In our current Book of the Week, Daniel Rosenthal presents a carefully-curated selection of correspondence between the most celebrated actors, directors and playwrights of the past 50 years. There has been always as much drama offstage as on at the National Theatre, and much of it is to be found in the letters, telegrams, scribbled notes and colourful postcards of its main players. Below, Rosenthal presents a couple of highlights from his collection featuring longtime LRB contributor and Bookshop favourite Alan Bennett.
One of the defining collaborations of Alan Bennett’s career has been with Nicholas Hytner, and correspondence between them – about Bennett’s National Theatre plays The Madness of George III (1991), The History Boys (2004) and The Habit of Art (2009) – is one of several playwright/director strands in Dramatic Exchanges.
Among the 12,000 letters, cards and emails I read while editing this collection, none provided a greater thrill of discovery than Bennett’s handwritten covering letter (now in the Bodleian Library) from October 2003, when he delivered to Hytner’s home the first draft of The History Boys, a work destined to entertain millions, but at that point ‘full of gaps and repetitions plus lots of odd bits’. Here’s Bennett reading this letter (in a recording made earlier this year).
My book also includes the pair’s exchange from November 2007, about The Habit of Art. Bennett worries that his script – then entitled A and B (its play-within-a-play depicts W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten meeting in 1972) – is ‘very thin still and in parts formless’; Hytner reassures him: ‘It’s a wonderful portrait of two dying men... both seeking to connect their art with their lives.’
‘Dramatic Exchanges’ is published by Profile Books, price £25. To hear more of Alan Bennett talking about his work, listen to our podcasts of his Bookshop events about ‘The History Boys’ and ‘The Habit of Art’.