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  • Eric BentleyOn Hero Worship and Degradation
  • N. Graham Nesmith (bio)

Eric Bentley, who was born in England, educated at Oxford, and received his Ph.D. in drama from Yale in 1941, is arguably the foremost Euro-American commentator on 20th-century drama. Among his many books are A Century of Hero Worship: A Study of the Idea of Heroism in Carlyle and Nietzche (1944); Bernard Shaw: A Reconsideration (1947); In Search of Theatre (1953); The Dramatic Event (1954); What Is Theatre? (1956); The Life of the Drama (1964); The Theatre of Commitment and Other Essays on Drama in Our Society (1967); Theatre of War: Comments on 32 Occasions (1972); and What Is Theatre? 1944-1967, a collection of his theatre criticism reissued in 2000 by Hill and Wang. Many of his books are required reading in theatre programs around the country. Bentley wrote theatre reviews and criticism for Harper's magazine in the 1940s, and was the drama critic for the New Republic from 1952 to 1956. He has been a professor of dramatic literature at various universities, including Columbia, where he was the Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature from 1954 to 1969. Bentley has been a guest director at theatres around the world; and his translations of plays by Brecht and Pirandello, among others, have been produced internationally. He also has written his own plays, including Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of a Show (1972), Lord Alfred's Lover (1980), and Round 2 (1990). In 1998 he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. Bentley, who turned 85 in 2001, has been a controversial figure in the literary world since the publication in 1946 of his book The Playwright As Thinker. I sat down with Mr. Bentley at his Manhattan apartment several times during June 2000 and again in July 2001. He offered these off-the-cuff responses:


As theatre critic for the New Republic, you were very displeased with other critics. You left your job and wrote an essay stating that all the other critics should leave with you. Do you still think critics are superfluous?


Yes. I don't think what we call theatre criticism, namely what the newspapers say the day after a show opens, is of any particular value. It does have some practical use. It is an entertainment guide. It tells the readers of the newspapers whether to see the show or not. In other words, if it is worth their money [End Page 93] or not. Since the money is considerable, the consumer welcomes such a guide. Even if it is not particularly intelligent, it's better than nothing.

Of course, what I have in mind in discussing a subject like this is "real criticism." "Real criticism" is the intelligent and illuminating discussion of works of art, in this case plays. In newspapers things happen, for the most part, too quickly. I think that the kind of criticism that I was permitted to do was more valid because it was for a weekly publication. I had more time to think about it. If you ask me what kind of contribution this type of criticism makes, I would say: not the kind the public expects. Not that these critics make the right judgments all the time. But they keep a civilized discussion going—a discussion with the public. I think of the critic, as a member of the public, only different from fellow members by being more of an expert on drama and all that goes along with theatrical production.

Like the other spectators, the critic uses his eyes and his ears. If he is a good critic, he has unusually good eyesight and hearing. He is an unusually well-informed and bright member of the audience—awake and not asleep. Thus, there is no such thing as a good drunken critic because a drunken critic is half asleep or in an altered state of consciousness.

There is a place for the civilized discussion of works—operas, symphonies, concerts, or plays. In other words, I have divided the critics into two: those that are simply entertainment guides, giving thumbs up or thumbs down on...


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