Since beginning his career in the theater as one of the performers in the humorous revue Beyond the Fringe in the 1960’s, Alan Bennett has gone on to become a notable author of critically as well as commercially successful works for the stage, television, and cinema. Much better known in his native England than he is in the United States, Bennett has nonetheless seen his plays in many major American productions that have earned numerous Tony Awards for their casts as well as their author. As Bennett has become something of a wide-ranging man of letters whose activities extend well beyond the theatrical world, his essays, diaries, and reviews have begun to be issued in book form, of which Untold Stories is the second volume to appear.
Like its predecessor, Writing Home (1994), Untold Stories includes a mix of autobiographical and journalistic material that is of varying degrees of interest but is never less than engaging and well written. “Untold Stories” is also the title of the 125-page memoir with which the book begins, and it is by far the strongest and most affecting piece in the collection. Bennett here re-creates the stunted and yet emotionally resonant lives of his parents in a wonderfully well-judged remembrance that blends pathos with intellectual insight and could also serve as the first part of what one imagines will eventually be his formal autobiography.
The story of his parents’ relationship is a revealing as well as intrinsically compelling tale of two reserved and introverted individuals making a satisfying life for themselves, even though illness and misfortune dog their later years. When the young couple made the decision to marry, his mother’s shyness meant that a conventional church wedding was impossible, and so his father prevailed upon the local vicar to perform a private ceremony at eight o’clock in the morning. The couple’s honeymoon consisted of one evening at the theater to see the musical The Desert Song, and on the next day his father returned to his job as a butcher, and his mother began to practice the domestic routines that would define her existence for the following several decades.
This apparently humdrum working-class existence could have pushed Bennett in the direction taken by such slightly older writers as John Osborne in his play Look Back in Anger (1956) and Alan Sillitoe in his novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). These prominent members of the angry young men literary movement that flourished in post-World War II England emphasized what they saw as the despair and hopelessness that was the lot of many of their country’s less affluent citizens. Bennett has instead chosen to celebrate the lives of two people whose underprivileged economic status did not completely define their experience of life. Although his father left school for work at the age of eleven, he was a voracious reader and practiced the violin until he achieved near-professional status. Bennett’s mother, despite her extreme shyness, presided over a warm and nurturing household decorated with inexpensive but unique objects that would now be described as “collectibles.” It was never easy for this unassuming man and introverted woman to face the world’s slings and arrows, but together they forged a successful family life that Bennett here celebrates with touching tenderness.
Thus it is all the more affecting when his father’s retirement results in the decision to leave their inner-city home for a small cottage in a village where they will, for the first time in either of their lives, be strangers in an unfamiliar environment. The effect on his mother is catastrophic; suddenly bereft of the surroundings in which she has so painstakingly established a routine of daily household tasks, she is unable to adjust to the new situation and begins to withdraw into herself. Her husband remains supportive, tenderly shepherding her through a debilitating routine of ever-more frequent breakdowns followed by periods of...
(The entire section is 1,702 words.)