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 power and sustained force here, but at the same time he sets up heroes and in his devotion establishes the theatre ideals he believes in.
He is a man in search of truth—the truth, the soul, yes, of theatre art. For him a spade is a spade and never a silver toy trowel. And what matter if he prick himself with the thorn in reaching to pluck the rose. For there is such a truth, such a soul, he declares, and it is to be found in the honesty, the integrity of purpose and vision of the artist—which after all are the only real vindication for the artist's being….
Mr. Bentley avows himself a supporter of a movement—the theatre of reality as opposed to the theatre of artificiality. Like one of his leaders, Shaw, he feels that when an art is threatened with effeteness or over-decoration or over-clothing, it is realism that comes to the rescue.
In the first part of ["In Search of Theater"], Mr. Bentley merrily demolishes the intelligentsia theatre of Broadway, bringing down in his pillar-pulling some of the concreted and old statuary figures and setting up in their stead such diverse figures as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan. The second part recounts performances he witnessed in his seekings and what he felt about a number of modern actors and directors and their artistic philosophies and staging methods. Then thirdly he pays tribute to three outstanding theatre careers—Bernard Shaw in playwriting, Jacques Copeau in directing and our own Stark Young in criticism. His enthusiasm for the last named is a joy to me, for I have long felt that Young is our most poetic and profound critic, whether of the theatre or of letters.
The fourth section of Mr. Bentley's book is given over to a discussion of modern playwriting. And here he is at his very best. He discusses in fine style the work of a number of leading figures—the subtle and ironic Pirandello, the lyrical and poetic Yeats, the naked-souled and singing J. M. Synge, the over-foliaged and soaring O'Casey, the melancholic yet satiric Chekhov, and finally the supremely great moral realist Ibsen.
And in the fifth and last part of his "search" Mr. Bentley indulges himself in what he calls another privilege—that of "bandying generalizations and themes." And here that sturdy religious figure of Paul Claudel comes in for his share of praise. So does Bert Brecht and his epic theatre and also Barrault with his magical and poetic theatre.
If Mr. Bentley's book, for all its virtues, proves heavy going now and then because of length, I for one forgive him. For he is a zealous devotee indeed in the temple of his faith. And even when he is long-winded, he writes with fervor.
Paul Green, "A Quest for Honesty and Integrity," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1953, p. 6.