Disclaimer: I started this review with goodish intentions, and it went all pear-shaped as I went on with it. I am so sorry. I nearly didn’t post it, but then I thought, Well, what if someone who reads this blog loves W.H. Auden and lives in Washington DC, and without this blog post they wouldn’t know to go see The Habit of Art when it’s on at the Studio Theatre in the fall of the year? So I’m posting it anyway. I am so, so sorry.
One point I’ve beaten to death on this blog is that comparisons are odious. Yet do I stop making them? No. My brain will not consent to stopping making them. They get made automatically, somewhere deep in my brain’s processing centers. So it goes. The Habit of Art, poor thing, was lined up against The Invention of Love, my copy of which I gave away without pausing to consider that not having it would make me wild to reread it. It and The Habit of Art have similar premises and similar titles, and even the similarity of letting characters comment on the action as it unfolds; but The Invention of Love features Oscar Wilde and my favorite line in all of literature. The Habit of Art never had a chance.
The Habit of Art is about W. H. Auden in his latter years at Oxford, chatting to Benjamin Britten and Humphrey Carpenter; or rather, it’s about a play about W. H. Auden. The characters are actors putting on a play that’s been written about Auden, and the precise form of the play is still under debate by everyone: the author, the actors, the stage manager, the absent director.
Oh, look, I just don’t feel right about reviewing this play. I was going to say how the observational, revisionary aspects of the play felt awkward and self-conscious, and the kooky aspects of the play-within-a-play, though labeled as kooky by the characters, came off really silly, and I couldn’t figure out what anyone’s stake in it all was so there wasn’t enough emotional heft. But every time I wrote one of these things, I followed it up by saying how much better Stoppard had done it in The Invention of Love. I am obviously incapable of evaluating this play. I have no idea whether it was good or crappy. Some of the stuff may have gone over my head because I don’t know anything about W.H. Auden or Benjamin Britten, but mostly the play just pissed me off by not being The Invention of Love.
I can say almost definitely I’d go see if it New York put on a production of it. Almost certainly, obviously depending on my financial situation. If they do have a production, a year or two from now, and I do go see it, I will come back and reassess. If that happens I will really try hard to be fair.
(But let’s be honest. Now that I’ve seen Arcadia, The Invention of Love is probably the play I want to see most of any play in the world. If The Habit of Art comes to New York, with its many, many surface similarities to The Invention of Love, I don’t know how I can stop myself from resenting it.)