Acceptance Speech for the
By Eric Bentley
[In October 2006, the eminent critic, translator, professor, performer
and playwright Eric Bentley, age 90, traveled to Seoul, South
Korea, to accept the International Association of Theatre Critics'
newly established Thalia Prize. The following is the text of his
Thank you. I couldn't be more pleased to
find my theater writings of interest to fellow writers and readers
beyond my usual public in the U.S. I am grateful too that it is
not just my theater reviews that are honored here but all my writings
for or about theater.
What is drama criticism? As usually understood,
it is the reviewing of plays as they are performed in the public
theaters. What is its function? Well, there are two distinct functions,
and two kinds of writers to watch. In New York anyway, the first
function is that of consumer guide. Theatergoing is expensive
and this kind of critic advises that a given show is worth your
money or not. "This show is worth a hundred-dollar admission
charge, that one is only worth five dollars . . . and so on.
I also think this type of review could
be quite short, like the one- or two-line summaries of films provided
in some newspapers. However, I am probably in a minority of one
on that. Newspapers want their drama critics taken more seriously,
as if they were experts to be envied their expertise, or even
prophets to be revered. And so for this, as for other reasons,
a certain falsity enters into newspaper criticism. It is hard
for it to be on the level, and it usually isn't. To make matters
worse, it adapts itself, often, to the hit-and-flop mentality
of commercial theater. To help a show succeed the poor critic
feels he has to exaggerate his enthusiasm. To force it to close
on Saturday night he has to think up the devastating one-liner.
It is true that such a one-liner can be truly witty. More ofteh,
though, it sounds forced and affected and, produced year after
year by the same critic, conveys only a sense of a critic's dyspepsia,
or even misanthropy.
Personally, I wouldn't mind if the newspaper
critics didn't exist. Let shows just open, and let the public
find out about them by word of mouth from those who attend first
or second nights. The modern theater is a huge industry which,
like other huge industries, has far too many unneeded middle-men.
I wouldn't mind if stage directors didn't exist, either. The 20th
century welcomed them but they have outstayed their welcome, and
are now a hideous imposition, especially in the opera house (which,
for my money, is also a drama house). A friend of mine who is
a director says plaintively, "Oh, but a play needs someone.
Like orchestral music it requires a conductor, if only to beat
time." Now I admit this had been believed as early as the
19th century. Not before that, however. In Mozart's day, no conductor
was needed: time can be beaten by the first violinist.
Let's simply agree that consumer guiding
is not proper drama criticism. What is? In the English language,
for a couple of centuries now, there has been critique of theater
at the level of the best literary criticism. I might cite essays
by Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt for evidence. As to regular coverage
of London theater, the late 19th century provides us with G.B.
Shaw's reviews; the early 20th century Max Beerbohm. From my boyhood
in England, I vividly recall lively and enlivening reviews by
James Agate and St. John Ervine. "But weren't those in a
newspaper?" you will interpose. Yes, but weekly newspapers,
I hasten to answer. And here I should try to be fair and add that
the leading newspapers of London and New York, as I have known
them since 1930, have often been much more than consumer suides.
There are distinguished names: Stark Young, George Jean Nathan,
Irving Wardle, Kenneth Tynan. And, if those are my elders, I might
name as my juniors Robert Brustein, Gordon Rogoff, Richard Gilman.
And here let me take note of a bizarre
fact. A young colleague, just the other day, asked me, "Hasn't
there been a terrible decline in dramatic criticism since the
great days of Bernard Shaw or even of Stark Young?" I replied:
If by great days, you mean that men like Shaw or Young ever presided
over the theater--dominated it in any way--you are mistaken. In
their time they were almost invisible. Their work is visible to
you because you have seen it, you have seen it as it is now collected
in their books. Today no doubt it plays a part in the evolution
of theater. It played no such part at the time it was first offered
to its newspaper or magazine public.
From this situation critics of a later
generation such as myself can draw conclusions. I worked for four
years as critic of a magazine, The New Republic. An awful
silence followed every one of my impertinences and provocations.
No one read me--at least that was my impression. Bernard Shaw
had quit drama criticism after four years. I followed his lead,
and then did not wait as long as he did to reprint my reviews
in a book. I am now referring to my book What is Theatre?
Everyone read that. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams wrote
me that if I didn't withdraw it from the bookstores, they would
sue me for criminal libel. My arrival in the bookstores was evidently
my arrival tout court. In the bookstores, as not in newspaper
or magazine, my arrows had reached their target. Thus, in giving
the first Thalia Prize to me, you are celebrating that odd man
out: the theater critic as book writer. And no book writer is
content in any single division of the writing profession. If a
critic doesn't also reveal himself to be a novelist or poet, it
is ten to one that he will now declare himself as a playwright.
For me that came in stages. First I translated plays from German,
Italian, Russian. Then I adapted plays and in my adaptations eventually
departed so far form the originals they themselves became original.
And, oh yes, Idirected plays, I sang the lyrics I wrote . . .
And on and on.
The person you have chosen as the first
winner of the Thalia Prize has a perhaps unusual relation to the
main topic of your concern: theater criticism. I have practiced
regular reviewing for only four of my ninety years. My interest
in that reviewing was perhaps primarily an interest in my own
education. The subtitle of What is Theatre? is "A
query in chronicle form." My reviews were just a chapter
in my whole life's work. In short, the critic is not the whole
man. I saw myself as a theater person, not theater critic, and
my more sacred pronouncements were saved for my plays. There I
came to grips with my larger problems and those of the world outside
To conclude, I should address a question
which some of you have already been asking me: if the purpose
of daily theater journalism is to guide the consumer toward or
away from a show, what is the purpose of the broader theater criticism
I respect and try to emulate? Opinions could legitimately differ
on this. Who knows how Bernard Shaw would answer it? Or Stark
Young? Or Ken Tynan?
As I just mentioned, I subtitled my book
of reviews What is Theatre? "a query in the form
of a chronicle." In my case, reviewing led first to my long
essay The Life of the Drama and thence to my essayistic
plays on big dramatic subjects like Christ, Galileo, and Oscar
Wilde. But if I had died before these last two stages were reached,
my theater reviews, if they were good for anything, were above
all contributions to a discussion. A discussion with whom? With
anyone who might read them and turn over in his mind what they
say. Presupposed, then, is a living theatrical culture in a living
general culture. Thus my work would have no place in a totally
commercialized culture--as Broadway and Hollywood often seem to
be. It had no place in the culture of soviet Communism where critics
just hewed to a party line. It had no place in Communist East
Germany where I was persona non grata in whom only the
Stasi was interested. And it will have no place in the theocratic
Muslim societies with which the 21st century is now threatened.
England, where I was born and bred, once
briefly had a theocratic culture. That was in the 17th century
when the Puritans shut down the theaters and made a theatrical
event of beheading their too theatrical king. For a year or two
England was reigned by Puritanic virtue. God trumped Shakespeare.
A god-intoxicated man named Oliver Cromwell who enjoyed slaughtering
Catholic civilians, even women and children, was Lord Protector--the
Lord's Protector of England against not only Catholicism but,
Ithink one can say, civilization. You can read in Samuel Pepys's
diary how England came to its senses. Cromwell dead, the theater
re-opened, the kings were back. They were frivolous compared with
Cromwell. The Restoration comedy of their theaters was frivolous
almost to the point of pornography. Dionysus had trumped God.
Shakespeare had trumped God. It was a defeat for piety. But it
was a victory for civilization--which, and not the deity of the
organized religions, is the god of us theater people, critics,
playwrights and all.