- In Memoriam:Eric Bentley (1916–2020)
Critic, scholar, director, translator, and playwright Eric Bentley, who died at the age of 103 on 2 August 2020, was one of the founders of modern drama as a field. His book-length studies The Playwright as Thinker (1946), The Life of the Drama (1964), and The Theory of the Modern Stage (1968), among many other monographs and articles, established serious European drama since the late nineteenth century as a philosophically coherent and artistically vigorous project. In this tribute, Bentley's close friend Gordon Rogoff, a pre-eminent critic and educator himself, recalls Bentley's extraordinary career and indelible influence.
Nobody said it better than Eric. By "it," I mean the right word or words for the occasion. He begins his appraisal of the mostly forgotten London critic, James Agate, by writing that "[m]uch of the great dramatic criticism–William Hazlitt's or Bernard Shaw's–was a rather incidental part of a great career in literature, but there are also instances of a whole lifetime principally and profitably dedicated to dramatic criticism." And here he's referring to Agate. But the most revealing lines, revealing about Eric's dramatic criticism as much as Agate's, follow swiftly: "Agate's work," he writes, "is a reminder that a dramatic critic should be above all–a writer. […] This means," he goes on, "that the critic must have two things: personality and an ax to grind."
And Eric, we all know, was plentifully supplied with both and, truth to tell, never with only one axe to grind. Perhaps the axes even outnumbered his astounding number of books, including anthologies, but even those were packed with axes. I've just taken a count, but it comes from a listing made before books that came later: still, it's worth considering this count not just as a statistic, but as a nearly unprecedented achievement, near enough in numbers to remind me, at least, of Balzac and Trollope. Here's the count: fourteen dramatic works, twelve critical works, thirteen anthologies, four as editor-translator, and eight record albums. Those numbers touch upon, though without conclusive information, Eric's sustained, repeated wish to be appreciated less as a critic, more as a playwright.
I don't have much time, but let's take that head on because many of the plays, and one of my favourites, The Kleist Variations, isn't on that list–many of them are ingeniously imagined and eminently actable, the latter not always [End Page 259] appreciated enough by academics centred on words rather than dramatic actions. Even so, the conversation I regret never having with Eric is the one in which I'd plainly suggest that there's no reason to place criticism at the bottom of a ladder, especially Eric's, which has been the shining light for so many who have followed him, even Stanley Kauffmann, born the same year as Eric, and signally for me and countless would-be critics in the Yale's Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism program from which I've recently retired. Richard Gilman used to insist that every student do everything except memorize Eric's great early book, The Playwright as Thinker. And maybe he meant that also.
Eric took me on as an informal student when our geographies were reversed, with me in England editing ENCORE Magazine, which I co-founded with a fellow student, Eric already an American citizen with boatloads of formal students in the schools and universities where he was climbing up the ranks. An early subscriber to ENCORE, Eric was alarmed when he heard we were running out of money and, within a few weeks, sent us news that he took a pledge from a fledgling playwright who happened to be wealthy and was enjoying box-office success with her new play on Broadway. This was Eric on a rescue mission, which he managed to take part in throughout his life wearing different hats. I'm not supposed to know this, but it was Eric who wrote the citation I received from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991. And it's the first line that...