The Upper Class and the Underworld

Single Spies

two new plays by Alan Bennett. a National Theatre production

The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby

by Phillip Knightley
Knopf, 292 pp., $19.95

The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government

by David Leigh
Pantheon, 271 pp., $19.95

The British obsession with spies and spycatchers continues to seethe. Books thud from the press and you cannot get a seat at the National Theatre for Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, an evening consisting of two short plays, one about Guy Burgess, the other about Anthony Blunt. Bennett belongs to that remarkable generation of John Osborne, Harold Pinter, and Michael Frayn, and is as gifted as any of them. He has a marvelous ear and is as merciless to the pompous as he is understanding of the failures in life. A series of monologues he wrote for television (each an hour-long talking head, the TV producer’s nightmare) was so admired that it has just been repeated; and one of them, Mrs. Silly, was recently shown on American television.

Bennett’s piece on Blunt is, perhaps, more of a charade than a play. It begins with the art historian lecturing on pentimenti and displaying on the screen an X-ray photograph of a work by Titian. This reveals that this painting of two men contained a third man that was painted out; and on the verso is the head of a fourth man. The scene moves to Buckingham Palace, where, as surveyor of the royal pictures, Blunt (played by Bennett) is removing a painting from the wall. In his view it has been wrongly attributed. By chance the Queen walks that way. Does the Queen know what Blunt really is? Their ambiguous dialogue is a delight. No, she wouldn’t much care to sit for a portrait by Francis Bacon. “I might come out as a screaming queen.” Prunella Scales is given marvelous lines by Bennett and she gives a dazzling performance as Her Majesty.

Bennett’s play about Burgess began as a television drama based on a real encounter. In 1958 Michael Redgrave and Coral Browne found themselves in Moscow playing Hamlet. In the TV version Guy Burgess (Alan Bates), in exile in Moscow, lurches into her dressing room, is sick in the basin, and subsequently makes off with her soap and cigarettes. But he leaves a note inviting her to lunch. Coral Browne did in fact go to see him. She is an Australian and renowned in the theater for her unbridled language. She endures hours of Burgess asking after Cyril Connolly, Harold Nicolson, Auden, and others whom she has never met, and has to listen three or four times to his record of Jack Buchanan singing “Who Stole My Heart Away?” As she leaves she lets fly and tells him that she, at any rate, among the people he has charmed, is not conned. “You pissed in our soup and we drank it.” Still, she agrees to do what he asks because she is sorry for him and his ghastly loneliness.

What he asks her to do when she gets back to London is to order him a suit, shoes, pajamas, and an Old Etonian tie. Burgess’s Savile Row tailor is courtesy itself. Mum’s the word …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Moscow & Harold Wilson May 18, 1989