From Forty Years On to The History Boys, Alan Bennett has been obsessed by England; and even if this 1977 play, recently revived by English Touring Theatre, is less formally adventurous than other Bennett works, it offers a wittily intelligent examination of the entrenched irony that is both a national characteristic and a psychological prison. Even the setting is ironic. We are confronted by a broad, book-filled verandah that suggests the Surrey hinterland. In fact we are in a ramshackle Russian dacha occupied by Hilary, a Foreign Office defector, and his wife Bron. And the slow-burning action revolves around an apparently social visit from Hilary's sister and Establishment brother-in-law which is, in reality, an attempt to persuade him to come home. As in his TV play about Guy Burgess, Bennett uses the condition of exile to examine the nature of Englishness; and his conclusion seems to be that its essence lies in a duplicitous irony which allows Hilary to function as both a Soviet bureaucrat and a nostalgic romantic wistfully yearning for Elgar, unadulterated Holy Communion and Lyons Corner Houses. And Bennett's point is compounded by the figure of Hilary's brother-in-law, Duff: a smooth political fixer who skilfully camouflages his secret homosexual life. It is hard to fault the play's social and psychological observation; and it is at its mordant best in a scene where Bennett dissects the sexual sentimentality lurking behind Forster's famous remark about hoping he would have the guts to betray his country rather than his friend. But, in analysing English ironic detachment, Bennett occasionally exemplifies it; and the one factor he crucially misses out of the equation is the passion that motivated so many of the celebrated Marxist defectors. In exploring exile, Bennett omits the politics that occasioned it.
Used availability for Alan Bennett's The Old Country
December 1978 : UK Paperback
January 1978 : UK Paperback