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.
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.