Nothing to write home about?


Have been watching a series of Alan Bennett plays on DVD (“Alan Bennett at the BBC”).

I’ve always felt kindly disposed towards Bennett. He seems like a nice fellow from his books, and I suppose his experiences, ideas, personality, are something like mine might have been had my family stayed in northern England and I been born there instead of in Australia. Or perhaps not.

Have always thought of his plays as being great works in some sense. The stage and tv equivalent of the 1950s-1960s working class English novels I admired when young. Had only seen a few of them, and settled back to watch the whole sequence with great expectations.

Only to suffer a right disappointment.

Look, don’t get me wrong. His excellent qualities are on full display here. He’s had a lifetime of using ears finely attuned to words and tone of voice; of eyes finely focused on facial expression and body movements; of empathetic neurones able to imagine himself in all kinds of other pairs of shoes. It is as if you are there with him on the top of the bus looking down on the street, or at the seaside on holiday, or in a hotel, remarking on the passing human parade.

But, and I’m afraid it’s a big BUT, seeing them all at once like this reveals them to be very thin gruel indeed. Great plays, like great novels, poems, films, need to do more than just present a slice of finely observed life. They need to show us something, teach us something about the meaning of life that is more than just “41”. There need to be deep and meaningful ideas about the meaning of life that arise from the fine observations, the latter, for an artist, never being an end in themselves.

What do we get from Alan, one play at a time? The First World War killed a lot of people who had been living in a Golden Age; retirement is a challenge after a working life; a spiteful person can wreck your life; an unpleasant person who thinks they are popular often isn’t; a disabled child can put strain on a marriage; Guy Burgess loved Englishness; Franz Kafka got his ideas from his place of employment; Marcel Proust was isolated by his housekeeper; discovering Anthony Blunt was a spy was like working on a painting. And so on, so little. Each of those is the only “insight”, from all those plays, one per play, about either life in general or some historical figure. And the latter unconvincing. Slim pickings eh?

My idea of a good play is not just the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; but one which will tell me a number of things about life, the universe, and everything that I hadn’t thought of before.

But I guess I am mistaken, it seems that is not a good play, that is the best. And Alan Bennett’s plays, sadly, are merely good.