[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/50176?ns=guardian&pageName=The+Habit+of+Art%3A+Alan+Bennett%27s+debt+to+Homer%3AArticle%3A1307085&ch=Culture&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Culture+section%2CTheatre%2CStage%2CAlan+Bennett+%28Playwright%29%2CClassics+%28Books+genre%29%2CClassics+%28Education+subject%29&c6=Charlotte+Higgins&c7=09-Nov-18&c8=1307085&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Culture&c13=&c25=Charlotte+Higgins+blog%2CTheatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FCulture%2Fblog%2FCharlotte+Higgins+on+culture[/img]Alan Bennett's device of a play-within-a-play has its origins in the Iliad
One of the most notable formal features of Alan Bennett's new play for the National Theatre, The Habit of Art, is its play-within-a-play. The action is set within a rehearsal room. Here are the actors, the stage manager, the playwright, the musical director, etc, who are preparing to "run" a play called Caliban's Day, about the relationship between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten.
Bennett has written beautifully about the reasons for his adding this play-within-a-play framework to the initial draft of The Habit of Art (an essay, available online at the London Review of Books' site, also appears in the playtext, published by Faber). For the viewer the device is a rich source of jokes – from the absence of actors because they are playing in a Chekhov matinee, to the "playwright" complaining about cuts that the director has made to the text (as Bennett explains in his essay, real excisions that director Nicholas Hytner suggested).
But it's also, of course, doing something more meaningful than simply adding comic texture.
The ultimate ancestor of this play-within-a-play device is the ekphrasis of classical literature – the extended description, not of a play, but of a work of visual art. The first example is in Homer's Iliad. The ekphrasis here is the virtuosic description of the shield of Achilles - the miraculous shield that Hephaestus forges for the hero in book 18 of the poem. The description of the astonishing scenes carved on the shield occupies nearly 150 lines of Robert Fagles' superb translation of the poem. Homer describes the worlds that the god creates - a wedding feast, an army besieging a city, a vineyard, a field being ploughed, a herd of cattle, the story of the myth of Ariadne and Theseus.
The descriptions are given such dense and rich colour that they do things mere carvings could never achieve - the wedding feast is accompanied by "glowing torches" and a choir is raising a wonderful song; in the vineyard a boy plucks his lyre and sings.
The astonishing skill of Hephaestus is being conveyed - but also the skill of the poet. The scenes here are so vivid that you forget that you are being asked to imagine a mere shield. The scenes themselves take over; the figures move and breathe. This is actually - self-consciously - about the power of the poet's skill and the reader's imagination. (We might also, coincidentally, recall Auden's poem The Shield of Achilles, which riffs on Homer darkly. No stranger he to the power of the ekphrasis.)
To Rome, and Catullus' Poem 64. This does even more with the idea of ekphrasis. At the start of this exquisite miniature epic, you might think you were going to get the story of Jason and the Argonauts. But then it veers off on to a tangent - the story of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. And then the poem goes off-topic again: it starts to describe an elaborately embroidered coverlet on the bridal bed, stitched with scenes from the story of Ariadne and Theseus. But the ekphrasis completely takes over the poem, so that the Peleus and Thetis stuff seems to disappear and becomes a mere frame. The reader is invited to forget that this is supposed to be a coverlet at all - except at the moments when Catullus self-consciously, slyly, reminds you that it is a coverlet (and indeed a poem describing a coverlet).
The Habit of Art, then, uses the play within a play in order to draw you in to its real material - which is a meditation on the nature of making artistic work. All the jokes in which actors play actors who can't remember their lines; all the humour when you're suddenly pulled out of the drama of Caliban's Day to revert to the framing drama of the actors in the rehearsal room - all this is subtly nudging us to remember that this is artificial, this is a creation. (I particularly enjoy the fact that we are not necessarily expected to admire Caliban's Day - it has some hilarious passages that I won't ruin for the uninitiated.) You might find this tricksy or dry. I find it rather moving. It reminds me somewhat of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (another work, of course, that features an artwork-within-an-artwork, and which takes as its characters members of a theatrical company). Bennett's work is utterly attentive to the joy, hardship, loneliness, comradeship, bitterness and solid, habitual drive to make work, whether that's music, poetry, or drama: the habit of art.
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Guardian: The Habit of Art: Alan Bennett's debt to Homer
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