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In memoriam: How critic Eric Bentley rescued American theater from provincialism

Eric Bentley
Eric Bentley
(Northwestern University Press )

Broadway is dark these days, but the lights of theaters around the world should be dimmed in honor of author, critic, translator and playwright Eric Bentley, who died this month at his home in New York at the age of 103.

Bentley’s legacy in the theater as a pathbreaker is profound. By shining a critical light on the American stage, he exposed the gimcrack that had been fobbed off as treasure and in the process made room for the genuine.

Longevity of such ostentatious proportions, however, can fog the mirror of reputation. The titles of books may be remembered but few are around to testify to the impact of Bentley’s critical writing, the way it incited new modes of thought and, just as crucially, revealed the limitations of the prevailing wisdom.

I know I’m not the first critic to feel as though his intellectual path was set by Bentley’s “The Playwright as Thinker,” first published in 1946 and still a necessary text of modern dramatic criticism. Richard Gilman, who asked his incoming graduate students at the Yale School of Drama to read the book before beginning their studies, writes in his introduction that Bentley helped open his eyes “to the aesthetic and intellectual possibilities of the stage.”

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Combining the wide frame of reference of a literary scholar with the practical knowledge of a man of the theater, Bentley wrote not to a readership of academic or professional specialists but to a culturally informed audience that understood the value of both learning and unlearning. “Philistine prejudice” (a particular bête noire), simplistic dichotomies and smug anti-intellectualism were routinely assailed in his essays and reviews.

Born in England and educated at Oxford on a scholarship, he came to America to continue his studies at Yale, where he received a PhD in comparative literature. It was in the U.S. where Bentley found his critical services to be most urgently needed, and he was fortunate to be plying his trade in his adopted nation at a time when space was being made for public intellectuals.

There were outlets — the New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, Theatre Arts, the Kenyon Review, the Nation, to name a few — that weren’t afraid to take theater seriously. And Bentley gave them something more valuable than smart ideas: He provided dialectical argument, presenting a mind in dialogue with itself in much the same way that Ibsen, in Bentley’s priceless formulation, allowed us to be “present at thinking” during his characters’ awakenings.

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Through his drama criticism and translations of world classics, Bentley deprovincialized the American theater in the 20th century. One of his essay collections is called “In Search of Theater,” and the title reflects the exploratory spirit of a critic who couldn’t understand why the glories of 2,500 years of dramatic literature were being neglected for playwrights of the caliber of Maxwell Anderson, a prolific author whom Bentley facetiously labeled “the king of the Broadway intelligentsia” while writing about Anderson’s hit historical drama “Joan of Lorraine,” starring Ingrid Bergman.

Bentley found what he was looking for in 5th century B.C. Athens, Elizabethan England and the Spanish Golden Age, among other epochs in which an appetite for soaring dramatic poetry flourished. But he was just as keen to revisit those modern titans we kept getting wrong.

in his virtuosic monograph on George Bernard Shaw, Bentley dismantles the naive notion that drama is fundamentally an art of feeling. Arguing that emotion and intellect aren’t mutually exclusive, he traces the way passion fuels the political and philosophical convictions of characters in symphonically structured comedies that are far too witty to be monotonously didactic. In Ibsen, he urges us “to look for the idea behind the idea” and not confuse the once-scandalous social problems of the plays for the deeper human questions animating them.

Bentley recognized that “theater criticism has no more urgent function than to encourage the good.” This entails not only praising, parsing and differentiating but also cultivating a sensibility in audiences for more complex pleasures. “Within my own sphere what I am asking for is a ‘new criticism’ of the theater,” he wrote. By that he meant a “new climate, the climate of a new generation.” To that end, he sought out both the contemporary best and the best from other times and places that had yet to find welcome on our stages.

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Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s stature in the English-speaking world owes an enormous debt to Bentley’s work as a critic, translator and editor of play volumes. The metatheatrical high jinks of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” playfully confounded illusion and reality. But Bentley wanted theatergoers to understand that “Pirandello’s plays grew from his own torment,” and that for all their buoyant philosophical humor they can only succeed in performance if their tragic gravitas is respected.

For a long time Bentley served as a quasi-ambassador to Brecht. The two met in Los Angeles when Bentley was teaching at UCLA and the German playwright was in exile from Nazi Germany and not yet enjoying his status as the 20th century’s greatest political playwright. Bentley helped elucidate the principles and procedures of Brecht’s epic theater so that theatergoers would be able to judge the plays for what they were attempting to do rather than condemning them for not following a sentimental rule book.

Bentley’s translation of “Mother Courage and Her Children” was performed on Broadway in a Jerome Robbins production starring Anne Bancroft, and he staged his own adaptation of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” in a New York production with Uta Hagen and Zero Mostel. But Bentley’s advocacy wasn’t uncritical. He was dubious of the cultish celebrity that grew around Brecht and dismayed by the way Marxist ideology came to eclipse the poetry and the stagecraft.

Bandwagons weren’t Bentley’s preferred means of transportation. He thought Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” resorted to rhetoric when it needed poetry and he complained that Eugene O’Neill’s characters were “blown up with psychological gas.”

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In the essay “Trying to Like O’Neill,” Bentley uses his experience of directing a production in Zurich of “The Iceman Cometh” to see if he could at last embrace what critics as great as Stark Young and George Jean Nathan admired in O’Neill’s work. He didn’t quite succeed, though he gained a more acute awareness of the playwright’s strengths and weaknesses. In later years, he questioned some of his more polemical positions, but his fearlessness in bucking trends seems especially valiant in these days when social media has the critical world too often marching in lockstep.

Criticism was never Bentley’s sole focus, and he came to feel that his reception as a playwright was hindered by his reputation as a critic even though he had long stopped wearing that hat. He insisted on being identified as a dramatist, and in the early 1990s when I was guest-editing a special issue of Yale’s Theater magazine, he stipulated that he would only consent to an interview with me if our conversation would focus on his plays.

I regret passing up that opportunity, if only for the chance to have better understood why a writer utterly opposed to facile binaries was convinced that his critical and creative sides had to be kept apart. Bentley’s rich variety of theatrical interests is what made him invaluable. He may not have become a dramatist of significant stature, but his critical writing was immeasurably enriched by his work as a teacher, translator, author, director and playwright.

His unparalleled career as a critic is a reminder that popularity is not the same thing as influence. He wasn’t an entertainer, one of the ingredients he thought went into being a good reviewer, but the lucidity of his writing gives pleasure all the same. His reviews at the New Republic didn’t have the power to make or break a show but they widened and elevated sensibility.

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Would a modern-day Eric Bentley (the idea is almost oxymoronic) find a niche in today’s numbers-obsessed media landscape? One has to have faith that, despite the insidious way publicity has infected our critical discourse, rigorous intelligence of such an uncompromising order will not be turned away even if the readership for such writing would have to be rebooted.

What’s clear is that we still need Bentley to clear up the murkiness in our thinking. To remind us, for example, that the task of the theater is to “find its own public,” not grovel before a “general public,” an abstraction he found as meaningless as “the common man.”

In contrast to the “unheroic failure” of the commercial theater, which abandons “the ideal for pecuniary gain,” Bentley championed “the heroic failure” of keeping “standards up as long as possible, come what may.”


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