July 1, 2014
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lrb.co.uk | Article Link | by Alan Bennett
Preaching is a hazard when writing plays. One isn’t supposed to preach and gets told off if one does. Poets are allowed to, but not playwrights, who if they have naked opinions, do better to clothe them in the decent ambiguities of their characters or conceal them in the sometimes all too thin thicket of the plot. Just don’t speak to the audience.
I have always found this prohibition difficult. John Gielgud, who was in my first play, thought talking to the audience was vulgar. Then he was prevailed upon to try it and thereafter would seldom talk to anybody else. I understand this and even in my most naturalistic plays have contrived and relished the moments when a character unexpectedly turns and addresses the house and, in a word, preaches.
This may be because as a boy and a regular worshipper at St Michael’s, Headingley I heard a lot of sermons. I also used to go to Saturday matinees at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, though on occasion the sermons were more dramatic than the plays. This was particularly so when they were preached, as they quite often were, by visiting fathers from the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield who were almost revivalist in their fervour and the spell they cast over the congregation.
So when as a young man I first had thoughts about what nowadays is called stand-up it’s not surprising it took the form of a sermon. Like all parodies it was born out of affection and familiarity and the Anglican services that were in my bones, and there is symmetry here as the first sermon I preached on a professional stage was in Cambridge fifty odd years ago across the road at the Arts Theatre in the revue Beyond the Fringe. It was on the text, ‘My brother Esau is an hairy man but I am a smooth man.’ That sermon apart I have never formally preached since until this morning and here I am again in Cambridge.
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