Eric (Russell) Bentley

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The Times Literary Supplement

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765

Eric Bentley's books tend to go by robustly confident titles which somehow get drowned in the text. What Is Theatre? The book tells you a good many things but not that. Theatre of Commitment again does nothing to prepare you for the nervously sceptical essays within. And so again in the case of this new collection.

Theatre of War consists of a selection of substantial pieces written over the past 20 years, arranged under three headings so as to imply a governing pattern. Mr Bentley divides the material into "The Life of Modern Drama", "The Drama of Modern Life", and "Living Theatre in a Dying World". To adopt his own habit of self-questioning argument, is there anything more in this than semantic juggling?

Yes there is; but, the sense of mere word-play persists. Mr Bentley at his worst writes like a man with no convictions, no personality, and small feelings; who tries to remedy these deficiencies by spinning logical webs. There is always something else to be said; always yet another argument on the other side. Rarely a moment of repose, or the satisfying sensation of seeing a nail hit squarely on the head….

What Theatre of War exhibits is the struggle of a drama critic to enlarge his role; asserting his rights to tackle the political scene, great and small; and attempting to devise for himself a new professional position on this wider basis. Mr Bentley has always treated politics as a legitimate part of his craft, though his own position has often seemed queasily undefined. But towards the end of the 1960s his position hardened; partly in response to the 1968 student riots at Columbia where he had a long attachment as Brander Matthews Professor….

[Mr Bentley] believes in the word; he believes in the written dramatic tradition, and in the continued force of the classics as a radical force. But this is a hard position to sustain in America today, where the younger radicals have famously cast all the traditional cargo overboard: the word, the separation of spectators from spectacle, and indeed the whole process of argument by conjecture and refutation which hitherto has sustained the life of drama and criticism alike.

It therefore follows that while Mr Bentley still writes extensively and with continuing insight of his old gods, Shaw, Brecht and (to a lesser extent) Ibsen, he has very little to say in favour of current icons of the avant-garde. The Living Theatre is put down for trying to rape the public; Grotowski is put down for arrogance and an inferior prose style, before receiving guarded recognition on grounds of his conservatism; nude theatre, therapeutic theatre, Black theatre get short shrift. All for excellent, closely argued reasons. The complaint that recurs most insistently is that the offender has abandoned dialectical thought. Dialectics is a holy word with Mr Bentley; it offers a cast-iron, and indeed revolutionary, pretext for never making up your mind about anything. One is left, in reading the later sections of the book, to view Mr Bentley's attitude as the instinctive revulsion of a sceptical private individual confronting groups who have achieved a sense of common purpose.

All this is merely to suggest that he writes like a man in a tight spot. It does not invalidate the ingenuity and wealth of knowledge with which he seeks to escape it. The book contains some of the most thoughtful writing on Pirandello yet to appear on either side of the Atlantic, in which he reconstructs the fragmented dramas underlying Right You Are and Six Characters in Search of an Author and shows how...

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and why Pirandello smashed them up and reconstituted them within his enlarged theatrical structures. From a psychological, as well as a theatrical point of view, he makes out a strong case for an apostolic succession from Ibsen to Shaw and Brecht, incidentally following up the intricate parallels betweenMajor Barbara and St Joan of the Stockyards so as to illuminate the authors' fundamental political divergence….

An activist in the academic context, and an academic among the radicals, Mr Bentley—to use one of his most overworked words—is a paradox. A familiar liberal paradox, perhaps. But at least for lovers of the drama it is a good thing that he is still at it; and his dramatic criticism would not be what it is without his thoughts on the politics of Columbia University and Robert Lowell's relationship with the White House, and even the DMZ.

"Liberal Paradoxes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3716, May 25, 1973, p. 588.


Ralph G. Allen