Single Spies by Alan Bennett – one of the favorite writers of the undersigned, author of The Madness of King George III http://realini.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-madness-of-king-george-iii-by-alan.html and other remarkable Magnum opera
10 out of 10
A Question of Attribution
This reader has been exhilarated by all the works of Alan Bennett that he has had the fortune to read – actually, mostly to listen to – and clearly, A Question of Attribution is no exception, for albeit it is only thirty seven pages long - and thus it is generally performed as Single spies, together with An Englishman Abroad, which has some dedicated lines at the end of this note and it is about Guy Burgess as the central figure, while A Question of Attribution concentrates on Sir Anthony Blunt, another spy, whose identity is not revealed and indeed, for one who lives outside Britain and that specific timeframe, it is more than puzzling and this may add to the mystery and make the main point even more relevant, for we are invited to think about real and ‘fake’…forgery is not a word that Blunt likes, he insists that these would be enigmas, ‘paintings do not have a goal and art evolved, it is a ‘Question of Attribution’…
The main character is the expert attached to the Royal Collection, which he calls however the ‘acquisition’, in part surely because he had embraced leftist, communist ideas, he is one of the infamous spies employed by the Soviet Union and therefore an abhorrent figure for the under signed, who has been benefiting and will alas to his final day from the largesse with which the villains have spread their doctrine (and are bent on doing it again, with the Ukraine, which has 150,000 ‘friendly troops’ massed at its border)
Sir Anthony Blunt is talking in the play with a detective who is trying to find more about other men or women (we can assume there were no ‘they”, no gender, trans and other categories to be identified in those days, even if today the fact that they looked only into men and women might cause cancelation and uproar, which these words here would, if only they had any traction) that may be on the payroll of the Soviets, but the interaction becomes amusing, if sardonic at times, when the detective asks about ‘what is her majesty like’, the sometimes aloof, superior spy retorts with ‘this is like asking a woman at a department store about Frank or John (not these names, but it is a trifling matter)
It is incredible how much is packed into so few lines, for we get a short lesson in art, as well as the character of the queen – as for that, Alan Bennett has another chef d’oeuvre in The Uncommon Reader http://realini.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-uncommon-reader-by-alan-bennett-11.html wherein her majesty takes up…reading, thus she is the uncommon reader and that generates all sorts of conundrums and trouble, for she is in fact supposed to keep to (very) small talk and not be intellectual…incidentally, they have a dark period ahead, with the ex-prince Andrew facing statutory rape accusations, stripped as he is of official duties and titles, The Economist brilliantly explains, as always, that they cannot take him out, hereditary succession is the key word for monarchy, once you question the ‘genetic lottery’, then you end up asking what is the point of having a monarch and not a republic
The queen – portrayed in the play produced for BBC Radio by wonderful Prunella Scales aka the legendary Mrs. Fawlty in one of the best comedy series ever made, if not the Very Best, Fawlty Towers http://realini.blogspot.com/2015/12/fawlty-towers-and-evaluations.html - happens to have one event cancelled and therefore she is talking to Sir Anthony about art, King Charles I, who was a connoisseur, but not a good monarch, what Gertrude Stein has said ‘after a time, even the best pictures turn into wallpaper’, the portraits of the queen – painters of portraits are not representative of the avant-garde, and that is for the better says her majesty, for ‘one does not want to have two noses’.
She goes on to say that most of her portraits are nor recognizable nonetheless, and she seems to not mind that, but she is upset the horses do not look like the painted ones – she is a buyer of horses, but she knows about them – and mentions Francis Bacon and his Screaming Pope, for there might have been a chance to have him offer the public ‘The Screaming Queen’…the Prince of Wales (the monarchy will suffer a loss of popularity when he becomes king, albeit I am impressed by the fact that he is an intellectual, has read a lot and had been a ‘green’ long before most of the others even knew what was all that about, even if he has some very peculiar views on some subjects) and the late Prince Philip paint or painted respectively…
In terms of portraits, ‘God does not a secret self, since he is always on duty and he must always be the same’…we also learn about the hidden significance, symbols in painting, the dog (common sense maybe) represents loyalty, the wolf greed, the owl wisdom, but it is not always what we should take for granted, for the owl, ‘being a bird of night, can be associated with ignorance and other representations could be misinterpreted as in (again) A Question of Attribution’…the paintings that are interpreted offer a good metaphor for the infamous spies, since in one work, there seem to three men, then using technology there is another and changing the perspective, even a fifth, just like with the traitors
The interaction with the detective includes some lectures on art, which the audience can benefit from, the notion that ‘art evolves’ – Chubb takes a chronological approach, like all of us do I guess, except if you (are still here first of all) have much higher education on this subject and then you are evidently in apposition to look down at all of us, characters and under signed – learning the perspective, how to ‘paint what is actually there’…Blunt explains that ‘art does not necessarily progress towards photographic realism, different periods have different styles…what about the Impressionists, or Picasso…’
To which the detective replies that ‘they could do it properly, they just got bored’ and then he comments on Michelangelo, women are not natural, just like men with tits’…Alan Bennett has offered audiences another mesmerizing, amusing, inspirational, erudite, simple and yet so sophisticated Magnum opus… on a minor note, the rising star Dan Stevens has the role of Philips, an assistant.