In October, 2008, a van from Oxford University's Bodleian Library pulled into the driveway of Alan Bennett's home in the Camden Town neighborhood of northern London. Library staffers began loading what turned out to be 100 boxes of papers, which included manuscripts and working drafts of plays, television scripts, film scripts, diaries, letters, drafts of his fictional work, and hundreds of inscribed first editions of books by Bennett and his friends. These 100 boxes were the first installment of the writer's archives, which he was donating to the Bodleian; at his death, all remaining papers and his working library will follow.
The library was absolutely delighted to receive the papers of this recipient of the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre, a writer London's Times Literary Supplement has described as "probably our greatest living dramatist." Bennett described the donation "as a kind of small recompense for what I was given" by Oxford and the English educational system, through which various scholarships and awards had educated Bennett for free. Bennett's tremendous gift, which would have fetched hundreds of thousands of pounds or more, had he decided to sell it, and the Bodleian's excitement at getting it, sum up his life's work in one generous transaction.
Bennett jokes that as a child he was deprived of the deprivation that usually prepares a writer for his craft, since his family was normal and his parents were happy together. Alan Bennett was born in 1934 and grew up in a modest home in Leeds, a city in Yorkshire, in the north of England. His father was a butcher. Alan went to public schools and was given a scholarship to Exeter College Oxford, where in 1957 he earned a degree in history.
While he was continuing his studies in order to become a history professor, he began writing sketch comedy with his friends and classmates Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook. In 1960 the four became famous when their satirical review Beyond the Fringe was so great a hit at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh that it subsequently had a successful run in London's West End, and then moved to Broadway in New York. Beyond launched the careers of all four men. Moore became a star on TV and in the movies, Miller a theater and opera director, Cook a comedian and satirist. Bennett continued acting, writing sketch comedy for the BBC, and soon began writing in many different genres.
A love of history and theatrical innovation are two of the themes that run through the papers in the 100 boxes headed to the Bodleian. For example, his first full-length play, Forty Years On, produced in 1968, is set in Albion House, a fictional boys' school. In typical self-effacing style, Bennett describes this early comedy, a cross between a review and a history lesson, as "an elaborate life support system for the preservation of bad jokes." Bennett went on to write a large number of innovative monologues and plays for the BBC, screenplays, fiction, non-fiction, and a celebrated biography called Writing Home.
His own life appears more and more in his work over the course of his career. This theme culminated in his play The Lady in the Van, produced in 1999, in which he tells the true story of Miss Shepherd, an eccentric and odd-smelling older woman, who lived in her van in Bennett's driveway in Camden for 20 years. In order to portray his own conflicted relationship with this strange guest, the writer is played by two actors who are both onstage at the same time: Alan Bennett, who is charitable toward his guest and wants to help her, and Alan Bennett 2, a writer who is focused on the literary potential of this odd visitor and looks for ways to exploit her.
Bennett's most commercially successful work includes the play The Madness of George III, the Oscar-winning film version The Madness of King George, and the play The History Boys, which won three Laurence Olivier Awards in London and six Tony Awards in New York, including best play, and was made into an award-winning film in 2006. Throughout his career he also continued to act and do recordings and radio work in his famous Yorkshire accent.
One work not in the Bodleian's van is Bennett's most recent play, The Habit of Art, which is playing at the National Theatre in London through the spring of 2010. The play, directed by Bennett's longtime collaborator Nicholas Hytner, is about the poet W. H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Bitten meeting again at Oxford in 1967, having not seen each other for 25 years.