Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Habit of (Bad) Art

September 18, 2010 · No Comments

It’s not often that I dislike a play.  I can often look past mediocre writing or questionable acting to see the good side of a show.  As someone who worked in community theatre throughout high school, I know how much work goes into a show, so when I go to see a show, I try to appreciate how hard everyone involved worked to put it on.  Last night, however, at The Habit of Art I found it hard to appreciate much of anything.  I could very easily nitpick about how the entire show was lit almost entirely with florescent lights (which look horrible) or something like that, because technical theatre is my thing, but I’ll stick with bigger themes instead.  First of all, the entire premise of the show is the rehearsal of a show, creating a show within a show, which is an effect that can be done tastefully, but isn’t in Habit.  It begins with the actors showing up for rehearsal for a (poorly-written) show that most of them hate, which leads to a lot of interruptions of the rehearsal, including a lot of conflict with the “writer” of said poorly-written show about interpretations and such.  This really prevented me from getting into either part of the show, because the “outside” play wasn’t present enough to really make a difference, but it was there just enough to be really annoying.  Meanwhile, the play within the play (the “inside” play) actually got to be good at bits, but these bits were always interrupted by the “writer,” the “stage manager,” and the “lead actor” yelling at each other.  Adding to this was that the whole premise of the “inside” play was very strange.  To sum it up in a few sentences, W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten (a famous poet and a famous pianist/composer, respectively) are both in Oxford towards the end of their lives, having been good friends since they were young men (which is a fine plot of a play, and would be one I could enjoy).  At the time the action is happening, however, they’re grumpy, old, sex-craved, homosexual pedophiles.  Auden regularly pees in his sink, while Britten plays music with young boys to replace another kind of playing that he’d rather do with them.  Auden hires “rent-boys” to give him blowjobs, which it seems was a normal thing for Oxford professors to do at the time, because the rent-boy in the inside play talks of several of his more intellectual “clients.”  I’ll stop there, because I’m sure you get the idea.  I seem to remember there being more of a plot to the play, but it was overshadowed so much by it making two of England’s greatest intellectuals look really, really bad, that I simply can’t remember anything else.  Previously, I have had some experience with the music of Britten, which is beautiful, but have had no experience with Auden.  While my opinion of Britten really didn’t change much with this play (mostly because it was clear Britten in the play was trying to restrain himself), I’m not sure that I could ever take Auden seriously now, if I ever got up the nerve to read his poems, which is a shame because he’s one of the best poets the world has ever known.  Even though the play is supposedly based on true stories, I feel that the characters were exaggerated under the false idea that this would make them more suitable for the theatre.

I guess I should talk a bit about the venue, because it is one of the reasons such a questionable show was allowed to be put on.  Habit is being performed at the National Theatre which, as its name suggests, is publicly funded.  Because it doesn’t need to worry about its bottom line, it’s free to host more experimental theatre, which I’m totally all for.  If not for places like this, where else could new theatre be tried out?  However, the downside to this is that every once in a while, a weird show slips through.  It comes with the territory.  And as I look at it, you have to see a bad show sometimes to make you truly understand what a good show is.

For the sake of comparison, let’s examine the other two straight plays (in the non-musical sense, not heterosexual sense) we’ve seen and compare and contrast their quality and their venues.  Merry Wives of Windsor was a very high-quality play and by far the best performance of Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen.  It was put on at the Globe, which is a privately-funded, for-profit theatre.  Because of this (and the history of the Globe with Shakespeare, which is definitely the biggest factor) the Globe can’t put on that many “new” plays.  The notable exception is Bedlam, the first play written by a woman to be performed at the Globe, the world premiere of which I saw a few weeks ago.  It wasn’t a great show, but it’s hard to write a show for the Globe in this day in age.  It was quite enjoyable, though it was not nearly the best I’ve seen.  Even so, it was clear that it was good enough to make money, which is really all that matters to the theatre in the long run.

The other play we’ve seen is The 39 Steps, a farce of the old Hitchcock film by the same name.  It was very good, in my opinion, which isn’t surprising because it is performed at the Criterion Theatre.  A West End theatre, and therefore a for-profit theatre, it only shows shows that can make money.  The one downside to a theatre like the Criterion, however, is that they only show one show at a time, as opposed to the National, which can be showing 8 in its three theatres at the same time, or the Globe which can have many shows in its repertoire at the same time because of its sparse sets and flexible space.

Looking back, I’ve noticed something interesting about the plays we have seen as a class (and I’m sure that this was intentional), because they were each held in a different kind of venue.  Merry Wives was held in the iconic Globe, with its standing room on the ground (The Groundling seats), raised galleries, and wooden stage, while 39 Steps is in a traditional, for-profit, proscenium arch theatre, and Habit of Art is in a huge, publicly-funded theatre complex.  I feel that, despite my disappointment with Habit of Art, we’ve had a very well-rounded theatre experience whilst in London, one I hope to supplement with a few more shows before we leave.

Categories: 2010 MatthewM · Theatre

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