The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: February 19 - 26, 1998

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Beyond the mundane

Alan Bennett, Britain's poet of self-awareness

by Steve Vineberg

"BRITAIN'S ALAN BENNETT: THE POET OF EMBARRASSMENT", At the Museum of Fine Arts, through March 13.

The pained self-awareness of the characters in Alan Bennett's teleplays is their cross and their legacy. It's the price they pay for their Englishness -- that is, their gift for articulating, often with hilarious incisiveness, the grim and idiotic realities of living in a cracked, unreasonable, post-imperial world. Bennett's women and men are as ferociously verbal as Noël Coward's or Harold Pinter's (two of his major influences), and their compulsive current of talk illuminates their peccadilloes and magnifies their humiliations. They're psychological scab pickers, and in the brilliant "Talking Heads" monologues -- half a dozen pieces, ranging from 30 to 50 minutes, broadcast in Great Britain in 1985 -- the sheer inventiveness and emotional range of their pitiless self-examinations holds you spellbound while they pick away. The comprehensive retrospective of Bennett's television dramas beginning this week at the Museum of Fine Arts is called "Britain's Alan Bennett: The Poet of Embarrassment," but I'd call him the poet of self-awareness.

Bennett, a writer-performer whose youth was spent in the company of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller in the peerless Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe, still isn't well known in America. His play The Madness of King George, a windy hunk of historical dramaturgy, has been seen here in both its stage and its (considerably improved) screen incarnations. And in the mid '80s there were a couple of movies: A Private Function, an eruptively funny (and neglected) farce set in Yorkshire during the straitened postwar days; and Prick Up Your Ears, a disappointingly monochromatic biography of the playwright Joe Orton. Only four of his teleplays have been seen on American TV, and only briefly, so the MFA series is a godsend. It includes all six of the "Talking Heads," six more full-length plays originally broadcast as "The Alan Bennett Season" in 1978-'79, and six others, notably An Englishman Abroad (1985) and A Question of Attribution (1991), each of which examines one of the four notorious Cambridge intellectuals who turned out to be KGB spies. These are Bennett's supreme achievements.

Most of the '70s dramas either take place in the workplace or are reflections on it, like A Visit from Miss Prothero (March 6), where a contentedly retired company man, a widower, is recalled to his workaday state of mind when his former secretary looks him up. These plays, most of them directed by Stephen Frears (who later partnered with Bennett on Prick Up Your Ears), are clever mixes of Osborne and Pinter, and generally they're very well acted by the likes of Hugh Lloyd, Pete Postlethwaite and Robert Stephens. But they aren't my favorites. Their focus on the bland, niggling details of office bureaucracy is dreary, and sometimes the tone is depressingly smug. The handling of tone in Bennett's later pieces can be masterful; here he and Frears -- more than half a decade away from My Beautiful Laundrette -- tend to bungle the shifts through a kind of overeagerness to get their point across.

That's true even in the two most interesting of the early plays, Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (March 13) and Afternoon Off (March 14). The first, presumably autobiographical, features a remarkable 12-minute comic exchange between the protagonist (bespectacled Neville Smith, made up as Bennett's double) and his mother (the great Thora Hird) where every taut wire connecting a mother who feels underappreciated and a son who feels misunderstood is stripped of its insulation, sending unprotected electric waves into the atmosphere. But when the young hero is left alone with his girlfriend (Carol Macready), Bennett exposes her post-hippie ridiculousness in a cruelly barbed manner, and then his interaction with the sardonic young student (Derek Thompson) who turns him on is sentimentalized. In Afternoon Off, a Chinese waiter named Lee (Henry Man) travels across London in fruitless pursuit of a promised blind date. Charmingly lighthearted and picaresque, the play gets in hot water whenever Bennett turns his attention to the unconsidered racism of his countrymen, whose comments drop like anchors. ("I didn't think they did cry," observes a tea-shop owner played by Anna Massey when Lee, exasperated to tears at the end of his afternoon, drifts out of her establishment. "I thought that was the point about them.")

Afternoon Off is really a strung-together series of brief encounters, and since Lee has very little English, it shows off Bennett's ingeniousness as a monologuist. The actors nest happily in the eaves of his beautifully constructed speeches: Pete Postlethwaite as a gallery attendant, Elizabeth Spriggs as a woman arranging flowers in a church, Richard Griffiths as a jaded factory owner, Lucita Lijertwood as a West Indian nurse who bosses her charges (even the formidable Thora Hird) like an autocratic nanny.

Afternoon Off and the more heavy-laden A Woman of No Importance (February 28), a 1982 piece that traces the last days of one of Bennett's working-world women (Patricia Routledge), are warm-ups for the "Talking Heads" pieces, studies of unexceptional figures in crisis turning a sharp eye on their own pinned, wriggling selves. Every one of these is a must-see. PBS mavens may have been fortunate enough to catch Maggie Smith as the alcoholic minister's wife who finds sexual bliss with an Asian grocer in Bed Among the Lentils (February 21), or Bennett himself in A Chip in the Sugar (February 20), where a psychically diminished middle-aged man is shaken to find the mother he cares for swept off her feet by an old beau. But PBS failed to give us Thora Hird as the pensioner staving off assisted living in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee (March 5), or Julie Walters as the sweetly fatuous young actress who gets Her Big Chance in a moronic thriller and ends up in bed with the talentless Eurotrash director (March 14). (He sleeps with her, he says, to show her how highly he values her acting.) You just don't get to see acting like this: in the work of these four, "technique" and "genius" are synonyms. Patricia Routledge as a driven busybody in the truly eccentric A Lady of Letters (March 7) and Stephanie Cole as a widow beset with a series of blows she refuses to be crippled by in Soldiering On (March 13) aren't in the same category, but they're damn good, and in fact Routledge, who can be wearying, surprises here: in her best moments, she has a Peggy Ashcroft quality. (That's high praise.)

Bennett lays his work at the feet of the best actors in the English theater. Even an otherwise unmemorable early teleplay like Sunset Across the Bay (February 28) provides moments like the one where Gabriella Daye's aging Mrs. Palmer waits with increasing isolation and terror for her too-long-gone husband to emerge from a public toilet. It's hard to think of another contemporary playwright who gets at the twinned anguish and awkwardness of episodes like this one with Bennett's acuity and compassion. In his genteel-spy comedies of manners, Alan Bates, playing opposite Coral Browne as herself, and James Fox, playing his best scene opposite Prunella Scales as "H.M.Q." (Queen Elizabeth), give what are possibly the performances of their distinguished careers. (These plays also represent the finest hours of director John Schlesinger.)

The earlier teleplay, An Englishman Abroad (February 21), expands on Coral Browne's anecdote about meeting the repudiated traitor Guy Burgess when she appeared in a production of Hamlet touring Moscow in 1958: he wandered, extravagantly drunk, into her dressing room, vomited into her sink, and walked off with her liquor, her cigarettes and her soap -- English commodities he felt the lack of. In Bennett's dramatization, Burgess invites her to lunch the next day. An Englishman Abroad is a delicately funny and ironic portrait of the agonies of exile. When Browne, at Burgess's request (he's an unrefusable charmer), visits his London tailor on her return and orders fresh suits for him, Schlesinger cuts to Bates at his mirror, fixing his brand-new Etonian tie before swinging out into the biting Russian air as Gilbert and Sullivan's "For he is an Englishman" crows on the soundtrack, and you don't know whether to hoot or weep.

A Question of Attribution (February 20) propounds similarly complex and ticklish ironies. James Fox plays Sir Anthony Blunt, the queen's art historian, who has been granted immunity for his transgressions as long as he plays the stool pigeon for the British secret service. But he treats their grill sessions with aristocratic condescension and tells them nothing -- an ultimately self-destructive move that Bennett and Schlesinger treat as an act of bizarre and baffling integrity. Fox plays Blunt like Noël Coward's Elliot Chase, as an aging homosexual academic, with bubbling springs of fear and pain hidden away discreetly beneath his disdainful reserve. In the climactic scene with "H.M.Q.," they debate quietly, wittily, about the difference -- ostensibly focusing on a spurious Titian that hangs in her collection -- between fakery and mistaken attribution. The other metaphor Bennett draws on is the x-ray, which Blunt's doctor uses to check for recurrences of cancer and Blunt uses to examine the skeleton of the disputed Titian, exposing mysterious figures lingering like ghosts under layers of paint. A Question of Attribution and An Englishman Abroad are small masterworks, elegantly nuanced, delectably literate. In them Alan Bennett revels in the bountiful legacy of English self-consciousness and extends it another generation.

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