A “Critical” Centennial Celebration of Eric Bentley
By Daniel Dunlow
Last night, the theatre community came out to celebrate legendary playwright, singer, editor and translator and Theatre Hall of Fame inductee Eric Bentley’s 99th birthday at The Town Hall with “Happy Birthday, Eric Bentley! A Centennial Tribute Concert.” Hosted by Michael Riedel of The New York Post and the weekly TV chat program “Theatre Talk,” the event featured Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner; celebrated playwright/actor/director Austin
Pendleton; Bill Coco of The Actors Studio; Michael Paller of The American Conservatory Theater; Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, theatre historian and president emeritus of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation; James Shapiro, Edward Mendelson and Phillip Lopate of Columbia University; Roger Copeland, and Professor of Theater and Dance, Oberlin College and Conservatory, as well as musical performances by celebrated soprano Karyn Levitt, pianist Eric Ostling, and the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra conducted by Glen Roven.
My experience at this event is one that I have labored trying to synthesize into thought. To me, Eric Bentley was a name I half-remembered from my Introduction to Theatre Studies course from Freshmen year of college. I read his book The Playwright as Thinker, but as much of college does, it’s specifics washed from my mind over the years and became a part of my personal theatre psyche that I claimed as my own personal work. However, when I was invited to this event I went back and looked as his work, reviewing his life, and the similarities in our lives, created by his affect on my life, conscious or not, were striking.
Eric Bentley, born in 1916, attended Oxford University and then Yale and quickly moved on to teach at Columbia while simultaneously beginning his career as a theatrical critic. I did not attend Oxford or Yale, but I did go to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, almost 100 years later than he. I don’t teach at Columbia, but I freelance in art. And much like him, we both wrote critical reviews right out of school. Later in his career, Bentley also worked as a translator of the Hanns Eisler and Brecht songbooks, and was seen as the gold standard of Brecht theatrical translations. His full immersion in many different aspects of theatre is something I greatly identify with. His dedication to the art of theatre as described in stories from his aforementioned colleagues at this event displayed his focus that theatre is in fact in the words of Austin Pendleton “that energetic, enthusiastic approach seen in the community theatre” but it extends beyond that in the professional theatre. It combines thought and emotion, creating a dialogue between the audience and the production. This plight of thinking is what should plague the critical theatrical thinker, and as it consumed his mind, it has been eating away at mine of late. Nothing affirms this thinking quite like seeing some of the recent “less good” theatre. Bentley has even said that one of the greatest mistakes of the theatre-goer is to believe that Broadway and good theatre are one in the same. We thinkers of the theatre take for granted that this dialogue of emotion and thought is the standard of theatre, but it originated somewhere– from the mind of someone. And whether it’s genesis was with Bentley, it was undoubtedly promoted and popularized by him.
Secondhand accounts at the event last night said that Bentley would say it is the critic’s job to make the reader feel as if they were
in fact there at the performance. The writer must be able to digest the theatre in such a way that his or her prose about the piece feels like they are putting undeniable words in the mouth of someone who never saw the production to begin with. That is what we try to do. And as I sat there last night watching these great names talk of his influence on their work, I knew that great thinkers of the theatre were all indebted to 100 years of Bentley’s work.
I am no Eric Bentley, nor will anyone ever be. His brash view of the theatre that led playwrights such as Miller and Tennessee Williams to sue him over a bad review will not be matched in our lifetime. But, this event in celebration of him solidified a new idea in my mind; We thinkers like to believe we have a new set of standards to hold the theatre to, but when in reality, those standards are just reaffirmations of great thinkers before us. Bentley is that great thinker. So to say that I was laboring to synthesize last night’s events into thought is in fact the joy of thinking about the theatre that Bentley promoted. The feeling must be so strong, that the thought around it has to be wrestled to the ground before it can be said– and hopeful that experience will be shared by all who see and read it. Though he was not at Town Hall last night, he watched a live-stream video feed in his apartment on Riverside Drive. His life, and this celebration is something to strive for– after 100 years, to be able to not only say I have created great art, but I have broken it down to it’s essential elements and built it back up so all can be a part of it. I know I am.