Bennett has been a household name in British theatre ever
since he starred and co-authored the satirical review Beyond
the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan
Miller in 1960 at the Edinburgh Festival. Later the same
show played to packed houses in London's West End and in
New York. Although Bennett started by writing and acting
for the stage, he very soon turned his attention to
writing plays for television.
career, though less spectacular than those of his Fringe
companions, has displayed greater diversity and more solid
achievement. To many he is now regarded as perhaps the
premier English dramatist of his generation. This is all
the more surprising given the low-key themes and
understated expression of the "ordinary people"
who populate his dramatic world. Like the poetry of Philip
Larkin, another Northerner whose writings he admires, his
writing frequently focuses on the everyday and the
mundane: sea-side holidays, lower-middle class
pretensions, obsessions with class, cleanliness, propriety
and sexual repression. Like Larkin, Bennett casts a loving
as well as a critical eye on the objects of his irony
revealing what underlies the apparently trivial language
of his protagonists. In "Say Something
Happened," the cliched expression of Dad is shown to
be more constructive than the social work jargon of his
interviewer June, since it functions to set at ease his
gauche interlocutor. While June clings to lexical
propriety, Dad attends to the much more important level of
the speech act. In Kafka's Dick and Me, I'm Afraid
of Virginia Woolf. Bennett pokes mischievous fun at
Wittgenstein and the ordinary language philosophy of
Austin, but his ear for telling dialogue reveals that he
shares with those philosophers an awareness that language
is a series of games, operating at different levels, whose
rules can only be inferred from within. We cannot assume
that we know what people mean by reference to our own
dramas are easier to enjoy than to categorize and the
writer himself is a dubious guide. In the introduction to
the five teleplays written for London Weekend Television
in 1978-79, The Writer in Disguise, Bennett
identifies the silent central character in three of them
as "the writer in disguise." To the five plays
written for the BBC in 1982 Bennett supplies a title
Objects of Affection, but immediately disclaims he felt
any such theme at the time of writing. The writer is not
the centre of attention: Trevor in Me--I'm Afraid of
Virginia Woolf is pathologically obsessed with not
being noticed and yet somehow becomes the centre of
other's attentions. He becomes an absent centre through
whom other characters seek to make sense of their lives.
Similarly, the perambulant chinese waiter Lee, sent on a
wild goose chase in search of a female admirer by a cruel
fellow-worker, is a device to exhibit the casual
xenophobia and fear of intimacy of the English lower
middle classes. The occasion for a Bennett play is often a
holiday, or at least a break from routine: these are
suggested in the titles of All Day on the Sands, One
Fine Day, Afternoon Off, Our Winnie, A Day Out, and
even "Rolling Home." The break serves to
highlight the peculiar nature of ordinary living by
providing a distanced view of it: in extreme instances the
distance indicates a near breakdown, as the estate agent
Phillips in One Fine Day takes to living in a tower
block he is unable to let, overwhelmed by the
inauthenticity of the language and values of his
employment. Hospitals figure in "Rolling Home,"
"Intensive Care" and "A Woman of No
Importance:" here too, it is the intrusion of death
which leads to a search for the significance of life,
though frequently it is the lives of the visitors, not the
patient, that are subjected to scrutiny, and Bennett's
irony militates against any portentousness about
Woman of No Importance" marks an important step in
Bennett's development: it is the first play featuring a
single actress (Patricia Routledge), speaking directly to
camera and with minimal scene changes which anticipates
the format adopted for the six monologues of Talking
Heads. The play is essentially a character study of a
boring woman whose life revolves around the minutiae of
precedence and status of canteen groupings. Peggy sees
herself as creating happiness, order and elegance in a
shabby world: we see her as bossy, insensitive and
narrow-minded. Bennett's critique is subtle and sensitive
however as the gap between her and our vision of the world
progressively narrows. She is half-aware of the futility
of her life which endows her struggle to make significance
out of trivia with a heroic pathos. A more blinkered
version of this character is to be found in Muriel in
"Soldiering On" in Talking Heads who
refuses to acknowledge her son's embezzlement and
husband's incest. Here, our sympathy for her gradual
social and economic privation is offset by the damage to
the family of her collusive blindness to its shortcomings.
The most successful of Talking Heads is probably
"Bed Among the Lentils", the narrative of an
alcoholic vicar's wife (brilliantly played by Maggie
Smith) who is restored to some sense of self-worth by an
affair with an Asian shopkeeper. Possessed of greater
intelligence and insight than her husband and his adoring
camp-followers, she is, despite her wit and perceptiveness
a figure of pathos: marooned in a marriage and a social
role she despises but lacking the courage to abandon them
or the belief that real change is possible. In Bennett's
world those who succeed do so by unselfconscious egoism,
energy and lack of imagination, but are marginal to our
attention; conversely, the failures exhibit insight, wit
but a crippling self-awareness that inhibits action.
Bennett's "Englishness" and "Northerness"
(terms by no means synonymous) are evident to see, they
are no more nationalistic nor restricting than Chekhov's
"Russianness." The characters he writes about
are rooted in a particular social environment but the
issues they raise are of more universal appeal: the
essential isolation of human beings within the protective
social roles they have adopted or had thrust upon them,
the gap between self-awareness and the capacity to change,
the crippling power of propriety. All of these themes are
relayed through a tone that is simultaneously ironic and
BENNETT. Born in Leeds, Yorkshire, U.K., 9 May 1934.
Attended Leeds Modern School, 1946-52; Exeter College,
Oxford, 1954-57, B.A. 1957. National service with Joint
Services School for Linguists, Cambridge and Bodmin,
1957-59. Temporary junior lecturer in history, Magdalen
College, Oxford, 1960-62. Stage debut at Edinburgh
Festival, 1959; subsequently wrote and appeared in
acclaimed comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, 1960;
first stage play, Forty Years On, produced 1968; has since
worked as writer, actor, director, and broadcaster for
stage, television, radio, and films. D.Litt.: University
of Leeds, 1990. Honorary Fellow, Exeter College, Oxford,
1987. Trustee, National Gallery, since 1994. Recipient: Evening
Standard Awards, 1961, 1968, 1971, and 1985; Tony
Award, 1963; Guild of Television Producers Award, 1967;
Broadcasting Press Guild Awards, 1984 and 1991; Royal
Television Society Awards, 1984 and 1986; Hawthornden
Prize, 1989; Olivier Award, 1990. Address: Peters, Fraser,
and Dunlop Group, 503/4 The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour,
Lots Road, London SW10 0XF, U.K.
On the Margin (also writer)
1987 Fortunes of War
My Father Knew Lloyd George (also writer)
1965 Famous Gossips
1965 Plato--The Drinking Party
1966 Alice in Wonderland
1972 A Day Out (also writer)
1975 Sunset Across the Bay (also writer)
1975 A Little Outing (also writer)
1978 A Visit from Miss Prothero (writer)
1978 Me--I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (writer)
1978 Doris and Doreen (Green Forms) (writer)
1979 The Old Crowd (writer)
1979 Afternoon Off (writer)
1979 One Fine Day (writer)
1979 All Day On the Sands (writer)
1982 Objects of Affection (Our Winnie, A Woman of No
Importance, Rolling Home, Marks, Say Something Happened,
Intensive Care) (also writer)
1982 The Merry Wives of Windsor
1983 An Englishman Abroad (writer)
1986 The Insurance Man (writer)
1986 Breaking Up
1986 Man and Music (narrator)
1987 Talking Heads (A Chip in the Sugar, Bed Among the
Lentils, A Lady of Letters, Her Big Chance, Soldiering On,
A Cream Cracker Under the Settee) (also writer)
1987 Down Cemetery Road: The Landscape of Philip Larkin
1988 Dinner at Noon (narrator)
1990 Poetry in Motion (presenter)
1990 102 Boulevard Haussmann (writer)
1991 A Question of Attribution (writer)
1991 Selling Hitler
1992 Poetry in Motion 2 (presenter)
1994 Portrait or Bust (presenter)
1995 The Abbey (presenter)
Shot, 1980; A Private Function (writer), 1984; Dreamchild
(voice only), 1985; The Secret Policeman's Ball,
1986; The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, 1982; Pleasure
at Her Majesty's; Prick Up Your Ears (writer), 1987; Little
Dorrit, 1987; Parson's Pleasure (writer);
The Madness of King George (writer), 1995.
Great Jowett, 1980; Dragon, 1982; Uncle
Clarence (writer), 1986; Better Halves (narrator),
1988; The Lady in the Van (writer, narrator), 1990;
Late, 1959; Beyond the Fringe (also co-writer),
1960; The Blood of the Bambergs, 1962; A Cuckoo
in the Nest, 1964; Forty Years On (also
writer), 1968; Sing a Rude Song (co-writer), 1969; Getting
On (writer), 1971; Habeas Corpus (also writer),
1973; The Old Country (writer), 1977; Enjoy
(writer), 1980; Kafka's Dick (writer), 1986; A
Visit from Miss Prothero (writer), 1987; Single
Spies (An Englishman Abroad and A Question of
Attribution) (also writer and director), 1988; The Wind
in the Willows (writer), 1990; The Madness of
George III (writer), 1991; Talking Heads (A
Chip in the Sugar, Bed Among the Lentils, A Lady of
Letters, Her Big Chance, Soldiering On, A Cream Cracker
Under the Settee) (also writer), 1992.
the Fringe(with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and
Dudley Moore). London: Souvenir Press, 1962, and New York:
Random House, 1963.
Forty Years On. London: Faber, 1969.
Getting On. London: Faber, 1972.
Habeas Corpus. London: Faber, 1973.
The Old Country. London: Faber, 1978.
Enjoy. London: Faber, 1980.
Office Suite. London: Faber, 1981.
Objects of Affection. London: BBC Publications,
A Private Function. London: Faber, 1984.
Forty Years On; Getting On; Habeas Corpus. London:
The Writer in Disguise. London: Faber, 1985.
Prick Up Your Ears. London: Faber, 1987.
Two Kafka Plays. London: Faber, 1987.
Talking Heads. London: BBC Publications, 1988; New
York: Summit, 1990.
Single Spies. London: Faber, 1989.
Single Spies and Talking Heads. New York: Summit,
The Lady in the Van, 1990.
Poetry in Motion (with others). 1990.
The Wind in the Willows. London: Faber, 1991. Forty
Years On and Other Plays. London: Faber, 1991.
The Madness of George III. London: Faber, 1992. Poetry
in Motion 2 (with others). 1992.
Writing Home. London: Faber, 1994.
The Madness of King George (screenplay), 1995.