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Should we listen to writers about their own work?

As Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads is set to air this evening, Alexander Larman ponders the relationship between a living writer and their works

Artillery Row

Lockdown may have been useless from most creative perspectives, but there has been the odd shining gem amidst the dull slop of the last few months. One of these has been the double-speed commissioning and filming of a new series of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads dramatic monologues, using a mixture of his existing scripts and two new pieces that he apparently wrote on a whim. The originals starred the likes of Patricia Routledge, Maggie Smith, Bennett himself and a revelatory Thora Hird (who performed two monologues and won two BAFTAs). Now, the more diverse but equally star-studded cast includes Lucian Msamati and Rochenda Sandall, as well as Kristin Scott Thomas, Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer and Martin Freeman. Presumably their enforced ‘rest’ meant that they were only too happy to sign up for the work, as well, of course, as relishing the opportunity to deliver one of Bennett’s brilliantly conceived and darkly amusing pieces.

Since Talking Heads has been a mainstay of school curricula for many years, he revealed that he had been bombarded with letters from students, asking questions and begging for advice

The publicity for the series has largely revolved around the oddities of filming socially distanced drama in lockdown, which has thrown up a wide number of interesting details. The actors and skeleton crews filmed on the deserted EastEnders set in Elstree (Freeman, taking on the monologue ‘A Chip In The Sugar’ that Bennett previously performed himself, was especially pleased that his appearance was captured in Dot Cotton’s bedroom) and had to rehearse with their directors (including Bennett’s usual collaborator Nicholas Hytner) over the agoraphobic’s tool of choice, Zoom. As Hytner ruefully said, ‘Zoom rehearsals have no future. Working with an actor cries out for human contact. But we all managed, because there was no alternative. It’s the same as seeing your family and closest friends only on screen. Better than nothing at all, but nothing like enough.’

Bennett, meanwhile, has been sheltering in his home for the past few months (he turned 86 in May, faintly unbelievably) but has still gamely been participating in publicity for the new programme, writing an article for the Radio Times in which he has discussed his at times uneasy relationship with his own work. Since Talking Heads has been a mainstay of school curricula for many years, he revealed that he had been bombarded with letters from students, asking questions and begging for advice. As he said, ‘Some of them, it was plain, thought that writing to the author was a useful way of getting their homework done for them; others were more serious, genuinely feeling that I could give them some clues as to the inner meaning of what I had written.’

The playwright has dealt with these enquiries in robust fashion, saying ‘I fell in with very few of these requests, generally sending a postcard saying their ideas about the monologues were as good as mine and they should treat me like a dead author who was thus unavailable for comment.’ This was partly designed as a means of avoiding an endless correspondence – the image of a world-famous playwright such as Bennett having to spend hours every day dutifully replying to every A-level student’s query is both amusing and oddly poignant – but also because, as he admits, the playwright can often be of little use to call upon, ‘for the simple reason that he is often unaware of what he has written.’

In this, he has echoed the remarks of other great dramatists such as Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. Stoppard, typically, has often dealt with in-depth attempts to explore his work by deflecting it with excellent jokes. When asked early in his career what his first hit play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was about, he replied ‘It’s about to make me very rich’. Pinter, meanwhile, made his career out of writing tense, ambiguous plays that have defied conventional analysis and have led to endless – often deeply boring – amounts of critical and scholarly discussion about his intentions. Once, when he was caught momentarily off guard, he claimed that his drama was about ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’. He may have meant this as a joke (although his sense of humour was unpredictable and often terrifying, as his friends knew all too well) but, to his dismay, it soon became an accepted trope of ‘Pinteresque’ discussion, along with ‘menace’ and ‘long pauses’. One will now seldom find any article about Pinter that does not include it, somewhere.

It isn’t especially hard to see why. Many of Pinter’s best plays, such as No Man’s Land and Betrayal, revolve around the sudden disruption of a moneyed middle-class milieu – the so-called ‘cocktail cabinet’ – by an unpredictable and disruptive force, whether it’s an adulterous affair, the arrival of an alcoholic poet or the sole woman in a patriarchal household. Yet any director or company of actors would relish the opportunity to stage the play in their own fashion, just as Shakespeare lends itself to any number of interpretations. I’ve seen Betrayal played both ‘Pinteresque’ – in a production by Pinter’s frequent director Peter Hall – and entirely naturalistically, and it was akin to watching two different plays, so different were the emphases and rhythms. (For what it’s worth, it was better realistically.)

Many household names gamely appearing at literary festivals will expect, and often dread, the over-enthusiastic fan asking hugely detailed questions about some aspect of their book

Some writers have attempted to be more explicit about their work, whether in interviews or in public appearances. Many household names gamely appearing at literary festivals will expect, and often dread, the over-enthusiastic fan asking hugely detailed questions about some aspect of their book that cannot be answered to their satisfaction. And, of course, questions of interpretation play their own part in any work of literature. The novelist Ian McEwan wryly recounted how, a few years ago, his son was asked to write an A-level essay on his novel Enduring Love. McEwan gave him what he called a ‘tutorial’, suggesting what the themes of his book were and what he should include in his essay. His son dutifully did so, but his teacher fundamentally disagreed with his arguments and gave him a C+. McEwan has not repeated the attempt.

Yet these questions of interpretation are not limited to drama or to fiction. In each of the works of historical biography that I have written to date, I’ve been taken aback by the reaction of readers. My first book Blazing Star, a biography of the Restoration poet and courtier Lord Rochester, was intended to be an even-handed and balanced account of Rochester’s life and work, emphasising his overlooked qualities but also his less appealing ones. Critics and readers unanimously agreed that I had written a paean of praise to him, and the Sunday Times wrote that ‘Larman is clearly charmed by his subject, at times uncomfortably so.’

The reverse occurred when my third title, Byron’s Women, came out in 2016. Again, I had tried to make a case for the defence and the prosecution simultaneously, but it was widely believed that I had written a kind of hymn of hate to a dreadful, sleazy man. Some critics praised me for this, but the present-day Lord Byron denounced me at the Byron Society’s Christmas lunch for my ‘anachronistic, liberal attitudes’. I would have liked to have seen a photograph of my expression at that point, which I can only imagine would have resembled a Benny Hill character in an especially compromising situation.

I now await with some interest what readers will make of my treatment of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson – to say nothing of a supporting cast of courtiers, politicians, media barons and would-be royal assassins  – in my new book about the abdication, The Crown in Crisis. I have my own opinions as to how I have presented historical fact, which once again has been intended to be as nuanced and unbiased as possible, but I am prepared to be entirely surprised, once again, by how people react to the story. Inevitably, others will infer ideas and suggestions that I never intended to make, and there is little that I can do other than attempt to bleat ‘But that’s not what I meant…’ Perhaps this time round I would be better off simply holding my peace.

Every writer hopes that their work will be enjoyed and appreciated, even as they realise that putting it into the public domain also inevitably raises the possibility of dissent and criticism, something that I have seen from both sides. Yet drama is by its very nature suffused with a greater ambiguity than many other forms of literature. From Greek tragedy to present-day new writing, every kind of theatrical presentation can change from night to night, staging to staging, depending on the actors, directors and even the audience reaction. Thus, while Bennett’s typically retiring edict to students thirsting after elucidation might at first seem evasive, it is in fact entirely honest.

The work has passed into public consciousness, and their creators can no longer control reactions to it

I remember once seeing R.E.M in concert, and before they played ‘Losing My Religion’, Michael Stipe said ‘This is your song. We just cover it’. So it is with many playwrights, Bennett included, writers and artists in general. The work has passed into public consciousness, and their creators can no longer control reactions to it. All one can hope, selfishly, is that it will live up to Stoppard’s flippant edict and that it will, indeed, be about to make them all very rich and famous.

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