Eric Bentley, critic who provoked lovers of Broadway, dies at 103

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Eric Bentley, critic who provoked lovers of Broadway, dies at 103
Eric Bentley at his home in New York, Sept. 6, 2000. Bentley, an author, playwright and theater critic who was an early champion of modern European drama in the 1940s and an unsparing antagonist of Broadway, died on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at his home in Manhattan. He was 103. Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times.

by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Eric Bentley, an author, playwright and theater critic who was an early champion of modern European drama in the 1940s and an unsparing antagonist of Broadway, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 103.

His son Philip confirmed the death.

Bentley was among that select breed of scholar who moves easily between academic and public spheres. His criticism found its way into classroom syllabuses and general-interest magazines.

And more than dissecting others’ plays, he also wrote his own and had some success as a director. He adapted work by many of the European playwrights he prized, especially Bertolt Brecht, whom he first met in Los Angeles in 1942.

The English-born Bentley variously walked the corridors of Oxford, Harvard and Columbia, where he taught for many years with faculty colleagues like Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, literary lions in their own right.

At Columbia he became engaged in leftist campus politics during the volatile 1960s and surprised everyone when he quit — in part, he said, having divorced his second wife, to experience life as a gay man.

But it was as a critic that he made his first and most enduring impression.

The critic Ronald Bryden, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1987, said that Bentley’s 1946 essay collection, “The Playwright as Thinker,” “did for modern drama what Edmund Wilson in ‘Axel’s Castle’ had done for modern poetry; it established the map of a territory previously obscured by opinion and rumor.”

Bentley published one admired collection of criticism after another, among them “In Search of Theater” (1953) “What Is Theater?” (1956) and “The Life of the Drama” (1964) — “the best general book on theater I have read bar none,” the novelist Clancy Sigal wrote in The New Republic.

Bentley’s book “Bernard Shaw” (1947) prompted Shaw himself to say that he considered it the best book written about him.

Bentley argued that the great serious drama of the modern era had been written in Europe. He pointed to the operas of Wagner and the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, García Lorca, Synge and Pirandello as well as Shaw. And great drama was still being written, he said in the 1940s, referring to Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre and Sean O’Casey.

“Experimentalism in the arts always reflects historical conditions, always indicates profound dissatisfaction with established modes, always is a groping toward a new age,” he wrote in “The Playwright as Thinker.”

Bentley discerned a new naturalism in the modern voice. “What is it we notice if we pick up a modern play after reading Shakespeare or the Greeks? Nine times out of ten it is the dryness,” he wrote, distinguishing that from dullness — “the sheer modesty of the language, the sheer lack of winged words, even of eloquence.”

Bentley was less enthusiastic about American playwrights — even, at first, Eugene O’Neill.

“Where Wedekind seems silly and turns out on further inspection to be profound,” Bentley wrote of the German playwright Frank Wedekind in the notes to “The Playwright as Thinker,” “O’Neill seems profound and turns out on further inspection to be silly.”

As for commercialized Broadway, he judged it to be anathema to artistic theater, a view many readers regarded as tantamount to an attack on American culture.

“Condescending and misanthropic,” Cue magazine said.

The drama critic Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, said that “Mr. Bentley does not believe in a popular theater” and feels that “the audience is incapable of valid judgment in aesthetic matters.”

Broadway’s defenders reminded . Bentley that Sophocles, Shakespeare and Shaw had, above all, been popular. To which Bentley rejoined, “To be popular in an aristocratic culture, like ancient Greece or Elizabethan England, is quite a different matter from being popular in a middle-class culture.”

Eventually, Bentley became more favorably inclined toward American dramatists, but he never let up in his goading of American theatergoers to pay more attention to Europeans like Brecht. For a time he even wore his hair in bangs like Brecht.

While at Columbia he turned out a twin series of anthologies, “The Classic Theatre” and “From the Modern Repertoire,” which became standard reading in drama curriculums.

In the turmoil of the 1960s, Bentley was a founder of 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. In 1969 he quit his teaching post, shocking his friends and colleagues.

Many thought he had done so in protest, but he later said he had simply realized that he wanted to be a playwright. “I always dreamed myself the author when I translated,” he said.

There were also personal reasons for resigning. He had decided to leave his second wife and live openly as a gay man, he said, and he thought his Columbia colleagues would not have tolerated that.

Around the time he began moving away from academia, the theater reporter Pat O’Haire of The Daily News depicted him in his 12-room Riverside Drive apartment, its walls and shelves dense with theater memorabilia:

“Away from campus, or the confines of teaching, Bentley can only be described as a sort of combination establishment-guerrilla,” she wrote. “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.”

Eric Russell Bentley was born Sept. 14, 1916, in Bolton, a northern industrial town in Lancashire, England, to Fred Bentley, a respected local businessman, and his wife, Laura, who wanted him to become a Baptist missionary.

Bentley was a scholarship student at the prestigious Bolton School, where he studied the piano. He then went to Oxford on a history scholarship; C.S. Lewis was one of his teachers. Yet as a merchant-class student surrounded by upper-class swells, he felt out of place.

Shaw became an early hero, Bentley told The Times in 2006, 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.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1938 at Oxford, he immigrated to America (he was naturalized in 1948) and in 1941 received a doctorate in comparative literature from Yale.

On the strength of his early books, Bentley was appointed in 1952 to succeed Harold Clurman as drama critic for The New Republic, a position he held until 1956. He also wrote for The Nation, Theatre Arts, The Times Literary Supplement in London and The New York Times.

When he wasn’t writing in the 1940s, he taught and directed at the University of California, Los Angeles; at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; and at the University of Minnesota. From 1948 through 1951 he traveled in Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship, directing plays. In 1950 he helped Brecht with his production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” in Munich. He also directed the German-language premiere of O’Neill’s play “The Iceman Cometh.”

By then his regard for O’Neill and other American playwrights had risen. His earlier criteria for artistic merit, he conceded, had been “puritanic” and even too “Brechtian.” His celebrated book “The Playwright as Thinker,” he conceded, “reflects more my academic side — a certain degree of excessive authority, even arrogance, you could say.”

In 1952, after his return to the United States, Bentley took over Joseph Wood Krutch’s course in modern drama at Columbia. The next year he was appointed the Brander Matthews professor of dramatic literature at Columbia, where he stayed until his resignation in 1969, with time off as the Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard in 1960-61 and as a Ford Foundation artist in residence in Berlin in 1964-65.

Later he was the Cornell professor of theater at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and a professor of comparative literature at the University of Maryland.

He was known to perform songs from the theater in nightclubs, accompanying himself on the harmonium.

As he concentrated more on his playwriting, he found his subjects in those who had rebelled against established society. He took up the causes of the left in “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; the astronomer Galileo in “The Recantation of Galileo Galilei: Scenes From History Perhaps” (1973); Oscar Wilde in “Lord Alfred’s Lover” (1979); the sexually inconstant in “Concord” (1982), one of a series of three plays in “The Kleist Variations”; and homosexuality in “Round Two” (1990), a variation on Schnitzler’s play “La Ronde.”

He discussed his own sexual orientation in 1987, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “I generally avoid the word bisexual,” he said. “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.”

Those marriages were to Maja Tschernjakow and to Joanne Davis, a psychotherapist. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second in separation (they never divorced). In addition to Davis and his son Philip, he is survived by another son, Eric Jr., and four grandchildren.

For all his laurels as a critic, Bentley carried a nagging regret: that his plays were not appreciated as much as his criticism.

“Brecht once told me that he left unpublished a lot of his poetry,” Bentley said in the 2006 Times interview, “because, he said: ‘If they regard me as a poet, they’ll say I’m not a playwright, I’m a poet. So I don’t publish the poems, so they’ll say I’m a playwright.’

“I feel at times that I should not have written my criticism,” Bentley went on, “because when I write a play, they say, ‘The critic has written a play.’”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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