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)

Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett; drawing by David Levine

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…

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