Although not a prolific playwright, Alan Bennett (born 1934) earned a solid reputation as one of Britain's finest writers for the stage and television.
In the summer of 1960 in Edinburgh there burst onto the British theater scene a revue which made immediate stars of its four author/participants—Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore. Taken to London the following spring, Beyond the Fringe won the Evening Standard award as the best play; in New York it won the Antoinette Perry Award (Tony) and the New York Drama Critics Circle award for 1963. Robert Brustein wrote of the series of 23 sketches lampooning religion, the royal family, war, pornography, and Shakespearean history plays that it had "no firm moral center … " and that it was "immoderate, irresponsible, … totally destructive … and violently funny." Several decades later, after Monty Python and Saturday Night Live on opposite sides of the Atlantic, it seems quite tame, with the Shakespeare parody the sketch that held up best. Three of the participants (Cook, Miller, and Moore) quickly parlayed their success in this production into transatlantic fame, while Bennett did not.
Born May 9, 1934, in Leeds, Bennett had served in the Intelligence Corps from 1952 to 1954 and had been graduated from Exeter College of Oxford in 1957. That he had proved exceptional as a student was demonstrated by his appointment as a junior lecturer in history at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the years 1960-1962. He had also worked as an actor on stage and television. Bennett turned to writing for television, authoring the series "On the Margin" in 1966, for which he was honored by the Guild of Television Producers the following year. From 1968 to 1973 Bennett added to his reputation with three plays for the stage: Forty Years On (1968), Getting On (1971), and Habeas Corpus (1973).
Forty Years On concerns the retirement ceremony for the longtime headmaster of a public (read "private") school not very subtly named Albion. The staff and students put on a play about the World War II era in honor of the occasion, but within the play are what Bennett calls "memoirs," short sketches about English society which take place in various years from 1900 to 1945. The play was generally well received, with Irving Wardle of the Times of London writing that it was "what Bennett needed to make the transition from revue-sketch writer to playwright"; it garnered the Evening Standard award for 1968. Acclaim was not universal, however: visiting New York Times critic Clive Barnes called the play "fundamentally cheap and nasty" and found it characterized by "pretentiousness and ineptness."
Getting On, a seriocomic look at British politics, deals with two members of Parliament and offers a paradox right at the start: the stodgy and stuffy George is in the Labour Party, while the more dashing and, not so incidentally, gay Brian is a conservative. A career in politics, one of them opines, "fills in that awkward gap between the cradle and the grave." When Brian is blackmailed into not seeking reelection, Bennett concludes with the Voltairean observation that "the only thing that matters in life is work." The play won the Evening Standard award for 1971.
Habeas Corpus is a sex farce, albeit at a sophisticated level, but with frequent descents into vaudeville and even burlesque, including lyrics sung to the tunes of "The Isle of Capri" and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," some speeches in doggerel, and more than one trouserless male. All of the characters are in the grip of some monomania: Dr. Wicksteed is a lecher, his son has developed the erroneous notion that he is going to die in three months, his daughter is obsessed with her flat-chestedness, and Canon Thrabbing is celibate but eager to remedy that condition. The conclusion: "He whose lust lasts, lasts longest." The play was taken to New York in 1975, where it had a modest run.
Bennett continued to write for television, with "A Day Out" in 1972; "Sunset Across the Bay" in 1975; "A Little Outing," "A Visit from Miss Prothero," "Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and "Doris and Doreen" in 1978; "The Old Crowd," "One Fine Day," "Afternoon Off," and "All Day on the Sands" in 1979; "Objects of Affection" (including the five short works "Our Winnie," "A Woman of No Importance," "Rolling Home," "Marks," and "Say Something Happened"), "Intensive Care," and "An Englishman Abroad," all in 1982; "The Insurance Man" in 1986; "Talking Heads" in 1987; and "102 Boulevard Haussmann" in 1991. He also wrote screenplays in the 1980s, authoring A Private Function in 1985 and Prick Up Your Ears, an adaptation of John Lahr's biography of playwright Joe Orton, in 1988, neither a conspicuous success.
For the stage he composed The Old Country in 1977, Enjoy in 1980, and his most resounding failure, Kafka's Dick, in 1986. In his introduction to the volume Two Kafka Plays in 1987, Bennett contributed numerous brilliant and sensitive observations about the Czech author, opining that "his life conforms in every particular to what we have convinced ourselves an artist's life should be" and concluding that he "never wholeheartedly felt himself a member of the human race." But in the play, an attack on the trivialization of great men, he seemed unable to resist being clever and witty, so that only the most sensitive spectator could realize that he himself was not joining in that trivialization.
In 1988 he adapted his television play "An Englishman Abroad" and wrote a one-acter, "A Question of Attribution," to make an series titled Single Spies, which had a fine critical success. Two years later he wrote an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, called by novelist Tom Sharpe the archetypal picture of English life.
He returned to earlier English history in 1991 with The Madness of George the Third. A critical success, it was exported to New York in 1993, although for only a limited run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the self-appointed temple of excellent drama that figures to do badly at the box office. A film version of the play was released in 1994 and fared much better. Bennett himself was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay adaptation of the work. The year 1994 also saw the publication of his well received autobiographical work, Writing Home. According to Bennett the work is a collection of diaries, book reviews, essays, and more. In 1995 Bennett demonstrated his gift for multi-faceted entertainment when he did the narration for a sound recording of Winnie-The-Pooh, adding "some much-needed grit to the almost terminal twee-ness of A.A. Milne's prose," according to reviewer Bret Harte.
Bennett's career was summed up by Burton Kendle in Contemporary Dramatists in this way: "Alan Bennett's plays consistently dramatize man's desire to define himself and his world through teasingly inadequate language."
Further Reading on Alan Bennett
Biographical material on Alan Bennett can be found in Contemporary Drama and Contemporary Authors. See also Bennett, Alan. Writing Home, (1994); People Weekly, (November 13, 1995; January 29, 1996). Time, (February 27, 1995).