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ERIC BENTLEY AT 70: READY FOR ‘ROUND 2'

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Eric Bentley turned 70 last September. The Young Turk has become a Grand Old Man, but it hasn’t noticeably cramped his style.

Bentley has long been the most influential of American dramatic critics even though he has not been a regular reviewer of current productions since he resigned from the New Republic in 1956. But he has done more than anyone else to shape our consensus as to what are the classics of modern drama, the plays that deserve to be taught in college courses, produced in academic and resident theaters, held up as inspirations to future generations of theater artists. He attacked our theater for being provincial; because of him, it is less so now.

About 20 years ago, however, our leading pundit of modern drama began writing plays of his own. This weekend his newest gets its world premiere at the Celebration Theater in Silver Lake. Entitled “Round 2,” it is inspired by “La Ronde,” Arthur Schnitzler’s famous round-robin comedy of sexual coupling--only this version takes place in New York in the 1970s, and the couplings are homosexual.

Bentley at 70 is still active, and for Bentley, to be active means to be provocative.

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Born in Yorkshire, Eric Bentley graduated from Oxford in 1938, then came to the United States to study comparative literature at Yale. He became an American citizen in the ‘40s and the kind of American--a very characteristic and valuable kind--who serves his country by quarreling with it.

Bentley the journalist taught generations of American critics that you can write something worth reading about plays you hardly consider worth seeing, by viewing them as symptoms of a sickness of American theater, American culture, American society.

In 1945 he wrote, “The pressure of commercial theater may also become a tyranny. In that event the artist can know but one relationship to it: the relationship of antagonism. In such an era the playwright is either a rebel and an artist or a yes man and a hack. I am afraid that the present is such an era.”

At that time and for a while afterward, Broadway still was the American theater; it was on Broadway that Bentley found his yes men and hacks, and he attacked them with gusto.

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To the “commodity” theater of Broadway, Bentley opposed a model of theater derived from other sources, mainly Europeans. While teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he decided to read all the theater books in the college library; the result was his famous study of modern drama, “The Playwright as Thinker.” Then in 1948 he went off to Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship and stayed for three years. There he found live theater, made by rebels and artists, to match the drama he had found in the library at Black Mountain.

Bentley is also famous as the American champion of Brecht, whom he first met in Santa Monica in 1942. Of all playwrights, one suspects that George Bernard Shaw, about whom he has written a brilliant little book, is closest to Bentley’s heart, but, as he wrote in the preface to his collected journalistic criticisms: “I have been preoccupied with the theater of Brecht for a number of years just because it is the most carefully worked-out alternative to the kind of theater I have been criticizing.” The wisecracking reviews, the more extended studies and commentaries, the anthologies, the translations--all hang together.

But now it is Bentley the playwright who comes before us, having gradually discovered that “I would rather write for the theater than about the theater. The inner need was to write more directly or emotionally, and less as the judge, the way perhaps some people write their memoirs. The simplicity or nudity of it was what appealed to me.” In pursuit of this openness, as he became a playwright, he also, as they say, “came out.”

“I generally avoid the word bisexual, " he says. “People who call themselves bisexual are being evasive. They don’t want to be regarded as homosexual--or they want to be regarded as supermen, who like to sleep with everything and everybody. Nevertheless, if one can avoid these connotations, the word would be applicable to me, because I have been married twice and neither of the marriages was fake, neither of them was a cover for something else, they were both a genuine relationship to a woman--a genuine and erotic relationship to a woman, one of whom became the mother of my two sons.

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“The Oscar Wilde play I did (“Lord Alfred’s Lover”), I wrote chiefly from identification with him. Not because I think I’m Oscar Wilde, but because I felt I could perfectly understand what many people told me they thought was strange, that he had a wife and two children, and yet, and yet . . . which to me was not so strange, you see. So I tried to make that understandable in what I wrote, both to myself and to any reader or spectator.

“I was happy to take part in the movement toward gay liberation, beginning in the ‘60s and going on through the ‘70s, and I will not withdraw from it now because of AIDS. On the contrary. With the collapse of political radicalism in general in the United States after the ‘60s, I think the kinds of radicalism that remained alive had to do with sex, and were chiefly two movements: feminism for women, and gay liberation for men and women.”

But Bentley has never been willing to be a loyal propagandist for any movement. He says that “Round 2" was rejected by New York’s leading producer of gay plays on the grounds “that because of AIDS he thought this was no time to put on a play about gay sex which ignored AIDS and in fact had a certain frivolity which wasn’t welcome right now.”

This producer said, continues Bentley, “ ‘You’re telling people that gay people are rotten, awful, that they are unscrupulous and promiscuous.’ I replied, ‘Oh, you find them very scrupulous and un promiscuous?’ ”

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For Bentley, the play “perhaps says that gays are not that much different from straights. Schnitzler shocked his world by saying that these ostensibly OK Viennese citizens led a life which, if you looked at it closely, might be considered rather scandalous and without too much moral principle. So I take those aspects of gay life which people don’t approve of in the same way and show the same thing.”

Though Celebration is a gay theater, Bentley would like his play to be seen by straights as well as gays: “What I have not thought was a good idea in the ‘gay’ plays I’ve seen is a sort of in-joke, meaning a joke that excludes the non-gay male or female. I’ve not used that--at least I hope not.

“For the last 20 years,” Bentley says, “my concentration has been on playwriting, but that hasn’t been publicly visible because the plays haven’t been done that much. Because in the earlier part of my life I built a reputation as a critic and not as a playwright, that lives on, you see. I meet people who think of me as the famous Eric Bentley whose career ended about 1950.

“The only play of mine that made any money was ‘Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?’ But that gave me no private satisfaction because there is no writing of mine in it. It’s purely documentary (adapted from the hearing transcripts of the House Un-American Activities Committee).” Whatever the plays do publicly, they were certainly very good for me privately, an immense release. I don’t regret a moment of it, though putting up with some of the unsuccess is hard at times. But since I haven’t tried to be Neil Simon, I shouldn’t grumble at not being Neil Simon.

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“My playwriting and other writing are all one for me, because they all give a critical account of life as I’ve seen it. The part I wasn’t expressing in the critical books, I could, with luck, express in the plays. I feel some satisfaction that I have got into the plays, not what people wanted me to say, but what I had in mind, what was in my heart to say.”

And for the future? “I will go on with playwriting.”


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