Robert Benchley Introduction

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Robert Benchley 1889-1945

American humorist, essayist, critic, actor, and screenwriter.

One of the most popular American humorists of the early twentieth century, Benchley is best remembered for his essays and film monologues depicting a slightly befuddled average man struggling to cope with the complexities of modern life. His self-described middle-class perspective shaped his commentary on such subjects as the peculiarities of business, nature, and human relationships. With Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, and others, Benchley was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of highly influential American writers of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Biographical Information

Benchley was born and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard University, where he quickly developed a reputation as a humorist. His drawings, satires, and parodies appeared regularly in the Harvard Lampoon, along with those of classmate Gluyas Williams, who would later illustrate Benchley's collections of humorous essays. During his college career, Benchley also enjoyed success as an actor, specializing in the amusing, rambling monologues which would later characterize his works as both an essayist and a screenwriter. Following two decades as a prolific writer, during which he worked as an editor for Life and a drama critic and essayist for the New Yorker, Benchley turned his attention to acting in short films based on his popular essays. An avid party-goer and a popular host, Benchley was also devoted to his family, from whom he drew both emotional support and inspiration for many of his essays. His son, Nathaniel, became a well-known journalist and novelist, and his grandson, Peter Benchley, is the author of the best-selling novel Jaws.

Major Works

During his prolific career Benchley produced more than six hundred essays for a variety of magazines, weekly drama reviews for the New Yorker, and scripts for numerous films—many of which he also acted in. Benchley's first book, Of All Thingsl (1921), is a collection of his popular essays originally published in Vanity Fair, the New York Tribune, Collier's, Life, and Motor Print. Subsequent volumes were patterned after this model, comprised of a cross-section of comic essays, literary parodies, and sharp commentaries on life according to Benchley. In 1928, Twentieth Century-Fox released the film version of "The Treasurer's Report," starring Benchley. During the next decade, Benchley divided his time between writing and acting, winning an Academy Award in 1935 for the MGM short film "How to Sleep." Benchley wrote his final drama review for the New Yorker in 1940, and during the next five years his work centered on his film monologues. Several collections of essays appeared after he announced his official retirement as a writer, including the posthumously published Benchley-Or Elsel (1947) and Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949), which some critics believe contains some of Benchley's finest essays.

Critical Reception

Throughout his career Benchley enjoyed the approval of his peers and the public for his humorous, self-effacing approach to life in the early twentieth century. He was also highly regarded as a genial and tolerant drama critic whose observations were always well-considered. Commentators generally applaud Benchley's unique brand of humor, echoing James Thurber's assessment that the critics who underrate Benchley have overlooked "his distinguished contribution to the fine art of comic brevity."