Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1195
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"] as a major achievement.
Mr. Bentley actually endeavors to carry out the intention described in his title; he discourses on the "life" of the drama, and "life" is notoriously complex and protean. Mr. Bentley knows this well enough, and therefore follows two necessary procedures which give his book its character and shape. He devotes nearly 200 pages to "Aspects of a Play" and almost as many pages to "Different Kinds of Plays." Surely a common enough outline, the reader will say, although he should be grateful at the same time for the simple organization that makes the book a useful introduction to both the general subject of drama and the specialized one of play writing. But if Mr. Bentley's outline of the subject is common, the treatment is uncommonly penetrative and absorbing, and that makes all the difference between his book and a mounting pile of mediocre textbooks.
Mr. Bentley's treatment of the subject is pragmatic without being opportunistic; instead of dogmatically imposing principles upon the drama, he derives them from human nature and the nature of the dramatic medium. His tolerance (and this is the most tolerant book this still youthful, if already seasoned, author has written thus far) comes not from an uncertain position but out of decent regard for mankind and dramatic art. If his psychological points can be challenged—whose cannot be?—he is nevertheless thoroughly stimulating whenever he endeavors to relate art to life.
And if his writing becomes difficult at times, because somewhat abstruse, it deserves our patience. Mr. Bentley has refrained from sacrificing a complex idea to a glossy generalization; he has chosen to be what he has always been at his best—a felicitous, rather than facile, writer. Refraining from partisan zeal and popularizing ardor, the author of "The Life of the Drama" has written a book that may prove to have lasting value.
Its sole limitation, a defect of its merit as a psychological and esthetic inquiry, appears to be an insufficiency of social inquiry—a perilous endeavor, admittedly, because apt to produce the doctrinaire or the flaccid judgment. (p. 6)
Not the least noteworthy feature of "The Life of the Drama" is a "conservatism" of viewpoint one would not have expected earlier from its author. It shows itself in the very first chapter when, in agreement with Aristotle, Mr. Bentley gives primacy to the element of plot, and when he elaborates on Aristotle's dictum that plot is the "imitation of an action." He goes further and, in relating drama to both waking and dreaming life, stresses the "violence" of drama. The great dramatists, who seldom forget the animal part of human nature, all manifest overt addiction, our addiction as well as theirs, to gross effect. As Mr. Bentley puts it, "The flowers of dramatic art have their roots in crude action."
Taking this idea for his fulcrum, he is prepared to validate a substantial use of suspense and astonishment in the drama and the free use of incidents and events, quite in disagreement with those who would like to displace plot with "atmosphere." This view also inclines him in the second part of his book to be much more hospitable to melodrama and farce than has been customary in literary circles.
Mr. Bentley is, nevertheless, quick enough to disabuse the simplistic conservatives of show business. He does not close his first chapter without a warning that a plot is not a play and that Aristotle's saying that "all men by nature wish to know" involves a great deal more than the wish to find out how a suspenseful situation is going to come out. And if Mr. Bentley takes a conservative stand on the important matter of characterization, he does not defend the use of character types for their own sake, but rather for the sake of the drama as a whole. Rejecting the modern notion that character types are necessarily to be deplored, he observes how much of the world's drama, especially comedy, depends upon them.
"Type," moreover, can change into "archetype," helping to further the universality of drama; and still more significantly, with Iago serving as a good example, a character, aside from embodying an attitude, is a "force" or "human energy" in the play. Mr. Bentley sees, quite correctly, that there were always distinct limits to the great dramatists' interest in character, and we are politely requested to consider the possibility "that the essence of humanity is to be found in the quicksilver of relationship rather than in the dead weight of isolated being." (pp. 6, 18)
With respect to dialogue, Mr. Bentley also makes valuable discriminations and in giving each style of writing, the antipoetic as well as poetic, its just due, he effectively disposes of the mystique of indiscriminate poetry worship to which academic critics are prone. And Mr. Bentley, who frowns upon the modern separation of thought and feeling, is equally perceptive when he tries to mediate between emotionalism and intellectualism and concludes that "All art serves as a lifebelt to rescue us from the ocean of meaninglessness." His detailed notations on Ibsen, Shaw, Pirandello and Brecht are expectedly apt, and his comments on the genres of drama are as illuminating as they are free from prejudice against melodrama and farce, on which he lavishes some of his best thinking.
Finally, since the author's awareness of "theater" has often been as keen as his awareness of the drama, it is not surprising that one of his best chapters should be the one on "Enactment." He has revealing things to say about the arts of performance and stage production, one of the most important being his instructive statement that "the actor's fundamental contribution is not mimicry but vitality." An entire book could be devoted to this thought alone, even if, as Mr. Bentley would surely agree, the vitality needs to be made subservient to an idea or suitable intention.
In view of the presence of so much substance in a single volume, it is no exaggeration whatever to report that "The Life of the Drama" is one of the richest and most rewarding books on the subject written in our time even if—and perhaps precisely because—it is not encased in any sort of neat theory of drama. (p. 18)
John Gassner, "The Play Is Still the Thing," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 11, 1964, pp. 6, 18.
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