Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Late Style in Alan Bennett's Novellas and Stories

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Late Style in Alan Bennett's Novellas and Stories

Article excerpt

In June, 2014, a few weeks after his eightieth birthday, Alan Bennett, the celebrated playwright and memoirist, published what he called a "sermon" in The London Review of Books. First delivered as a talk in an ecclesiastical setting (King's College Chapel, Cambridge), his sermon playfully recalled the persona that introduced and endeared him to the British public more than half a century ago as one of the original four members of Beyond the Fringe: "our Alan," the socially awkward northerner who had probably missed his vocation as a Church of England vicar. But half a century later Bennett's sermon was no longer based on some comically arcane passage in the Scripture. Now Bennett sermonized on the parlous state of British education, especially the trend to privatize the same free state schools that gave Bennett, whose father was a Yorkshire butcher, and countless other scholarship boys the chance to create lives different from their fathers' ("Fair Play").

At this point in Bennett's long career, careful observers are not surprised by his engagement with controversial public issues, especially readers of The London Review of Books (LRB), where Bennett publishes annual excerpts from his diary. While Bennett will probably always be viewed by some as a twee figure, once likened to a "national teddy bear" (Schiff 92), anyone who had been paying attention to his television and stage dramas has seen emerge a darker and more complicated side to Bennett's work. The first series of Talking Heads monologues (1988), to cite one example, broadcast into the British home the stories of closeted homosexuals and alcoholics, and the second series, a decade later, upped the ante to pedophiles and serial killers. This led one television critic to ask, "Alan, lad, whatever's up?" (Banks-Smith), a tidy combination in four words of an old familiarity with a new recognition that Bennett had disrupted his cozy apolitical image as the comic chronicler of the sadness, embarrassment, and loneliness of life outside the distant metropolis.

Since the start of the new millennium, Bennett has increased his commitment to a more public and political face, including writing about the heretofore hidden secrets of his own family (his mother's mental breakdowns, his own homosexuality), in memoirs like Untold Stories (2005), as well as taking stands on issues of national import like the Iraq War. Bennett's annual diaries in the LRB have traditionally been the place he has chosen to express his dissent. Over the decades he has mixed anodyne descriptions of his day-to-day routines with trenchant criticism of the government and the media. But he has often felt that his voice did not carry very far or have much impact. As early as the 1980s Bennett made unmistakable his opposition to all Thatcherite policies and practices, especially the Falklands War. His 2003 diary, which he titled "A Shameful Year," focused his scorn and disdain on Blair and Bush for their criminal guilt in forcing upon the British an Iraq war based on lies and intimidation. He even chastised Tom Stoppard for having lunch at 10 Downing Street with Blair and Bush while an anti-war march went by the door ("Diary" 21 November 2003). But partly because his dissent was more moral than ideological, the gatekeepers who guarded the honor roll of leftist British artists usually overlooked him. By 2007 Bennett found it necessary to publicly demur when he read in The Guardian that Terry Eagleton had said "of all the eminent writers and playwrights only Pinter continues radical and untainted by the Establishment." Bennett, in typically modest fashion, merely wrote "Ahem" to remind the reader that Pinter had company--himself ("Diary" 7 July 2007). It was a throat clearing that clearly signaled a deep frustration and disappointment. Perhaps an annual diary was not enough.

At the same time that Bennett was becoming more personally outspoken, if largely ignored, his reputation and celebrity as a playwright grew, especially with Nicholas Hytner as his director at the National Theatre, where they collaborated on three productions in less than a decade: The History Boys (2004), which won several awards for best new play in both London and New York, The Habit of Art (2009), and People (2012). …

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