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The Habit of Art is a 2009 play by English playwright Alan Bennett, centred on a fictional meeting between W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten while Britten is composing the opera Death in Venice. It premiered on 5 November 2009 at the Lyttelton Theatre at the Royal National Theatre, with the central roles filled by Alex Jennings as Britten and Richard Griffiths as Auden (the latter replacing Michael Gambon, who had to withdraw from the production due to minor ill health).[1] The performance of April 22, 2010 was broadcast to more than 200 cinemas worldwide by NTLive.

The Habit of Art
Written byAlan Bennett
CharactersW. H. Auden
Benjamin Britten
Humphrey Carpenter
Date premiered5 November 2009
Place premieredLyttelton Theatre, London,
United Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
SettingLondon, present day; (Caliban's Day Oxford, 1972)


The Habit of Art centres on Fitz, Henry, Tim and Donald, who are actors rehearsing a play called Caliban's Day. (The title reflects Auden's view that The Tempest was incomplete and Caliban should have an epilogue.) The director has been called away, so they have a run-through/workshop directed by the stage manager, Kay, in the presence of the playwright, Neil.

Caliban's Day is about a fictitious meeting in 1972 in Auden's rooms at Oxford, between Auden (Fitz) in his latter years and Britten (Henry). Auden has hired a rent boy, Stuart (Tim) and when Humphrey Carpenter (Donald) - who will write biographies of both Auden and Britten after their deaths - arrives to interview him, Auden mistakes him for Stuart. Britten has been auditioning boys for Death in Venice nearby, and arrives unexpectedly (their first meeting in 25 years after they fell out over the failure of their opera Paul Bunyan). He wants to discuss his misgivings about the paedophilic theme of Death in Venice and the light that may cast on his own life, but Auden assumes Britten wants him to write the libretto.

The characters intermittently break out of the rehearsal to discuss the play, how accurately/harshly it should treat Auden's failings, the actor's craft and many other issues raised by Auden, Britten and the play. In doing so, they reveal something of their own backgrounds.


The world premier production commenced on 5 November 2009 at the Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner.[2]

The play was revived in a new production by The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre Productions and toured the UK in late 2018.[3]

The Habit of Art; characters and casts[4]
Character in The Habit of Art Character in Caliban’s Day World premier production, National Theatre, from 5 November 2009[2] UK touring production, Autumn 2018[3]
Fitz W.H. Auden Richard Griffiths Matthew Kelly
Henry Benjamin Britten Alex Jennings David Yelland
Donald Humphrey Carpenter Adrian Scarborough John Wark
Tim Stuart Stephen Wight Benjamin Chandler
Charlie Singer Laurence Belcher/Otto Farrant/Toby Graham Alexandra Guelff
Brian (absent, except beginning of Part 2, read by ‘Henry’) Boyle Philip Childs
Penny (absent, read by ‘Kay’) May
Read by 'Kay' and 'George' Mirror, Chair, Bed, Door, Clock, Music, Words Veronica Roberts, Alexandra Guelff
Neil Author Elliot Levey Robert Mountford
Stephen (absent) Director
Kay Stage Manager Frances de la Tour Veronica Roberts
George Assistant Stage Manager John Heffernan Alexandra Guelff
Joan Chaperone Barbara Kirby
Matt Sound Danny Burns
Ralph Dresser Martin Chamberlain
Tom Rehearsal pianist Tom Attwood
Creative Team
Director Nicholas Hytner Philip Franks
Designer Bob Crowley Adrian Linford
Lighting Designer Mark Henderson Johanna Town
Music Matthew Scott Max Pappenheim
Sound Designer Paul Groothuis
Company Voice Work Kate Godfrey
Production Manager Diane Willmott Tammy Rose
Stage Manager David Marsland Tim Speechley
Deputy Stage Manager Fiona Bardsley Judith Barrow
Assistant Stage Manager Valerie Fox Davey Williams
Props Supervisor Chris Lake Claire Aucache
Costume Supervisor Janet Bench Siobhan Boyd

The music by Britten includes: ‘The Ash Grove’, The Turn of the Screw, Peter Grimes and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Critical receptionEdit

Critical reaction to the original production of the play was generally positive. Michael Billington (The Guardian) said it was a ‘superbly fluid production ... and is beautifully acted’;[5] and Charles Spenser (The Telegraph) says ‘The Habit of Art is another absolute cracker, often wonderfully and sometimes filthily funny’.[6] However, Benedict Nightingale (The Times) was more critical and suggested that ‘the play lacks dramatic tension’,[7] and Andrew Billen (New Statesman) said that the ‘humour obscures the character of [the] play’.[8] Critics identified and examined the themes of the play: ‘a multi-levelled work that deals with sex, death, creativity, biography and much else besides’,[5] and one in which ‘the knack of making ordinary people seem greater than they are, and revealing important people as being ordinarily human like the rest of us’ (Peter Brown, London Theatre).[7] Billington suggests that the play ‘is at its strongest when it deals with the theme implicit in its title: the idea that, for the artist, creativity is a constant, if troubling imperative’.[5] Spenser also notes of the author that ‘there is a confidence here, a sense of a writer pushing himself to the limits ... that is hugely invigorating’.[6] Brown says that ‘whether you’re an ardent Bennett fan or not, it’s pretty much unmissable’.[7]


  1. ^ "Richard Griffiths Replaces Michael Gambon in Bennett's 'Habit of Art' in London", Playbill
  2. ^ a b The Habit of Art, programme, The National Theatre, 2009
  3. ^ a b The Habit of Art, programme, The Original Theatre Company, York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre Productions, 2018
  4. ^ Bennett, Alan (2009). The Habit of Art. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 9780571255610.
  5. ^ a b c "The Habit of Art - The Guardian". Retrieved 3 February 2019.
  6. ^ a b "The Habit of Art - Telegraph". Retrieved 3 February 2019.
  7. ^ a b c "The Habit of Art - LondonTheatre". Retrieved 3 February 2019.
  8. ^ "The Habit of Art - New Statesman". Retrieved 3 February 2019.

External linksEdit