It’s World Theatre Day, or possibly World Theater Day, and I’m considering making this an annual tradition, posting the closing monologue of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. I wish the NTLive video of Frances de la Tour delivering it were available, either from the play or from the NT50 gala, where they capped the show with it, but here are the words.
I worked once or twice with Ronald Eyre. Difficult man and, like all the best directors, an ex-schoolmaster. Ron knew what fear was… he’d worked at the RSC and he was here not long after it opened. The opening was, of course, disastrous. Ron said they should have moved out straight away, gone back to the Old Vic and rented the place out, made the Olivier into a skating rink, the Cottesloe a billiard hall and the Lyttleton boxing. Then after twenty-odd years of ordinary unpretentious entertainment, when it’s shabby and run-down and been purged of culture, and all the pretension had long since been beaten out of it, then with no fanfare at all they should sneak back with the occasional play and nobody need be frightened anymore.
Except of course the actors.
He was wrong, though, Ron. Because what’s knocked down the corners off the place, taken the shine off it and made it dingy and unintimidating—are plays. Plays plump, plays paltry, plays preposterous, plays purgatorial, plays radiant, plays rotten—but plays persistent. Plays, plays, plays. The habit of art.
Alternatively, I could put the clip from The Twentieth Century where the great director Oscar Jaffe (played by John Barrymore) addresses his victims cast with limpid sincerity before commencing to verbally and physically assault them in rehearsal:
I have been looking forward to this little occasion for some time. There's no thrill in the world like launching a play. Watching it come to life little by little. Seeing the living characters emerge like genii from the bottle. Now, before we begin - I want you all to remember one thing. No matter what I may say—no matter what I may do on this stage during our work—I love you all. And the people who have been through my battles with me will bear me out in testifying, that above everything in the world, I love the theater—and the charming people in it.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,