In thinking about Eric Bentley as he stretches beyond his 93rd birthday, we are torn between the genius of his writing and his coldness as a man.  Will the writing endure?  Or will the chilly memory frost the evergreen talent?

Eric Bentley is one of the great geniuses of the theatre.  He, in every, way, method and intention, supports the Playwright as King.

In his famous book — The Playwright as Thinker — published in 1946, Bentley made the strong case that the Playwright was, and must always be, the core of the creation of the drama.

Bentley argued the Playwright is not just a writer — but a THINKER — with grander plans in mind for the audience than just plain, mainstream, entertainment.

Bentley was Bertolt Brecht’s first and smartest ally in the theater.  Without Bentley, we do not have Brecht.

When I was a graduate student a couple of decades ago at Columbia University in the City of New York, Dr. Howard Stein brought Eric Bentley back to the Columbia campus for a talk on Playwriting.

There were ground rules for interacting with Eric Bentley:

1.  We could not ask him a spoken question because he could not hear well.

2.  All questions had to be neatly printed on index cards or they would not be considered.

3.  We could not ask follow up questions because Eric also had eye problems and he could not see where the questions were coming from in the audience.

We were used to dynamic presentations at Columbia, so the dry rules set down for Eric Bentley set off some students, and turnout for the talk was smaller than it should have been.

At 71, Bentley seemed worn out and frustrated by the experience.  He answered our printed questions quickly and succinctly and without much warmth.  He appeared out of sorts, and was bothered we hadn’t all read his entire canon and then asked more specific questions about what he’d written and why.

Every generation is dumber than the one before; and Eric Bentley made clear his contempt for for us.

It was a fine experience to listen to Eric Bentley talk about Playwriting in person, but it wasn’t a joyous moment by any stretch.  He came across more angry than beneficent and his temper rose at the slightest inconvenience
— real or imagined — and for those of us who showed up that day, we saw that even genius thinkers had human flaws in the inevitable revolt of mind against decaying body, and perhaps, that was the most important lesson learned.

10 Comments

  1. I think a “down to earth genuis” is an extremely rare combination, most of the time they are full of themselves and it’s just hard to enjoy any kind of personal interaction with them.
    I understand Eric Bentley’s expectation from the audience to be “informed enough” but did he take a moment to explain why one should read him? And make the conversation intruguing enough so the first thing the audience does is to pick up his stuff fo reading after leaving the presentation? That would have been the mark of a genuis. Sorry if I didn’t sound respectful enough.

  2. I think you’re right about the SuperGenuises. They really aren’t very warm or nice. I guess what was so off-putting about Bentley is that he sat down with a chip on his shoulder and appeared to be looking for a reason to talk down to us. Cold and aloof is fine with me; accusatory and slightly mean is not okay. We all knew Eric and his work and we’d read several of his books, but that wasn’t enoug for him. I think he wanted more idolatory — and we were actually prepared to give it to him if he’d been open enough to accept our offering. There were several times when he would answer a submitted question with, “Look it up in one of my books. I’ve already discussed it there.”

  3. David,
    With due respect to all the geniuses all over the world, I think each one of them should take a moment to understand the importance of the readers/ listeners/ viewers etc. – in one word, people who put some time and effort to appreciate them. Without the appreciation…they might intellectually feel satisfied for the creation but they are nobody.
    If he/ she always put himself in a pedestal then he/ she should not participate in a public forum at all. I think I have a system problem with people who suffer from I-syndrome. I am pathetic at taking orders.

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