What have Gypsy Rose Lee, the legendary queen of burlesque, the poet W.H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten got in common? They shared a house in Middagh Street in Brooklyn in the early 1940s with writers Carson McCullers and Jane and Paul Bowles. Auden had fallen in love with a rich 18-year-old American Chester Kalman and needed to get away from the prying eyes of his landlady, so he moved in with McCullers who had left her husband to try and cure her writer’s block. Britten and his partner Peter Pears had recently arrived from England, also escaping from prying eyes, and came along for the ride.
Auden and Britten met at the BBC film unit in 1935, and in the following four years collaborated on lots of projects including The Night Mail, a hypnotic short film about the mail train to Scotland for which Auden wrote the words and Britten the music. You can see it on YouTube. They also collaborated on a play, The Ascent of F6, which included the first iteration of Auden’s most famous work – thank you Richard Curtis – Funeral Blues, which begins ‘Stop all the clocks’, although in Four Weddings it’s a heart-breaking lament while in F6 it was a piece of political propaganda.
Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942 but Auden stayed in the USA and lived between there and Austria for the rest of his life, except for a sojourn in a cottage in Oxford in 1972. He was invited to Oxford by his old college Christ Church, and it’s there that Alan Bennett has set his play-within-a-play.
The conceit is that a professional theatre company is putting on a new play about Auden, but the director is off for the day at a meeting so the cast have a run-through overseen by the stage manager. Then the writer turns up unexpectedly. I’ve been in enough rehearsal rooms to know that this is a recipe for disaster, or at least a display of very bad behaviour when the writer discovers the liberties that have been taken with his text. And so it nearly proves here. But what is unusual is that where usually the play-within-a-play is used to illuminate the truths about the characters in the play proper (for example in Hamlet where it confronts Claudius with the truth of the murder), here it is the other way about. More of a play-outside-a-play.
The title is the clue. The habit referred to is the inability of artists to stop working, even if the world doesn’t seem to want them anymore. In the inner play, Auden, a shambling wreck of a man wonderfully realised by Matthew Kelly, is living in some squalor in his cottage when he is visited by a young Humphrey Carpenter, then a reporter for BBC Radio Oxford, later the biographer of Auden and Britten. Auden mistakes him for a rent boy he has ordered, who subsequently turns up, followed closely by Benjamin Britten, beautifully played by David Yelland as a nervous fastidious aesthete. The heart of the play is the conversation between Auden and Britten, two men who could not be more different. It’s very funny and rather moving.
The play outside the play has some shortcomings, in this production at least. I think it’s extremely difficult to get it right, which might explain why this is the first regional theatre tour since the NT production in 2009. The actor playing Humphrey Carpenter, for example, by which I mean the character not the actual actor, is something of a clown and doesn’t seem to know where he is supposed to stand. If that’s a metaphor for a biographer clumping around in other peoples’ lives, it doesn’t work. You do learn a lot about the life of a rent boy, both now and in the past, and some of the business of the rehearsal room, particularly Kelly’s character asking if he could leave sharply at six as he has a voiceover to get to, rang very strong bells, but some of it is a bit of a stretch, although the audience loved it.
It’s not Bennett’s best work, but Kelly and Yelland give as fine a pair of performances as you will see on a stage, and it is very funny. And while you’re at it, get a copy of The G String Murders, the thriller written by Gypsy Rose in the heady literary atmosphere of Middagh Street. It’s not literature, but it is a hoot.
(Main image: Matthew Kelly and David Yelland in The Habit of Art by Helen Maybanks)