Wednesday, January 31, 2007

First Principles

Eric Bentley

The Jan./Feb. issue of The Dramatist includes an interview with Eric Bentley, now 91 years old. For me, Bentley is the benchmark of theatre criticism and scholarship. He's an extraordinary writer, fair and yet with strong opinions, eloquent and writerly, yet direct. His books, such as The Playwright as Thinker (and Thinking about the Playwright), In Search of Theater and The Life of the Drama are invaluable and indispensible--and in that peculiar way that the best books on theatre can be: exciting. Bentley was also a scholar and a playwright of the 1950s Blacklist in America, and it was when researching that subject that I first came upon his work (though it wouldn't be until the 1990s that I read his theatre criticism. I haven't yet read his books specifically on Brecht and Shaw.) Bentley has a clear vision of what he believes theatre should be and do, but he is also nuanced and generous.

It's a short interview, touching on some of his history. He was interested in music and languages first, and more or less slid into theatre by meeting Brecht in California and agreeing to translate some of his work from German into English. He also acted a few small parts in Shakespeare repertory-- plays which happened to be directed by John Geilgud. Right place, right time, and he was off.

Bentley became Brecht's first and persistent champion, although he is clear that he disapproved of Brecht's continued fascination with Stalinist Communism (he faults the elderly G. B. Shaw for the same blind spot.) He also championed Shaw when he was unpopular, as apparently he is again on the English stage.

In this interview Bentley had these comments on Brecht's Mother Courage, which was seen here at HSU, directed by John Heckel: "The songs in Brecht's plays are quite unlike songs in anybody else's plays [in which they are] incidental...but in Mother Courage... they are pillars on which the whole play stands. They are not secondary but primary. It's the songs plus some dialogue--not dialogue with a few songs."

His comments on his own career are clear-eyed and instructive. He says that his plays are more often read than staged, but this is typical for plays that last. But he is disappointed that his later books haven't had the impact of his earlier ones. " a writer facing a public, it is easier to be young than to be old. It is easier to be immature and wild rather than to be controlled and have a bit of common sense. All my first efforts were received much more favorably than my later efforts. That's something that disappoints me very much, because I feel that my later efforts were better."

This interview isn't on line, but others are, like this one specifically on Brecht. And since the Young Actors Guild production of A Dream Play just concluded, while John Heckel is preparing his next production for later this month at HSU (Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9), here's a link to my essay on the two Brecht productions done here last year, Heckel's Mother Courage and the Young Actors Guild adaptation of Caucasian Chalk Circle.

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