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June 17, 2006 3:00 am

An inexhaustible relish for life's absurdities

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The six Tony awards given on Broadway to Alan Bennett's play The History Boys have caused a little outburst of national self-congratulation in the British press.

It is a tribute to the long collaboration between Bennett and Nicholas Hytner, his director, who has directed all Bennett's stage work since The Madness of George III in 1991. And since The History Boys began life in 2004 at the National Theatre, the prizes have been seen as a vindication of British arts subsidies – sometimes enviously on the part of unsuccessful US rivals.

The scale of the success is, to some, also something of a mystery. British readers and audiences relish Bennett for his iconoclasm, his wit, his unparalleled nose for irony and the self-deprecating persona that couples a bluff northern exterior with a strange tenderness towards the underdog; and for that other special trait of British comedy, the mixture ofmiddle-brow humour with high camp.

But these are all characteristics that the British believe Americans fail to understand, let alone appreciate. What is more, The History Boys is one of Bennett's most profoundly British farces, not only in its terms of reference and the rather antiquated educational methods it shows but in its gleeful flouting of current norms of political correctness. Yet at its core lies the same eager aspiration to self-improvement that is usually dubbed the American Dream (as if it were no one else's).

The play is set in the 1980s in a fictional school where boys are preparing for history scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge. It is a theme that goes deep into Bennett's own life. The History Boys, he has said, was “a confession and an expiation” of his own leaps across the hurdles of education. Born in 1934 near Leeds, the son of a butcher, he later drew a perfect cameo of what education then meant when he described going with his mother to watch sentimentalised, aspirational British films of the 1940s such as The Corn is Green – films that “should figure in any account of the welfare state as powerful myth-makers, particularly in our household where their message was taken for gospel, the value of education as a means of rising above one’s circumstances never questioned”.

From Leeds Modern School, Bennett’s own first venture into higher academe was for his interview at Cambridge, a “history boy” himself.

“Coming to [Cambridge] from the soot and grime of the West Riding I thought I had never seen or imagined a place of such beauty,” he wrote; but with his usual self-deprecation added that his college was neo-Gothic rather than the genuine article because “you had to be cleverer than I was or higher up the social scale to have the pick of the architecture”.

Before he could make this idyll his own, National Service claimed two years of his life. He was delegated to learn Russian at the Joint Services School, an even "more easeful and idyllic existence" than the undergraduate years that followed – although these were at Oxford, not Cambridge, where the already ambitious young man had decided to try for a scholarship.

Three years later he was back at work in Yorkshire, rolling barrels at a brewery because his father was out of work, when his mother came to the gates with the news of his first-class degree.

The “history boy” had told his Oxbridge interviewers he intended to take holy orders, although his discovery of existentialism in Leeds public library made that unlikely. There followed some years of academic medieval history: both career options seemed improbable by 1960 when Bennett teamed up with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe.

It was a collaboration that revolutionised British comedy, moving it towards deliberately controversial political commentary.

For Bennett it began a decade of political sketch-writing for television, and his first proper television play, A Day Out, was aired in 1972. The Bennett brand was evident from the start: from his Yorkshire roots came poignant and ostensibly tender portraits of damaged or thwarted lives but which nonetheless contained a tinge of cruelty.

Alastair Macaulay, the Financial Times theatre critic, says of him: “Unlikely as it may sound, Bennett is in a similar English mould to Jane Austen – someone described her work as containing ‘regulated malice’, and it’s a perfect description of Bennett’s too.” Talking Heads, his series of masterly short monologues, took this trait a stage further.

Bennett's prolific writing career has included more than 20 television dramas and films, television series, stories and journalism as well as the stage plays. His diaries have become an annual event in the London Review of Books and then between hard covers. “It’s ironic,” one acquaintance says of him, “Alan is so private about his personal life. For years no one knew anything about it and now he is publishing all these diaries and notebooks – and it’s like another brilliant disguise. Still, no one knows anything about him unless he wants them to.” In the autobiographical sketches published in 2005 as Untold Stories, Bennett wrote openly for the first time about his homosexuality.

The diaries of 2004 record the making of The History Boys in fascinating detail. Work apart, they are a delightful smorgasbord of sparkling mundane descriptions – trapping mice, visiting churches, making small-talk with a road-sweeper – but always with a Bennettian twist. Blackberrying along the Yorkshire country lanes he loves, the juice-stained hands of his companion remind him of a 1940s murder film. He is a consummate raconteur, deadpan-hilarious, and his reminiscences range from a comically pointless visit to a brothel after the first night of Beyond the Fringe to sharp anti-establishment ironies. Above all, the Bennett style rests on an inexhaustible relish for life’s absurdities. When a flood in his London home ruined half a lifetime’s store of manuscripts, he quotes Miss Shepherd, the homeless woman who roosted at his gate and who he immortalised as the “Lady in the Van”: “‘Oh dear,’ she said, mustering what she could in the way of fellow-feeling. ‘What a waste of water.’”

If it remains something of a puzzle that this most British of authors should have swept Broadway, Brendan Lemon, the FT's New York theatre critic, believes that “Bennett and his play appeal to Americans for the same reasons that they appeal to the British: beneath the tough, wonderfully ironic pleasures of their surface lurks a nostalgic and gangrenously sentimental heart.”

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