Why did Alan Bennett give the title Smut to this admittedly slight but always enjoyable and often hilarious pair of novellas? Maybe it’s a coy apology for a book that celebrates several varieties of sexual activity, a subject he has said was barely mentionable in lower-middle-class Yorkshire, where he was raised. Maybe it’s a defiant cry from a writer who has accused his younger self of being bashful, diffident and very, very repressed. Maybe the title is wry, rueful, ironic, nostalgic and mischievous — all of which Smut itself turns out to be.
Although this celebrated playwright admitted in Untold Stories, the 2006 collection of autobiographical writings in which he acknowledged his homosexuality, that he comes across to the world “as a donnish figure in glasses,” he added, “This isn’t really what I feel like at all.” And sex has figured a great deal in his plays and prose.
Take The History Boys, which is largely about the vagaries of testosterone in a British school. Or A Bed Among the Lentils, the television monologue in which a vicar’s frustrated wife finds sexual solace with an Asian shopkeeper.
Or Habeas Corpus, a half-serious farce, staged way back in 1973, about the libido’s clamorous, inescapable demands. Prominent among its sexually demented characters was one Canon Throbbing, a voyeuristic clergyman whose final speech includes what Bennett has said is a cry, or wail, from his own heart: “My life I squandered waiting, then let my chance go by.”
That has very nearly also become the cry of the title character in The Greening of Mrs Donaldson, the first and stronger half of Smut. She’s a respectable widow with a puritanical daughter who expects her to retreat into purdah after her husband’s death has ended a marriage in which sex was “a stern, tight-lipped affair.”
By Alan Bennett
But no. Mrs Donaldson takes a part-time job as a “simulated patient” in a medical school, acting out often embarrassing and intimate symptoms and ailments, from Tourette’s syndrome to rectal bleeding. And she takes in one of the students as a lodger, along with the girl’s boyfriend, who suggests an original substitute for overdue rent: Mrs Donaldson can come into their bedroom to watch them having sex.
Implausible? Perhaps. But it leads to some undeniably comic moments, with Mrs Donaldson, medical exhibitionist turned genteel voyeur, bringing cozy cups of tea as a post-coital thank you to the young performers, only to find the drink going cold as they leap into yet another energetic, exuberant embrace.
And it’s that exuberance that shows her what she’s been missing, and keeps her ear fixed to the shared bedroom wall even on those occasions when the rent is paid and private copulation occurs. For her this is a “holiday from respectability” — and may, it seems, result in a still more eventful, fulfilling vacation.
Bennett has always made gentle, sympathetic fun of the sort of staid and placid people he knew as a boy, savoring the droll banalities of their speech and, especially in the case of frustrated women, imagining them in incongruous situations.
There is, for instance, a wonderful episode in which an earnest student hones his sympathetic skills by breaking the news of her husband’s death to the simulated patient, only for Mrs Donaldson to denounce the defunct spouse as a “bastard” and “swine.” Although Mr Donaldson himself seems to have been no worse than dull, that comes across as a refreshingly pertinent comment on her own marriage.