A rehearsal room at the National Theatre, set up as WH Auden's Oxford rooms in 1972
Carpenter: I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men . . . We stand on their shoulders to survey our lives . . . (As Donald, the actor playing Carpenter) . . . Yes?
Kay (stage manager): I'm afraid the director can't make it today.
Fitz (actor playing Auden): Are we doing the sucking off scene today?
Henry (actor playing Britten): Have you bought in a cake?
Fitz: Did you see my Lear? I was marvellous.
Kay: Oh shit! It's Neil. The author.
The Author: You're not going to cut more of my words, are you?
The Digested Read: More than you would ever have imagined.
Kay: Shall we start again from when Carpenter arrives at Auden's lodgings?
Carpenter: I had come to interview Auden for a biography I was writing . . .
Auden: I suppose that's as good a way as any of setting the scene, but I still feel the audience might find it contrived.
The Author: Stop picking on me and leave my text alone.
Carpenter: Can you tell me why you stayed in America during the war?
Auden: You're at it again, dear boy . . . (As Fitz) I've lost my place . . . Oh yes . . . (As Auden) It was because I was in love with Chester. (Clock strikes 6.30) Is that the time? Take your trousers off.
Auden: Because you're here to let me suck your cock.
Carpenter: But I'm with the BBC.
Auden: My point entirely.
The Author: Oi! I didn't write that line.
The Digested Read: I'm sorry. I thought anyone could join in.
The Bed: They can. I'm Auden's bed.
Stuart: And I'm the rent boy. Though I may be rather more middle-class than you were expecting.
Carpenter: Shall I say something didactic about the acceptance and practice of homosexuality in the 1970s now?
Auden: I'd rather you just let me suck his cock.
Carpenter: Yes, yes. Did you know Britten was in town today? He's having trouble with Death in Venice and I thought you might be able to help him.
Auden: Caught you doing it again . . . But never mind, show him in.
Kay: It's your cue, Henry.
Henry: These biccies are good. (As Britten) Have you seen the Spenders?
Auden: Everyone's seen the Spenders. But how can I help? I am rather out of fashion now, you know. I just write cosy poems. I hate almost everything I've ever written. It's just a habit now.
Britten: The people of Aldeburgh still love me but the last thing I composed that was universally liked was The War Requiem. Now I'm struggling with Aschenbach. People say it's the same old story. They don't like it. Boyish innocence corrupted.
Auden: But of course it is.
Britten: It's not. Aschenbach is seduced by the Ideal of Beauty.
Auden: You are deluding yourself. You must tell it as it is. Let the music do the work for you.
The Music: Benjie loves us. We will serve him to the end.
Donald: I hate the fact I'm just sitting around here on stage. It's obvious to everyone my character is just a device to hang the story around.
Auden: I won't deny it. And the play has been much more involving since Benjie and I were allowed time to discuss our poetry and music. So, if you don't mind, we'll return to matters of truth, artistic freedom and talent's desire to self-question and destroy itself with age.
Stuart: That's what you think. I want my voice heard. God stand up for the rent boys who serviced the artistic greats.
Carpenter: Good for you. You understand the biographer perfectly.
Fitz: Can't we end with some of Auden's poetry?
Stuart: No chance.
The Author: What have you all done to my play?
Kay: I think we'll stop here for today.
Digested read, digested: The Habit of Artifice.
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Guardian: The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett
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