In an interview to celebrate his 80th birthday, leading British playwright Alan Bennett says he much prefers American authors to their UK counterparts who have “nothing to tell him.
Contemporary British literature gets the thumbs-down from the theatrical legend, who expresses a preference for Philip Roth. Speaking to the director of London’s National Theatre, Sir Nicholas Hytner, Bennett said he was very ill-read but that he would rather have Portnoy’s Complaint over an English book, any day. Philip Roth, at 81, was last year voted the greatest living novelist in America.
Alan Bennett is known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George III as well as many other famous productions. The History Boys was voted the “nation’s favorite play” in 2004. Discussing his 1998 play A Question of Attribution, based on the Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt, he said he approved of the way that the spies had betrayed their class. They thought that they were morally in the right, he explained, and had not done it for any material gain. By the same token, he is “wholly on the side” of Edward Snowden. A lifelong class warrior, Bennett has always called for the abolition of private education, without which, he still believes, Britain can never “pull together.”
A staunch refusal to be pigeon-holed led to him keeping his own sexuality very private until later in life. “I wanted to be my own man” he declared, and not labeled as gay. He is immensely grateful to have found a loving partner to allow the last part of his life to be “much happier” than the first. He is in a civil partnership with a journalist, Rupert Thomas. Thomas is the Editor-in Chief of World of Interiors magazine. Another reason for gratitude is the fact that he recovered after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997. He was given a one in five chance of survival.
The phrase “very very lucky” peppers Alan Bennett’s recollections. He was “very very lucky” to have met Rupert, and “very very lucky” to have had such good doctors and a shadow that receded. His one regret is not having had enough sex, but he puts this down to being the type of person who always feels they are missing out. “Looking back on life” he reflected “the things you remember are the things you didn’t do.”
His aversion to pigeon-holing was highlighted in 1993 when Bennett announced he was in a relationship with his housekeeper, Anne Davis. At an AIDS Benefit he was directly confronted by Sir Ian McKellen, who asked him if he was homo or heterosexual. He replied that was akin to asking a person crawling over the Sahara whether they would rather have Perrier or Evian water. In a previous radio interview he had said he had “something of both in my life” but “not enough of either.”
Whilst Bennett rues the fact that “any of the people writing in England” can tell him much, he says the act of writing is as difficult for him as it ever was. All writing is writer’s block, he finds. Sitting at the table, staring out the window, that’s the situation, and it doesn’t get any easier no matter what age he is. This makes his vast catalogue of work feel in some part like a rebuke. Writing is about now, he says.
British writers who would agree with that sentiment, and whose novels have attempted to capture the zeitgeist may feel a little flattened by the great playwright’s dismissal of their oeuvres. Across the Atlantic, American literature is the clear winner in the books of choice according to Alan Bennett.
By Kate Henderson