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Eric Bentley, 1916-2020

By Richard Schechner

Editor’s note: In 2006, Eric Bentley received the first Thalia Prize from the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT-IATC). The Thalia honors, as IATC President Margareta Sörenson has noted, a writer whose “body of work in criticism and theatre studies” has been particularly important to international criticism. After Bentley’s passing on 5 August 2020, the 2010 Thalia honoree, Richard Schechner, shared his thoughts on social media about the impact of Bentley’s career and his legacy. When we saw what our third laureate had to say about our first, we thought it a fitting tribute to share with our readers.

Eric Bentley has passed, five weeks shy of 104, almost twice his Biblical allotment of years. Bentley was a great star in the firmament of dramatic and theatrical scholarship and criticism. His anthologies of European classics and his work on, with, and for Bertolt Brecht changed the way English speakers-readers think about “modern theatre.” His landmark books include The Playwright as Thinker (1946), The Modern Theatre (1948), In Search of Theatre (1953), and The Life of the Drama (1964). He was the drama critic for The New Republic in the 1950s—fiercely taking down the mindlessness of that epoch’s Broadway, as well as disparaging productions of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Eric fought against the madness of McCarthyism and later vehemently opposed the Vietnam War. He taught at Black Mountain College in the 1940s, Harvard and Columbia in the 1960s. He left teaching to devote himself to writing, directing, and performing. He came out of the closet at the age of 53, after two marriages to women. Like the Old Testament, he was, and is, a force.

Eric was a TDR contributing editor under founding editor Robert W. Corrigan from the time the magazine morphed from The Carlton Drama Review into the Tulane Drama Review in 1957. When I became editor in 1962, I asked Eric to stay on. He remained a contributing editor through autumn 1963, vol. 8, no. 1. Bentley left because the journal I edited was becoming less “drama” and more “performance.” Bentley’s six-year association with TDR is a measure of his importance in forming the journal.

Before becoming TDR’s editor, I had one encounter with Eric. I don’t recall if it was during the summer of 1958 or 1961. Both summers I was artistic director of the East End Players of Provincetown. We did very ambitious summer seasons including plays by Ibsen, Strindberg, Sophocles, Sartre, and Ionesco. We made the Town Hall into an environmental theatre. We did Philoctetes on the beach of North Truro. I knew that Eric Bentley was spending the summer in Wellfleet, one town down the Cape from P’town. I phoned him, inviting the big-time critic and scholar to my theatre. I don’t remember if he came.

I do know that to a generation or two, maybe three or four, including mine, Eric Bentley delivered the “modern classic theatre,” anthologies of plays he edited and sometimes translated. He set the table for much that was taught in colleges. Bentley knew that great ideas were embodied in the texts he brought to the attention of so many. He championed Brecht because Brecht thought as he entertained, and was programmatic in a thrilling way. Yes, in his later years Eric Bentley moved away from this kind of thing. He focused on his own directing, music, and performing. But that does not diminish his importance and his impact. Eric Bentley lived long enough to leave one life and go into another.