When did theatre's most valued national treasure come out? As far as I remember, Alan Bennett's holding statement in the Eighties to Ian McKellen about his sexuality - that it was like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier to Malvern water - did not become inoperative until an interview he gave for a book called That Was Satire That Was, published in 2000, in which he talked about the unrequited gay crushes of his youth and how love had become separated from sex in his mind. The book's author was the late Humphrey Carpenter.
In Bennett's new comedy about an imaginary meeting between the poet W H Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten in Oxford in 1972, Carpenter, as played by Adrian Scarborough, gets rather more than a walk-on part. As a young reporter from Radio Oxford, he arrives at Auden's grace-and-favour lodgings at Christ Church and is mistaken for the poet's pre-ordered rent boy. "This is a transaction," says Auden. "I am going to suck you off." "But," says Carpenter, "I am with the BBC."
There are many better, more stretching, jokes than that in this play's always entertaining two and a quarter hours, but it is striking how few
of them are really central to the story, such as it is, of the two homosexuals' attempted reconciliation 30 years after Auden dared criticise Britten's lover Peter Pears. The plot amounts to Auden's asking to write the libretto for Britten's next opera, Death in Venice, and Britten declining the offer. The best serious joke of the evening is the one that addresses the question of whether an artist, and in particular a homosexual artist, must "pay" for being outside society. Auden complains that Britten, in polite Aldeburgh, has not paid. Britten replies that he is dying. "Ben, Ben," says Auden. "Death isn't the payment. Death is just the checkout."
What stops The Habit of Art being the melancholy, Chekhovian one-act play it might have been is all the funny business Bennett places around it. We are watching, throughout, a play within a play or, more accurately, the rehearsal for a play within the play. At the sides of the set, the "playwright", the stage manager (Frances de la Tour in excellent cynical form) and other actors comment and even heckle the action, as do the "actors" playing Auden and Britten. Henry, who is gay and plays Britten, is the more sympathetic to the playwright's insistence on the importance of the artist's sexuality. Fitz, who is Auden, is more critical and believes that the work alone matters. The debate culminates in Fitz reading Auden's poem on the death of Yeats. He believes this is where the play should finish, but instead the evening meanders on for another ten minutes as Bennett circles around his themes - art v life, secrecy v openness, love v friendship, the point of theatre - and finally lands on the slightly fatuous question: who ever writes about the rent boys rather than the famous men they serve?
The Habit of Art's wide margins certainly permit additional biographical information to be inserted, but they also allow room for doubt about the main play. How bad is it meant to be? The dialogue between Auden, Britten, Carpenter and the rent boy who later appears is very fine, yet there are deliberately wince-making passages in which Auden's furniture and Britten's music "speak". The format also detracts from the credibility of the main encounter. Is the enormous (but brilliant) Richard Griffiths deliberately miscast as the actor playing Auden, who was creased but not baggy? (Probably not, as the director, Nicholas Hytner, initially wanted Michael Gambon in the role.) Is the miscasting matched by having the much too young (but also first-rate) Alex Jennings play Britten? And what is Carpenter's role in all this, except as a clef into Bennett's life?
This is so nearly Bennett's coming-out play that one wonders if an opportunity has been missed or a catastrophe avoided. Perhaps he knew that if he really argued what he hints at in The History Boys and now in The Habit of Art - namely that older men having sex with teenage boys is not necessarily wrong - he would be stripped of his listing as part of the national heritage quicker than you could say Daily Mail.
The Habit of Art
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times