Monday, 10 August 2020

Britain, once made, and the USA has now lost its old Doyen of Theatre Critics, Eric Bentley

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Eric, who has died at the age of 103 was, over his long career in the USA, a theatre critic, playwright, singer, editor and translator who, in 1998, was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. He left Britain at the age of 23 in 1939, never to return and what Britain lost, America gained in the shape of his brilliant mind :

He was born in the northern industrial town of  Bolton in Lancashire, two years before the end of the First World War, in the Autumn of 1916, the son of Laura and Fred, a respected, middle-class, local businessman who was a furniture remover. He recalled : "My family were devoutly Baptist, especially my mother and she planned that I would be a Baptist missionary in Africa or the Far East.As a boy, Eric no doubt spent many sundays in the Baptist Chapel in Bolton.

In 1927 he won a scholarship and took his place at Bolton Grammar School for Boys where he "they featured every spring a Shakespeare production directed by one of the faculty. Incidentally I played Macbeth and Ian McKellen played the same part later at the same school." In fact, Ian, who went on to become one of Britain's foremost classical actors, was 18 years his junior, also played in Henry IV Part 2 at the age of 17 in 1956. Eric said : "He told me once, “I should hate you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because the headmaster held you up as a model to us all, and we were made to feel we could never be as good.”

When Eric was asked about his teenage years, at the age of 99 in 2015, he said  : "I was 14 in 1930 and I was a child of the Great Depression and I shared all the delusions of the younger generation. We were going to abolish the two chief threats which were poverty and war and we thought we could do it within a few years." In his school years he also recalled that : "I read modern authors and lost my faith", the news of which his mother received as a "great blow".

These were the years in which his mother also became aware of his feelings towards his own sex : "I don't know if she knew about homosexuals, but when I was fifteen or so I had a big crush on a boy in my class at Bolton School and Mother went to consult the only woman teacher there. She was worried about us keeping company too much. We were not having sex. I had already played with other boys' genitals now and then, but I didn't connect those small events with the adoration I now felt for Derek. I would go to his home and instead of playing games or talking we would just lie together on the couch, touching but not carnally. I've seldom had more blissful hours than those." 

At the point where he was about to apply for a place as an undergraduate at Oxford University he recalled : "I knew I was ambitious, but I didn’t know what I was ambitious for. At first I was inclined to be a musician. I played the piano reasonably well, and my teacher was very helpful and proud of me. That was what I was intending when I went to Oxford; I was thinking my career’s in music. Then I realized that unless you’re one of a half dozen great soloists, there’s no career in piano playing." 

Eric's entry into Oxford in 1935 was by no means a foregone conclusion. In the days before state subsidised grants for a university education, Eric recalled : "I toiled very hard to get scholarships, because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to university." "My elder brother went to medical school with my father paying the fees buy I was told when I was 12, that unless I won scholarships there was no university for me. I had to win two scholarships to go to Oxford." 

In fact, it was on the basis of a scholarship to read History rather than English Literature that he gained a place. When he arrived in college his unadulterated Lancashire accent set him apart from his wealthier, public-school educated  contemporaries.

He later reflected : "A lot of Oxford I wasn’t impressed by, but the great experience was with C.S. Lewis. He wasn’t well known then, and he hadn’t written all these religious things; I knew his religious views, but he never imposed them on me. So there was not a religious thing. It was just that he made me more aware of everything. I was pretentious, as I was bound to be; with my uneducated background, I tried too hard. I used long words that I didn’t always understand. I would read my paper aloud to him and he would sit there with his pipe. When I paused, he said, “That makes my head swim.” He asked me the meaning of a word, and I said, “I don’t quite understand the word, but I thought you would, sir.” He laughed. I said, “Was there anything good about it?” He said, “Oh, yes, most of the passages were quite good; it was just here and there.” I said, “Would you name a good passage?” Looking over his notes, he gave me an awareness of when my prose was best, and I said, “Well, that’s just me talking.” He said, “You should talk on, and not read these other critics.” He gave me the confidence in myself just to be natural."

It didn't take too long for Eric to find that in class-ridden Oxford : "Communism was the sophisticated thing, in the mid-1930s, for student rebels to believe in, but I was not sophisticated. I wasn't upper class enough for Oxford proletarianism . How, without the right accent and self-assurance would one ever get into a club like that? Marxism was something (I thought) that they must have picked up on their expensive vacations on the Continent".

Instead he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which had disaffiliated from the Labour party in 1932. He recalled : "I was at the time a young Englishman and a member of the Independent Labour Party in London, which was a Marxist party, very anti-Soviet, but also fundamentally anti-capitalist. The communists called us "Trotskyites," but we didn't regard ourselves as such." He later described the situation in religious terms : "Just as a fanatic Protestant hates a Catholic more than a Buddhist or Hindu, so Communists of the Stalin era loathed the Social Democrat more than the reactionary". Eric's belief in radical, but not revolutionary, democratic socialism was to be expressed in many of his political writings from throughout his career in the USA and he found this brand of socialism was at odds with the dominant political forces on both ends of the political spectrum. 

A a university student, George Bernard Shaw became an early hero of Eric, which he told 'The Times' in 2006, was because he seemed to be a fellow outsider : " 'Pygmalion’ is a great classic in my book because it’s an Irishman’s recognition of the basics of class-ridden Britain”.  He later said : "My model, of course, as a critic was Shaw. We both wrote for a public that would never see the plays, mostly, for a weekly that circulated all over the country but whose readers were not lodged in the theatre capital. So Shaw wrote for a public that was acquainted with what was going on in the world, including what was going on in drama, but he never accepted the West End of London. His own plays are now done as classics by regional theatre, but if you look back at the 1890s, you’ll find that some of them opened on a special performance on Sunday night, one night only. He published them because they weren’t being staged".

One of Eric's regrets is that, as a student, he passed up the opportunity to meet Shaw, who by this time was in his 80s. "I never met Shaw; I was on the point of meeting him when he discouraged me from visiting, because he said I would be disappointed; he was just an old man. He said I wouldn’t meet the author of Man and Superman; I would meet an old man. I should have gone anyway." His book, 'Bernard Shaw' published in 1947, prompted the great man to say that it was the best book written about him.

Eric graduated from Oxford in 1938 and applied for a scholarship to study Literature at Yale in the USA the following year. When the Second World War broke out in 1939 in Britain he recalled :  "As a pacifist, I would declare myself a Conscientious Objector and enter a camp for such. Indeed, I was in a camp near Birmingham when news came that I had won the scholarship to Yale, which I had applied for the previous winter." 

Having journeyed to the States, Eric spent a year studying for his B.Litt, followed by a year working on his doctoral thesis in 1943 which was expanded into the book : 'A Century of Hero Worship', published in 1944. As he began to write, he said, harking back to his mother's ambition for him, that writing was his form of "missionary work". And : "Even writing criticism, I wanted to go beyond drama reviewing to tackle the matter of belief - you know, getting up on my high horse and championing something." 

He was 23 years old when he left Britain and spent the next 81 years in USA, having become a naturalised citizen in 1942. During that time he had a long a varied career which encompassed a close collaborative relationship with Bertolt Brecht, with Eric translating his work from German and introducing it to the American public and led him to say of Brecht : "He was in the strict sense, the most fascinating man I ever met. There were times when I hated him, but there were never times when I did not love him".

In 1948, at the time of the Cold War, the Russian blockade of West Berlin and the American Airlift, with his knowledge of Germany and its culture he was enlisted to help the Army  Having been excluded from service in the US Army six years before on grounds of his homosexuality, the irony was not lost on Eric : "The same U.S. Army that on principle excluded homosexuals had actually let quite a few in and was now hunting them up so they could be "Cultural Officers" and run the culture of occupied Germany." 

In the 1950s he taught at Columbia University while championing modern European drama and was a remorseless critic of commercialised Broadway which he judged it to be anathema to artistic theater. As the theatre critic for The New Republic he was known for his blunt style of criticism. Apparently, he was threatened with lawsuits from both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller for his unfavorable reviews of their work. In addition to dissecting others’ plays, Eric also wrote his own and had some success as a director. 

In his private life he went on to marry and divorce his first wife Maja Tschernjakow and then marry Joanne Davis and had twin sons with her before he publicly announced his homosexuality at the age 53 in 1969. It was the same year in which the esteem with which he was held by his peers that he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In the 1960s he wrote, probably with reference to his own days at Oxford in the 1930s : 'In case anybody under twenty-five still wants advice from a man over fifty (and actually I know that many do) here is mine : "Be more opportunistic, at least in this respect: grab the education that you can get and that you or your parents are paying for. Understand that this education will have the limitations which, given the history of Western civilization up to this point, it must have. But seek out the exceptions and the freaks. Explode in revolt when you have to, but not when you don't have to. By all means exploit the university for your own purposes, but in the way in which it can successfully be exploited. Concede that the unliberated university can still be of use.'

In a return to his own 1930s student radicalism, in the turmoil of the 1960s, in 1968 he founded the DMZ, a cabaret devoted to political and social satire whose subjects included the war in Vietnam and he criticized Columbia’s handling of student political demonstrations on campus.
Theater reporter Pat O’Haire of The Daily News provided a picture of the 1960s Eric : 'Away from campus, or the confines of teaching, Bentley can only be described as a sort of combination establishment-guerrilla. He goes barefoot and wears jeans, but his shirt, though colorful, is a traditional Brooks Brothers button-down. His hair is long and flecked with gray; he wears a beard that is neatly trimmed in a Captain Ahab style, with the upper lip shaved. It seems as if he is straddling two worlds.'

In the world of academia, having taught at Columbia University for 17 years from 1952 to 69, the year in which he had decided to leave his second wife and live openly as a gay man and said, and he thought his Columbia colleagues would not have tolerated that. For a time he concentrated on his play writing, he found his subjects in those who had rebelled against established society. In 1972 it was 'Are you Now or Have You Ever Been : The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee, 1947-1958', in 1973 the persecuted astronomer Galileo in 'The Recantation of Galileo Galilei : Scenes From History Perhaps' and Oscar Wilde in 'Lord Alfred’s Lover' in 1979.

In 1974 he settled down to 8 years as Professor of Theatre at the State University of  New York and later taught at the University of Maryland. He supplemented his academic work with his books on theatre : 'The Playwright as Thinker' in 1946, 'In Search of Theater' in 1953, 'The Life of the Drama' in 1964, 'The Theory of the Modern Theatre' and 'What Is Theatre?' in 1968 and 'Thinking About the Playwright' in 1987. As he got older his regard for O’Neill and other American playwrights rose. His earlier criteria for artistic merit, he conceded, had been “puritanic” and even too “Brechtian.” His celebrated 'The Playwright as Thinker,' he conceded, “reflects more my academic side — a certain degree of excessive authority, even arrogance, you could say.”

In 2015, at the age of 99, Eric said :

"My favourite remark about death was made by Lytton Strachey as he lay dying he said : "If this is death I don't think much of it".


  1. absolutely terrific post. I first heard of Eric Bentley in the 1960s because of his connection with Brecht (whose poems I think are vastly superior to his drama) but didn't appreciate these aspects of his (long) life. Thank you for this - and also the previous post on LOvelock!

  2. I enjoyed this. As an actress I played in GALILEO, GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN, and THREEPENNY OPERA. Bentley's transitions are always robust -- my favorites.