I saw The Habit of Art “live” in a cinema well outside London, as did thousands across North America, though not on Broadway, under the new NTLive initiative, using high-definition satellite relay. This is a new technological compromise between live theatre and cinema (long-focus lenses and ingeniously unobtrusive camera technique ensure a better view than from the stalls). It’s worth a debate in its own right (does one clap and laugh aloud ?) However, the play’s the thing.

The Habit of Art is lashed with literary allusions and interlaced levels of reality. The title itself starts us into the play’s complexity, referring, as later revealed, primarily to the inability of the artist to do other than he must do, the compulsion to be creative. But a habit is also a garment, and in the vernacular, the default reading of the term is that of a bad habit. And so we’re launched into ambiguity linking the levels of discourse.

Poet W.H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten collaborated in the late 1930s and early 40s (in New York), but then split with some lasting bitterness. The core of the inner play-within-a-play is an imagined meeting and reconciliation between them in Oxford in the early 1970s, not long before their respective deaths. The Actors periodically hold the Author to account for some aspects of this inner play (upper case here denotes the Characters in the outer play, which is about the rehearsal of the inner one). A pragmatic Stage Manager runs the rehearsal in the absence of the Director which enables the Actors to interrupt the inner play’s dialogue with a wider range of comments than would otherwise occur, and a range of layered humour. Switching from Britten-cum-Auden to within-rehearsal comments and back again is quickly established as something to be expected. When Author is asked whether Auden would actually have said certain of the part’s words, he smoothly provides research-based facts which support the realism, though counterfactual, of the inner play. Ahah, insights into the playwright’s art.

Two of the Actors are otherwise engaged, so their parts are talked through (and hammed up) by Stage Manager and Assistant, these burlesques serving like Shakespearian light-relief scenes. The Commentator in the inner play is a journalist, Carpenter, interviewing Auden in the first act. He has two levels of edit mode above the portrayal of a quasi-historical Carpenter (done with considerable dramatic license): these are as commentator (think ancient Greek chorus) within the inner play to provide grandiose historical/biographical comment, and as disgruntled Actor, the most querulous and most identified with his part of all. There’s irony in his complaint to the Author that his part is “just a device”. This makes it an existential threat to the Actor playing Carpenter, leading to the funniest lines in the play; he wants it to be something more but can’t quite express what, a neat summary of the human condition. The similarities and contrasts between parts and Actors’ real personalities (sexuality, incipient senile dementia, reserve vs. assertiveness, personal foibles) regularly intrude through banter and back-chat, offering solid fare of out-jokes for those who don’t get all the cultural, theatrical and university in-jokes.

The complexity is comprehensive and deeply structured. The real Auden and Britten had been going to collaborate on an opera of Death in Venice, and in the inner play Britten has been proceeding slowly and with ambivalence on several counts. In a discussion that feeds the theme of the craft of art, they talk over reviving this project. Despite the detachment encouraged by rapid switches between layers of reality, Auden’s exhortation to Britten that he must never give up on the creative impulse, even if his music has now gone out of fashion, is deeply moving.

The erudite discussion, chiefly by Auden, of the content of Death in Venice concentrates on age-boundaries and the division of responsibility in seduction, openly articulating the theme of homosexuality. Thomas Mann, his main character Eschenbach, the real Auden and Britten were all in their ways gay, with a preference for the under-age. It is not entirely clear whether in 2010 this is an essential or incidental detail, such that the ideas and structure of the play might equally have been supported by heterosexual fascination with people almost two generations younger, some under-age, and remained acceptable.

Self-reference in art is writ large in The Habit of Art; for the repressed Britten, self-revelation is a major fear. This sexual theme is set up early with the appearance of the rent boy, a mixture of ingenuousness, worldly-wise competence and low humour, though only developed toward the end. In Author’s play, this character is to represent the exploited (not just sexually) and the unacknowledged, at whose expense art flourishes — the play within a play accordingly entitled Caliban’s Day, Caliban as the exploited savage. But by this point the action has become thematically crowded and Bennett doesn’t create enough space for this interesting idea, although it’s ingenious that the rent boy, whilst not being highly educated, has already without artificiality been shown to have emotional and cultural insight. The ending is retrieved by orderly exits and realistic everyday winding-down conversations, then a beautifully theatrical turning out of the lights by the Stage Manager.

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