Backing Into the Spotlight

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Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett performing in Beyond the Fringe, 1964

Last summer, I saw a fine production of Alan Bennett’s best-known play, The Madness of George III, at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. I had read the play before but knew it mostly from Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 film version in which, as Hytner puts it in his engaging and illuminating theatrical memoir Balancing Acts, Nigel Hawthorne’s imperious monarch movingly “descends into babbling incontinence.” But I always had a problem with the play. It openly invokes King Lear, but compared to that terrifying journey into the dark heart of a deranged state, it seemed too soft. Bennett’s drama, though full of tender compassion and rueful melancholy, appeared in the end to treat the king’s madness as a colorful historical episode, not as a metaphor for unhinged authority.

Yet watching it a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union and a month after Theresa May lost her authority in a disastrous general election, The Madness of George III seemed precisely that: a perfect theatrical metaphor for a national nervous breakdown that does not rise to the heights of tragedy but rather, in its babbling incontinence, teeters closer to both farcical absurdity and quiet despair. Suddenly, Alan Bennett does not seem so soft after all. In his new collection of diaries and autobiographical essays, it becomes ever clearer that he has long been onto something that eluded other, apparently more politically acute, English writers.

In July 2007, The Guardian published an opinion piece by the distinguished Marxist critic Terry Eagleton in which he lamented the loss of the great tradition of English radical literature and the absence of contemporary heirs to Percy Shelley and William Blake: “For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.”* He made “an honourable exception” of Harold Pinter on the grounds that “being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all,” but made no mention of Bennett.

Bennett records in the diary that forms half of Keeping On Keeping On that if he used e-mail (which as a confirmed Luddite he does not) he would send Eagleton or The Guardian a one-word message: “Ahem.” He has recently returned from a cold, wet, and sparsely attended protest against the US military presence at a Royal Air Force base outside Harrogate: “I’m not sure if this means that in Eagleton’s view I don’t qualify because of my absence of eminence or because such protests as I take part in are too sporadic and low-profile to be noticed.”

It may, at first glance, seem odd that Bennett thinks of himself as a writer in the radical English tradition, even though, while Eagleton scorned…

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