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Eric Bentley, Columbia University, Oct. 2006
 
Acceptance Speech for the Thalia Prize
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 acceptance speech.]

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 me.

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.


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