September 14, 1916 – Eric Bentley
“No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.”
Distinguished academic, critic, author, playwright, cabaret performer, and translator, Bentley wrote more than 20 books including The Playwright As Thinker (1946), In Search Of Theatre (1953), and The Life Of The Drama (1964), all are, or should be, familiar to those of us with BAs, BFAs, or MFAs in Theatre. You know — the kind of prestigious degrees sought by bright, talented young people that don’t really want to make any money in their lifetimes.
Bentley lionized Luigi Pirandello, championed Henrik Ibsen, and became the world’s expert and main English translator of Bertolt Brecht, who he first met in Los Angeles in 1942. He edited the Grove Press issue of Brecht’s work, and recorded two albums of Brecht’s songs, most of which had never before been recorded in English.
He came out of the closet in the 1960s and was fired from his position as a professor at Columbia University for being queer and for his Anti-War activities. In 1968, Bentley signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest Pledge, vowing to refuse to pay taxes in protest against the Vietnam War.
Bentley was among that rare breed of art scholar who moved easily between academic and public worlds. His criticism was part of classroom syllabuses and was featured in general-interest magazines.
More than dissecting others’ plays, he also wrote his own and had success as a director. The English-born Bentley had studied at Oxford and Yale and taught at Columbia and Harvard, but it was as a critic that he made his first and most enduring impression.
”Marxism was important to me. I was and am deeply influenced by it. But I have never been a Marxist.”
He pushed back at those whose primary allegiance to Brecht was based on his Communist politics. Yet no one did more for Brecht’s work than Bentley, and perhaps his very political independence accounted for that achievement.
Bentley published one admired collection of criticism after another, among them, his book George Bernard Shaw (1947) prompted Shaw himself to say that he considered it the best book written about him.
As he concentrated more on his playwriting, he found his subjects in those who had rebelled against the establishment society. He took on the leftist causes in his play Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee, 1947-1958, first produced in 1972; heretical astronomer Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galile in The Recantation Of Galileo Galilei: Scenes From History Perhaps (1973); Oscar Wilde in Lord Alfred’s Lover (1979); bisexuality in Concord (1982), one of a series of three plays comprising The Kleist Variations; and queerness in Round Two (1990), inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s sizzling 1987 play La Ronde.
In a 1987 interview, Bentley said:
”I generally avoid the word bisexual. People who call themselves bisexual are being evasive. They don’t want to be regarded as homosexual — or they want to be regarded as supermen, who like to sleep with everything and everybody. Nevertheless, if one can avoid these connotations, the word would be applicable to me, because I have been married twice, and neither of the marriages was fake; neither of them was a cover for something else; they were both a genuine relationship to a woman.”
In 1991, Bentley defended his two marriages, and similar ones of taken on by his contemporaries, reminding people of the homophobic climate of the 1950s and 1960s:
“It’s not that you went into a marriage knowing for certain you are gay and deceiving your wife. You went into a marriage, typically, not being certain and thinking that because you like or love a woman, you will very likely end up totally straight. And you had every reason to be straight in those days.”
One of his plays offered the opportunity to explore queerness through the theatrical lens. Bentley:
”The Oscar Wilde play I did, I wrote chiefly from identification with him. Not because I think I’m Oscar Wilde, but because I felt I could perfectly understand what many people told me they thought was strange, that he had a wife and two children, and yet, and yet . . . which to me was not so strange, you see. So I tried to make that understandable in what I wrote, both to myself and to any reader or spectator.”
Known for his blunt style as a theatre critic, Bentley incurred the wrath of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, both of whom threatened to sue him for his unfavorable reviews of their works. In fact, Bentley seems to have had a lengthy list of enemies. He had no serious boyfriends, poor thing.
Bentley lived in Manhattan most of his life and that is where he would have celebrated his 104th birthday today, but he took his final bow a month ago. For years he remained the planet’s oldest living playwright.