Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1535
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 myself in the classroom using a casual remark of Bentley's to explain a scene in The Children's Hour (a play, incidentally, that The Life of the Drama would scarcely acknowledge). There are a number of reasons for my disappointment in the book as a whole and for the uneasy doubt I have about that disappointment. For a book that is dealing with drama at its most basic, it lingers too long on abstract statements, turns too seldom to look at specific plays up close; when it does so, however, as in two pages on Measure for Measure, it can be very perceptive. For a book that is trying to define the elements of the drama and the genres, it circles endlessly, edging its way toward definitions, losing itself in contradictions. Each chapter is put together from a number of labeled sections, but the blocks do not build comfortably into a total structure; there are edges sticking out in all directions…. Near the end of the book, when the still annoying cloudiness has parted enough to indicate that there are definitions to be found, Bentley comes on apologetically: "I hope the foregoing generalizations are clear, but, if they are, they must also be too simple, too definite, and too schematic to correspond to all the facts." Such a statement (with which I am in sympathy) makes me wonder if what I take for imprecision is policy. For a book that is trying to free drama from the clichés that surround it, to clear away the philosophical debris that has piled up on it over the years, this one is heavily burdened with Bentley's psychology which is really a kind of existential metaphysic and is as narrow and stultifying as any idea is when it gets a stranglehold on the analysis of an art. For a book by Bentley, it is stylistically dull. He appears to have grown gentler over the years, which is to the good I suppose, but I had not realized until now how much his early style was formed by a kind of intelligent malice. Now that it is gone his sentences seem flat and humorless. Although each of these complaints has the hint of a compliment in it, in the end I came away from The Life of the Drama more sad than wise. A closer look at what the book is trying to do and how it does it may indicate why.
The Life of the Drama is really two different books, both of which have relevance to the title. Without denying that plays have meaning, Bentley indicates that he is more interested in the "life" of the drama, in those qualities which make a play exist, which draw and hold an audience, than he is in its paraphrasable meaning. That "life" can be discerned both in the elements that go to make up the drama and in the nature of the experience an audience has in response to the various kinds of drama; for that reason, the book is divided into two sections—one on the "aspects" of a play, the other on the various genres. The two never quite coalesce.
Bentley's first section is, in part, a response to a conventional way of talking about the theater, an insistence that a play is art and not life (or that its life is art). At about the time I was reading Bentley, I came across Brooks Atkinson's review of The Rose Tattoo, which he called a "segment of human life torn out of the universe and put on stage intact—observed and recorded by an artist and not forced into any pattern." Atkinson was writing against a newspaper deadline, of course, and probably meant no more than that he liked the play; but academic critics with time on their hands have fallen into the same trap. This is the kind of criticism Bentley is fighting in his insistence on the importance of plot, the usefulness of stock characters, the unreality of stage language, the informing idea that is both experience and meaning. It is not a lonely fight he is making since an increasingly large number of teachers and critics, in talking about plays, are concerned with what is happening to whom and how. In so far as his opening section makes some new converts and gives them the tools to work with, it is the most important part of the book. There are difficulties here, however. When he moves away from simple definitions (plot, dialogue), the slipperiness begins to creep in. In the chapter on character, for instance, he wants to make an important differentiation—that between the simple type and the individual character. In an attempt to avoid the usual conventional language that might say simply that Hamlet is more like a real person than Osric is, he defines the complicated character in terms of energy (but the stock characters have this, too), of existence on stage, of "human encounter," of a final mystery. The effect is confusing rather than enlightening. (pp. 144, 146, 148)
The shortcomings of the first section—the problems of definition—come on stronger in the second. Here Bentley sets out to define the genres in terms of the psychology of the author and his audience. Farce and melodrama, it turns out, are childish (but honorable) genres in which the author (and the audience) acts out fantasies of aggression and escape. Comedy and tragedy are adult genres in which the author (and the audience) faces up to life (best described in the words of Camus' Caligula: "Men die; and they are not happy") and is rewarded with a kind of transcendence. "Like tragedy, comedy can achieve a transcendence over misery, an aesthetic transcendence (of art over life), and a transcending emotion (awe in tragedy, joy in comedy)." Tragi-comedy, also an adult genre, is either tragedy with a happy ending (forgiveness winning out over revenge and/or justice: suddenly in this chapter revenge becomes central to life and drama) or comedy with a tragic ending (most of modern drama since Büchner) where the transcendence is … well, two or three things. [Further on in the chapter, Bentley states that] the tragedy is "transcended only by truth" and [later] by hope: "The purpose is survival: the easing of the burden of existence to the point that it may be borne." You can take your choice, or put the two together (to get the hope from the truth maybe, unless—as I would like to think—the truth is in the hope), or you can … discover that the aggressions in tragi-comedy "can neither be transcended nor brought to heel." Such contradictions abound. In the chapter on tragedy we learn that transcendence in Lear is "implied in the power to write the play" although later, in the chapter on comedy, the tragic transcendence comes from identification with the hero; it is in comedy, now, that we identify with the author. These contradictions come largely because Bentley is moving from one example to another and the individual plays and writers cannot be placed comfortably within a single definition. In Part Two, he becomes an example of the kind of critic—by generalizations made mad—which Part One is designed to refute.
I have become so suspicious of generalizations in recent years that when someone says, "Good morning," I am tempted to answer, "Be specific." Even so, it is impossible for me to read a book like Bentley's without wanting to quarrel with his underlying assumptions—even if the quarrel forces me to generalize…. All the chat about transcendence in Bentley's book seems to me an elaborate way of saying that art, which brings order out of disorder, is one of the pleasures of life, which is an elaborate way of refusing to say that the ugly truth is only half the truth about human existence. "Now when the affirmations are suspect, negations may be more honorable," Bentley says at one point. They also may be more cowardly and more conforming. Bentley's book bristles with fascinating ideas, but in its clarity (its underlying assumptions about truth) and in its lack of clarity (the definitional contradictions) it seems to me more likely to bring shadow than light to the contemplation of drama. (pp. 148, 150)
Gerald Weales, "What a Life!" in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1965 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 142, 144, 146, 148, 150, 152.∗