive coolness that had hitherto typified his style. In the past, he had appeared in his own work projected into the figure of spies such as Blunt and Burgess; those embodiments of irony-in-action, of loving and hating England in the one unbaited breath. Indeed, Bennett has appeared once before partially disguised as an Auden-resembling character in The Old Country (1977) in the shape of Hilary, an exposed spy whose exile in a dacha outside Moscow would be more like England than England, were it not so desolately cut off from any renewing energy (such as fresh gossip) from dear old, damnable old Blighty. For Auden in New York and then in Christ Church, read Hilary stuck in a corner of a Russian field that is forever not quite England. An internal exile, a person on the margins, is how Bennett pointedly and persistently presented himself.

He once made an excellent short television series of rather personal essays on Westminster Abbey. This fact reminds me of the shrewd remark made by a descendant of Oscar Wilde who averred that it was fitting that Oscar had been honoured by a window rather than a monument because a window was "neither outside nor in".

In the case of Bennett, who is sometimes slighted with the expression "national treasure" (he's much more complex than that), you feel that he would be happiest thinking of himself as celebrated sufficiently by a pane of glass that the glaziers had propped up beside the Abbey building and then promptly forgot about. Without letting on, though later outed as a refusenik, Bennett turned down a knighthood unlike David Hare, who accepted one on behalf of left-wing playwrights. On whose behalf would Bennett have accepted a K? The Gloucester Crescent Residents' Association? (Gloucester Crescent is the North London thoroughfare that rejoices in an unconscionable number of home-dwellers who hail from the arts).

In a conversation some years ago, Tom Sutcliffe made the excellent point that Bennett is "exemplary in his hatreds". He loathes, for example, Tony Blair, which argues a fine sense of moral pitch. In any enclosure of the great and good, I would position him in the one that includes Peter Tatchell, Frank Field, Ann Widdecombe (despite her regrettable views on gays), and Tony Benn rather than that which boasts, say, Lords Rogers and Lloyd Webber and Sir David Hare.

There has been a new emotional openness in Bennett's work in the past decade. In Untold Stories, for example, he has revealed painful truths about his family history including, his mother's unequal battles with hospitalising depression and the suicide of his maternal grandfather.

I don't know what future psychologising biographers will make of this, but Bennett eventually came out in a piece in the London Review of Books about how he and his partner had survived a gay-bashing attack while on holiday in Italy. So when Alan Bennett first allowed his public a less guarded glimpse of his deepest affections, it was unbowed but most definitely bloodied, thanks to those thugs.

He has developed a new attitude to shyness, too. It was Penelope Keith, of all people, who made the profound remark that shyness is "egotism out of its depth". He'd now concur with that. Previously one had the impression that, in any just afterlife that had been devised by Bennett, the meek would have inherited the Earth and be seen there dancing other cheek to other cheek. Now he's on record as wondering, with a certain irritation, whether his parents' exorbitantly retiring natures provided them with a way of being slap-bang centre stage in a restricted sense, such as in the lives of their children.

In The History Boys, he celebrated a maverick teacher, Hector who inspired his pupils but also groped them on his motorbike. He'd never have done that in the 1970s or for most of the 1980s. And now, in The Habit of Art, he is tackling in Britten, a composer who was notoriously, if purely, susceptible to the charms of pre-pubescent boys; and whose work-in-progress in the play is that compromised piece of personal inculpation/exculpation, Death in Venice his operatic adaptation of the Mann novella in which an ageing writer becomes besotted by the youth Tadzio. In real life, Mann was in his mid-thirties and the platonic love-object was all of 11. Dressed up in arty symbolism in the book, in Britten's opera the relationship becomes an even more pronounced evasion of the real source of Aschenbach's desire.

The composer, though creatively fertile, was clenched and cautious in 1972, making a contrast with Bennett who is no whit less fertile but who seems refreshingly not to bother about the "thought police" of repression and correctness these days.

With any new play, an audience tries to earmark the character with whom the author identifies. To the extent that he is unlikely to take a rosy view of Britten's less-than-honest approach to adapting the Mann text, Auden seems the character who has Bennett's backing. With her unerring instinct for the philistine perception that speaks a sort of truth, Dame Edna Everage once referred to Dirk Bogarde's Aschenbach (in the over-ripe Visconti movie) as "a dysfunctional in a deck chair". I suspect that she will find approval for this view in Bennett and in Bennett's version of Auden.

On the other hand, in its 30th-anniversary issue, the London Review of Books has published an extract from the author's introduction to the yet-to-be-published play. In it, he discloses that a part of him regrets the abolition of stage censorship in 1968. It's the Terence Rattigan defence, that the need for indirectness can sometimes make an artist hit the spot with greater power. That would seem to ally Bennett with Britten, who leaned towards that view too. But Bennett identifies rather than empathises, I think. To identify is merely to love one's neighbour as oneself; to empathise is to love one's neighbour for himself or herself. Bennett makes a show of engaging primarily in the former practice. He's constantly and comically identifying with figures seemingly remote from his experience. Jesus on the cross sporting no underarm hair reminds him of himself mortified in the school gym because he was a late developer. But this tactic is, in some ways, the bluff of a modest northern man who is perhaps embarrassed by his powers of empathy, and so pretends to muscle in on the identification ticket.

Bennett does, of course, have his faults. He sometimes resorts to reverse snobbery (and not of the benign type enshrined in the notion that horse sense is something a horse has which prevents it from betting on people). And sometimes his sticking up on principle for women can lead him slightly astray. In connection with this, I fail to understand his admiration for Andrew Motion's life of Philip Larkin. Motion was an extremely effective Poet Laureate and has written some fine literary lives (most notably that of Keats). But, as Martin Amis formidably argued in The New Yorker, his prissy, politically correct biography of Larkin has no real historical sense, taking his former friend to the cleaners for not having been born in the 1950s like Motion, and so being reprehensibly deprived of the feminist sentiments and habits that do Motion and his generation of writers such unspeakable credit.

In general, though, Bennett, morally speaking, is as much a tonic off the page and stage as on. Harold Pinter, a somewhat richer man and more classily connected, charged the country a million pounds for the privilege of housing his papers in the British Library. Bennett gave all of his to the Bodleian for nothing. I have canvassed the opinion of several folk in the know who believe that Bennett, famously in two minds over the value of literary biography, will put no restrictions of access on to his papers. I heard only the other day of the Pinter estate placing just such restrictions of quotation on the author of what, nonetheless, turned out to be one of the sharpest articles yet written about Pinter, who is not always well served by his courtiers.

At which late point, I sidle into this piece in a small cameo role. A few years back, I had the honour of presenting Bennett with the Critics' Circle Award for Best Playwright for The History Boys. I was very conscious that he doesn't like these occasions much, so I noted where he was sitting in the audience and made a point of not looking in his direction while I gave a rather over-long speech which loaded every rift with ore in an abject desire to impress him. None of the occasions that I have met Bennett has been unattended by the desire, on my part, to sink through the floor with embarrassment. I was surprised by the gentle firmness of the playwright's handshake when I gave him his gong.

I shouldn't imagine that the handshake is his favourite contact sport. But, in his new unguarded mode, he has written quite beautifully on two occasions about the metaphoric handshake between the past and the present. The first is from Untold Stories, in the piece about his parents' wedding ceremony. Neither of these easily abashed young people wanted a fuss, and his butcher father couldn't get time off work. So a very kindly and enlightened vicar arranged to wed them early one morning on the dot of when it was technically possible. "What he was like," writes their grateful son, "I have no idea, though I imagine he was a clergyman of the old school. But across 70 or more years, Herbert Lowell Clark, I should like to shake your hand."

The second example comes from The History Boys, in the very moving scene where Hector is tutoring Posner, his brightest pupil, though not the one he fancies. He is trying to explain great literature's power to connect with each of us personally and to enunciate for us our deepest private intuitions. "Now here it is, set down by someone else," Hector explains, "a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."

How often it is the case these days that, when that special hand reaches out towards you, it turns out to have Alan Bennett attached.

'The Habit of Art', National Theatre, London SE1 (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk, 020-7452 3000) in rep to 24 January

The best of Bennett on stage

Forty Years On (1968)

Public-school boys rehearse their end-of-term play, which is a revue-style elegy for old England, stuffed with of satiric spoofs which demonstrate the working-class Bennett's ambivalent affection for between-the-wars Establishment culture.

Habeas Corpus (1973)

Bennett (right, as Mrs Swabb) does "Carry On", sort of. Gloriously silly farce about the sexual revolution hitting Middle England, it details deliriously the tangled attachments of the respected (but lecherous) Dr Wickstead, his wife, and his patient, the deliciously named Felicity Rumpers.

Enjoy (1980)

A flop when it first appeared, this piece now seems extraordinarily prescient of "heritage culture". A Leeds back-to-back and a whole way of life is reconstructed as a museum attraction by an eerie transvestite prodigal son.

Kafka's Dick (1986)

A tortoise metamorphoses into Franz Kafka in a modern suburban living room, and is appalled that Max Brod disobeyed the injunction to burn his papers. An uproarious meditation on the perils of literary biography.

Madness of George III (1991)

A King goes mad. The doctors are part of the problem. He becomes sane, regardless. With Bennett's revelations about his mother's depressive illnesses, new light is thrown on the suffering monarch and his similarities with her.

The History Boys (2004)

Hector, the maverick teacher who inspires his pupils (and also gropes them on his motorbike) is the Jean Brodie of this hilarious and acute study of what a literary education can and should mean in our increasingly results-obsessed culture.