Remembering Eric Bentley
Eric Bentley—one of the world’s great theatre thinkers—was the first person to be honored by the International Association of Theatre Critics with its Thalia Prize in 2006 for “Contributions to Theatre.” Bentley died this past September (2020), just short of his 104th birthday.
He worked as a reviewer as such for only four years, mostly for the prestigious New Republic magazine in the United States during the 1950s, but his reviews became essential reading for many who followed him into criticism as a profession, as did much of his subsequent theoretical writing, editing and translation work which profoundly influenced the study of theatre in the English-speaking world.
In the years he worked as a reviewer, his own early model was George Bernard Shaw: “We both wrote for a public that would never see the plays, mostly, for a weekly that circulated all over the country but whose readers were not lodged in the theatre capital.” With a strong European background, he was not particularly impressed with 1950s Broadway, and his witty but often scathing reviews regularly challenged New York’s commercial interests. As he later put it, he felt his role at that point was to uncover “what is covered, demystifying the whole thing. Not just having enthusiasms, creating the hits and the flops, but subjecting the gods of the marketplace to real criticism—measuring them against the best that has been written in theatre instead of just congratulating them on being better than the worst” (qtd. in Itzin 7).
Always known for his ability to identify and synthesize—sometimes with biting sarcasm—core concepts and intellectual weaknesses, he maintained a profound belief in the possibilities of theatre to impact the wider world, and the power of words never seemed to fail him. I certainly grew up as a theatre critic on those words.
For me, one of the most important things he ever said about criticism was that it had to be discussion before it could be anything else. He insisted that judgement—something neophyte critics tend to rush to—always faded in the wake of articulate discussion, a real conversation about the work being looked at. It was the Ideas behind any theatre piece which had to be identified and discussed before anything else. Discussion. As I understood the concept, if vanilla was the subject it was far more important to discuss “vanilla-ness” than to say one liked or disliked “vanilla” (Bentley, What Is Theatre 237)
One misses discussion about art these days when it has been mostly replaced by a tendency to over-romanticize pedigrees, taxonomies and theorization, especially in academic examinations. Does a work of art conform or not conform to a particular set of previously established ideas? Proving a work is not Aristotelian ultimately says little about what a work really is. Identifying a work as post-dramatic may help to slot something in somewhere, but it rarely enlightens artists or audiences about the essence or specialness of a particular theatrical creator or a theatrical work.
For too many, twenty-first-century criticism has marked an end to genuine theatrical discussion like Bentley’s. How does one then sum up the life of this witty and profound theatrical conversationalist whose voice has now gone silent? A man who influenced so many in the theatre for so long? At least we still have his private conversations found in the dozens of volumes he left us, important running conversations that he had for so many decades with both the theatre world and the greater world beyond it. At least we have that very real part of Bentley to hang onto.
I was honored to count Eric Bentley as a friend, perhaps not that close a friend as some but close enough that I always felt he would talk to me (mostly via telephone or in writing, but also in person when we could connect at his sumptuously messy 12-room apartment on New York’s Riverside Drive, or in other strange places) about issues of theatre or life. He did not much care whether those conversations started in theatre or in life; both would soon be included.
To understand Bentley, it is probably necessary to know something of the arc of his life. Born in 1916, in Bolton, an industrial town in northern England, his parents were working class people—father, Fred, a businessman; mother, Laura, a religious Baptist who really wanted him to be a missionary.
His own earliest career instincts tended another way—he wanted to be a professional pianist. He was both a talented and enthusiastic musician who loved an audience. Eventually, he earned a diploma from the Guildhall in London, but he looked around and realized that his musical talent would never be at the level he wanted. As he put it years later, he knew then he would “never be Rubinstein” (Bertin, “Bentley Uncensored” 39)
Determined to reach for the stars—to get a quality degree in something—he chose history and literature and started winning scholarships, first to a prestigious secondary school and then to Oxford, where he did his undergraduate work. At Oxford, he found a mentor—C.S. Lewis, best-known today as the author of the Narnia series. Lewis changed his idea of what literature was (Nesmith 5)
Though he also did some acting at Oxford, he was not much impressed with theatre art generally or his talent for it. Having studied German and German literature, he was drawn to Nietzsche and Kleist and Wagner, and he eventually accepted a major scholarship to Yale where he wound up doing a doctorate in comparative literature. His dissertation looked at the subject of hero worship in modern literature just as World War II was beginning to insinuate itself into his life. His dissertation became one of his first professionally published writings when he sold an excerpt from it to the Partisan Review in 1942 and then, in 1944, published it on its own as A Century of Hero Worship.
The role of drama—particularly its importance in German literature—sparked a new interest for him in theatre art generally. He spent much of his time during this period in short-term teaching appointments at schools like Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he began to read, as he said, all the drama books on the shelves and taking his first steps into directing. “Me educating Me in drama,” as he later told Michael Bertin (qtd. in “Bentley Uncensored” 39)
His reading was obviously deep and challenging. The result appeared in 1946 when he wrote an extraordinary book taking the ideas of Western dramatists more seriously than almost any other English writer had to that time. That book, The Playwright as Thinker, influenced more than one post-war generation to take dramatic literature seriously and many young critics and scholars—me among them—began to follow the roadmap that he was almost single-handedly providing.
That book was ultimately used for more than 40 years as a text for understanding and recognizing the intellectual aspects of modern theatre. Reissued in 1987 in a 40th anniversary edition, it made the study of drama “intellectually respectable,” as critic Jonathan Kalb put it in the New York Times in 2006. Yet at least one critic reviewing the original 1946 volume was not totally convinced despite Bentley’s rapidly growing academic reputation. Stark Young—one of the deans of American theatre criticism at that time—observed that though Bentley’s knowledge of dramatic literature was certainly impressive, he was showing much less of an understanding of theatre per se. That review by Young, Bentley later admitted, “turned my attention to theatre.”
After Black Mountain College, Bentley moved to California for a teaching position at UCLA. A student in one of his classes there told him about an expatriate German writer she knew living not far from the university, who was looking for someone to help him with translation of some of his poetry. It was 1945, and the writer turned out to be Bertolt Brecht, some 20 years Bentley’s senior and relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Bentley himself did not know much about Brecht other than the fact that he had written a few plays that had success in Germany before the war. He agreed to meet with Brecht, read some of his poems and was drawn into Brecht’s circle, ultimately agreeing to translate some of the poetry. Brecht then offered Bentley scenes to translate from the play of his—ultimately called in English—The Private Life of the Master Race which, when staged later in New York, was a disaster, with Brecht, an observer at rehearsals, shouting at the actors that they were doing it all wrong.
The contact, however, had been made and was real. Brecht continued through this period to ask Bentley for help with his English/American career. And Bentley became, as he himself put it, “a sort of one-man, self-appointed propaganda committee” for Brecht, though, at the time, the English-speaking world “couldn’t have been less impressed” (qtd. in Itzin 6)
Bentley wrote about his Brechtian years in the 1980s in a volume called The Brecht Memoir. The Irish critic Fintan O’Toole wrote in a review of that volume for the Irish Times that Bentley was clearly Brecht’s “first champion in America, and the man who did more than anyone else to establish Brecht’s reputation in the English-speaking world. But he was also, by his own account, always at a distance from Brecht’s politics, a leftish liberal drawn into Communist circles but never at home in them. . . . Bentley needed Brecht as father figure, a cause to champion. . . . Brecht needed Bentley, particularly in the days of the American exile. . . . Whether anything that could be genuinely called friendship ever passed between them is unclear.”
After the war, Bentley taught at the University of Minnesota, occasionally wrote for Harper’s magazine and completed his Playwright as Thinker and Bernard Shaw (1947).But the theatre bug was truly in him by this time, and he was anxious to explore the art itself. In 1948, he used a Guggenheim Fellowship and a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to do research on European dramatic trends but mostly to try and connect to theatres as an observer or—his real hope—as an assistant director. He remained in Europe for the next three years contributing occasional pieces to Theatre Arts and Kenyon Review but, more crucial to him, assisting and directing at the Abbey in Dublin, the Shauspielhaus in Zurich, the Teatro Universitario in Padua and at Max Reinhardt’s Leopoldskron in Salzburg. Among the plays he worked on during this period were e.e. cummings’ Him, with Kenneth Tynan in the leading role and the German premiere of The Iceman Cometh.
Utilizing his friendship with Brecht—now back in Germany—Bentley, in 1950, became Brecht’s assistant for his production of Mother Courage in Munich. With some impressive assistant directing credits now in his arsenal, he ultimately staged seven plays for the Young Ireland Theatre company and then helped to arrange the group’s subsequent tour to the U.S. Back home, he took on almost any directing job offered, and he wound up testing his new wings at a range of small theatres, including the Brattle in Boston and the Westport Country Playhouse, a venerable summer theatre located just outside of New York City.
Now feeling he needed more experience seeing American theatre, he applied for a freelance position as theatre critic for The New Republic, a left-leaning weekly political magazine, and was hired to replace their retiring critic, director Harold Clurman. Bentley remained as The New Republic’s critic for four years, the only period of his life when he regularly reviewed theatre.
Three collections of his published theatre reviews from this period would appear as books in the 1950s—In Search of Theatre (1953), The Dramatic Event (1954) and What Is Theatre (1956). Also published during this period were a series of modern and classical play anthologies aimed at students, and an important anthology of theories of the modern drama. Together, as Richard Gilman said in 1986, these volumes helped rescue Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Brecht, Pirandello and Shaw from irrelevancy and obscurity, and they brought new import to the ideas of Adolph Appia, Edward Gordon Craig, Andre Antoine and critics like Stark Young, Shaw and Max Beerbohm.
Looking back at Bentley’s years as a working critic, Gilman described him as “an explorer, a pioneer. . . . [American theatre’s] ‘tireless, learned policeman.’” Noting that “such people by definition don’t have accurate maps and precise instruments but must work their way through the terrain partly by touch, a feel for what is there, an openness to what may surprisingly be discovered, a sense of the relation of things happened upon to the previously known.” Gilman asked “has there ever been journalistic reviewing in America so supple, witty, deep and unaccommodating?” (25)
In an interview and assessment of Bentley’s long career in American Theatre magazine in 2016, critic and editor Rob Weinert-Kendt said that Bentley “brought a sharp, systematic mind and wide-ranging but exacting taste to a task few had taken up before him. . . . He fashioned outside the halls of academia . . . a long-viewed, fine-grained critical history of Western drama.” In short, Bentley was seen as a “contrarian” with a “sniffy temperament . . . an anti-Soviet socialist with roughly equal disdain for hardline Marxists and softheaded Western liberals. . . . [H]e quite literally made enemies right and left—but mostly left” (40).
Did Brecht’s ideas influence him as a critic or would-be director at this point in his life? Did he ever write with a particular theatre, an ideal theatre in mind? Bentley later admitted that he “hoped that the Brechtian theatre would be that. . . . But it wasn’t . . . it was political and it died with the death of a whole country, East Germany. So my interest in Brecht was connected with my idea of a better theatre, and not just for his plays. That looks pretty unreal now. . . . Socialism introduced the idea that the state might create this theatre. . . .” (qtd. in Weinert-Kendt 41).
In 1954 came the start of a long off-Broadway run of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, though it was not done using Bentley’s translation. Brecht’s reputation was finally solidifying in the American theatre as was Bentley’s. That same year, Bentley was appointed Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia, where he remained for the next 16 years, part of a Golden Age in the Humanities there, where he worked alongside professors such as Jacques Barzun, Maurice Valency and Lionel Trilling. Bentley also influenced generations of students to look at theatre and criticism seriously, including critic-scholar, Robert Brustein (he replaced Bentley as critic of The New Republic), and who said he was inspired to turn to criticism by Bentley.
It was at the height of student protests and the new demands for sexual freedoms in 1968 and 1969 that Bentley chose to leave the safe confines of a tenured position at Columbia. Actively supporting the students, Bentley—twice married and the father of two—decided at this time to also come out as gay, a decision he felt his Columbia colleagues would not have tolerated. As well, said that teaching and committee work was taking too much of his energy, which he had now decided to focus on playwriting (Kalb). But even during his Columbia years, Bentley was doing live theatre himself where and when he could—in 1956, he directed his own translation of Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan in New York, and, in 1964, he received a Ford Foundation grant to work as an artist-in-residence in Berlin.
His Columbia years had certainly been productive. In 1964, he published his most theoretical book, The Life of the Drama, based on his university lectures; in 1966, he won the prestigious George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism; in 1967, he published The Theatre of Commitment. But the living theatre kept drawing him back.
“I did not turn in old age to playwriting,” Bentley once told me. “What happened was that my translations turned into adaptations and my adaptations turned into original Bentley plays merely BASED ON some foreign original. My volume entitled The Kleist Variations consists of original Bentley plays inspired by Kleistian texts. . . . My critical and creative works are all of a piece. . . . [T]heatre criticism is a sideline for the best theatre critics such as Hazlitt, Shaw, Beerbohm . . . and certainly was and is a sideline for me . . .” (2006 e-mail).
His debut as a dramatist was also during his Columbia years with the play A Time to Die, in 1967. He subsequently wrote 15 plays on subjects ranging from Jesus to Galileo, to Oscar Wilde, to the McCarthy hearings. He even wrote a raucous rump-bumping rock oratorio for 10 musicians, called The Red White and Black: A Patriotic Demonstration as well as his Kleist scripts. For the record, his Kleist Variations included Wansee (written in 1977 and based on Kätchen von Heilbronn), The Fall of the Amazons (based on Penthesilea) and Concord (based on Kleist’s most popular play, The Broken Jug). These were later staged by Bentley when he began teaching at the State University in Buffalo.
His major stage success was with a piece that today would be called “verbatim theatre,” Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, based on the testimony of artists before HUAC—the House Unamerican Activities Committee. A commercial hit and the only play of his to reach a wide public, it was first done at the Yale Rep in 1972. It was later produced in Los Angeles and then in New York, with various stars (including Liza Minelli) reading texts by artists who had testified before HUAC such as playwright Lillian Hellman. Critic Clive Barnes praised it as “a rollercoaster of conscience.” Later done in London, it was also scheduled for a run in South Africa but was ultimately banned by the country’s apartheid government.
Most of his other plays languished in various drawers; when the occasional one did find a small stage, critics were not kind. “Once a critic of consequence,” said one, “Bentley has turned himself into a playwright of little note” (Bertin, “Bentley Uncensored” 39). Nevertheless, Bentley soldiered on as a playwright determined to have his plays recognized. As he said in his volume Theatre of Commitment—one of his own favorite volumes—“An artist cannot give up regarding himself as the conscience of mankind, even if mankind pays no attention” (153)
I first met Eric Bentley in 1970, when, as a young professor, I invited him to help launch York University’s new Performing Arts series with a series of lectures by scholars and artists titled “Radicalism in the Arts.” He arrived in Toronto, we spent a few hours chatting about the world, and a long and delightful friendship began. In his actual lecture (really a lecture-concert), Bentley wondered aloud about “the responsibility of any artist to his time.” He asked if “avant garde” really simply meant “something totally of moment.” In the end, he saw radicalism (for the sake of radicalism) in the same light as he saw propaganda—not necessarily as bad but also not usually leading to real art.
As he put it, “one can be great at either of these things without necessarily being good as an artist” (from my personal notes). When he completed the lecture and an hour’s worth of questions, he took a ten-minute break and then sat down at the harmonium to play Brecht-Eisler and Jacques Prevert music for another two hours. Some three and a half hours after he had begun, he finally stopped. The students would have stayed hours more.
Four years later, I asked Eric to become a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the new Canadian Theatre Review which I had just started at York. He declined to publicly join the Board but said he was available to discuss whatever I wanted. He wound up giving more advice to me than most of Board members. It was Eric who first suggested a special issue of CTR dealing with what was then his favorite topic—the politics of “Homosexuality and the Theatre.” For that 1976 issue, he wrote an essay called “The Homosexual Question,” in which he invoked both Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman and said, in conclusion, that the important thing for anyone was to be able to be gay without guilt: “May I now do,” he wrote,
not as you wish but as I wish. . . . Sex is not purposive and for procreation. It is self-justifying and for fun. Life is not purposive and for becoming vice president of the board. It is self-justifying and for fun. . . . Oscar Wilde . . . did indeed propose the most subversive of all subversions: to make love with a smile and no end in view. (23)
Around this same time, Eric had completed his own Oscar Wilde play, Lord Alfred’s Lover (one of his most effective creative efforts). He asked me to publish it in CTR, which I was pleased to do (vol.18,1978). Later, he asked me if I could recommend anyone to play its protagonist. I had recently seen a most affecting Canadian actor named Maxim Mazumdar in a show of his own creation called Oscar Remembered. Impressed, I recommended Mazumdar to Eric and, to my surprise, he contacted Maxim shortly thereafter and clearly something connected. Years later, parts of Maxim’s diaries were published (he sadly died in the interim), and they provided some insight into that experience.
From Maxim’s diary (as quoted in Bertin, 1976).
20 November 1979
Strange letter from a forbidding intellectual, Eric Bentley, awaits me. He has heard “such good things of (my) Bosie and enjoyed reading (my) play.” He asks if I’ve read his. Who hasn’t? It was published last year in the Canadian Theatre Review. It’s good. A bit overwritten; thank god for small flaws. I recall reading it with envy. The reach is huge….
Bentley wants to stage it in Buffalo next spring. Do I want to do it? He offers me Oscar….
What is Bentley like in person?
Spoke with Bentley. He sounds like an English don. Not quite; there’s also a hint of Marlene Dietrich and the Mafia in his voice. Brecht must have loved that voice—charming, reserved, seeming absent-minded yet shrewd. . . . I must play Oscar. Can I do it? . . .
8 January 1980
It’s set. . . . He’s taking me on in almost blind faith. . . . He says that Don Rubin, the editor of CTR, suggested me [for the role, with Rubin telling him I may be] “too young and beautiful.” I sent Bentley my reply: “Your information’s out of date. I am currently old and fat. . . .”
Bentley is the first intellectual giant I have encountered in the theatre. His taste is a provocative blend of the old-fashioned and the shockingly modern. . . . This Wilde play is . . . not even about the persecution of a famous homosexual. I think it’s ultimately about the stripping away of illusions. Eric said: “Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth.”
Opening night. My head is reeling. Working with Bentley is exhausting because you never stop learning, re-examining.
Later, Mazumdar toured in his own dramatic pastiche called Unholy Trinity, made up of material from three Bentley works—Lord Alfred, The Recantation of Galileo and From the Memoirs of Pontius Pilate. The show, said Michael Bertin, “reaffirmed Bentley’s stature as a dramatist whose exploration of the human dynamics of heresy and heroism is unparalleled in our time” (“Working with Bentley”). Eric later dedicated his play Round Two (a gay take on Schnitzler’s La Ronde) to Maxim.
It was around this time that he returned to writing about Brecht, feeling people were misunderstanding Brecht’s theatre and getting lost in what he felt were his interesting but misleading theories. “If you were a German artist,” Eric said to me in the late 1980s, “you simply had to have a theory about your art or people wouldn’t take you seriously. So, he created a theory which was fine, but it conflicted in many areas—the role of emotion for one—with his own plays and their realization even in his own productions. He never should have written the theory” (private conversation).
So, Eric wrote two books on Brecht—The Brecht Commentaries and The Brecht Memoir—both ultimately published together as Bentley on Brecht. He always was careful to note that he was not the first English translator of Brecht, just one of several, though he took real pride in being the editor of the multi-volume Grove Press edition of Brecht’s works. Many of the translations in the Grove volumes are Bentley’s.
Certainly, Eric himself had no problem with emotion in the theatre. In an interview in the New York Times years later, he was asked to recall his best and worst theatrical memories. He most remembered John Gielgud in Hamlet as a high school student. He said Gielgud whispered the “to be or not to be” speech, “so you had to lip read. He did it without his voice. He knew all the high school kids were out front waiting for it. I don’t know if he did that every time, but he sure did it for us” (Nesmith 5). His other great memory, he said, was seeing Mother Courage in the ruins of Berlin just after the war, directed by Brecht. “It wasn’t just the play but the fact that it was done in Berlin at that moment in time, for that audience. It was overpowering. For a dramatist who used to pretend that he didn’t want to arouse emotions, it was an overwhelming emotional occasion.” (Nesmith 5)
In 1987, he stayed with me and the family when he came to Toronto for seminars and debates on Brecht at the University of Toronto. Highlighting the week was an appearance at the city’s venerable Royal Alexandra Theatre the Berliner Ensemble with two productions: Threepenny Opera and Caucasian Chalk Circle. Despite being offered more sumptuous hotel accommodation, he opted to stay at my place because, it turned out, the Ensemble people would be at the same hotel, and he was in ongoing legal battles with them over translation rights (which the family did not acknowledge). He obviously did not want to run into Barbara Schall, Brecht’s daughter, or anyone else connected with the company. So, he stayed in my home, read and walked when he was not at the seminars, and spent a bit too much time for my own parental comfort discussing life with my 17-year-old son, Josh, whom he always remembered thereafter with perhaps just a bit too much fondness.
As Bentley approached the age of 65, he wrote to me apparently surprised (as most of us are) by advancing age and what it meant. “I seem to be faced with statutory retirement,” he said incredulously. He asked if York University could hire him or at least invite him up to teach “at a huge salary. I could put on one of my plays and give a seminar on whatever . . .” (1984 postcard).
He was at that time teaching two grad seminars in theatre theory at the University of Maryland but had turned both into performance courses heavily relying on scenes from his own plays. The University of Maryland was not amused by his turning theory into practice but said it would waive mandatory retirement for him if his seminars ceased “to focus to a significant degree on performance.” Negotiations went right down to the wire, but Eric held his ground, insisting that it was the only way he could teach the courses.
He wrote me thereafter, knowing that he was gone from Maryland, saying that though “the unemployed are receiving one more professional into their ranks is, perhaps, less important than what this story indicates about theater departments in our universities” (Interview 33)
When it was over for sure, he wrote, “I have just been forced to retire from Maryland on very short notice or none. I was all set to give classes next week when the axe fell. This means that I am much freer than I ever wanted to be to come up to York and direct one of the [Kleist] Variations or whatever. Would you pass this message in discreetly veiled language? Don’t let on that I’m pretty desperate” (22 June 1989 letter).
During this same period, I was myself negotiating a sabbatical and extended research time, meaning that there might actually be an opening in my department. I had been offered the possibility of editing UNESCO’s proposed six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. I was not sure I really wanted to be an encyclopedist and had been discussing my concerns with him. While telling me somewhat wryly that there could be value in my becoming “the greatest encyclopedist since Diderot” (Bentley, 6 August 1989 letter), he also cautioned me that it would take me away from any kind of real writing. Which it did.
I did speak to the powers that be several times about my leaving and Bentley possibly coming, but mine was a middling Associate’s salary, and he would need a very big Professor’s salary to make it work. To my surprise, York managed to find funds quite quickly to create an endowed Chair for him. There was a moment when it almost happened. Unfortunately, it all went for nought when Eric thought more seriously about it and finally turned it down. Obviously, he was not all that financially desperate. It turned out that the key was not so much money as it was getting his plays staged. He wanted to direct his plays—one a year—and we could not guarantee him that.
I recall that my last ploy to try and get him to agree to teach was to tell him that the Canadian academic year was actually five weeks shorter than the U.S. teaching year. Surely, I thought, that would be an attraction. But, again, I had guessed wrong. He told me dryly that he would not know what to do with the extra weeks in his life. And he repeated, “What I want is to direct my plays.”
I went on to do the encyclopedia project and from then—starting with a postcard urging me to review his adaptation of Lulu for CTR—he began addressing me as “Dear World Encyclopedia” (Bentley, 19 July 1993 letter). It was part of a series of more than 70 communications I would have with him (mostly postcards but occasionally longer letters and even a few e-mails) over the next 30 years. Most kept to that same theme: do my plays. His last letter to me, in 2007, asked if I could get the Canada’s Shaw Festival to do Lord Alfred’s Lover; he added, if they won’t, “how about German Requiem (with its topicality in the Semitic civil wars—Arabs vs. Israelis).
He never stopped asking me to find him producers for his plays. In April 1989, he wrote, “[I]nvite me to . . . Toronto to put on one of my Kleist numbers. I thought Buddies in Bad Times [Canada’s first gay theatre company] were doing Round 2 but it seems,” he said sadly, “the times are TOO bad.” He was referring, of course, to the AIDS epidemic.
That same year, the University of Maryland decided to try and get back on Eric’s good side by hosting a celebration of “The Theatre of Eric Bentley.” Eric was pleased at the recognition of all his work—not just his books—and I was invited to be a panelist along with a pretty impressive roster of American theatre folk, including Judith Malina, Erika Munk, Jim O’Quinn, John Fuegi, Albert Bermel and Phil Arnoult. It turned out to be a terrific weekend of debates, discussions and lectures built around scenes from his plays done by students.
Thereafter came a festschrift in his honor called “The Play and Its Critics,” edited by Prof. Michael Bertin, Eric’s more or less official biographer. It included effusive tributes by such distinguished theatre minds as Peter Brook, Robert Brustein, Jan Kott, Martin Esslin and Herbert Blau.
Brook wrote, “The theatre . . . has long been illuminated by the searching intelligence of Eric Bentley,” while scholar William Arrowsmith said Bentley’s life was itself a “missionary effort to reinvigorate the theory and practice of modern theatre and to enlarge its repertory. . . . [His] influence has been not only pervasive but it has radically transformed, for the better, not only the plays we perform but the idea that theater might, at its best, transform us and shape a worthier culture” (1989 letter).
When Bentley hit the august age of 90, Jonathan Kalb in the New York Times said of him that Bentley “has long been considered indispensable to anyone serious about theater. For his 90th birthday several weeks ago, hundreds gathered for celebrations at Columbia University. . . . A few weeks later, Mr. Bentley—little hampered by age, to all appearances—left for Seoul, South Korea to accept the International Association of Theatre Critics’ newly established Thalia Prize” (Kalb).
I was the one who had actually nominated Bentley for that award on behalf of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association (he was unanimously chosen as the winner by critics from around the world). This first Thalia Award for Lifetime Achievement from the IATC was an honor that Eric was pleased to accept because it included his creative as well as his critical work. He was given a Business Class ticket to Seoul and put up in a beautiful suite at the National University of the Arts, which hosted the event. I remember that on several occasions—to the great amusement of the generally awestruck critics duly gathered there in Seoul—Eric would sit down at the piano in the dining room during a meal and start to sing Brecht-Eisler songs and Jacques Prevert songs making most of us late for the various scheduled seminars. Most opted for lateness.
I was honored to have been asked to make the actual presentation speech for the Thalia Ceremony. What I said then still stands now as my own personal summation for Eric’s life and work. I offer excerpts from it here as part of my own tribute to him and as a note for the historical record. What I said was:
When I was a university student about a hundred years ago, it seemed to me that all the books in my courses were edited by the same person—Eric Bentley. There were plays by Pirandello (translated by Eric Bentley) and books of criticism about people like Shaw and O’Neill and Brecht (written by Eric Bentley) and books of theatre theory (back then we didn’t know they were theories and we still called them ideas) and they too were written and edited by Eric Bentley. Like most students, I had no idea who Eric Bentley was but I sure knew he was important.
“In one interview done some years back with the Voice of America and which subsequently appeared as an ‘Afterword’ to a collection of his plays, Eric Bentley is quoted as saying that he doubted ‘that anything is harder than being a really good critic.’
“‘To write theatre reviews,’ he said in his 1956 volume What Is Theatre, ‘is worse than walking on eggs. It is to walk on live bodies and make them bleed. . . . I sometimes feel that theatre reviewing is the art of making enemies and failing to influence people. . . . I am afraid I take criticism seriously’ (235–37).
“For Bentley, the German dramatist Gotthold Lessing was a version of what he called the ‘exemplary critic.’ Lessing’s power, he said, derived from his ability to conduct in his writing both an ongoing polemic as well as an extended enquiry into the theatre of his time. Lessing was simultaneously ‘fighting off what he firmly held to be wrong,’ said Bentley, while ‘constantly asking himself what he held to be right.’
“Our honoured guest today has lived those ideals both in his life and in his work as critic and reviewer (a function he only held for about four years), in his writings as scholar and playwright, in his enormous contributions as both translator and performer. No one has fought harder or more brilliantly than Eric Bentley against what he firmly held to be wrong and no one asked himself more constantly and more articulately—in print and in person—what it was to be right.
“He changed the way we all saw theatre and dramatic literature. Almost single-handedly—through his nearly 40 books, his collections, translations and essays—he created what we all think of today as the canon of modern drama.
“Eric Bentley once told me that he tried to live his life ‘at the crossroads where hope and critical intelligence meet.’ And the corner of Hope and Critical Intelligence has surely been his address and his gift to us all. Eric Bentley has made the theatre a more thoughtful place, a more welcoming place for the concerned and the committed, a more challenging place for playwrights, scholars and, yes, even critics.”
I must say I did not see Eric much after that. Age did start to wither him, though when we did occasionally speak, he was never staled in conversation. I do remember asking him, though, what he would most like to be remembered for when he passed on. He pointed me to something he told the New York Times back in 2000: “If people read me when I am dead, I would like to be remembered by one of my plays,” then adding in true critical style “though I don’t know which one” (Nesmith 5).
Bentley, Eric. E-mail to Don Rubin. 30 July 2006.
—. Interview with Judith Malina. Theater Week, 2–8 Oct. 1989, pp. 27–33.
—. Letter to Don Rubin. 17 Apr. 1989.
—. Letter to Don Rubin. 22 June 1989.
—. Letter to Don Rubin. 6 Aug. 1989.
—. Letter to Don Rubin. 19 July 1993.
—. Letter to Don Rubin. 4 Mar. 2007.
—. “Lord Alfred’s Lover.” Canadian Theatre Review, 18, 1978.
—. Postcard to Don Rubin. 6 Aug. 1984.
—. Theatre of Commitment. Atheneum, 1967.
—. “The Homosexual Question.” Canadian Theatre Review, vol. 12, 1976.
—. What Is Theatre. Beacon, 1956.
Bertin, Michael. “Bentley Uncensored.” American Theatre, Apr. 1988.
—. Letter to Don Rubin, 1989.
—. “Working with Bentley.” Dramatics.Mar. 1987.
Gilman, Richard. “Eric Bentley and Me.” American Theatre, October 1986.
Itzin, Catherine. “Portrait of the Critic as a Young Brechtian.” Theatre Quarterly, vol. 21, 1976,
Kalb, Jonathan. “A Critic Has Praise for a Playwright (Himself).” The New York Times, 12 Nov. 2006.
Nesmith, Nathaniel G. “A Memory Vault Rich in Lore of the Stage.” The New York Times, 17 Sept. 2000, Arts sec.
O’Toole, Finton. “Brecht and His Circle.” The Irish Times, 22 July 1982.
Weinert-Kendt, Rob. “The Thinker as Critic.” American Theatre, Feb. 2016.
*Don Rubin is the Managing Editor of Critical Stages and Professor Emeritus of Theatre at Toronto’s York University where he was Chair of both the undergraduate program and founding Director of the MA and PhD programs in Theatre Studies. He was a Board member of the International Association of Theatre Critics for many years and is a former President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.
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