Alan Bennett

(Short biography by Brendan Kenny)

Alan Bennett has been a household name in British theatre ever since he starred and co-authored the satirical review Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller in 1960 at the Edinburgh Festival. Later the same show played to packed houses in London's West End and in New York. Although Bennett started by writing and acting for the stage, he very soon turned his attention to writing plays for television.

Bennett's career, though less spectacular than those of his Fringe companions, has displayed greater diversity and more solid achievement. To many he is now regarded as perhaps the premier English dramatist of his generation. This is all the more surprising given the low-key themes and understated expression of the "ordinary people" who populate his dramatic world. Like the poetry of Philip Larkin, another Northerner whose writings he admires, his writing frequently focuses on the everyday and the mundane: sea-side holidays, lower-middle class pretensions, obsessions with class, cleanliness, propriety and sexual repression. Like Larkin, Bennett casts a loving as well as a critical eye on the objects of his irony revealing what underlies the apparently trivial language of his protagonists. In "Say Something Happened," the cliched expression of Dad is shown to be more constructive than the social work jargon of his interviewer June, since it functions to set at ease his gauche interlocutor. While June clings to lexical propriety, Dad attends to the much more important level of the speech act. In Kafka's Dick and Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Bennett pokes mischievous fun at Wittgenstein and the ordinary language philosophy of Austin, but his ear for telling dialogue reveals that he shares with those philosophers an awareness that language is a series of games, operating at different levels, whose rules can only be inferred from within. We cannot assume that we know what people mean by reference to our own usage.

Bennett's dramas are easier to enjoy than to categorise and the writer himself is a dubious guide. In the introduction to the five teleplays written for London Weekend Television in 1978-79, The Writer in Disguise, Bennett identifies the silent central character in three of them as "the writer in disguise." To the five plays written for the BBC in 1982 Bennett supplies a title Objects of Affection, but immediately disclaims he felt any such theme at the time of writing. The writer is not the centre of attention: Trevor in Me--I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf is pathologically obsessed with not being noticed and yet somehow becomes the centre of other's attentions. He becomes an absent centre through whom other characters seek to make sense of their lives. Similarly, the perambulant Chinese waiter Lee, sent on a wild goose chase in search of a female admirer by a cruel fellow-worker, is a device to exhibit the casual xenophobia and fear of intimacy of the English lower middle classes. The occasion for a Bennett play is often a holiday, or at least a break from routine: these are suggested in the titles of All Day on the Sands, One Fine Day, Afternoon Off, Our Winnie, A Day Out, and even "Rolling Home." The break serves to highlight the peculiar nature of ordinary living by providing a distanced view of it: in extreme instances the distance indicates a near breakdown, as the estate agent Phillips in One Fine Day takes to living in a tower block he is unable to let, overwhelmed by the inauthenticity of the language and values of his employment. Hospitals figure in "Rolling Home," "Intensive Care" and "A Woman of No Importance:" here too, it is the intrusion of death which leads to a search for the significance of life, though frequently it is the lives of the visitors, not the patient, that are subjected to scrutiny, and Bennett's irony militates against any portentousness about "Life."

"A Woman of No Importance" marks an important step in Bennett's development: it is the first play featuring a single actress (Patricia Routledge), speaking directly to camera and with minimal scene changes which anticipates the format adopted for the six monologues of Talking Heads. The play is essentially a character study of a boring woman whose life revolves around the minutiae of precedence and status of canteen groupings. Peggy sees herself as creating happiness, order and elegance in a shabby world: we see her as bossy, insensitive and narrow-minded. Bennett's critique is subtle and sensitive however as the gap between her and our vision of the world progressively narrows. She is half-aware of the futility of her life which endows her struggle to make significance out of trivia with a heroic pathos. A more blinkered version of this character is to be found in Muriel in "Soldiering On" in Talking Heads who refuses to acknowledge her son's embezzlement and husband's incest. Here, our sympathy for her gradual social and economic privation is offset by the damage to the family of her collusive blindness to its shortcomings. The most successful of Talking Heads is probably "Bed Among the Lentils", the narrative of an alcoholic vicar's wife (brilliantly played by Maggie Smith) who is restored to some sense of self-worth by an affair with an Asian shopkeeper. Possessed of greater intelligence and insight than her husband and his adoring camp-followers, she is, despite her wit and perceptiveness a figure of pathos: marooned in a marriage and a social role she despises but lacking the courage to abandon them or the belief that real change is possible. In Bennett's world those who succeed do so by unselfconscious egoism, energy and lack of imagination, but are marginal to our attention; conversely, the failures exhibit insight, wit but a crippling self-awareness that inhibits action.

While Bennett's "Englishness" and "Northerness" (terms by no means synonymous) are evident to see, they are no more nationalistic nor restricting than Chekhov's "Russianness." The characters he writes about are rooted in a particular social environment but the issues they raise are of more universal appeal: the essential isolation of human beings within the protective social roles they have adopted or had thrust upon them, the gap between self-awareness and the capacity to change, the crippling power of propriety. All of these themes are relayed through a tone that is simultaneously ironic and tender.


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