Eric (Russell) Bentley

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Ralph G. Allen

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[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 them, however perceptive, yet another life in print.

Do we need to read again about the shortcomings of "Tea and Sympathy," "Picnic," "Sabrina Fair" or "Porgy and Bess"? Mr. Bentley's cool appraisal of these plays served a timely purpose as a corrective to the exaggerated enthusiasm of the daily reviewers and the Broadway intellectuals. But the correction has been noted.

Also valuable was his shrewd ability to detect all that was intellectually spurious in the experimental writing of the fifties. But we have our own avante-garde clichés, and one wishes that Mr. Bentley would turn his attention to them instead of offering us a third look at the strengths and shortcomings of the Off-Broadway theater of more than ten years ago.

Ah, if it were only really a third look. This is the kind of book that is the product of scissors and paste, but alas there is no new paste. Mr. Bentley includes without comment his "Afterthoughts," those subsequent reflections which he added as an appendix to his reviews when he first assembled them for book publication in 1954 and 1956. Apparently, after more than a decade, he has nothing new to add. He has not even dignified the present collection with a proper preface. In lieu of an introductory essay, he prints two brief, lightweight articles that first appeared … in 1957.

The 12 new pieces in the book ("new" in … the sense of never previously reprinted) were published originally in such widely differing journals as Partisan Review and The Toronto Star. The articles vary in quality, but even the best of them, like the excellent article on Ionesco … could bear some revision. Ionesco has written a number of plays in the last 10 years, and his work has elicited some sophisticated criticism. If Mr. Bentley had elaborated on his shrewd early perceptions, he might have made a lasting contribution to our knowledge of this playwright. As it is, the value of his article is journalistic. He tells us the news about Ionesco, and nothing is more dated than yesterday's news. (pp. 4, 22)

Ralph G. Allen, "Eric Bentley's Most Recent Letter to the World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1969, pp. 4, 22.

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Darko Suvin


The Times Literary Supplement