Theatre Rhinoceros’ ‘The Habit of Art’ explores sexuality, identity

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“Am I writing? Am I dead? I work. I have the habit of art.” So says the real person W.H. Auden.Or, rather, the writer Alan Bennett or, perhaps, the character, Fitz, depending on how one sees it — for when a playwright writes a play within a play, things tend to get a little complicated.

In “The Habit of Art,” Bennett’s latest work and Theatre Rhinoceros’ latest production, things get rather complicated indeed. At its simplest level, it’s a play about two older men, Fitz and Henry, rehearsing the lead roles in a play about a meeting between famous English poet W.H. Auden and famous English composer Benjamin Britten. At its most complicated, it’s a play that’s written by a gay playwright (Bennett, now 80, came out at the age of 71), about two gay artists (Auden was relatively open, Britten relatively closeted and surrounded by whisperings of a fondness for little boys), with a cast of mainly queer actors.

John Fisher, the creative director of Theatre Rhinoceros since 2004, directed “The Habit of Art” and starred in the production, playing the character Henry who in turn is rehearsing to portray the character of Benjamin Britten in the fictional play the cast is putting together called “Caliban’s Day.” “Caliban’s Day” is inspired by “The Tempest,” so at times, the audience has to try to make sense of a play about a play about a play. That’s a lot of plays and a lot of character-within-a-character situations to distinguish.

As is to be expected from Bennett, though, he pulls it off admirably, and although the play is set in 1972, the themes it riffs on — such as sex with minors — are still equally important today. As Fisher said in an interview with The Daily Californian, “Theatre has to talk about the sensitive things, because, of course, people talk about what’s the value of live performance? It’s like, well, it’s live, it’s different every night, it’s able to talk about tough subjects. Television can’t, because it has to be watched in the middle of America, where people are very upset by all kinds of things. Film can’t, because it has to be watched all over the world, where people are upset by all kinds of different things. In San Francisco, where the audience is enlightened, we have a responsibility to let the audience decide.”

One of the most important things the audience has to decide is when faced with the duplicity of actors playing characters who are in turn playing actors playing characters, who are these people, anyway? Are they really who they say they are? Are they really as good or bad as they seem? The disconnect, too, between one’s public identity and one’s private identity, is explored and only adds to the fray — a disconnect made particularly meaningful when it might involve such a deeply private matter as one’s sexual identity.

For Fisher and Theatre Rhinoceros, however, there is a need for people to express their identity. “Most people on that stage are gay,” says Fisher. “And it means something to them, to perform in a play like this and then keep saying: ‘Queerness is important; queerness is expressed.’ We shouldn’t make judgements about anybody — we shouldn’t make judgements about prostitutes,”  — of which there is one in the play — “artists” — of which there are many in the play —  “or political artists” — of which the company of Theatre Rhinoceros are.

“The one thing that comes under scrutiny,” Fisher continues, “is Britten’s obsession with boys, and I think that that’s important, that we make delineations. It’s important to recognize that it’s not really acceptable for a middle-aged man to be pursuing boys. And that’s where the play draws its line.”

And draw the line the play does — but with a grace, a humour and a discussion that only Bennett could provide. Nowhere else would a viewer ever get to see an actor playing one of Britain’s most beloved poets (a fictionalization of him, to be fair, but the idea of him nonetheless) enters a scene with, “Am I still going on about dicks?”

Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].