04 December 2012

Eric Bentley – An Appreciation

by Kirk Woodward
[Last September, Kirk Woodward contributed a profile of George Bernard Shaw (published on ROT on 5 September).  One of the greatest fans of the Anglo-Irish playwright in this country is Eric Bentley, arguably one of our most prominent public intellectuals and theater authorities.  Kirk acknowledges that Bentley is one of his strongest influences, going back to his teen years, and in “Eric Bentley – An Appreciation,” Kirk presents a view of the American writer and critic that's tinged not a little with his personal attraction. 

[Kirk mentions in passing that he had a brief encounter with Bentley in a Manhattan theater bookstore sometime back before 2000.  I had my own brief meeting with Bentley at another theater bookstore in Manhattan.  Somehow I’d been invited to a 70th birthday party for Bentley hosted by Applause Books on the Upper West Side in 1986.  I’m ashamed to report that I have no recollection of what we said to one another on that occasion; obviously it wasn’t especially significant.  Of course, it was a social occasion, so maybe that’s an excuse.]
As I write this piece, Eric Bentley is living in New York City at the age of ninety-six. This means that at this moment, at least, we still have among us possibly the greatest writer about theater who has ever lived, and I include Aristotle in that estimate, particularly since we’re not certain that what we have of Aristotle’s comments on theater – and on drama, a distinction I will return to – isn’t some student’s lecture notes.

Being – let’s say it again for argument’s sake – the greatest theater critic in the world doesn’t necessarily make one well-known. I met Bentley once, in the Drama Book Shop at its former location on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I had seen a notice that said he would be signing books at the “DBS” one evening, so I went, bought a book, and took it over to him so he could autograph it.

He was standing by himself on one side of the room, gamely waiting for someone to come along. I remember him as looking rather small, and quite dapper. I told him about his influence on me (a story I will recount below), and he listened politely, said thank you, and signed my book. That was that. My major emotion was mortification that he wasn’t surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, but then New York can be a blasé town.

My experience with Bentley begins with my parents’ purchase, through the old Literary Book Club, of a book by Bentley called In Search Of Theatre that, perhaps wrongfully, I assume my parents never read. But I did. I devoured the book, which is made up of about seven years’ worth of essays written about theater all over the world, between 1947 and 1953. When I read the book I must have been in my early teens. My ideas about theater were heavily influenced by the book, and I still return to it often.

A few biographical details: Eric Bentley was born in Great Britain in 1916, studied at Oxford (under C. S. Lewis, professor of literature, popular theologian, and author of the Tales of Narnia stories) and then, moving to the United States, at Yale. He taught at Columbia University and reviewed drama for the New Republic for four years. He has forged a number of careers for himself in addition to teaching, criticism, and reviewing; he has also been a director, a translator, a playwright, an editor of a number of important collections of plays, and a noted musical artist, performing and recording the songs of Bertolt Brecht, whose works he more or less introduced to the United States.

His doctoral thesis for Yale was published as A Century Of Hero Worship (1944), a book I have never warmed to. The book that followed, The Playwright As Thinker, has been credited with helping make the study of playwriting a respectable academic field in the United States. The next year he published Bernard Shaw, which he said was the first book written about Shaw by someone who hadn’t met him. In Search Of Theatre followed in 1953; then The Dramatic Event and What Is Theatre?, his collections of New Republic reviews, in 1954 and 1956; his Brecht Commentaries in 1981; and Thinking About The Playwright in 1987.

Bentley’s best known book, however, is The Life Of The Drama (1964). Bentley has complained about the book’s notoriety, saying that it’s drawn attention away from the rest of his work. It is certainly his most teachable book, because it contains a systematic approach to drama, while much of his criticism is contained in collections of short pieces. With this exception, his books do not appear to be staples of the academic world. How then can I claim his superiority as a critic of theater? Much of the answer has to do with the natures of theater, of drama, and, of course, of academia.

As I’m using the word, theater is an immediate, present-moment activity, and each moment of a theatrical performance is unique. One might object that plays are rehearsed with the object of making them the same every time. However, that goal, if it is a goal (not all directors feel it is), of making every live performance the same, simply cannot be achieved, because for the experience to be exactly the same at each performance is impossible, whether for audience member or for actor. Moods, knowledge, relationships, all undergo modification each day, even each minute. As T. S. Eliot writes in The Four Quartets:

Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
(The Dry Salvages)

As a result, almost any actor will testify that, like snowflakes, no two nights’ performances in theater are ever exactly alike. (Even in film, directors demand numerous takes of scenes because each take, for whatever reason, is different.) We may ignore this fact because typically we may see only one performance of a play, making it seem that the one performance is the performance. Also, performances can be filmed, taped, or digitally recorded, freezing them in time. Live performances of the play itself, however, are not frozen; they move forward in time, picking up subtle or not-so-subtle alterations as they go.

On the other hand, as opposed to theater, drama, as I’m using the word, means, in practice, the reading and understanding of scripts and the theory that can be derived from them, and drama can be taught in schools. Theater, however, is never a fixed point. So in general Bentley, to the extent that he writes about theater rather than drama, is not and cannot be a systematic writer, a fact that makes it difficult for the academic world to take full advantage of his work, despite the years he spent as a teacher. It is much easier to gain academic recognition for subjects that aren’t moving targets.

However, I believe that without imposing an arbitrary structure on Bentley’s writing on theater, we can find teachable principles there, and as for drama, the success of The Life Of The Drama in the academic world is clear. I want to lay out an approach to Bentley’s writing on theater using primarily In Search Of Theatre, the book that introduced me to Bentley in the first place, and then look at the theory of drama presented in The Life Of The Drama. (Since the words “theater” and “drama” are often used interchangeably, I am grateful to Bentley that he titled his books in the way I’m using the words!)

The title In Search Of Theater illustrates in itself the difficulty of teaching theater: if you want to see it, you have to go out and look for it. In Search Of Theater is written, much of it, on the road, between 1947 and 1953. It begins with a series of reports on theater in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Dublin . . . the geographic range of the book is dazzling. Nor is that all. It also contains detailed looks at, among others, Strindberg, Ibsen, Pirandello, Yeats (his plays), O’Neill, and at a number of the greatest performers of the time, including, among others, Jean-Louis Barrault, Martha Graham, and Charlie Chaplin.

If only because of how much it describes, the book would be a treasure, but the quality of the description is just as important. When I first read the book I knew almost nothing about any of the people Bentley writes about, but subsequent experience has validated his observations time after time. But what I learned from the book, even more than a remarkable amount of reporting, was a first principle that I would cite in making a case for Bentley’s importance: the distinction, which I will put in the italics he loves, between the spurious and the genuine.

An example occurs in the essay “Trying To Like O’Neill” where Bentley describes his experience directing a production (in Switzerland) of The Iceman Cometh:

There seemed to [Bentley and his co-director] to be in The Iceman Cometh a genuine and a non-genuine element, the former, which we regarded as the core, being realistic, the latter, which we took as inessential excrescence, being expressionistic. . . . To get to the core of reality in The Iceman – which is also its artistic, its dramatic core – you have to cut away the rotten fruit of unreality around it. More plainly stated: you have to cut.

There are, Bentley suggests, genuine and spurious elements in the play, and the task – in this case, the director’s task – is to separate the one from the other.

One might make a case that there is no distinction between “genuine” and “spurious” in theater – that all theater is artifice. That might be so if theater were not, as Bentley continually insists, a part of life, not to mention a reflection of it.

Bentley is at base a moral writer. Like Shaw, he believes that theater matters, and that what it shows as it “holds the mirror up to nature” makes a difference. So there is truth and falsity, he insists, in theater. How can we tell which is which?

It is not enough, Bentley says, to be on “the right side” of issues about life. That too can be spurious, even if the impulse is itself moral. “The road to good theater,” Bentley writes, “is not paved with good intentions.” Looking at Broadway plays of the time, he writes:

A “serious play” is one with a message or at least with modern – preferably liberal – ideas in it. You can easily change any non-serious play into a serious play by changing the color of the heroine and inserting a speech or two against race hatred. The formula for serious drama is: non-serious drama plus a small dose of “modern ideas.”

Nor must we think that the spurious is necessarily harmless. A report from 1949 finds Bentley in Italy, only five years after the end of World War II and the apparent demise of the Fascist regime:

They have removed the statue of Mussolini from the Teatro delle Arti in Rome. Behind the statue, however, there were Fascist inscriptions inlaid in the wall. These, I am told, have not been removed; they are simply hidden, for the time being, by a curtain. . . . You don’t see anything as candid as a piece of Fascist propaganda in the Italian theater. The statue of the Duce is gone and the inscriptions are curtained off. It is the special aestheticism of the Fascist era that persists.

In some ways the distinction between the genuine and the spurious is almost the same as between the generalized and the specific. There is a general idea, for example, he says, that Pirandello’s subject matter is “illusion and reality.” That’s too general, Bentley says, and he goes on to demonstrate how Pirandello’s plays are rooted in the real suffering that people endure. “Real” – another possible opposition of words in Bentley’s work is realism and – what? Vagueness? Generality? Non-specificity?

I haven’t found a useful antonym in Bentley’s writing, but realism is central to his writing, not in the sense of a kind of theater that uses store-bought kitchen sinks and actual running water, but in the sense of a theater that is in touch with the truths of life. In his introduction Bentley quotes Shaw: “When an art becomes effete, it is realism that comes to the rescue.” Art, Bentley suggests, is always becoming effete; realism is always needed.

I would not have to search for an antonym to “real” if I were writing about Shaw; a word would be at hand, the ideal. Bentley, I have already mentioned, wrote a book about Shaw, and although hardly uncritical of Shaw (particularly Shaw’s later turn toward dictators and the use of force to bring about change), is significantly influenced by him.

Shaw’s antonym for “realism” is idealism. In “ideals” – I am putting this concept in my own terms – Shaw sees generalities that take the place of understanding the real – that word again – the real nature of the world. What sort of ideals? Love . . . patriotism . . . nationalism . . . fatherhood . . . motherhood . . . any high-sounding, well-meaning generality can conceal an ideal that takes the place of serious analysis and comprehension.

Bentley’s reviews abound in illustrations of this phenomenon. Here, for example, is his comment on the works of Jean Cocteau, the French playwright, filmmaker, and poet:

There is brilliant writing in Les Parents. There are lovely visual images in the more romantic films. What is disturbing is the awful vacuity of all these pieces, a deliberate but in no way justified meaninglessness. Or are we supposed to find significance in some of the nice things that are said to us? The film of The Eagle ends, if I recall, with a narrator’s voice assuring us that love is more powerful than politics. Tell it to Molotov [who was at that time the foreign minister of Stalin’s Soviet Union].

I could cite numerous passages in Bentley’s writing that make this same point. Just as interesting is what he sees as the remedy: no magic formula, no “silver bullet,” but the firm intention to get down to the real core of the theatrical moment, using what he describes as a “humble, yet deliberate and determined approach,” as in this passage on staging the plays of Shakespeare:

As for realism, I am not offering it as a panacea, but only a timely banner – modern, without quotation marks – under which Shakespeare might be more seriously interpreted. It appropriately suggests that one should start with the simplest, solidest rudiments . . . . [T]oday is a time to go back to the beginnings and realize that, in taking another look, we are seeing things for the first time. We must be content to rediscover the Shakespearean A B C. Let the director ask himself the naïvest questions of each scene. … And to the degree that he answers them in action, forthrightly, clearly, he will find himself a path-breaker.

And what will that director find as he breaks that new path? To discover Bentley’s answer, or part of it, we turn to the much more systematic The Life Of The Drama. Before we do, however, in fairness to Bentley I must acknowledge again that he is not happy that this book is all that many people know about him, and he’s right to feel that way.

For example, his work as a translator is well known, and so is his commentary on what the work of a translator is and how it is done (see in particular “How Translate A Play?” [sic] in Thinking About The Playwright). One comes away from his essays on the subject awed by the difficulty of the translator’s task, and energized by the examples.

Bentley’s career as a playwright, which he began fairly late in his life, is also substantial. Interestingly, the play for which he is best known, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been, is literally realistic, being based on the transcripts of hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s. I have no experience with his singing and recording career, but it has been widely acknowledged.

Still, The Life Of The Drama is an exceptional book, a landmark, and it deserves the attention it has received. The book is divided into two sections. The first looks at plays in terms of plot, character, dialogue, thought, and “enactment.” The second looks at genres of drama: melodrama, farce, tragedy, comedy, and what Bentley, at a loss for a better word (I don’t have one either), calls “tragi-comedy,” a category that includes plays by writers as different as Chekhov and Beckett, Goethe and Brecht.

One might suppose from an outline of the book that it presents reasoned descriptions and comments on the areas and genres listed. In a way this is true, but what the book really does is more surprising: it looks at the emotional, rather than just the intellectual, foundations on which drama is built. Bentley’s comment on the book, in an interview with the Voice of America, is significant:

My friends had said it would be an elaboration of Brecht’s ideas. I myself thought it might be Aristotle’s Poetics as rephrased by a Freudian – I was being “analyzed” in those years. What surprised me was that the philosophy of theatre in the book wasn’t either Brecht (my father) or Freud (my guru at the time) but Pirandello, one of a number of Europeans I had translated. He saw life as role playing.

Bentley’s friends, one may assume, thought he would write a restatement of Brecht’s ideas because Bentley is so closely identified with Brecht, whom he knew and with whom he directed, and whose plays and poems he translated. But Bentley is clear that Brecht has his faults and limitations, telling the Voice of America that what interested him was Brecht’s “savvy, his talent, his genius, anything but his theories.” Bentley is forthright about the elements in Brecht that he finds genuine, and those that he finds spurious.

With the reference to Freud, we come closer to the heart of the book, because in its pages Bentley looks at the “subterranean” life of the drama, the emotions and impulses and instincts that emerge, masked by the veneer of civilization, in the way we behave in our everyday activities. We put on a civilized face in our day to day life, but beneath that face – that role playing – boils an emotional brew that begins to be created in our first moments as infants, that develops particularly in our formative years, and that never goes away, and that in moments of greatest conflict emerges in behavior worthy to be captured in a play, sometimes as comedy or tragedy, and often, perhaps more appropriately, as melodrama or farce.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bentley reduces drama to psychology. For one thing, “psychology” is too timid a word for the forces that surge and roar in the subconscious. As the Bible says, our minds (“the wicked,” the verse says) are “like the sea when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no rest…” (Isaiah 57:20-21 edited). We see these forces at work in our dreams, and in a sense drama is a projection of those dreams onto the stage.

A good actor will look at a character role on several levels. There is the level of meaning, of interpretation and significance. There is the level of behavior, of our attempts to remain civilized in the face of all the obstacles that threaten to drag us down. And there is the subterranean level, the dream level, the level where great forces struggle for mastery within us.

Macbeth, for example, gives us the interpretive level of questions of fate and inevitability, of individual responsibility and of helplessness in the face of circumstances, including those of our own nature. It also gives us the behavioral level, as Macbeth and his wife move within their social circles in an ever-accelerating cycle of violence. And it gives us the subterranean level that surfaces in the presence of the Weird Sisters, and that provides the forces that make a man capable of murdering father figures, children, people who might conceivably oppose him . . . powerful forces indeed.

Bentley refuses to consider these emotional tsunamis as any less important to the drama than the civilized behavior that both embodies them and covers them up. This refusal makes it possible for him to see with remarkable clarity the importance of elements of drama that might at first glance seem random or trivial, as in this discussion of a “bit” in a Charlie Chaplin movie:

Suppose you saw one man force the head of another through the glass of a street lamp so that the latter will be gassed by the fumes. It sounds like some Nazi atrocity, and Plato would no doubt be indignant at the notion of re-enacting the incident in a work of art. Nevertheless it was re-enacted in Charlie Chaplin’s film Easy Street, and in all the years no one has protested. . . . The villain is a giant whose strength passes the limits of nature. He can bend lamp posts with his bare hands. Since the “little man’s” revenges have to be more than proportionate to the provocation . . . he can drop a cast-iron stove on the villain’s head and ram that head inside a street lamp with the gas turned on.

This vivid set of images – including the giant, a figure out of a dream world – shocks by its violence, and yet it only represents moments in a funny and popular film. But all three of the levels of living that we have described here – the interpretive, the social, and what I’m calling the subterranean – are at work in those moments. The strength of Bentley’s book is that he is able to make us understand that the more fearsome aspects of ourselves are not factors to be ignored, but to be embraced and understood, in any discussion of drama.

As a result, the book, in my experience at any rate, takes on extraordinary interest. No matter how many times I read it, I find passage after passage that is startling and nourishing. Not least of the great things in it is its continual common sense. For example, my recollection is that in his book Tragedy And Comedy, Walter Kerr disparages the popular idea that the difference between the two is that tragedy ends sadly and comedy ends happily. Bentley, on the contrary, writes:

The popular definition of a word, like the popular understanding of a subject, always irritates the expert, but is always of great interest in itself, and usually provides an ideal starting point for study. The popular understanding of tragedy and comedy is simply that one has an unhappy, the other a happy, ending: that one ends in death, the other in marriage, which will lead to birth: that, by consequence, the one is represented by a mourning and weeping mask, the other by a rejoicing and laughing mask. All these propositions are full of sap and substance.

Kerr accused Bentley of an over-intellectual approach to drama, but who is the intellectual here? It is Bentley who sees truth in the popular understanding of tragedy and comedy. He can do so because he understands that we all share the psychological makeup that turns some of us into neurotics, some into playwrights…

I could continue to write at length about Bentley’s work, but I hope what I have said gives a glimpse of how interesting a writer he is. He is startlingly intelligent and well-read; he irritates, provokes, stimulates. He can be belligerent or eccentric – the price, perhaps, that one pays for caring about art in a sometimes unfriendly climate. He is like some marvelous conversationalist, rattling on about one’s favorite subject, raising the status of a chatterbox to high art, providing startling insights on nearly every page.

Criticism, Bentley writes in Thinking About The Playwright, “is good talk committed to the printed page. Even a critic is a person. No: especially a critic is a person, and the voice of a person must be heard in all his work. Conversely, all criticism in which a human voice is not heard is bad criticism.” Words to live by!

I am so grateful for all that his writing has done for me, and for the theater, and for our understanding of the mystery and complexity of our lives, and of how they are reflected in art.

[I said above that I’d met Bentley briefly at a reception for his 70th birthday.  I don’t know for certain why my name was on the invitation list, but I had been in contact with Bentley earlier that year—we’d never met; it was correspondence only—and that might have accounted for my invitation.  In the mid-’80s, I edited two theatrical newsletters, one for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America (now  “. . . of the Americas”) and the other for the now-defunct American Directors Institute.  ADI organized panel discussions and conferences to promote a better understanding, both among the public and among theater professionals, of what stage directors and artistic directors actually do. (You might be surprised how little most people understand that.)  In November 1986, ADI held its second conference, Symposium II: The Director’s Vision, and had invited Eric Bentley to give the keynote address.  Bentley turned us down and in two letters to ADI’s artistic director, Geoffrey Shlaes, explained his attitude toward the profession of stage director.  In the Winter 1986 issue of Directors Notes, I ran excerpts from those letters, dated 20 June and 12 July, to share some of Bentley’s provocative thoughts with ADI’s members.  Among his statements, Bentley wrote: “I don’t believe in a Director’s Theatre. . . .  No director is needed: the function is properly performed by either the playwright (Molière, Brecht) or the leading actor (Booth, Irving)” and “A constant irritant is the Nutty Production.  You set a story in another time and another place—the more inappropriate, the better.  That is how to make your name as a brilliant young director.”  He also declared that “while in technology there is progress, in the arts there is not; otherwise Arthur Miller would be a better playwright than Aeschylus.”  (By the way, amidst his disparagement of directors, Bentley also called dramaturgs “Ph.D. gofers” and warned that he’d “remove [dramaturgs] one day before removing [directors].”)]


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