Eric (Russell) Bentley Essay - Critical Essays

Bentley, Eric (Russell)


Eric (Russell) Bentley 1916–

American critic, playwright, editor, translator, director, and actor.

Bentley is considered one of the most innovative critics of the modern theater. He was responsible for introducing Brecht and other European playwrights to America through his translations and stage adaptations of their plays. In his critical works, Bentley concentrates on the playwright and the dramatic text rather than on the production aspects of the play. This approach, however, has led Bentley's detractors to believe that he was attempting to compensate for his unwillingness to accept drama as a form of popular entertainment.

In The Playwright As Thinker, Bentley distinguished between "art" and "commodity" in the American theater. It is Bentley's premise that most producers are more attentive to box office receipts than to the artistic quality of a play and, as a result, the playwright is often neglected as a true artist. In Search of Theater is Bentley's evaluation of the state of postwar theater in American and Europe; The Life of the Drama is his comprehensive study of the development of dramatic form and is considered by many critics to be his finest work. His recent critical works are anthologies of reviews written during his years as drama critic for The New Republic and he has lately published a collection of three plays, The Kleist Variations.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Leonard Bacon

A young man has arrived. The reviewer shamelessly admits that he has been astonished, excited, charmed, and occasionally puzzled by this brilliant book [A Century of Hero-Worship]. He further confesses that the rather lacklustre title had led him to expect the sifted tailings of some academic mine. Certainly he was not prepared for thought like electricity in motion and wholly different from the static glow of St. Elmo's fire. Nor did he anticipate analysis and interpretation at once intelligently impartial and generously sympathetic.

Mr. Bentley has investigated with extreme thoroughness (his lightly worn learning is part of his book's genuine charm) the dangerous aspects of what looks like a safe idea…. The variations on the theme are numerous and the orchestrations which are incredibly diverse are studied (with remarkable penetration) in the careers of Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, Spengler, Stefan George, and D. H. Lawrence, each of them in his way dyed in the wool, or at least tinctured, with what Mr. Bentley calls Heroic Vitalism—that is, the affirmation of life and the heroic cult. The upshot of the investigation is that Heroic Vitalism is no place for a liberal, because it leads automatically to vapid estheticism or to fascism pure and simple.

Naturally, thinking as he does, Mr. Bentley is at pains to disclaim any intention of manufacturing a program in which his victims might concur, but he demonstrates...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Sidney Hook

[In A Century of Hero-Worship] Mr. Bentley analyzes the theme of historical and aesthetic hero-worship in the works of Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, Spengler, Stefan George, and Lawrence. He shows that they left an ambiguous cultural heritage to the world and explains why they could be instructive and inspiring to democrats and why, at the same time, the fascists could exploit them for their own ends. What unites all the heroic vitalists is a repudiation of the ideals of democracy because of the degrading and vulgar democratic practices in existing culture, a refusal to go back to the past in search of an archaic system of values, and a fervent hope for a tomorrow in which new forms of excellence in art and life would be achieved by an élite.

At the end of the book Mr. Bentley offers a positive philosophy of heroic vitalism, seemingly pruned of all reactionary elements, to serve as a leaven for modern democracy and socialism.

Mr. Bentley's treatment of his material is impressive in a number of ways. He does not spare his subjects—indeed, his exposure of their personal failings and his criticism of their irrational doctrines are merciless. None the less, the authenticity of their vision comes through. This is particularly true for Nietzsche, and in lesser measure for Carlyle, one of the most overrated figures of the nineteenth century. Not one of the men discussed appears likable even to a small degree in Mr. Bentley's account. But all are pictured as having captured some significant truth that challenges us to deepen our own ideas about man and history. Second, Mr. Bentley avoids the confusion of substituting sociological explanations of why ideas are accepted for an explanation of why they are generated in the life career of the individual. In a characteristic sentence in his discussion of Wagner he drily observes, "Hitler and Mr. Viereck are wrong if they think ideology or musical taste is the foundation of fascism." The problem of the generation of ideas in philosophy or art is primarily psychological. In approaching it the author reveals a deftness and suggestiveness that make the extreme solutions, the violent posturings, the inconsistencies, and the self-flagellation of the heroic vitalists intelligible to us. Third, Mr. Bentley's judgments, although refreshingly personal, are based upon a wide reading that pays more attention to the substance than to the reputation of scholarship. He would have strengthened his interpretation of Carlyle if he had explored the great influence of Carlyle on the early Engels and Marx—some of Carlyle's language is in the "Manifesto,"—particularly Carlyle's critique of capitalist culture, and their reasons for rejecting his Tory socialism. Finally, Mr. Bentley's style is delightful—clear, vigorous, and unburdened by its rich load of erudition.

And yet Mr. Bentley's book is marred by a moral flaw that goes to its very heart. This is already apparent in his chapter on...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

Nicola Chiaromonte

Mr. Bentley has tried to deal with a very important subject [in "A Century of Hero-Worship"]: the undeniable split that took place toward the middle of the nineteenth century between humanitarian ideals and intellectual developments, so that when eventually the Western world found itself confronted with a resurgence of political despotism, the intellectuals and the artists seemed to be, if not on the side of despotism, at least indifferent to it….

Having been struck by the fact that Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, Spengler, D. H. Lawrence and Stefan George have in common an anti-democratic attitude, Mr. Bentley has tried to show that they have in common also a philosophy, or at least a Weltanschauung. And having thought that they have in common a Weltanschauung, he has tried to show that the essence of this world attitude is also the essence of the modern attack on democracy. Both steps were absolutely unwarranted, so that the series of intellectual biographies sketched by Mr. Bentley is completely blurred, and the justification that there might have been for his attempt utterly shattered. Having chosen to take at their face value such concepts as vitalism, historicism and heroism, Mr. Bentley ends in confusion and insecurity, a confusion and an insecurity that are apparent from the very beginning.

The title of the book would seem to suggest that from 1840, the date of Carlyle's lectures on heroes, until 1940, the date of Hitler's scalp dance at compiègne, the outstanding and most significant intellectual attitude in European culture has been the cult of the heroic in history…. We open the volume and in the Foreword we find that, "In this book, the word heroism does not mean just any sort of human goodness. It has reference to a philosophy of life that was intended by its champions to be to the centuries that lie ahead more than Catholicism ever was to the Middle Ages. The half-dozen minds examined in the following pages do not come together by accident." What they have in common is that "each has one foot in the democratic camp and one in the fascist camp." (p. 526)

The trouble with Mr. Bentley is that he is totally incapable of remaining faithful to a single one of the assumptions on which his effort is supposed to be based. As soon as the stream becomes perilous, he quickly changes horses. What he does with Heroic Vitalism, his...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

Stark Young

Within so notable a range of subjects The Playwright as Thinker manages to say a surprising lot, and amid so much knowledge, scope and even prophecy, to omit vast quantities of nonsense and vapor. The Foreword is a good start in itself, and the subjects presented thereafter are such as the two traditions that modern drama must cope with: tragedy in modern dress; tragedy in fancy dress; Wagner and Ibsen: a contrast; Bernard Shaw; varieties of comic experience; August Strindberg; from Strindberg to Jean-Paul Sartre; from Strindberg to Bertold Brecht; Broadway and the alternative; and then a series of notes on various authors and designers, critics and persons otherwise.

Mr. Bentley is both...

(The entire section is 1098 words.)

John Mason Brown

As no one (including Mr. Shaw) has managed to do before him, Mr. Bentley has succeeded [in "Bernard Shaw"] in collecting all the various Shaws and pulling them together into a single character. Perhaps he has oversimplified. Perhaps he has been too arbitrary in denying Mr. Shaw most of his seeming inconsistencies and pointing out what has always been radiantly consistent about his rebel's work. Even so, all of us (including Mr. Shaw) stand in Mr. Bentley's debt. (p. 22)

Mr. Bentley's volume is a serious critical study. Indeed, it is so unflaggingly cerebral that it drove a colleague of mine, a most knowing but human fellow, to confess that it gave him "the willies." But, though Shavian in the...

(The entire section is 695 words.)

Paul Green

Eric Bentley is one of the most penetrating and dogmatic critics writing on drama and the theatre today. And by dogmatic I mean no derogation at all. For he knows. He has been there. He has seen and felt. He has experienced the theatre. For this reader he has a right to be dogmatic, such is his authority.

Those who have read his former magazine articles and books, especially "The Playwright as Thinker," will remember with what gusto and flailing he tore into many of the idols we had shied around so long and called attention to what he felt were their weaknesses and hollow drummings, their patent-leathered pretensions or their brogan-shodden feet of clay. He carries on his idol-breaking with more...

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John Gassner

It has been no secret for nearly two decades that Eric Bentley is one of America's most incisive writers on the theater. His engagement to the theater, moreover, has been practical as well as critical, passionate as well as judicial. There is hardly an advance in modern drama that he has not illuminated and promoted, hardly a fault that he has not detected and exposed. It follows that no one is better qualified to take the broadest possible view of the drama in our times; no one is more entitled to assume the roles of philosopher, esthetician and historian in addition to that of critic. The result is a work of sagacious maturity, and the publisher's blurb is entirely correct in referring to ["The Life of the Drama"]...

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Gerald Weales

I cannot say when I have been more provoked by a book than I was by The Life of the Drama. In both senses—I found it provoking and provocative, but more often the former. I can best indicate the ambivalence I feel toward the book by citing the conflicting reactions I had to it. Reading it was a chore. I found myself struggling through page after page, reading from a sense of duty only, and then coming suddenly on a section which caught my attention, absorbed me, made me think (for a moment) that this was the book I had hoped it would be. Similarly, I found myself convinced that the book would never be useful to me—that what it had to say was either too familiar or too quirky—and then I would hear...

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Darko Suvin

The latest book by Eric Bentley, The Theatre of Commitment, a collection of his essays on drama and theatre covering the period from 1956 to 1966, provides a convenient occasion for some thoughts on Bentley's work in recent years. Such an assessment will not do justice to what Bentley wrote before 1956, nor will it touch on a very interesting venture of his into theatre theory, The Life of the Drama (1964). However, the trajectory of a major critic during a dozen years is not only fascinating on its own but also representative of his major preoccupations and attitudes. With every caution in mind, one can try to tease them out of this one book.

What stance is appropriate to a critic of...

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Ralph G. Allen

[Followers] of Mr. Bentley's career will have guessed already from the somewhat ponderous title of his new volume ["What Is Theatre?"] that they are familiar with most of what it contains. Of the 104 journalistic articles which comprise its contents, 93 have appeared between hard covers before. All but 2 of the 93 are reprinted for the second time from the New Republic.

Mr. Bentley was, of course, a very good journalist, and his occasional pieces are shrewd and incisive. They have lost on their third or fourth reading none of their pungency and wit. But they are occasional pieces, and after more than ten years, few of the occasions seem important enough to warrant giving Mr. Bentley's impressions of...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Eric Bentley's books tend to go by robustly confident titles which somehow get drowned in the text. What Is Theatre? The book tells you a good many things but not that. Theatre of Commitment again does nothing to prepare you for the nervously sceptical essays within. And so again in the case of this new collection.

Theatre of War consists of a selection of substantial pieces written over the past 20 years, arranged under three headings so as to imply a governing pattern. Mr Bentley divides the material into "The Life of Modern Drama", "The Drama of Modern Life", and "Living Theatre in a Dying World". To adopt his own habit of self-questioning argument, is there anything more in...

(The entire section is 765 words.)