Artistic process. Can it make for a sexy night at the theater? The grueling path to perfection through grinding repetition, as the artist develops techniques and habits that can release creativity or stifle it, sometimes makes for a great play. Sometimes not. Recently Studio Theatre explored the artistic process in Venus in Fur, where the artist must grapple with his muse in a deadly game. It was electrifying.
But not all process is sexy. Sometimes it’s downright plodding. The Habit of Art is another play-within-a-play about rehearsal and collaboration, written by British playwright Alan Bennett (perhaps best known to American audiences as the writer of The Madness of King George). It’s a dense work that might delight lovers of British theater history (Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Richard Eyre all have important references), taking place as it does in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre. It might also delight lovers of British culture, as the play-within-a-play details the charged reunion of former collaborators, poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.
There are moments of hilarity interspersed with painful truths, as Bennett skewers all facets of the artistic process. There are also moments of well, boredom, just as in life. Though it features a talented cast, a thoughtful director, and a fascinating subject, often I found The Habit of Art difficult to watch because of its realism – parts drag on like an afternoon with a brilliant old don who has lost his spark. Only at the very end was I teased by a monologue that made me realize that may be Bennett’s intention, as a stage manager simply explains how the very habits of the artistic process, the act of trying repeatedly to achieve success even in the face of failure, may be the true value after all. Continue reading