Skip to main content

"People" (2012) by Alan Bennett

- Bennett's Dottie Stacpoole

You go to a Bennett play, you expect the inherent tragedy of progress, that's the deal. Before I saw People, I gave the following slightly cynical prediction of its plot: "Rich people larking about, paradoxically raging against the system, poignant ending regarding the inevitable decay of grandeur." This is not exactly right. The play is his usual warm, satirical tragicomedy, but it's not nostalgic, instead looking like nihilism. (The humour left me a bit cold, too. It's panto calibre: bishop on a porn set, cackling old lady, slack-jawed tourists.) If anything, it's touting the inherent tragedy of conservation.

So: A grand decaying house is to be sold - or given to the National Trust. But the public-minded people are more awful than the oily City shark. Everyone hates 'people': "People spoil things." The haughty, reclusive, indecisive lead, Dottie Stacpoole, is another in a long line of Bennett's quietly, unpretentiously broken people. She lives in the past, never leaving the house, no radio even, reading papers from the 1970s. She's hostile to change, people, and heritage. Her sister is a profane deacon, pushing the deal with the Trust, but also chatting happily about selling Winchester Cathedral. She rages at length. Doom manifests itself regularly, in the rumbling of the hollow coal shafts below the manor. The backing cast are underdeveloped - for instance, Dottie is supposed to connect with the porn makeup artist, but she's sketched too sparsely. After a comedy-of-errors porn shoot, the Tories retract their offer. Dottie capitulates, becoming a bitter and perversely devoted tour guide to her home. ('Undramatic defeat'; another motif of his.)

The Trust's an unexpected target for him - brave, in a way. (Dottie notes that the National Trust's audience is almost identical to the Anglican Church's flock. But the Trust's faithful also overlap enormously with the audience of a National Theatre production of a Bennett play...) They sell "a pretend England" - the real thing often sad and unremarkable, but at least allowed to slip away, in time. The protagonist, and the play, try to resist the stock metaphor - the house as metonym for Country - but fails to parry it. It's too obvious, too convincing. Dottie is faced with two bad options - actually one option, with two spins: give in to money directly, or to a commoditised public institution. The 80s are taken to be a grand pivot in our civilisation, when "things" (e.g. health, education, employment, welfare) could "no longer be taken for granted". Never mind Bennett-the-historian attacking a giant conservation project: that contradiction is minor compared to the still-bizarre spectre of Thatcherism, the conservatism that violently tore down the past in favour of unprecedented, inhumane things. So one of People's villains is the Trust as consequence of Thatcher.

The other is related, but much less worthy of attack: simply, self-conscious public history. Doors flung open; interactivity; the ability to see anything. (Compare "everything has a price".) More than the noble political stuff above, Dorothy just wants privacy. (The cause of her retreat from the world, from 'people', is a miscarriage some fifty years before. But it's only sketched, and it's implied she never had much enthusiasm for her life.) Call it the Trust-as-voyeur. The Trust-as-transparency, as Google.

In the face of these two villains? Death. People is not an argument in favour of death, but only just. At more than one stage Dottie gets nihilistic: "bring it on" (where "it" is the End, The Future, as represented by oily monied Tories). The act of preservation is presented as ludicrous, with Kipling's piss and Cilla Black's childhood home treated with fossilising reverence. Again, it's not the past they're yearning for, just a time when things could be taken for granted.

Is decay authentic? Yes - unless you apply cosmetic dust and mould, as the Trust supposedly do.

The play takes place after the battle's lost, but there are small victories. Dottie tells no-one about her priceless, "Henry VIII" rosary - and gives it away as a fond token, without identifying it. This is an amazing conceit, first because it treats the priceless casually, a powerful, pre-Thatcher action; and second because it is Dottie's rebellion within the Trust's victory, an instance of literally taking the past for granted.

In her hostility to Heritage, Dottie shows modernist spark: she tries to shock the Trust away with the porn shoot, but they turn out to be "wholly unembarrassed by the seedy or the disreputable", these days. The Trust is the real Modernist force, holding that "Nothing is not visitable. That at least the Holocaust has taught us". This steely pragmatism yields another very good image: by recording and replaying the noise of the house's coal tectonics, the National Trust can co-opt even doom itself.

So People's contradiction - love the past, hate the Trust - is only apparent. Bennett knows and owns the past's emotional power, and thus hates the conservation industry insofar as it is an industry, inauthentic and controlling. People is silly and provocative. But it's venomous too. It yearns for the reversal of what we call Thatcherism, though it gives us absolutely no hope of this happening.

"Some plays seem to start with an itch, an irritation, something one can't solve or a feeling one can't locate. With People it was a sense of unease when going round a National Trust house and being required to buy into the role of reverential visitor."
- Bennett

"It’s sad that the world is very commercial but we need money to do our conservation work and if we are going to save beautiful places, we need to have the funds to do that. That is just a regrettable realpolitik of life. If we could do it without money, rest assured we would."
- Ivo Dawney, director of the National Trust