Eric Bentley: critic, playwright, performer

Born: September 14, 1916;

Died: August 5, 2020.

ERIC Bentley, who has died aged 103 in New York, was a fearless theatre critic whose blunt appraisals in his reviews made no attempt at soft-soaping their subjects. This approach saw both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller threaten lawsuits against him.

Bentley was hugely critical of American playwrights in general, while he retained an even more barbed antipathy towards commercial Broadway shows, marking out the battle lines between art and entertainment in ways that influenced much critical thinking that followed.

Bentley was also a great scholar, writing numerous books that helped evangelise what he saw as the power of serious drama to add something to people’s lives. Probably the best known, The Playwright as Thinker (1946) expounded his theatrical philosophy, while The Life of the Drama (1964) re-examined dramatic categories as if no-one had ever heard of tragedy or comedy.

Arguably Bentley’s greatest contribution to theatre was his championing of Bertolt Brecht, whom he met in 1942. It was Bentley’s translations of Brecht that first introduced the firebrand German playwright to English-speaking audiences. The pair worked together over a stormy decade-and-a-half prior to Brecht’s death in 1956. Their collaborations included co-directing a 1950 Munich production of Brecht’s epic, Mother Courage and her Children. Bentley even recorded two albums of Brecht’s songs, penned with composer Hans Eisler. A play by Charles Marowitz, Silent Partners, charted Bentley’s creative relationship with Brecht.

As a playwright, he retained his oppositionist streak. His most performed play, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been: The Investigation of Show Business by the Un-American Activities Committee, 1947-1958 (1972) was an early example of what we now call verbatim theatre. The play drew from real-life testimonies from the by now notorious hearings, which attempted to expose communist activity in Hollywood, and led to many high-profile actors and directors being blacklisted.

Bentley had already compiled 950 pages of the hearings in his book, Thirty Years of Treason (1971). Hearing the words of witnesses and their interrogators performed by actors was no less shocking than the original hearings.

Bentley performed the Brecht-Eisler songbook in cabaret, accompanying himself on the harmonium, and founded political cabaret, the DMZ, or Demilitarised Zone, where he fused Weimar-era songs with contemporary anti war sentiments in the wake of Vietnam.

In his personal life too, Bentley made seismic shifts. Just as he gave up criticism and academe in favour of pursuing his own art, he split from his wife and family and came out as bisexual. Throughout all these major life-changes, Bentley remained unwavering in his alignment with those who took a stance against old orthodoxies.

Eric Russell Bentley was born in Bolton, in what was then Lancashire, now Greater Manchester. He was the second son of Fred Bentley, who ran a furniture removal business and was a former mayor; and Laura, a devout Baptist, whose religious piety and desire for her son to become a missionary drove Bentley to America.

As a scholarship boy at Bolton School, he acted and played piano. At Oxford, on a history scholarship, he was taught by CS Lewis. Walking amongst the aristocratic echelons of his peers, it was at Oxford too that his class consciousness developed. Shaw’s work was an early influence, and would eventually manifest itself in a book, Bernard Shaw (1947).

After graduating in 1938, Bentley emigrated to America, and in 1941 received a doctorate in comparative literature from Yale. His thesis formed the basis for a book, A Century of Hero Worship: A Study of the Ideas of Heroism in Carlyle and Nietzsche (1944). He had begun teaching at the progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1942, and met an exiled Brecht in Los Angeles the same year.

Bentley became a US citizen in 1948, though a Guggenheim fellowship took him to Europe to direct plays, including Mother Courage. As post-Second World War drama started to flex its muscles, he taught at Columbia University, in 1952. He reviewed for The New Republic (1952-1956) and also wrote for The Nation, the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times.

He taught at Harvard (1960-61) and in Berlin (1964-65) before quitting criticism and, in 1969, resigning his professorship at Columbia, where he had been involved in the era’s on-campus activism. Both moves chimed with his personal liberation regarding his sexuality, with his creative energies focused on his books, plays and performances inbetween occasional returns to teaching.

Numerous plays followed, with late works including Lord Alfred’s Lover (1979), about Oscar Wilde, and Round Two (1990), a gay take on Schnitzler’s La Ronde. In 1998, Bentley was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, acknowledging the major part he played in shaping world drama in the second half of the twentieth century.

He is survived by twin sons, Philip and Eric, from his second marriage with Joanna Davis, which followed the end of his first, to Maja Tschernjakow. He also leaves four grand-children. Bentley and Davis never divorced.

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