Alan Bennett, one of England’s most popular and critically acclaimed playwrights, was born in Leeds, England, to Walter Bennett, a butcher, and Lilian Mary (Peel) Bennett. He became interested in the arts as a child, attending concerts by the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. His military service included a brief stint in the infantry followed by assignment to the Joint Services Language Course to learn Russian, first at Coulsdon, and then at Cambridge University. After serving in the army, Bennett read history at Exeter College, Oxford, taking his B.A. degree in 1957. He continued at Oxford, engaging in graduate studies in history and serving as a temporary junior lecturer in history (1960-1962) but left without completing his doctoral dissertation.
Bennett’s stage career began in 1960 when, having performed comedy routines at Oxford, he joined with three other university men to present a revue of comic and satiric skits, songs, and monologues at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre in Scotland. Invited to participate in the Edinburgh Festival that year, the four performed their revue, titled Beyond the Fringe. The revue moved to London’s Fortune Theatre in 1961 and to New York’s John Golden Theater the following year. Bennett’s partners went on to successful careers: Peter Cook as a nightclub entertainer, Jonathan Miller as a physician, and Dudley Moore as a pianist and actor. Bennett proved successful in a variety of roles in the theater as well as films and television, including actor, director, and, most important, playwright.
After coauthoring Fortune and Golden in the early 1960’s, Bennett saw his first solo play, Forty Years On, produced in 1968. A satiric yet also affectionate look at the passing of an age, Forty Years On includes a play within a play as a comic revue commemorates the retirement of a veteran headmaster at a boys’ boarding school. The play received a London Evening Standard drama award in 1968, as had Beyond the Fringe in 1961.
The 1970’s saw Bennett establishing himself as a major figure in both stage drama and television in England. Getting On earned Bennett another Evening Standard award (1971), and The Old Country was named best new play for 1977 by Plays & Players. In addition, ten of his teleplays appeared on either the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC-TV) or London Weekend Television (LWT).
During the 1980’s Bennett added screenwriting to his accomplishments, with A Private Function and Prick Up Your Ears. The former is an examination of British social classes; the latter is a biography of playwright Joe Orton and has been noted by critics for its skillful use of irony, an ingredient in much of Bennett’s work. On the stage, Kafka’s Dick was named best new play of 1986 by Plays & Players. The play features an insurance salesman obsessed with author Franz Kafka. The Insurance Man, produced the following year, also is concerned with Kafka, an author whose seemingly contradictory desires for obscurity and fame appeared to resonate with Bennett’s own motivations.
Bennett’s many teleplays during the 1980’s included An Englishman Abroad, an account of English spy Guy Burgess seven years after he defected to Russia, which earned the British Academy of Film and Television Arts writers award (1983) and the Royal Television Society Award (1984), and Talking Heads, a series of six monologues by lower-middle-class individuals from northern England expressing the alienation and loneliness of their lives, which won the Hawthornden Prize (1989).
Despite having left his doctoral studies unfinished, Bennett was named an honorary fellow of Exeter College in 1987 and within a few years expanded his fame by drawing on his knowledge of history, the discipline in which he had once aspired to an academic career. In the 1990’s Bennett became famous with American audiences, primarily because of the popular and critical success of the film The Madness of King George, based on his play The Madness of George III. The film received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Bennett’s screenplay. The author appeared in a minor role in the film, continuing an acting career that has seen him perform in many of his own works.
In addition to his dramatic writing, Bennett published Writing Home, a collection of essays, prefaces, character sketches, and diary entries, in 1994. This somewhat fragmented memoir became a best-seller in England. He also turned increasingly to fiction, publishing his first novel, The Clothes They Stood Up In, and a collection of stories, The Laying On of Hands.
By the end of the twentieth century, Alan Bennett was widely acknowledged as one of the most important British playwrights, with some critics calling him the foremost British author writing for the stage. He has been especially praised for his rich dialogue, complex use of irony (usually aligned with sympathy for his subjects), verbal wit, facility at finding the precisely correct word, and humor.