Allegories of prudence
Alan Bennett’s Single Spies
in The Blunt Affair
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This chapter examines two one-act plays that Alan Bennett wrote about the Cambridge spies, An Englishman Abroad (1983), a teleplay about Guy Burgess’s encounter with the actress, Coral Browne, in Moscow in 1958, and A Question of Attribution (1988), about a period in Anthony Blunt’s life when he was working as the curator of the Royal Art Collection, and, as required by his immunity deal, also serving as an MI5 informer. These plays were performed together in 1988 under the title Single Spies. As with Julian Mitchell, Bennett offers a sympathetic portrait of the Cambridge spies, but whereas Mitchell brought a youthful, appealing Guy Burgess to the stage, Single Spies shows Burgess and Blunt in advanced years, long after their spy games and Cold War utility had faded, leaving them beleaguered by the consequences of their youthful political fervor. This chapter, guided by a motif Bennett uses in A Question of Attribution, reads both Burgess and Blunt in relation to Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, a triple portrait representing what art critic Erwin Panofsky terms “the three forms of time” evident in Titian’s painting: “the present, learns from the past and acts with due regard to the future.” I argue that Bennett’s dramas aim to humanize and individuate Burgess and Blunt and to show that they are complex and conflicted figures in ways that challenge the press’s and public’s rash condemnations of their treachery.


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