- Celebrating Eric BentleyA Centennial Look Back at a 2004 Interview
As I write this, centennial celebrations are taking place around the globe honoring Eric Bentley, who remains very much a vibrant part of our intellectual and artistic theater world. Born in Bolton, England, on 14 September 1916, Bentley—critic, translator, poet, and playwright—has been a force in theater since the 1940s, when his name became linked to both Shaw and Bertolt Brecht. The appearance in 1947 of Bernard Shaw ushered in a major reassessment of the playwright. Indeed Shaw himself praised it as “by far the best critical description of my public activities that I have yet come across.”1 As a midcentury theater critic for the New Republic, Bentley commented on many examples of twentieth-century drama, from the enduring to the fleeting. Battling what he called the Broadway intelligentsia, he insisted on treating playwriting as an art, not just a craft, asserting that God is an artist, not an artisan. Critical books and essays flowed from his pen even as he turned his attention to his own playwriting.
Before writing Bernard Shaw, Bentley had included chapters on Shaw in A Century of Hero Worship (1944) and The Playwright as Thinker (1946). Both books were highly acclaimed and introduced the world to an incisive new thinker who set for himself the task of revealing the true modern drama to the world. Now, looking back, it seems inevitable that he would write a book totally devoted to Shaw, a book that influenced, directly or indirectly, all subsequent Shaw scholarship. Bentley began by defending Shaw against his friends, his foes, and at times his most potent enemy—himself. The reissue of the original edition, in 2002, without material added to later editions, seemed to signal Bentley’s interest in providing a second volume, [End Page 194] one that would explore his changing view of Shaw—a tantalizing prospect he did not deny. However, that volume has not materialized.
In March 2004, at the inaugural meeting of the International Shaw Society in Sarasota, Florida, over two sessions, I interviewed Bentley on his changing views of Shaw and drama. Looking back after more than a decade, I am astonished at how cogent, penetrating, and timely Bentley’s views remain. Certainly, at age eighty-seven, he was as provocative, witty, and outspoken as ever. Just before a performance of The Millionairess, when asked whether there were any Shaw plays he thought were neglected or undervalued, he replied emphatically and succinctly: “I undervalue The Millionairess,” prompting an explosion of shocked laughter from the audience. He also surprised many by expressing admiration for Pygmalion.
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Then, from the vantage point of six decades’ thinking about Shaw, he suggested some of his current ideas. He underscored how necessary it is to understand the implications of Shaw’s thinking lest the great iconoclast be elevated to the undesirable—and un-Shavian—status of unassailable [End Page 195] dead icon. The interview was wide-ranging, encompassing not only Shaw, but also playwrights as varied as the very Victorian Henry Arthur Jones and those modern trailblazers Ibsen, Pirandello, and Brecht. There were numerous references to various critics and writers, from Thomas Carlyle and G. K. Chesterton to D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound. Along the way Bentley touched on topics literary, political, and personal, including the use of drama and literature and its influence. He commented on his own relationship with and debt to Shaw, confiding that he still reads Shaw with pleasure. But perhaps what I found most unexpected was his belief that Shaw the man is such a perplexing quarry—which I can vouch for from my own experience.2
Is it true that you are interested in adding a second volume to your book on Shaw?bentley:
I don’t know. I could be.peters:
And that would include previously published material?bentley:
This interview, possibly. And previous work.peters:
You began your career...