In the book “Talking Heads”, Alan Bennett introduces his characters as ‘artless’, implying that they are unaware of the significance of their words and unaware that they are sharing a story whose meaning they do not fully comprehend.
“This is true of most of the monologues that he wrote, except for ‘A Cream Cracker under the Settee’. In this essay, I will analyze three of Alan Bennett’s monologues and explore the portrayal of the characters as artless. The first monologue is ‘Lady of Letters’ where Irene, the narrator, writes letters to occupy herself but ends up in prison because of them. Irene is depicted as a typical nosy elderly lady who engages in mundane activities like letter writing to pass the time.”
The monologue reveals another common characteristic of her behavior – constant complaining. This is evident from the opening line of the monologue, “I can’t say the service was up to scratch.” This initial statement sets the tone for her continuous complaints. Later, it becomes clear that she is discussing a funeral when she mentions, “In fact I wrote to the crematorium.” It is also apparent that Irene has an obsession with writing letters, particularly ones filled with complaints.
The insignificant complaints that Irene has are overshadowed by the more important situation at hand. Specifically, she mentions her dissatisfaction with the hearse drivers smoking and suggests that facilities should be provided if they must smoke. This shows that Irene is filling her time by focusing on these minor issues. Further reading suggests that Irene lacks close relationships with friends or family, and that the funeral she attended was for someone she didn’t know well aside from a conversation on a bus.
She establishes some small connections with this woman in order to explain why she went to the funeral. As an example, she states,
According to the text, the speaker mentions that she has a niece in Australia and one cousin in Canada. It is implied that these connections play a role in her decision to attend the funeral as she sees them as reasons for attending and considers the deceased person as a friend due to these small connections.
The reason this is artless is because Irene is unaware that she is unfamiliar with this lady and only has knowledge of these connections through brief conversations on the bus. As we continue reading in this monologue, we are introduced to a family residing across the road from Irene, whom she assumes are not very “promising.” This indicates Irene’s tendency to make quick judgments and hold a negative opinion of the family without truly knowing them. She also views their child in a disparaging manner, commenting that “The kiddy looks filthy.”
“This indicates her tendency towards pessimism and her inclination to anticipate the worst regarding the family. This negative outlook is further reinforced by the mention of the previous complaint letters she has written. One such instance is when she expressed her dissatisfaction with the presence of policemen in the vicinity by addressing her concerns to her local MP, stating,”…
These days, the number of policemen wearing glasses makes Irene wonder about their ability to defend against a determined assailant. She discusses her imprisonment towards the end of her monologue, attributing it to the trouble caused by her numerous letters. Interestingly, she expresses irony in finding happiness in prison, a stark contrast to her previous life spent writing.
This statement is ironic because one would typically assume to be happier when free from prison. Before going to prison, Irene believes that it is an easy life with amenities such as television, table tennis, and art, likening it to a holiday camp.
The speaker ponders about the existence of crime, employing irony as she finds pleasure in her prison stay, which makes her happier. Additionally, she mentions that happiness can be found just around the corner when the heroine claims to never experience it. However, her concluding statement in the monologue is, “And I am so happy,” highlighting the contrast between her feelings before entering prison and during her time there.
Irene exhibits a lack of awareness towards the impact her letters have on the community, displaying an artless nature. Additionally, a contrast is evident between her expressed sentiments about prison and her true feelings, reflecting her artlessness. ‘Her Big Chance’, another one of Alan Bennett’s monologues, features Julie Walters portraying the narrator Lesley, an unsuccessful actor who resorts to using her body to gain attention from men in order to secure work. Bennett commences the monologue with a startling statement.
“I recently killed someone,” she declares, immediately capturing the audience’s interest. However, upon further explanation, we discover that she is referring to her acting and mentions being at a ‘crossroads’. “I have experienced moments of uncertainty and indecision,” she admits.
“This highlights her naive and uninhibited nature from the beginning as she happily discusses herself without being aware of the impression she is making on the audience and others. The most candid characteristic revealed about Lesley is her willingness to engage in sexual relations to secure acting roles. To illustrate, Lesley sleeps with Gunthur, the director of a soft porn movie she is involved in, in order to guarantee her inclusion in the film. Gunthur himself even states, ‘Lesley, I have a policy of not touching an actress until the entire production is complete.'”
“This indicates that Lesley is being exploited for her physical appearance, and it is possible that the person making this statement has selfish motives of their own. Lesley is oblivious to this fact, which displays her naivety in not realizing that individuals use her for their own sexual desires. The most striking example of this naivety, in my view, is when she proposes making the film even more explicit than before, suggesting, ‘Don’t you think that Travis, devoid of all emotional attachment due to the loss of her lover, would possibly cling to the policeman whose life she has saved, and they would celebrate by engaging in sexual activity right then and there?’ This demonstrates her enjoyment of being objectified in films and television shows because of her body. However, it also exposes her greediness as she desires greater exposure and attention.”
The final line of the monologue is “Acting is just giving.” This is intriguing as it suggests that the individual sees their acting as a selfless gift to those who witness it. Additionally, it demonstrates a genuine intention to entertain and bring joy to others. In contrast to the previous two monologues discussed, I will now analyze the only monologue I have studied that is not considered artless: ‘A Cream Cracker under the Settee.’
‘This monologue centers around Doris, an elderly lady determined to avoid being sent to a nursing home. Unfortunately, while cleaning, she has an accident that results in her legs going numb and renders her unable to walk. This monologue stands out as the most emotionally charged among all the ones we have examined due to Doris opening up about her late husband and their stillborn child. Doris can be seen as self-aware because she understands that attempting to dust contributed to her current predicament. It is evident from the start that she vehemently opposes the idea of being placed in a nursing home, as demonstrated by her discussions about the threats made by Zulema.’
The text reveals that Zulema is not kind to Doris and desires for her to be placed in Stafford House. Zulema argues, “What you don’t understand, Doris, is that I am the only person that stands between you and Stafford House.” This showcases Zulema’s lack of empathy towards Doris. The monologue becomes highly emotional when Zulema discusses the loss of her and her husband Wilfred’s baby. She recounts, “The midwife said he wasn’t fit to be called anything and had we any newspaper?” This emotional account signifies the midwife taking away their deceased child as if he was ‘dirty’ and wrapping him in newspaper. Due to its profound emotional nature and Zulema’s selflessness, this monologue cannot be considered artless. Zulema’s primary concern revolves around avoiding placement in a nursing home.
The statement expresses a strong dislike for being stuck with old women who have a distinct odor. This indicates a strong aversion to living in a care facility. To summarize, most of Alan Bennett’s monologues feature narrators who are perceived as naive or inexperienced.
Although Graham in ‘A Chip in the Sugar’ is more artless than Susan in ‘Bed Among the Lentils’, both monologues are acknowledged for possessing artless qualities to varying degrees.