Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

A Play’s Reach Should Exceed its Grasp: A Commentary by Luke Wronski

September 17, 2010 · 2 Comments

As a class, we have seen three very different plays during our time here in London, and tonight, I was finally satiated with The Habit of Art.  Before starting another heated argument equal to me being the only student on the program that enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway, I would immediately agree with all the primary critiques.  The play was indulgent.  The play-within-a-play theme did not really do much at all for the work as a whole except insert a few quick laughs.  The first act really tested my patience with the playwright.  However, after intermission, things changed.  Ideas became more fully developed and more ideas were brought forth.  Alan Bennett seemed to gain more control over his thoughts and presented them more clearly to the audience.  And, perhaps the most essential thing that occurred in the play’s latter half, it started to make sense.  When the play ended, not all the Quallms mentioned above were resolved; but, I kept thinking about the second set of qualities to the play and I was thoroughly intrigued, even if I did not have many clear answers.

The Habit of Art differs greatly from the other plays in that it tries very hard to achieve very difficult and complex goals and, ultimately, it misses.  But, it does not miss by much, and its attempt is an admirable one.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor and The 39 Steps we see the opposite.  Simple and clever ideas performed to their maximum potential in skilled productions with experienced actors in their own rights.  However, given the choice between the contrasting types of plays, I invariably side with the former.  I heartily enjoyed Merry Wives and found 39 Steps to be adequate; but, I feel that after watching The Habit of Art, I walked home with more than chuckles.   I’ll explain my reasoning.

Merry Wives easily comes in as my number two, but there are several factors that prevented it from claiming my top spot.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare (I’m practically majoring in Shakespeare), but let’s be honest, Merry Wives is not one of Bill’s best works.  Merry Wives was conceived by Shakespeare after Queen Elizabeth asked the poet himself to write another play featuring the most popular Shakespearean character of his time, Falstaff.  This explains why the knight, known for his hilarious appearances in Shakespeare’s medieval histories (Henry IV I& II), is present in a play about contemporary Elizabethan Windsor aristocracy, about two hundred years later.  (Also, in my opinion, the popularity of Falstaff also explains why Henry IV part II was written, after pretty much every event of consequence had already occurred in Part I).  Merry Wives was written as another opportunity for Elizabethan playgoers to see their favourite debauched knight get into more hilarious hijiniks.  The play is decidedly funny, but ultimately lacks the substance along with the laughs typical of Shakespeare’s comedies and later romances.  What seems to me to be an even greater marvel of Merry Wives is trying to gauge the ease in which Shakespeare churned out this comedy, a product of popular demand.  Its plots, characters and laughs are all fresh and full of comic zeal, even if lacking that extra bit more.  Merry Wives is more along the lines of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies (think Comedy of Errors), but what I was really looking for in the course was The Winter’s Tale.

39 Steps treads along slightly different lines than Merry Wives.  It is not so much an effortless product of a brilliant playwright, as it is one simple, very clever idea executed to perfection.  Just the sheer thought of it:  a famous Hitchcock film, performed by a cast of four and played for slapstick laughs is a masterstroke.  However, the West End has seen this all before.  Many productions prove the point that, on the West End, a clever idea can be turned into a long-running hit that makes a lot of money.  You know, it reminds me … there’s this quote about cleverness … but, I forget what it is.  39 Steps was very crisply performed and played for maximum laughs, but I think that slapstick comedy falls on deaf ears after awhile.  I would suspect if we went to a production of similar character the very next night, it would not only diminish our collective opinion of the latter, but of the former as well.  39 Steps was funny, enthusiastic, but formulaic.  In my opinion, John Buchan, the playwright of 39 Steps, did not so much succeed in matching witty dialogue to an idea with potential as he did just not mess up a funny premise with the potential to be converted into a West End mega cash cow.  For me, I was looking for a play with a bit more.

The Habit of Art gave me that extra bit more, even without ignoring its problematic elements.  What excited me about that production were simply the play’s ideas.  The Habit of Art was full of them.  Ideas about Auden, about Britten, about the two of them.  Ideas about history, about remembering the great artists and about the people close to them that were forgotten.  Allegories to the aforementioned themes of greatness in the arts and the theatre may have surfaced amidst a puddle of murky water; but, in the end, they were drawn clearly enough to identify and appreciate.  Alan Bennett has not written a flaw-free play by any stretch of imagination, but he has thought long and hard, and presented those ideas to us adequately.  This is why I praise Bennett’s play; it has substance.  When I left the theatre (among other people leaving the theatre was Sir Ian McKellan … just saying) I thought about Bennett’s various arguments, as a I do now, and that is really why I go to see plays.  I view the theatre as a forum for one playwright’s insight on human nature, not as a source of diversion similar to television and film.  It is in this sense where The Habit of Art exceeds the others.  But enough of my pretension.  Basically, I agree with the saying (and this quote I do know) “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”  I feel that a play that nearly misses on something complex and intricate is more admirable (and in my opinion, more enjoyable) than a play that succeeds in its modest goals.  The Habit of Art (and Mrs. Dalloway) gave that to me and that is why I praise the production as my favourite among the trio and esteem it above the others.

Categories: 2010 Luke

2 responses so far ↓

  •   maryc // Sep 18th 2010 at 04:59

    Luke, I really like your review of “The Habit of Art.” I can’t say it was my favorite play I’ve seen here in London, but I definitely felt I had gained something from seeing it last night. I think you described the difference between one play’s risk in reaching past its grasp and another play’s success in achieving its rather modest goals was spot on. I didn’t find last night’s play particularly well-done, but it’s message, as muddled as it was at certain moments, was very intriguing. I also appreciated the playwright’s effort to take on the challenge of illustrating the deep ideas of Auden and Britten, particularly. Nice, blog.

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Sep 19th 2010 at 08:05

    Luke, I didn’t know you were “practically majoring in Shakespeare”- I am too!

    We should talk. The Donmar Warehouse is staging King Lear in December, starring Derek Jacobi.

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