Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2267
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 our times? In an essay included in the current collection, "What is Theatre?", Bentley defines a position in contrast to influential American mainstream critics like Walter Kerr, adjusted to "the age of conformity, the age of 'other-directed' yes-men, the age of democrateering salesmanship." As against them, the Nietzschean or Carlylean caller from the mountain heights holds up a normative mirror to the theatre. The norms to be applied are those of Reason—spiritual curiosity and a controlled audacity constituting an inner-directed exploration of the human condition. Such a search by the artist in the theatre—and by the critic-artist of In Search of Theatre—is basically subversive of existing norms and definitions of the human condition; it goes against the grain of "middle-class culture," especially in its imperturbable American form; yet from the point of view of the society as a whole—as against the bourgeois culture—it is salutary and indispensable for a reconstitution of its values.
This basic stance of Bentley's is clearly in the tradition of the great Enlightenment conception of a Civil Society, transcending particular interests, as the ultimate human authority and guarantor of values. This conception triumphed in the work of Diderot and Lessing in its eighteenth century heyday, but in British drama it is primarily associated with Shavian lucidity. Indeed, the Pantheon of Eric Bentley is full of Shavian homologs and analogs: GBS himself, to whom his disciple devoted a book-length study (a most valuable one); Ibsen and Nietzsche; Strindberg and Pirandello; the Janus-faced Brecht—dramatic and paradoxical thinkers all, re-valuators of values, playwrights as historical sages. Conversely, Bentley has not over-much use for the playwright as defeatist, who "simply sits and broods," rejecting the violent dialectics of hope and horror. (pp. 350-51)
From such perspective, Bentley is a major middle-class critic, a heroic figure fallen on bad times since the citoyen in him has to watch in disgust his own world—the world in the theatre, and the Theatrum Mundi—turning into a slick and vacuous bourgeois show and going down the drain. In a very British way, Bentley stands between the playwright-critics who ontologize individualistic despair into an eternal dead-end, such as Ibsen and Pirandello, and the playwright-critics who affirm the open horizons of a radically different humanity, such as Brecht and O'Casey. He can thus touch on both of these groups, which between them exhaust the significant drama of the last hundred years. Faced with a show-biz world inimical to the significant, i.e., to cognitive drama of this century, a world in which Hollywood is no less monstrous than Grendel and Broadway no less deadly than his dam, Bentley's perseverance is epic, worthy of a Beowulf. (p. 351)
It should, thus, be recognized that in this place, at this time ("We believe in freedom of discussion, but do we believe in discussion? In theatre, the phenomenon is almost unheard of …"), naming the Thinker Playwrights is a prerequisite for reviving them. Giving a true name to diverse figures, identifying their roles in the World Play according to the norms of a Reason adequate to a human Reality, is tantamount to planting the seeds of light and understanding in the outer darkness—and Bentley has done all that. Almost single-handed, he has given in this country an identity to the thinking European playwrights. Undoubtedly, others have contributed too; undoubtedly, he was not the first …; but Bentley blazed the trail for their permanent acculturation on this continent. The main dramatic function of the critic and namer whose first book was A Century of Hero Worship has thus turned out to be an American Culture Hero, himself the Johnny Appleseed of Thalia. It is not the hero's fault (but his tragedy) that he found himself in the asphalt and concrete jungles of Broadway and Greenwich Village: the seeds would mainly sprout in the groves of academe.
Yet the naming is a complex business with tragic overtones when the Namer himself is an Individualistic hero, oscillating between the pristine Enlightenment vision of a harmonious Civil Society and the wry recognition that, in our times, the Self does not harmonize with Society; and more, that their relationship is increasingly one of mutually induced breakdown. In such straits, there are two possible courses. One is to hold on to the idea of the Self, against the telling blows of Jarry, Strindberg, the Surrealists, Pirandello, the Absurdists, using the great individualistic tradition as a scathing yardstick, held up to later, petty individualistic epigones. The other remedy is to give up the individualistic Self with its historical opposition to society in favor of new kinds of human togetherness where personalities will be as different from the Ibsenian individual as modern atoms are from Newtonian ones: this alternative's name is Brecht, which explains the mingled fascination and irritation, the life-long affair Bentley has had with him. The main drawback of this alternative, very important for a critic in the Empiricist tradition, is its Utopian distance from present-day pragmatic reality: as Bentley has wittily named it (but then failed to do justice to his insight), it is "the science fiction of Bertolt Brecht." Bentley's critical course can be thought of as an oscillation between the poles of Ibsen and Brecht, misinterpreted in a pseudo-Marxist fashion into "the conflicting claims of the individual and the collective," but in his rich practical criticism standing for a conflict between the old and the new significant drama. (pp. 352-53)
What this all amounts to is the archetypal eclipse the Hero generally undergoes after his enthroning, as years and cares descend on his sway, and the sun in his blood grows smaller and colder. However, what is astounding about Bentley is not the touch of mortality that he felt, but the resilience of Reason in him which has made for his renaissance in the later Sixties. His Pro-and-Con antinomies—a favorite Bentleyan ploy—were always basically Kantian, but so is his ethical imperative. One of the chief misconceptions about Bentley—which one suspects he shares …—is the reputation he enjoys as a political or sociological critic. No doubt, as an internationalist, as one from the great wave of European intellectuals who found the American shore in the Nazi era and whose impact is yet to be evaluated, he is not only vastly more knowledgeable about politics and sociology than any other theatre critic of his generation, but he has also paved the way for the next generation in his understanding that we live in an age of politics, that politics are relevant to aesthetics. But he is not really interested in drama as a documentation of social ideologies in the Weber-Tawney-L. C. Knights line; nor in drama as the formulation of the world feeling of a social group, in the Plekhanov-Lukàcs-L. Goldmann line. Although he will occasionally use both of these approaches for effective remarks, Bentley seems to be primarily engaged in understanding a stage grouping as an analogy of human—i.e., ethical—relationships in the empirical world: he is committed to ethical Parables for the Theatre…. An impressionistic structuralist before the hardening of Structuralism into doctrine, a historical critic at a time when most Marxists had forgotten the dialectics of history, Bentley's attitude is primarily anthropological, applying ethical and aesthetical understanding to the situations of a barbaric stage, seeding them with flashes of insight. The Hero functions well only when his political commitment is basically ethical; no shrill rhetoric will then shake his firm base. The unethical politics of "cultural freedom," in which freedom forgot about culture, then gives way to the political ethics of the anti-Vietnam War commitment: "it is a matter of events outside literature." The Hero as Ethical Critic of the Social Man—this is Eric Bentley's basic great role as critic of the American stage. The resumption of this role marks the rejuvenation of the critic who was able to catch so well the young mood of this American historical moment, right down to its religion of ethics and naivete in practical politics. Only a genuine, and for all his surface vanities, a basically humble critic can at fifty learn so much from his students.
Bentley's sensitivity to a new historical moment is evident in the title [essay of The Theatre of Commitment]…. In many ways this essay demonstrates a return to his basic insights of the post-war decade: a hatred of Philistine "hostility to sensibility and imagination, not to mention thought," and a historical view in which America is "probably the only country in the world" where a young writer "can imagine he is all set to go ahead on the basis of personal experience alone." But a new Bentley is found re-examining propaganda in plays in light of the new urgencies, trying to formulate the implications of a nonviolent theatrical commitment. One can perhaps be dubious about a number of them. To give one example: is Hochhuth's top-heavy and often turgid Deputy really of central relevance to a committed theatre, in spite of the effective plea Bentley makes for it? What about the more oblique approach of, say, The Blacks or indeed of The Brig? For one committed to a theatre of protest, Bentley seems, at least in his latest book, little concerned with the new American dramaturgy (theatres like the Living, the Free Southern, the Campesino, the S. F. Mime Group, the Happenings, Brown, Gelber, Ward, the La Mama playwrights, etc.). Possibly, another book will remedy this, but it seems that Bentley's protest is still mainly directed at the classical liberal audience.
For all that, a new direction in his interests is unmistakably present. Only a new Bentley would have begun to rethink his basic position on Brecht. This is really a matter for future discussion, since Bentley is still in the midst of such public rethinking. It must at least be noted that he has come down clearly against the Esslinite myth of a Brecht split between the Poet and the Marxist. His argument is brief but I think unanswerable, because it proceeds heuristically, from inside Brecht's dramaturgy: it is illogical to assume that Brecht's plays are highly significant, and still expect them to function fully when their poetry is divorced from their political cognition. (In other words, since experience has shown that Brecht's work can function fully, the cleverness of Esslin's treatment appears basically misdirected—or, the more Esslin you take, the less Brecht you will get.) Bentley explicitly disclaims in the final essay of The Theatre of Commitment the earlier Bentley, who blended some of the most valuable insights about Brecht extant with willfully perverse misunderstandings, which stem thus not from critical insensibility but from ideological disagreement. Where the old Bentley thought the Brechtian theme of war jingoism "as dead as a doornail," the new one is adapting Brecht's Elephant Calf interlude for the Vietnam War situation. Where even the Bentley of 1965 still chided Brecht for suggesting that Mother Courage should have acted differently, instead of striving for prosperity through war, and ironically asked Brecht what he would have her do—"Establish Socialism in 17th-century Germany?"…—the new Bentley's shoe is on the other foot. In these two brief years it has become obvious that it would, for example, be pointless to ask the anti-Vietnam-War-committed Bentley what he is really trying to do ("Establish Socialism in 20th-century U.S.A.?"). There are certain human imperatives to be affirmed, whatever the ultimate chances and consequences. This is, of course, what Brecht knew in 1939, and what he wanted the audience of Mother Courage and Her Children to see as the alternative to her behavior. Thus new experience is opening up new vistas on Brecht's classical relevance for our age.
It should be, then, sufficiently clear that Bentley's latest book—as its preface acknowledges—is composed of essays radically different in stance and scope. Its main interest is in its faithful demonstration of the trajectory of Bentley's movement, showing the end of his first phase, his "Ibsenian" wintry interlude, and a new start. Even when one disagrees with Bentley, one senses that he has already moved, that he has himself probably thought of such objections. In respect to the direction of his movement and to the point where he seems to be, The Theatre of Commitment is a title which fits in more than one way: if taken as Theatrum Mundi, it will offer us also an image of its committed Namer. This title is, of course, more a program than a résumé of the book. But whatever happens to Bentley the critic, such programming proves, I think, the basic contention of this article: for only a Culture Hero can rise again, after his Winter eclipse, at the urgent call of a vital cause. (pp. 355-58)
Darko Suvin, "Eric Bentley: The Hero as Theatre Critic," in The Massachusetts Review (reprinted from The Massachusetts Review; © 1968 The Massachusetts Review, Inc.), Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1968, pp. 350-58.