The Habit of Art

This play by Alan Bennett was filmed as part of the English National Theatre’s Live broadcasts around the world. In my case, I saw it as part of the NTL’s series of films at the Symphony Space.

This arts complex showing both live stage productions, films, discussions, and music performances has done well since its second inception founded by the great Leonard Nimoy himself, better known as you-know-who.


The investment paid off and the Thalia has returned to its wonderful function as a neighborhood arts center now expanded beyond the borders of the Upper West Side.


I have blogged before about the Symphony Space but I wanted to concentrate on this series before it disappears. It is a rare opportunity to see high-quality films of the some of the NTL’s best plays.

Recently, we had seen Peter Morgan’s The Audience with Helen Mirren, in which she reprised her role as Elizabeth II, earlier seen in Morgan’s The Queen. This play, the Habit of Art, starred the late Richard Griffiths in his last role and other immensely talented actors in a play about–well–art.

It actually presents a fictional meeting between W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten about creating the opera, Death in Venice. The meeting does not produce a collaboration in the play, and we know that Britten later wrote the opera with another collaborator, Myfanwy Piper, from a short story by Thomas Mann who was, incidentally, Auden’s father-in-law.


Along the way, we heard lots about Auden’s and Britten’s sexual orientation as well as some of their less savory escapades, and their prior collaboration in Paul Bunyan, a famous flop in New York, for which Britten apparently blamed Auden the rest of his life. Rory, who must be one of the six people who saw a version of it, said that the character of Paul Bunyan never sings in the opera–a strange decision and one that apparently still causes problems for any production of it. I found the music very fine and was pleased to hear it is done regularly by small companies, often university associated.


The relationship of this odd couple, one very messy inside and out and one neat, forms the meat of the play and it is, as so many of Bennett’s plays, fascinating in its details. And there’s lots of music in it, including exquisite boy soprano solos of Britten’s works.

britten and auden (Source:

The 200+ theater was full on a snowy night, but New Yorkers always turn up for something good.

The next film in the series is Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch, everyone’s favorite Sherlock, on January 18. Then, Hamlet with Rory Kinnear, on January 21, followed by Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus

Tom Hiddleston Caius Martius Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson 3(Source:

and Hiddleston again in War Horse. The cost is $21 for seniors although you can sometimes get half price tickets on Goldstar, but even if you pay full price, it’s still a bargain for great theater.

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