Magazine article American Theatre

Alan Bennett's (Relatively) Unsung Brilliance

Magazine article American Theatre

Alan Bennett's (Relatively) Unsung Brilliance

Article excerpt

When lists are drawn of Britain' leading dramatists, Pinter, Hare and Churchill jostle for position. One name, though, is all too often absent: Alan Bennett. The 57-year-old London-based Yorkshireman hasn't lost a trace of the working-class accent that was his birthright as one of two sons born into a Leeds butcher's family. Bennett shares with that other playwriting Alan -- i.e., Ayckbourn -- an uncanny skill for anatomising his countrymen's habits and foibles -- but he has been even less frequently performed in the United States than his prolific peer.

Why? "Too English," everybody says. The comment began to circulate with his first big success, Forty Years On (1968), which was never seen in New York. The Jujamcyn Company considered -- and then passed on -- a Broadway run of his 1988 West End double-bill Single Spies. Peculiarly, Bennett's only real stab at Broadway came with what to his eyes was a "very bad" 1975 production of the farce Habeas Corpus, notable mostly for featuring an unknown actor named Richard Gere in its supporting cast. Off-Broadway, Bennett has drawn a complete blank.

The result is that audiences need to be in Britain to see Bennett's work, which in some ways is no bad thing. Bennett is indeed a leading chronicler of the English character: "It's the only thing I know," he explains with typical understatement. But how incisively he knows it! Steep yourself in a festival of Bennett plays, films and texts, and no English figure -- from a shop assistant right up to and including the Queen -- is likely ever to look quite the same again.

Britain has what amounts to just such an impromptu festival on offer right now, with no fewer than three evenings of Bennett on simultaneous view. A staged presentation of three of his Talking Heads, chosen from among the six 1987 monologues which he filmed for the BBC, has just arrived on the West End for a 10-week run at the Comedy Theatre. (Only one o the monologues, Bed Among the Lentils, starring Maggie Smith, was aired in the U.S.) The show allows local audiences to reacquaint themselves with the milque-toast momma's boy, Graham, in A Chip in the Sugar, acted unforgettably by the playwright; as well as the epistle-obsessed Irene Ruddock (played by Patricia Routledge on TV and on stage) in A Lady of Letters.

The National Theatre has two Bennett hits in repertory, both directed by Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon): the return engagement of his sellout 1990 adaptation of The Wind in the Willows and an original new play, The Madness of George III, starring Nigel Hawthorne. Coming after his 1988 one-act A Question of Attribution, which made history by daring to dramatize Queen Elizabeth not as a figure of caricature but as a complex woman in her own right, this confirmation of Bennett's interest in royalty might surprise those familiar with his keen attention to society's more ordinary and mundane inhabitants -- the alcoholic vicar's wife, for example, in Bed Among the Lentils, or the hobbling pensioner Doris (played by Thora Hird) in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, another in the Talking Heads lineup.

All of which proves Bennett's fondness for subverting expectation, which he accomplishes on a personal level as well. Gracious and articulate, he nonetheless keeps contact with journalists to a minimum. When he does open up, his mild manner belies an angry, impassioned response to a surprising variety of topics, from Mrs. Thatcher's decade-long hegemony ("I was so pleased to see her go -- she had destroyed so much") to the ongoing divisiveness of the British class system ("You grew up thinking, |You were who you were, and that's where you were going to stay'"). Bennett, of course, left far behind the way of life of his parents, winning first a scholarship to Oxford and then achieving fame in the early '60s as one of the Beyond the Fringe quartet alongside Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and his north London neighbor, Jonathan Miller. …

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