Eric (Russell) Bentley

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Stark Young

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Within so notable a range of subjects The Playwright as Thinker manages to say a surprising lot, and amid so much knowledge, scope and even prophecy, to omit vast quantities of nonsense and vapor. The Foreword is a good start in itself, and the subjects presented thereafter are such as the two traditions that modern drama must cope with: tragedy in modern dress; tragedy in fancy dress; Wagner and Ibsen: a contrast; Bernard Shaw; varieties of comic experience; August Strindberg; from Strindberg to Jean-Paul Sartre; from Strindberg to Bertold Brecht; Broadway and the alternative; and then a series of notes on various authors and designers, critics and persons otherwise.

Mr. Bentley is both younger than I am and more amiable, for he seems to have read books on the theatre that after the first page, or after catching sight of the author's name, I should never have read at all. I should, in fact, confess to more limitation than that, really; for I have read very few modern books on the theatre art or the drama per se; they seem to me mostly rubbish and jabbering, mere theory lasting for a season or so, only to vanish in confusion and mist. I should not, for instance, ever have done more than a page in a book by a distinguished professor in which he sets forth the diversities between the art of the theatre and the art of the films, the discussion being based on the theory that the stage must always be limited and insincere and that there is little possibility of its delving deeply into the recesses of the human spirit. That is the realm reserved for cinematic exploitation, and, as the film more and more explores this territory, does it not seem likely that theatre audiences will become weary of watching shows which, although professing to be "lifelike" actually are bound by the restrictions of the stage? The deduction from all this is that the theatre will be doomed if it further pursues naturalism.

This is all such non-basic rubbish and such professorial nonsense, making up a book to publish, that we might well wonder that Mr. Bentley notes it at all. But he devotes several pages to the refutation and does it very well. I cite all this at length because it illustrates how throughout the book we have references to arguments, theories and standpoints that nobody ever heard of who knows intelligent people, but that must have some sort of sociological presence, at least, or our author would not trouble to demolish them. At times I almost felt that Mr. Bentley was setting up a straw man only to knock him down; but then I remembered some of the nonsense I have heard from people hereabouts who ought to know better. I decided, therefore, that he had read and heard no little nonsense, and felt fresh and fit to refute it. (pp. 904, 906)

I can read only a handful of languages and those with difficulty for the most part, but according to my lights I consider that the best work Mr. Bentley has done in this volume is on Strindberg; what he says is admirable, searching, often quite brilliant, and is sorely needed in our approach to that dramatist…. Mr. Bentley does for all intents and purposes a right justice to Ibsen, taking him as easily the most important figure in modern drama, that is to say since the Renaissance. His words on Ibsen are fine and glowing, and seem to suggest the element of excitement that those who speak Norwegian tell us are constantly...

(This entire section contains 1098 words.)

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throughout Ibsen's images, plus words that are tense, lovely and so vivid as to turn into travesty the dry dust with which the Archer translations fill the actors' mouths. Mr. Bentley needs to emphasize more fully that the preachy, dull effect of Ibsen, the reputation for this among us, is largely due to the translation. Ibsen serves this volume to express, or exemplify, its main thesis, a right and good one, which is that whatever happens about decor, acting, the director, the whole theatre art in general, the play remains the thing—all hope for the theatre must forever rest in the drama that it acquires, the plays it evolves or discovers….

It is impossible to do justice to this ambitious book. People who know anything might make various notes from it; people who know nothing but are going to give a lecture could get hot thunder from it; people who never heard of the matter generally had better start lower down in the scale. This implies at least a certain Bentlian range. In a sense the bright shortcoming in the book is the author's lack of knowledge of the theatre. The real theatre—plays produced, lighted, set, directed. In this regard his opinion seems to me nil. I gather from the text that his presence at some theatre occasion would be worth little, though he might be good, taking the play as itself solely, on the future or the past for it. You can tell, from what he says about various plays, that he has never seen them produced, and that the acting values of various parts mean nothing to him, or little. Indeed there are many moments in great drama where the actor's voice would be the final test of the moment's power, but Mr. Bentley does not know that. (p. 906)

[The Playwright as Thinker] is an excellent book, to be read by people who want to read it. Its limitations are that the author does not always know the passionate depths about which he is talking. His estimates of Eugene O'Neill, for example, are not merely slight and superficial; they are really silly. They miss the essentially emotional, the gentle, passionate appeal of him at his best, the sense of inner pressure within his mood and stage power.

My last report on this volume—a really notable young volume in a minor way—is that it talks about art without ever being inside it. A real artist of the theatre would never feel that Mr. Bentley quite knew what he was talking about. The comments on Eugene O'Neill prove that: the deep feeling in his best scenes Mr. Bentley shows no knowledge of; he has no sense of passion's cost; he is glib and right where real artists lose their way. He is a busy student outside an art. (p. 907)

Stark Young, "Thinking Playwrights" (© 1946 The New Republic, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Stark Young), in The New Republic, Vol. 114, No. 25, June 24, 1946, pp. 904, 906-07.


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