Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Habit of Art

The gay, leftist, British poet W.H. Auden (above left) and the gay, leftist, British composer Benjamin Britten (above right) enjoyed a brief, intense, sexually platonic friendship from 1935 to 1942, with the seven years older writer the bullying intellectual mentor to the young, supremely gifted musician.

They "met cute" at the Film Unit of the General Post Office which were making documentary shorts, the most famous being Night Mail (credits above) with a rollicking poem by Auden, music by Britten, and sound direction by the eccentrically talented Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti. Click here for the movie on YouTube, with its valorization of the British railroad workers transporting the overnight mail to Scotland. The Auden poem for the film's finale begins at 19:27:
This is the night mail/crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque/and the postal order,

Letters for the rich/letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner/the girl next door.
Meanwhile, the young Benjamin Britten wrote a beautiful, rhythmic chamber orchestra accompaniment with yet another amazing horn solo.

Their friendship foundered in America, where they had both emigrated in 1939, pacifists turning their back on another European War. Auden stayed in New York while Britten became too homesick and returned with his partner Peter Pears to England in the middle of World War Two. During their time together, in Auden's notorious Bohemian household in Brooklyn that had lodgers ranging from Carson McCullers to Gypsy Rose Lee, the two collaborated on a strange hybrid musical/opera called Paul Bunyan that was not a success. Their final collaboration was a poem Auden had written for Britten, the Hymn to Saint Cecilia for a capella chorus, which Britten completed while on his dangerous return trip across the Atlantic in 1942. After that, the friendship was over, a recurring pattern for Britten who thoroughly enchanted a number of collaborators before casting them out forever from his inner circle.

Auden wrote his friend a famous letter soon before Britten's return to England. From the frank, groundbreaking 1991 biography by Humphrey Carpenter:
"I have been thinking a great deal about you and your work during the past year," Auden told Britten. He said he regarded Britten as "the white hope of music," and so was especialy anxious about "the dangers that beset you as a man and as an artist." All great art, he declared, was the result of "a perfect balance between Order and Chaos, Bohemianism and Bourgeois Convention. Bohemian chaos alone ends in a mad jumble of beautiful scraps. Bourgeois Convention alone ends in large unfeeling corpses. Every artist except the supreme masters has a bias one way or the other...Technical skill always comes from the bourgeois side of one's nature.

Britten's bias, he went on, was towards Bourgeois Conventions: "Your attraction to thin-as-a-board juveniles, i.e. to the sexless and innocent, is a symptom of this. And I am certain that it is your denial and evasion of the demands of disorder that is responsible for your attacks of ill-health, i.e. sickness is your substitute for the Bohemian."
It's little wonder Britten eventually cut off all ties.

In 2009 Alan Bennett (above), the British actor and writer of novels, stories, plays, memoirs, and essays wrote a play called The Habit of Art. The piece imagines a reunion between Britten and Auden in 1972 at Auden's quarters in Oxford University where he had been offered modest retirement quarters in exchange for hanging about and sharing his wisdom. From most accounts, it wasn't a happy arrangement for either the university or the old and ill poet. The play posits that Britten made the imaginary visit to his old friend because he wanted advice about the touchy subject matter of his final opera based on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which is fairly absurd since the only thing Britten was worried about was the quality of the music, "either the most horrible or the most wonderful I have ever written." In reality, it was his esteemed composer colleague Dmitri Shostakovich who read through the score and admired it unreservedly.

To make things livelier and infinitely more complicated, the setting of The Habit of Art is at the National Theatre of London where a rehearsal of a half-good, half-ridiculous Britten/Auden reunion play called Caliban's Day is taking place, with actors forgetting lines or demanding, "Do I really have to say that? Can't I substitute this speech instead?" Meanwhile, a hypersensitive playwright watches and intervenes throughout. The Habit of Art debuted at the National Theatre of London under Nicholas Hytner's direction with a cast headed by Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings above as Auden and Britten, and it must have been marvelous, with insider theatrical jokes galore and judging by the London reviews, superb acting throughout.

Unfortunately, in the play's San Francisco premiere by the Theatre Rhinocerous troupe, the acting is mostly amateurishly wooden, so that moments where one should be watching a brilliant actor playing a bad or mediocre one are instead simply puzzling. Are the actors supposed to be this flat, or is it just an unfortunate coincidence?

There are a few notable exceptions. Donald Currie above as Auden is wonderful throughout, though he was so much better than the rest of the cast that it was hard to believe his actor and Auden characters were both supposed to be dealing with senility. Justin Lucas as a male prostitute was also very good, underplaying what could have been a buffoonish character. The cluttered set by Abe Lopez is also worthy of high praise.

The basic dislike playwright Bennett felt for the historical Britten's character, which the writer was the first to admit in a London Review of Books essay, also becomes a more pronounced liability in this production. This is particularly true since the performance by director and Theatre Rhino artistic director John Fisher (above right, with Craig Souza as the biographer Humphrey Carpenter) is enervated and terrible. I never saw any of Fisher's local theatrical hits from the early 1990s such as Medea: The Musical or The Joy of Sex, but did see the 2007 Theatre Rhinoceros Special Forces which Fisher wrote, directed and starred in, and which struck me as so bad that it made me want to avoid small theater in San Francisco forever after. Thank goodness for the Thrillpeddlers, who provided a corrective tonic.

If you are a Fisher fan, the production runs through this weekend at the Eureka Theatre in the Embarcadero Center complex. Click here for more details.


Markley Morris said...

Mike, thank you for all this fascinating information - I'll see the play again on Saturday and knowing all this will make the experience richer.

I so hoped you'd see the play because of your love of Britten (which I share) but didn't mention it. I greatly admire John Fisher's work and don't know what about it that grits you so but it must be something epic.

john_burke100 said...

Great post as usual, Mike. I read "The February House" about that communal-living arrangement in Brooklyn (Paul and Jane Bowles moved in after Britten and Pears left, making the setup even stranger if possible) and got the impression Britten wanted to go back to England in part because he considered it his patriotic duty to be in his country, facing the same dangers his countrymen faced. I know Auden came in for a lot of criticism for sitting out the War in the safety of the US and I wouldn't be surprised if that widened the gulf between him and Britten.

Civic Center said...

Dear Markley and John: Glad you enjoyed the post, and I'm glad you're a Fisher fan, Markley. As you note, I can now unequivocally state that I am epically not. And John, I think it was less a feeling of patriotic duty for Britten (his pacifism was deep and abiding) as sheer uprooted homesickness for not only England, but his little slice of East Anglia where he was from, and where he returned to build a life and the Aldebergh music festival which still exists.

Hattie said...

This is really quite interesting.