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The Great Art of Embarrassment

Writing Home

by Alan Bennett
Faber and Faber (to be published by Random House this autumn), 417 pp., $17.50

The Madness of King George III

a film directed by Nicholas Hytner. screenplay by Alan Bennett, based on his play The Madness of George III

The Madness of George III

by Alan Bennett
Faber and Faber, 94 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Sydney and Linda are characters in a play by Alan Bennett, entitled Kafka’s Dick.1 Sydney, like Kafka, is an insurance man. He is interested in books, or, more precisely, in the people who write them. He likes biographies: “I’d rather read about writers than read what they write.” Linda, his wife, does not share her husband’s literary interests. But she has picked up one or two tidbits; she knows that Auden wore no underpants, and that “Mr. Right for E.M. Forster was an Egyptian tramdriver.” Some day, she says, she’ll read and “learn the bits in between.” Sydney, exasperated by his wife’s obtuseness, explains why she has missed the point: “This is England. In England facts like that pass for culture. Gossip is the acceptable face of intellect.”

Two years ago the book at the top of the British best-selling lists was Alan Clark’s Diaries, a banquet of social and political gossip. The bestselling book last year was Writing Home, a collection of Alan Bennett’s diaries, articles, and notes. This was also the pundits’ first choice in the annual lists of best books of the year. The second choice was a new biography of Evelyn Waugh. Sydney was right: the thirst of the British public for gossip is unslakable. The popular press thrives on sensational tittle-tattle about the private lives of public figures. The more upmarket papers publish ever more “profiles.” And British publishers produce an endless flow of letters, diaries, biographies, and autobiographies. There is no life in this nation of rather diffident and private people that is not worth prying into.

What makes Alan Bennett’s stylish and witty diaries so remarkable is that this ostentatiously diffident and private playwright has turned himself into a public act. Alan Bennett is having a fantastic success playing Alan Bennett. His act is studied, but also intimate. As a man, who, in his own words, “can scarcely remove his tie without first having a police cordon thrown round the building,” he tours the country, from bookshop to bookshop, reading, quite beautifully, his private thoughts to a huge audience. He has created a person, in his diaries, his television appearances, and his readings, who is both real and utterly theatrical. As well as being a playwright, Bennett is a fine actor, who started his career in 1960, as a member of the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe. His public rendering of his private thoughts is far from being an exercise in “letting it all hang out.” With Bennett, self-deprecation is a form of self-control.

Bennett’s public role happens to be one the British adore: the most successful playwright of his time as a nebbish with bicycle clips. Public envy, so easy to ignite, is undercut by his self-presentation as a socially crippled eccentric in tweeds and owlish glasses. Here he is, remembering his early days in Beyond the Fringe (you must imagine a pair of doleful eyes, and a plaintive delivery, the demeanor of a man always stuck in the back of any queue):

20 August. Watching Barry Humphries on TV the other night I noticed the band was laughing. It reminded me how when I used to do comedy I never used to make the band laugh. Dudley [Moore] did and Peter [Cook], but not me. And somehow it was another version of not being good at games.

Here he is, in Hollywood, attending the screening of a film he wrote:

Mark [the producer] is introduced first, the spotlight locates him, and there is scattered applause; then Malcolm [the director] similarly. When my turn comes I stand up, but since I am sitting further back than the others the spotlight doesn’t locate me. “What’s this guy playing at?” says someone behind. “Sit down, you jerk.” So I do. The film begins.

If the modesty seems contrived, well, as Kafka says in Kafka’s Dick: “All modesty is false, otherwise it’s not modesty.” And if it isn’t actually modesty so much as an envious disposition, always thinking others are ahead, that is a tendency with which many British people can identify. So much about Bennett is quietly reassuring: his soft Yorkshire accent, his humble yet respectable background as the son of a butcher in Leeds, and his taste for saucy Music Hall jokes. Even the edge of confirmed bachelorhood is softened by confessions of love for his (female) housekeeper, comfortably installed in a cozy country cottage.

In Kafka’s Dick, Kafka rises from the dead, to turn up in Sydney and Linda’s house. His biographer Max Brod is there too. Only Kafka is not aware of his fame, for he still thinks Brod burned all his manuscripts. In Brod’s words: “He knows he’s Kafka. He doesn’t know he’s Kafka.” Which reminds me of the girl who finally got to sleep with Mick Jagger. When she was asked the next morning what he had been like, she said: “Great, but he was no Mick Jagger.” Bennett knows he’s Bennett. What makes his private/public diaries so clever is that he not only performs himself, but comments on his own performance.

He admits that he sometimes takes his background “down the social scale a peg or two,” claiming for example that he hardly ever read a serious book until he was in his thirties. This, he writes, “conveniently forgets the armfuls of books I used to take out of Headingly Public Library—Shaw, Anouilh, Toynbee, Christopher Fry.”

Bennett’s finest performances as Bennett have been on television. He wrote and presented two superb documentaries, in which he appears as a kind of social spy, wandering through an art gallery in Leeds, and skulking around the corridors of a hotel in Harrogate. He eavesdrops on conversations in the lobby or the tearoom, he observes local worthies at official luncheons, he overhears people’s comments as they shuffle past the paintings, and as he discreetly snoops from room to room, gallery to gallery, he tells us the story of his own life, and especially the panoply of “embarrassments,” “awkwardnesses,” and “discomforts” he has suffered. He remembers how his father always had trouble tipping the room boy, and how his mother struggled all her life not to appear “common.” As a coda to his stay at the hotel in Harrogate, he recounts an embarrassment, experienced on the train back to London. He had paid a special weekend fare. The ticket collector took one look at his ticket, and told him to move to the compartment for weekend travelers: “You don’t belong in here,” he said. “This is for the proper first class people. Out.”

It is a class act. But Bennett is more than a cuddly performance artist. In his plays, he has turned his private embarrassments into the core of his art. Self-consciousness, the gap between our private selves and our public roles, between the way we are and the way we want to be seen, this is the running theme of Bennett’s drama. Nowhere is this more explicitly so than in The Madness of King George, the play and now the movie.

At the beginning of the film, we see the King being dressed for his public performance, at the opening of Parliament: the robes, the crown, and Handel’s music blaring away in the background. Then we see the court of George III, in all its stuffy formality. And we see the King, rushing about, hither and thither, as “Farmer George” patting the rump of a pig to the delight of one of his farmers, as the caustic sovereign signing documents for William Pitt, the prime minister, as the disapproving father of the foppish Prince of Wales, and as the fond husband (“Mr. King”) to his dowdy Queen Charlotte (“Mrs. King”). He is bluff and hearty, an eccentric autocrat. Yet he is never wholly at ease. He is in fact a shy man playing a boisterous public role, ending his sentences with a “hey, hey,” or a “what, what.”

Nigel Hawthorne plays the part to perfection, both on stage and in the film. Helen Mirren is also good as the solicitous Queen. Rupert Everett is a less happy choice as George, the Prince of Wales. He does not look right, for a start. For George is “Fat George,” the glutinous idler, scheming to gain a public role for himself. Everett is thin. Lolling about, with his stomach-padding slipping almost down to his knees, he looks like a cake that has not risen. On the whole, however, the casting is inspired, with Julian Wadham as the buttoned-up Pitt, and Ian Holm as Dr. Willis, who breaks the King’s will through the force of his own. The smaller parts are splendid too: the doctors, looking like grotesques in a Hogarth print, the smirking courtiers, the greedy politicians—hard-drinking Whigs around the Prince, and slippery Tories hanging on to the King’s ermine.

My main complaint about the movie is that Bennett’s script seems flatter and less subtle than his original play. Many of the funniest lines have been cut. The film is nice to look at, and the message comes across, but there are fewer laughs. Not that the film is solemn, but it’s as if facial contortions, in the manner of Everett’s Prinny, have to make up for the pruning of the text. Perhaps the play is too literary to translate well into film. Perhaps Nicholas Hytner’s inexperience as a film director is the problem. Other screenplays by Bennett, such as Prick Up Your Ears, directed by Stephen Frears, and An Englishman Abroad, superbly directed by John Schlesinger, have worked very well.

King George’s mania nonetheless remains an affecting spectacle. His problem may have been caused by a disease called porphyria, which produces chemical changes in the nervous system. It is suggested in the Bennett version that the madness was made worse by the King’s incompetent and querulous doctors, who tortured him with various painful and horrible cures. But the heart of the story is that very Bennettian preoccupation, embarrassment, or rather the lack of it. As a result of his dementia, the King loses his self-consciousness. In the words of Baker, one of the King’s physicians: “His tongue runs away with him. Thoughts that a well man keeps under he just babbles forth.” Gone are the hail and hearty manner, the what, whats, and the hey, heys. Instead, the King talks dirty, and assaults the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, whom he had always eyed, but never touched, for the King was unusually monogamous. Now, the King keeps nothing under. He has lost control of himself. The question is, Who is “himself”?

Bennett, the man who cannot take off his tie without a police cordon, has always been fascinated by people who lose control of themselves. His diary entries include trips to New York, where he stays with a friend in a Soho apartment. A mad, eighty-two-year-old woman called Rose shouts obscenities up the stairs day and night. Bennett remarks: “In England, where eccentricity is more narrowly circumscribed, Rose would have been long ago in hospital herself; but here in New York, where everyone is mad, she is tolerated.” To keep control is to enjoy the dignity of one’s public role; to lose it is to risk embarrassment, or worse. Old people in Bennett’s plays live in terror of being “taken away” to special homes, where they will be patronized by social workers, and lose their dignity. Yet to court embarrassment, by flouting conventions, can seem admirable, especially to a playwright who feels unable to do so himself (or so he says).

  1. 1

    Published in Two Kafka Plays (Faber and Faber, 1987).

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