By Randy Gener
ERIC BENTLEY received IATC’s THALIA PRIZE from Korea’s Ministry of Culture at the association’s 50th birthday congress in October 2006 in the capital city of Seoul in South Korea.
IATC’s THALIA PRIZE was established to honor a personality who has made a major contribution to theatre in the world, especially someone who has changed the nature of critical thinking about the theatre.
The first recipient of this prestigious international prize, Mr. Bentley won for the distinction of his writings in and about the theatre and their continuing relevance today. His name was selected after consultation among IATC’s several thousand national and individual members in about 50 countries worldwide.
What is the Thalia Prize?
Presented at the biennial congresses of the association, the prize takes the form of a cane with a silver top, representing Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy. It has been specially commissioned from the distinguished Romanian stage and artist-designer Dragos Buhagiar.
The making of the statuette was made possible by the generous sponsorship of the Craiova William Shakespeare Foundation chaired by Mr. Emil Boroghina, and with the assistance of the office of IATC’s Romanian section.
Who is Eric Bentley?
Born in 1916, Eric Russell Bentley is one of the twentieth century’s most influential men of the theatre. As critic, translator, editor, playwright, professor, mentor, director, lyric writer, singer, pianist and performer, the British-born Bentley became an American citizen in 1948 and has been a dominant figure for more than six decades.
Educated at Oxford and Yale and later holding distinguished professorships at ColumbiaUniversity, the State University of New York atBuffalo, and the University of Maryland, Mr. Bentley first gained public recognition in the 1940s for his translations into English of the plays of Bertolt Brecht. Between 1952 and 1956, he worked as theatre critic for the American magazine The New Republic and his reviews—still in print today in his volume, What Is Theatre?, 1st ed. 1956)—became standard reading. During the same period, his volume In Search of Theatre (also still in print) gave a classic account of mid-century European theatre. Through the 1950s, his writings and translations (including the major plays of Pirandello) helped to create what many would call the 20th century playwriting canon in English. His two multi-volume series, The Modern Theatre andThe Classic Theatre, brought serious attention in the English-speaking academic and theatre worlds to a number of other important European writers including Schnitzler, Sternheim, Wedekind, Gogol and Kleist.
From translations and adaptations, Mr. Bentley moved into original playwriting, producing a range of plays often connected to social and personal politics. These included The Kleist Variations, three plays based on the writings of the German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist; Lord Alfred’s Lover, a play about Oscar Wilde’s trial; and later Are You Now or Have You Ever Been …?, a play about the McCarthy hearings in the United States. A play about Brecht and Bentley written by Charles Marowitz, entitled Silent Partners, was recently premiered in Washington D.C. One website devoted to his work lists some 40 translations, adaptations and original plays by Bentley.
Mr. Bentley has also written numerous books on theatre generally and the role of the dramatist specifically. For many years he has been an outspoken advocate for gay issues. Among his major scholarly volumes are The Playwright As Thinker (1946); The Life of the Drama (1964), a poetics of drama based on his Norton Lectures at Harvard; and Thinking About the Playwright (1987). Still most closely associated with the writings and ideas of Brecht, Mr. Bentley is the editor of the Grove Press edition of Brecht’s works and is the author of two books about Brecht, The Brecht Commentaries and The Brecht Memoir, later published together as Bentley on Brecht.
Mr. Bentley has performed in and recorded several albums of songbooks of popular music and theatre songs for the legendary Smithsonian Folkways Records labels. Notable albums, most of which had never been recorded in English before, include “Eric Bentley sings ‘The Queen of 42d Street’ and other songs by Jacques Prevert and Joseph Kosma” (http://www.folkways.si.edu/AlbumDetails.aspx?itemID=1460); “Bentley on Brecht: Songs and Poems of Bertolt Brecht” (http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=1009); “Bentley on Biermann: Songs and Poems of Wolf Biermann” (http://smithsonianfolkways.org/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=1007); and “Songs of Hanns Eisler” (http://www.amazon.com/Songs-of-Hanns-Eisler/dp/B000S5AZ6G). These albums are also available for purchase on iPods.
In 1990, Mr. Bentley was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During the 1997-98 theatre season, he became a member of the U.S. Theatre Hall of Fame.
Mr. Bentley, 93 years old this year, makes his home in New York City.
What is the Proust Questionnaire?
The Proust Questionnaire is a form of interview about one’s personality. Its name owes to the popularity of the the responses given by the French writer Marcel Proust, who answered the questionnaire several times in his life, always with enthusiasm.
Two sets of Proust’s answers to the questionnaire survive today: the first set (dated roughly in 1885 or 1886) consisted of Proust’s French answers to an English-language confessions album, and the second set (roughly 1891 or 1892) appears in a French album, Les confidences de salon (Drawing-room confessions).
What follows are Mr. Eric Bentley’s answers to a modified version of the original Proust Questionnaire.
RANDY GENER: As the first recipient of AICT-IATC’s Thalia Prize, you took home a walking stick. Has that walking stick been useful or practical—or do you simply put it on display?
ERIC BENTLEY: Practical, because I am 92 years old and need a walking stick.
If you were asked to nominate for the AICT-IATC Thalia Prize a critic living in any part of the world who has made a global impact, who would you suggest? Why?
None of us make a global impact, and Michael Jackson is dead.
Which of your original plays do you consider your finest work? Why?
I don’t consider any of them my finest work.
Which of the playwrights you’ve translated or adapted into English, from Brecht to Pirandello, do you consider your best work?
I am not sure. I am somewhat proud of my translation of Bertolt Brecht’s Edward II. Also my version ofThe First Lulu by Frank Wedekind.
You were twice married before coming out at the age of 53 in 1969. Have you ever regretted coming out?
Hey, this is an odd question to put before readers outside the U.S. Many of them have never heard of Coming Out. Didn’t I “come out” in 1942 when I told the U.S. Army all about my sex life?
You have called U.S. society a “plutocratic democracy.” What do you mean by that?
Just look up “plutocracy” in the dictionary.
When you were a young British subject, you joined the Independent Labor Party, a democratic socialist party at odds with Soviet Communism. Your book, The Kleist Variations, chronicles what subsequently happened to that young British socialist—not in a literal way but in an artistic sense. Has socialism failed? Is socialism still relevant today?
The Republicans call Obama a socialist. I wish they were right.
Claus Peymann, the 72-year-old director of the Berliner Ensemble, and Rolf Hochhuth, the playwright and co-owner of Theater am Schiffbauerdam, (where the Berliner Ensemble performs) recently had a public spat that went to court. Peymann’s plead to the Berlin court that Hochuth should be barred from rehearsing in the theatre for a production of the latter’s play. What would have Brecht done?
Brecht would not be in a position to do anything. The two gentlemen have to fight it out in court. I don’t know which of them has the better case in German law. Both are good men. As for Hochhuth, my personal memory is of having supported him with a book entitled The Storm over the Deputy (Grove Press, 1964). I also translated something of his for (yes) Playboy…
As a student of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, what lesson did you learn from either that you feel needs to be passed on to future writers and critics today?
They did not try to convert (or re-convert) me to Christianity. They were themselves and helped me to become MYself.
With the emergence of the Internet, the print publication is experiencing the greatest revolution since Gutenberg. Is the traditional practice of criticism dead?
What is traditional criticism?
You once suggested that in your ideal world, criticism should be reduced to just one-line statement in a publication? Well, that happens already online. It’s called Twitter. Your prophecy is now a reality.
My ideal world? No, Randy. My suggestion was meant for this imperfect but all too real world.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Marked by whom?
The quality you most like in a man?
Just quality itself. High equality as a human being.
The quality you most like in a woman?
What do you most value in your friends?
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
You have been a drama critic, translator, editor, playwright, professor, mentor, director and performer. What is your favorite occupation?
Singer. I am serious. I never enjoyed myself more than singing at the New York nightclubs Reno Sweeney and s.n.a.f.u.
Do you think that critical writing should be constructive or destructive?
I think criticism is sometimes constructive, sometimes otherwise.
If you were to criticize today’s theatre criticism scene (either in the U.S, in Britain or internationally), what would you say is wrong with how criticism is practiced today?
I don’t make pronouncements of this sort.
What would you say is right about how criticism is practiced today?
Which of the songs you’ve performed over the years do you consider your favorite?
No one song. I began as a singer of Bertolt Brecht/Hanns Eisler. I ended up singing new songs, especially those of Arnold Black.
Is critical theory dead? If not, should it die?
I don’t get it. Don’t understand the question.
What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?
I think the greatest of misfortunes has already happened in the 20th century—from there, there’s nowhere to go but up.
In what country would you like to live?
Who are your favorite writers?
Read my books to find out.
Who are your favorite directors?
Who are your favorite poets?
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Who are your favorite composers?
Mozart (and many also-rans)
Who are your heroes ?
My Unholy Trinity has been Jesus, Galileo, and Oscar Wilde.
Which living person do you most admire?
Among my personal friends, Jacques Barzun. Among the more distant, Nelson Mandela.
Which living person do you most despise?
I try not to despise anyone, and I usually succeed. Contempt is bad for the soul.
Which theatre critic do you most despise?
See the above.
Which theatre critic do you most admire?
After 1900: Stark Young.
What’s under your bed?
Do you mean who?
If you could see just one more play, what would it be?
What’s the secret to a long and rewarding life in the theatre?
Living a long time and keeping one’s distance from show business. In other words, making a living in some other business.
What’s the single most important thing it takes to be a good critic?
 RANDY GENER is a writer, editor, critic, playwright and visual artist in New York City. He recently debuted a photographic installation-art exhibition, In the Garden of One World, at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria and is the author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other Off-Broadway plays. He is the 2009 winner of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States given during the 2007-08 theatrical year[for his essays in American Theatremagazine, published by Theatre Communications Group, where is the senior editor.