Acceptance Speech for the Thalia
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
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