Playwright Alan Bennett set his sights on fiction in his new comedic collection, Smut.
British humor, especially literary humor is often lost on American audiences. One need look no farther than to the blanket seriousness that greeted Philip Hensher’s darkly comic Northern Clemency when the Booker Prize finalist’s book arrived on US shores. Arguably one of the main reasons for the divide is that American sensibilities often favor the bombastic, whereas the best of English comedy is often a comedy of manners, born of a classist society that finds its greatest jests in its most rigid and ancient of institutions—the individual hierarchy.
Highly celebrated as a playwright since the success of Beyond the Fringe, the author of The History Boys sets his sights on fiction, and, for the most part, offers a relatively successful effort.
Smut is not really a collection but rather two novellas, “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” and “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” sandwiched together to provide, as the title alludes, a lurid foray into the worlds of two middle-class English families in order to draw a stark contrast between the public façade and the private wont. Yet those seeking a Rothian style romp will be left disappointed; Bennett does not indulge in the graphic nature of sex, nor is he interested in its more gratuitous elements, rather he seems intrigued by the awkward nuances that accompany the act, which, when observed, can offer a truly comic discomfort.
In Smut Bennett’s skills as a playwright are forefront. In “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” the cadence and pacing of his writing is rapid, with the bits of narration offered almost more a voiceover provided to quickly relocate the reader than traditional prose used for introspection, and his dialogue, often subdued, satirical and dripping with double entendre needs only blocking for a complete and seamless transfer to the stage.
Mrs. Donaldson, the namesake of the novella, is a middle-aged widow who, since the death of her husband has taken up acting out maladies at the local medical school as a way to supplement her time and income. In and of itself, this is the classic trope of widow with new lease on life, though Mrs. Donaldson is never offered some grand existential truth nor is her liberation the traditional kind, for it comes in a manner that even the most adventurous have probably failed to realize. To go into further detail is to damage the enjoyment of the plot, yet the comedy which ensues, as well as the awkward but pointed way in which Bennett narrates the scenes where Mrs. Donaldson receives “payment” from her latent tenants is brilliantly handled and strikes to the heart of the English comedic stylings that live to mock jilted English propriety.
As a long-form story, “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” succeeds on all levels, and perhaps would have been better off as the second of the pair because the subsequent “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” fails to equal its partner. Though Bennett’s dialogue remains impeccable and pointedly comic, the bravura opening quickly fades into a convoluted tail that loses most, if not all, of its opening momentum. In an attempt to tell a multi-layered tale of a closeted banker, his overbearing mother, ugly fiancé, henpecked father and jilted gay lover, where everyone seems to be sleeping with everyone else, Bennett tosses too many balls into the air, and more than a few of them hit the ground. Still, Smut does entertain, manages to remain light despite the darkness to which it occasionally alludes and is perhaps a proper starting point for those intrigued by, but not familiar with, contemporary English comedic prose.