Wystan Hugh Auden, born on 21 February 1907 in England, later an American citizen, was regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The central themes of his poetry are love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.
Auden is one of three characters in my new play entitled Very Pleasant Sensations. The play is based on Benjamin's Britten diary entry on Saturday 3rd July. It follows 20th century cultural icons: Christopher Isherwood, Wystan Auden and Benjamin Britten and their time at the Turkish Baths, a usual gay haunt, on Jermyn Street, London. This is an imagined conversation between the friends. Isherwood and Auden, regulars of the underground queer society, introduce the shy, young Benjamin Britten to a world of champagne, drugs and boys. The play explores sexuality and sexuality as identity, a topic as relevant now as it as then.
Auden is an enormously interesting character. It has been a joy to discover this complex man.
The more I read about Auden, the more I found similarities with Goethe's Faust. For me, Auden is Faust. Or has a Faustian mentality.
Auden has written about his admiration for Goethe before in this feature for the New York Review of Books. But I am not comparing Auden to Goethe, but to Goethe's knowledge-seeking character, Faust. Auden once said "Self development is a process of self-surrender, for it is the self that demands the exclusive attention of all experiences, but offers none in return."
Faust, an audacious man (much like Auden), is a highly successful scholar but one dissatisfied with his life who therefore makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Ironically, Faust reveals his disapproval for books as a true source of knowledge in understanding the world; we must turn to life and living, and experience instead.
Auden also said "Life, as I experience it, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives". Auden was an deeply intelligent man. He was once described by a peer as a 'library' but beneath his academic front his search for greater experiences fills his life.
Of all the characters in my play, I knew very little about Auden - I really had to discover him and , even now with rehearsals around the corner, I'm not sure how right I am about him. I found that he loved war: Before the event I have dramatised in my play, Auden was to be found in Spain observing the Civil War - Benjamin Britten, mockingly, said in his diary that Auden was in Spain to "drive an ambulance". The experience of war, love, politics, people and many other subjects became the poems we love today - how very Faustian.
I confess that I don't portray Auden is the best light: He is an arrogant know-it-all who is always, and I mean always, in the right. He has a complete disregard for everyone and frequently puts himself above the rest. In modern terms, I consider Auden to be a player - a sexual predator - and he will always have his man.
"Real artists are not nice people, all their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue" - W. H. Auden
When thinking about dramatising Auden, my director made me buy Alan Bennett's play 'A Habit of Art', a play about Auden and Britten's relationship in their latter life. In the Faber and Faber edition of the play Bennett writes his own introduction where he recollects he own experience of Auden. Bennett describes Auden, in his latter years as a professor at Oxford, as 'repetitive' and 'infuriating'. Most amusingly, Bennett makes reference to his sexual nature that, seemingly, he never lost despite Auden's age - Bennett writes:
"He used to hold court in the Cadena... There were undergraduates I knew at whom Auden made passes, though I was still young and innocent enough to find a pass as remarkable as the person making it."
With my opinions about Auden's faustian status, I have, in my play, recognised Auden's persistence to find experience. I have recognised his quest for knowledge through his sexual desires - that is his stimuli for his art - in some cases, this one specifically.
Though, his sexual desires won't favour him on this night.