Alan Bennett - Shaw Festival Theatre

Alan Bennett Photo
Alan Bennett
Playwright

ALAN BENNETT (b. 1934) is one of the leading English-language dramatists of the past half-century. He was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, an industrial and financial centre of northern England. Despite his lower-middle-class upbringing – his father owned a small butcher’s shop – Bennett won a scholarship to Oxford University and, after graduating in medieval history, stayed on there as a lecturer and researcher.

Bennett’s life changed in 1960 when he joined three other Oxbridge revue performers in an irreverent collection of satirical skits commissioned for the Edinburgh Festival. Their show, Beyond the Fringe, survived a lukewarm reception in Edinburgh to become an international sensation, running for six years in Lon-don and two years on Broadway and spawning many tours (with various casts). Its four cast members – Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore – enjoyed long and dynamic careers in show business.

Bennett’s first full-length play, Forty Years On (1968; produced here in 1970), premiered in London and won the London Evening Standard Award for best new play. Ensuing award-winning plays included Getting On (1971, about a politician’s midlife crisis), Habeas Corpus (1973, a bedroom farce), The Old Country (1977, about espionage and personal relationships) and Kafka’s Dick (1986, featuring a present-day insurance salesman visited by the eccentric nineteenth-century author). Throughout this period, Bennett also wrote for television, radio and film. His screenplays include A Private Function (1984, a comedy set during post-war rationing) and Prick Up Your Ears (1987, a biography of the playwright Joe Orton). His teleplays include Talking Heads (1987), a collection of character-revealing monologues that was later adapted for the stage.

Bennett’s next plays were even more successful. Like The Madness of George III (1991), The History Boys (2004) premiered at the Royal National Theatre; it enjoyed transfers to the West End and to Broadway, won both the Olivier Award and the Tony Award for best new play, and led to a film version in 2005. The Lady in the Van, which began life as a radio play, premiered at the Queen’s Thea-tre, London, in 1999, and was filmed in 2015; all these versions were written for and starred Maggie Smith in the true story of a transient woman who lived in a series of dilapidated vehicles outside Bennett’s home in London. Bennett wrote the screenplays for all three of these films.

Like Bernard Shaw, Alan Bennett continues to write well into his eighties. Bennett’s most recent plays include The Habit of Art (2009), about a fictional meeting between the poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten; People, a farce about heritage (2012); and Untold Stories (2013) – pairing an existing play Hymn with a new play Cocktail Sticks – comprising an autobiographical recollection on music and childhood with a score by George Fenton. All these plays premiered at the Royal National Theatre and were directed by Nicholas Hytner, a long-time associate of Bennett.

At The Shaw
The Madness of George III thumbnail
The Madness of George III

If the Head of State loses his head, what happens to the State? The funny and touching true story of King George III.

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