Wystan Hugh Auden was born into a middle-class English family in 1907, the son of George Auden, a medical doctor, and Constance Bicknell Auden, a nurse. Auden grew up in an atmosphere that fostered intellectual and cultural growth, and his parents, both the children of clergymen, gave him and his two older brothers a strong sense of traditional religious values. His father was the strongest influence on his early intellectual life, teaching Auden about classical and Norse mythology and encouraging his interest in science. Auden maintained this interest throughout his life, often using scientific concepts and images in his poetry.
In 1915, when he was eight, Auden went as a boarder to St. Edmund’s School in Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood, later his close friend and collaborator. After St. Edmund’s, Auden attended Gresham’s School, an institution with a strong reputation in the sciences. During his time there, Auden began to question the religion of his childhood and to distance himself from the traditional values of his middle-class, public-school upbringing. At Gresham’s, he acknowledged his homosexuality, and, by the time he left, he had abandoned his faith.
Auden’s interest in writing, begun at Gresham’s, flourished at Oxford, where he went to read science in 1925. He soon changed to English studies and, before finishing his undergraduate career, resolved to make poetry his vocation. While at Oxford and in the remaining years of the 1930’s, Auden established a considerable reputation as a poet and experimental dramatist. In 1928, he wrote his first dramatic work, Paid on Both Sides, a brief “charade” that draws heavily on his English public-school experience, his fascination with the lead-mining country of his youth, and the Icelandic legends he learned from his father. Four years later, in 1932, he again turned to theater. In the summer of that year, the ballet dancer Rupert Doone and the painter Robert Medley (whom Auden had known at Gresham’s) proposed to Auden the idea of forming an experimental theater company that Doone hoped could be “self-sufficient and independent of any purely commercial considerations.” The founders of what came to be known as the Group Theatre wanted to bring to the stage a combination of dance, music, and speech; they also saw in the theater a potential for left-wing social commentary, an idea that appealed to Auden, whose political leanings had become increasingly leftist during the 1930’s.
At the urging of Doone and Medley, Auden produced for the Group Theatre a ballet-drama on Marxist themes. In the next several years, he collaborated with Isherwood on three more plays for the Group, the first of them The Dog Beneath the Skin, a work that developed out of earlier dramatic experiments by the two writers—their joint effort, “Enemies of a Bishop” (written in 1929), and two works by Auden, “The Fronny” (written in 1930) and “The Chase” (written in 1934). These plays were not published or performed, and only a few scraps of “The Fronny” survive. By the end of the 1930’s, Auden and Isherwood had collaborated on a second and third play for the Group Theatre, both of them more theatrically conventional than their first one.
In 1939, Auden’s life took a major turn. He and Isherwood left England for the United States, and, within two years of his arrival, Auden rejoined the Anglican communion, a reaffirmation of his childhood faith toward which he had been moving for some time. From this point in his life, his writing was informed by a Christian perspective spelled out most explicitly in the long poems he wrote during the 1940’s, particularly his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being (1944). Though clearly not intended for the stage, his long poems of this period make considerable use of dramatic techniques. Auden’s only theatrical work of the time was a brief libretto that he wrote for the British composer Benjamin Britten; Paul Bunyan was performed once in 1941 but remained unpublished until after Auden’s death.
Auden’s dramatic career entered its second phase near the end of the 1940’s, when he began the first of his several collaborations with his friend and lifelong companion Chester Kallman, whom he had met shortly after his arrival in the United States. Together, they wrote for Stravinsky a libretto for The Rake’s Progress and, later, a briefer one called Delia, for which Stravinsky never provided a score. In the last twenty years of his life, Auden continued to write extensively both poetry and prose, living part of each year in New York City and part in Europe. He and Kallman continued their productive collaboration, translating a number of librettos and writing several of their own, two for the German composer Hans Werner Henze and one for the Russian-born composer Nicolas Nabokov. Their final work for the stage, written in the last month of Auden’s life, was The Entertainment of the Senses, a brief “ antimasque” commissioned for the composer John Gardiner. Shortly after completing this piece, Auden left his summer home in Kirchstetten, Austria, to return to Oxford, where he had taken up winter residence the year before. On their way to England, he and Kallman stopped overnight in Vienna. Auden died there in his sleep and is buried, as he wished, in Kirchstetten.