The Critic as Thinker

A discussion at the Philoctetes Center of New York City.

Moderated by Roger Copeland

ROGER COPELAND:The three panelists sitting around this table are three of the hardiest long-distance runners in the business, and because all of them have been so tirelessly productive for so many years, the task of introducing them and doing justice to their achievements is going to be nearly impossible. One of Eric Bentley’s earliest books is called A Century of Hero Worship, and I’m going to have to restrain myself from succumbing to hero worship, since these three titans of the theatre are, indeed, personal heroes of mine. Despite my strongly secular leanings, I think it’s fair to say that I worship them in an almost religious manner. (Laughter.) So here goes, with no delusions of adequacy about doing justice to the warp and woof of their careers.

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Eric Bentley is a playwright, a critic, a scholar and, it seems, a gentleman, too. He is also a marvelous cabaret performer, something that seems only fitting for the man who did more than anyone else to introduce the work of Bertolt Brecht to America. Eric was the drama critic for the New Republic from 1952 to 1956, and he taught for many years at Columbia University. His plays include Lord Alfred’s Lover, which is the best play I know about Oscar Wilde, and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, about spinelessness during the McCarthy era. His critical works include The Playwright as Thinker; What is Theatre?; a great book about Bernard Shaw—I think it’s just called Bernard Shaw; and The Life of the Drama, which began as the Norton Lectures at Harvard. Mr. Bentley was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998.

Robert Brustein is currently university senior research fellow and former professor of English at Harvard, where he was also the founding artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre. Many of us in this room know him best as Dean Brustein, the former dean of Yale School of Drama, who, in the mid-1960s, almost singlehandedly whipped a place that had fallen into lethargic decline into a whole new shape and a whole new life. He’s been the theatre critic for the New Republic since 1959, although I fear, technically speaking, that may not still completely be the case—and that’s one of the scandals that we may want to talk about. He is also the author of 15 books about theatre and society, the most recent, Millennial Stages, published in 2006. A new book, Shakespeare’s Prejudices, will see the light of print in 2008. He has also written many full-length plays, including Demons, Nobody Dies on Friday and a delightful new play that I just read a couple of months ago, about a certain Will Shakespeare and a certain Kit Marlowe, called The English Channel.

Stanley Kauffmann has been the film critic for the New Republic since before a lot of people in this room were born, and he’s probably best known to a lot of you as one of the few truly major film critics of the second half of the 20th century. This afternoon, even though he’s not wearing a hat, he is going to put on, metaphorically, one of his other hats, that of theatre critic. At various points in his long career, Stanley has served as the theatre critic for Channel 13 in New York, the New Republic, the Saturday Review and some really obscure publication called the New York Times. His latest book is a group of memoirs entitled Albums of a Life. One of those memoirs is about his eight turbulent months working for the newspaper of record.

The book that provided the title for today’s panel is, of course, Eric Bentley’s The Playwright as Thinker. I’m not proposing that this afternoon’s gabfest be an examination of the Bentley legacy, pure and simple, but I think it’s a very logical place for us to start. It seems to me that this great book, first published in 1946, is indisputably the great study of postwar drama, and arguably the greatest book about the drama written in the 20th century. I don’t want to put words into Bob’s mouth or Stanley’s mouth, but I suspect they’d agree with me that it’s hard to think of another book that did more to create the climate in which serious American drama and theatre might have thrived—to the extent that it did—in the second half of the 20th century.

So let me turn to the youngest, most impressionable member of the panel, that whippersnapper Bob Brustein, and ask him about the significance of Eric’s great book coming, as it did, right after the war. What sort of impact did it have on you?

ROBERT BRUSTEIN: I can certainly attest to the impact that Eric Bentley’s Playwright as Thinker had on me. I had been a student at the Yale School of Drama for a year in 1948, and I was appalled, actually, at the fact that we would end our experience of watching a play there by talking about the acting, talking about the directing, talking about the technical work, talking about management issues, but we would never, ever, talk about the play.

Then I came upon this book and read what Eric had to say about the intellectual content of plays, the artistic content of plays, the way that playwrights influenced each other, the various styles and contrary but nevertheless unified approaches to the theatre that one found from the 19th century to the present time—this really had an untold influence on me, and this man’s name became magic to me.

In preparing for this panel, I came across some passages in the book that I’ll try to paraphrase. Eric speaks of the need for setting up theatres in colleges: “The college theatre should beware of totally excluding, on principle, anything but the current commodities of Broadway and the hopeful efforts of our friend who has written a play.” He gives four different things that he thinks colleges or universities should do: Attend themselves to the great classics of the past; deal with new plays as much as possible; deal with modern classics; and deal with the forgotten play. I didn’t know I was doing that, but when I started the Yale Repertory Theatre, we really built it on the principles that Eric had enunciated in this book. I’ve been trying to do it ever since, up until five years ago, when I retired from running the American Repertory Theatre.

Another thing he said that I found quite stunning had to do with his attack on those who would condemn what is now called “elitism.” He was holding out for a theatre that had intelligence, artistry, creativity and did not, as Chekhov so famously said, “bring Gogol down to the people,” but “brought the people up to Gogol.” I never forgot that and never will forget it. It’s something that I’ve tried very much to fight for, both when doing plays and in my own criticism.

STANLEY KAUFFMANN: Well, I have two debts to pay at once. The first is to Bob, who gave me a job by employing me at the Yale School of Drama and making me a teacher, which I had never thought of doing. He made me one, and that’s been the blessing of my life. Then there’s Mr. Bentley, who is at once, for me, a burning inspiration—absolutely a burning inspiration—and also a great humiliator. (Laughter.) I took a look through The Playwright as Thinker, preparing for this occasion. Page after page, I saw things that I thought I had said, but that in fact he had said 30 years earlier. (Laughter.)

I used to be an editor at Knopf, and my first acquaintance with Bob came after I read his theatre criticism in Partisan Review and Harper’s and got in touch and had lunch with him, trying to get him as an author for Knopf. Declined. (Laughter.)

BRUSTEIN: My agent declined. I wanted to publish The Theatre of Revolt with Knopf, but my agent wouldn’t let me. They didn’t offer enough money.

KAUFFMANN: Looking again at Bob’s work, and looking again at The Playwright as Thinker this past week, I realize that this meeting is simply a continuum. Every decade, every year, every month, there’s moaning about the condition of the theatre. And it’s all true! (Laughter.) Shaw said once, “The theatre is always in a low estate.” If you look at an anthology of great plays from the Greeks to today, you think, “My god, what a panorama of achievement.” Then you look at the dates and you see that hundreds of years elapsed between one play and the next. (Laughter.) Sometimes we have the bad luck to be caught between. All I’m trying to say, seriously, is that it’s important that these complaints go on—and that they be enlightened and progressive. That, I hope, is what we’re going to try to do today.

Eric, do you want to talk about the reception of the book? You must have been vilified in many quarters of the American theatre, especially the commercial American theatre, which was pretty much all that existed in 1946.

ERIC BENTLEY: Well, it’s very advantageous to receive a lot of attacks. You get attention. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. (Laughter.) The Playwright as Thinker was a peculiar event for me because I never anticipated it would turn out the way it did—I never intended most of the things that happened, both the negative and the positive. I did want to attack what was the establishment in the universities, in drama departments, and so on, plus what was the establishment in New York, of the more highbrow end of Broadway—you know, the Maxwell Andersons. They were the enemy as far as I was concerned.

This was, in part, political. I was at the time a young Englishman and a member of the Independent Labor Party in London, which was a Marxist party, very anti-Soviet, but also fundamentally anti-capitalist. The communists called us “Trotskyites,” but we didn’t regard ourselves as such. Although I perhaps wasn’t as open about that as I might have been in the early drama criticism, this was the impetus. The only critic who commented on me at that time and was wise to what was going on was George Jean Nathan. He reviewed The Playwright as Thinker. (He’s attacked in the book on one page, but he took that in stride, as you would expect if you knew George Jean Nathan.) He got in a few nice quips at me. He said, “Sometimes beneath the academic gown, the stuffed shirt is mildly visible.” (Laughter.)

Well, I didn’t mind being called a stuffed shirt vis-à-vis Nathan, but what he found that none of the other critics found was what became my notorious attack on Eugene O’Neill, if you can call it that. He said, “It’s the British attitude to American culture that makes Bentley the English critic of O’Neill.” It occurred to me at that time that this was probably true—I was a British subject, and the drama criticism I had known as a boy in the ’30s was that of James Agate and St. John Ervine in the two Sunday papers in London. They were anti-O’Neill; they were also anti–Clifford Odets in a way I wasn’t, because I shared Odets’s political radicalism—that was true.

But what commentators didn’t get, even later when I continued along those lines, was that there was a social criticism of middlebrow Broadway. I’ve always loathed Broadway, and not just on Marxist grounds, though there, too—but on the grounds of the pretentious middlebrow culture that was then regnant in the Playwright’s Company, the Theatre Guild and so on. That was what I was consciously doing.

None of that really came out in the discussion, though I should say that that book attracted so much attention—too much—that it became a problem in my later career, if I can think selfishly for the moment. America has no second acts; I could have no second act, you see, after that. And when I subsequently wrote what I wanted to write, thinking I was perhaps doing even better things, there was no attention left because it wasn’t as controversial. Well, when I wrote The Playwright as Thinker, I was prepared to be outrageous—I wasn’t too arrogant, and I wasn’t suffering from overconfidence. It wasn’t that. It was just that I wanted to be heard, and by god, I was, to my surprise. For instance, the Saturday Review of Literature, which was second only to the New York Times as an upholder of the middlebrow culture, leapt to my support. They produced what was probably the most influential review of the time, with the headline, “Mr. Bentley Swings an Axe.” Well, I guess I did, but I hadn’t been aware of doing anything of the kind.

It was a very strange situation. I was a provincial little boy, in American terms, working for a small college in North Carolina. But when I came to New York for Christmas to see some shows—I saw the opening of a few plays that became famous, by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller—I was immediately picked up by the people who were reviewing The Playwright as Thinker. Barrett Clark had a big radio program with all the Broadway stars coming on—to talk with me, as it happened. I remember some of the little experiences that may amuse some of you now. Various dignitaries from the Broadway world that I had attacked were invited to come on the program, and some did. But one that refused was Lillian Hellman. And the fact is, she isn’t mentioned in The Playwright as Thinker. (Laughter.) I value that to this day.

BRUSTEIN: She was mentioned a lot in your reviews, though.

BENTLEY: I had seen some of her work. I knew she was communistically inclined, and therefore on the Left as we thought of it in those days, but I had not made the usual middlebrow reproach to her as a writer. In other words, I did not think she was a great truth-teller on the stage. She wasn’t the answer—she wasn’t the playwright as thinker.

Who knows how to think among playwrights? Well, obviously Bernard Shaw. He thinks too much, you might say. You couldn’t stop that brain thinking and thinking. And there are others, but O’Neill is surely not one of them. I mean, if you look at Mourning Becomes Electra as a play about the American Civil War period from a historian’s perspective—it’s not serious as history. It’s just a backdrop for a composer of melodrama. I later said other things about O’Neill when I’d read better plays by him. The more he worked through the memories of his childhood and who his parents were, the more he could write—magnificent writing, away from all the books he’d read and all the thinkers he thought about.

BRUSTEIN: Aren’t you saying, Eric, that he was better when he wasn’t thinking?

BENTLEY: Yes, in fact that’s right. One thing I hadn’t absorbed completely when I wrote The Playwright as Thinker or any of my early works was the way people talk about “the drama critics.” What the term means when they use it is not clear, because there are two quite different enterprises involved. One is familiar to the general public, because they’re involved in it—if we’re taking Broadway (which was, for me, the enemy, but was for good Americans the center of things), what the Broadway theatre needs is a consumer guide. That’s what the so-called critics should provide. Tickets, as everyone knows, are very expensive. Before you spend that money, even though you’re rich, you want a little guidance as to whether it’s going to be well spent. I thought the critics in that area—and I would have been perfectly willing to function in that way at one time in my life—could, instead of going at it academically, evaluate the shows economically: “This is a $100 show. This one’s worth $75. This one’s $25. (Laughter.) This isn’t worth it.” You could become quite skillful at economic evaluations.

Putting your mouth where your money is.
Absolutely right.

BENTLEY: Guiding the public. The public has a right—the rich public—to get something for its riches, you know? That’s all right, and it is a form of criticism, just as when you come out of the movies on Saturday night and grunt, that’s a form of criticism. (Laughter.) So everybody is a critic in that sense.

That’s one province. But when we highbrows talk about great critical writing, we’re not thinking about that sort of thing at all. We’re divorced from that situation in our minds, and we’re thinking of brilliant articles that we read in books, reprinted, by George Bernard Shaw, or by Max Beerbohm, or by Stark Young. We’re thinking about excellent writing about the theatrical art. Now, you could say that, functionally, the people in the newspapers are just doing the first sort of thing—the consumer guide—or should be; and the people in the weeklies, monthlies, etc., etc., are free to do the best they can as critics of an art. Theatrical criticism has one big difference from the literary, in that the theatrical critic becomes knowing and sensitive to different degrees of merit in performance. For instance, your ordinary newspaper commentator doesn’t know the difference between a star and a great actor. But the real critic does. The average critic, so-called, doesn’t know the difference between a good performance and a great performance—adequate as opposed to superb. These gradations call for the discrimination of real artistic criticism, on the same level as literary criticism that doesn’t deal with the theatre.

Speaking of the kind of adversarial criticism that we’re describing and that the three of you practice, it seems to me there’s another variation on it that Bob has been a pioneer of. What do you do, as somebody writing about the theatre on a regular basis, when the vast majority of what you see fails miserably? You then decide you’re going to focus on the cultural malaise that underlies that failure. Maybe that option is simply a means of maintaining your sanity as a theatre critic. But it seems that, starting with Seasons of Discontent, you were very, very conscious, oftentimes, to use the theatre as a barometer of larger cultural problems, paradoxes, shortcomings.

BRUSTEIN: Thank you for bringing that up. I did try to do that. It was very boring to be continually banging your head against what you thought to be the really deleterious and second-rate mediocrity of the Broadway stage. You gained nothing. You were probably losing readers. So the task I set for myself was to put theatre into a context and try to see how this or that play fit into our particular time, our particular society, our particular culture, our particular political life, and how it reflected on that. I don’t think anyone can write a word without somehow creating that kind of reflection. You just have to find it. Then I began to get happier about my criticism.

And more and more, I found myself subordinating the judgment that was so necessary to criticism, and that we’re all looking for: Does he like it? Does she hate it? When I read criticism, I find that to be the least interesting part. I began to call that “Himalayan criticism” after Danny Kaye—when he was asked whether he liked the Himalayas, he said, “Loved him, hated her.” (Laughter.) It’s essentially what we’ve all been practicing—Himalayan criticism.

Especially when I began practicing as a director—as an artistic director, an actor, a playwright—I knew that that kind of criticism did me no good whatsoever. I was trying, really, to find what it was that was helpful and useful, without in any way deferring or cheating or cheapening or lying. I wanted to see what it was that could possibly help a theatre artist to advance. And so I thought my most important function as a critic was to try to find out what these artists, if they were artists, were trying to do, and then to see whether they did that successfully. But at least to try and find out what the intention was before I rejected it.

KAUFFMANN: Context. Eric, you touched a poignant note when you talked about your animus against the middlebrow theatre. If only we had that middlebrow theatre back now! Where is a Theatre Guild? Where is Maxwell Anderson or Philip Barry when we need them? We have no consolidated enemy now—no consolidated cultural being on Broadway. I don’t go to the theatre much anymore, but I read—and as far as I can make out from reading about the Broadway theatre today, there is no firmly entrenched middle-class play that’s in its ascendancy. There is no sense that the middlebrow as such is a power in the theatre. When I say I wish all those nice dull people were back (laughter), it is that I’m so adrift, so bewildered, so lost in the current cultural situation. When we talk about reforming this or that in the theatre or anything else, I don’t know what we’re reforming it toward. Once there was—at least I believe there was—a structure that I could like and loathe. I have no sense of that now. I have only a sense of continual flow and whirl and change and rampant hedonism. That seems to me to apply to Broadway theatre, too. If you were going to write The Playwright as Thinker today, I don’t think you would, because there isn’t…

BENTLEY: Well, I might if I was in London, and I would attack David Hare as the Maxwell Anderson.

KAUFMANN:There’s no David Hare in this country. David Mamet is not David Hare.

BENTLEY: No, I wouldn’t attack David Mamet.

BRUSTEIN: We have Adam Rapp, Paula Vogel, Sam Shepard—we have about 35 really fine playwrights.

KAUFFMANN: Whatever you think of them, those are not middlebrows by any means. And neither are they controlling forces in our theatre. They don’t dictate to the Shuberts the way the Playwrights Company used to. My concern with the topic of this panel today is: Where is the theatre going to come from? What’s it going to be, for people who have ambitions towards theatre criticism today? In my view, what distinguishes the good, valuable theatre critic is that in a review, or certainly in the current of his reviews, you sense that he’s writing about a cause—about a theatre in his or her mind. The criticism he is writing is possibly in some ways cloaked, but is a crusade. Bernard Shaw said he’d spent years and years crusading in his criticism for a new drama. Then he found out there wasn’t any, and he had to write it. (Laughter.) But he was crusading.

You wrote The Playwright as Thinker because of a theatre in your heart, in your head, that you wanted to see come into being. The same is certainly true for you, Bob, and you made theatres to help fulfill it. You did the Bernard Shaw thing—tried to make the theatre to fulfill the one you were aching for in your criticism. And now I can’t imagine—it’s not my boast, but my defect—I can’t imagine easily the theatre that would underlie the new critics.

BRUSTEIN: It’s not that there are no playwrights in this country—I think there are more playwrights in this country of high quality than ever before in my memory. They just don’t have a place to have their plays produced. Broadway has turned away from them altogether, as has even the resident theatre movement, which is no longer being supported either by the National Endowment for the Arts or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation (though there is some support from Mellon and Shubert and Jujamcyn, but not enough to keep them going). Therefore, [the resident theatres] have begun to turn themselves into commercial producing organisms. And they’re putting on things that have been successful elsewhere and not taking the chances on the new. As a result, we have succeeded ourselves out of existence, I think.

Isn’t it also an incredibly impoverishing pressure on a young playwright who wants to see his or her work produced when he or she is told, “Look, two or three characters max, one set”? What kind of constricting effect does that have on the dramatic imagination of somebody who wants to think epically, who wants to think about class?

BRUSTEIN: And if that playwright does write that play, he or she is told, “We’ll give you a reading, a workshop, another reading, another workshop.” They never get productions. Richard Nelson wrote a very inflammatory speech about this recently [American Theatre, Sept. ’07], in which he complained that the playwright is always being helped to write his play by dramaturgs and by artistic directors, but he or she is never allowed to put the play on. And that is a problem.

BENTLEY: Some of you young people here who might be thinking about becoming drama critics, I think the advice is, “Don’t.” But if you’re interested in theatre, which I assume is the underlying thought, do something else, not drama criticism—if you think you could be a critic, then ten to one you could do something in one branch of the theatre or another. Like my two colleagues here, I think the important branch is that of playwright. The playwright is the center for dramatic theatre. That’s not true for ballet, obviously, and circus, but it’s true for the dramatic theatre. So you should just try to become a playwright.

KAUFFMANN: Along those lines, you advised in your forward to The Playwright as Thinker that critics should be abolished. That makes me nervous, not quite for a personal reason, because I don’t have that much longer to contradict it. But something has happened in the—what is it now—three centuries since theatre criticism began in the English language. Stealthily, almost, a new literary genre grew. There is great writing in the history of theatre criticism. It is a literature—a corollary art. And if one wants to take that tack, it is possible—as part of our concern about the future of the theatre—to worry that that literary genre is imperiled. I mean, who would want to be cheated of the critics—of you two, speaking for myself?

You know, if you make a list of the intellectuals who were interested in writing about the theatre a generation ago, you’d include Wilfred Sheed, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Gilman, of course—so that’s something different today, isn’t it? We don’t have people of that caliber who even go to the theatre, let alone write about it.

BENTLEY: Well, we never had theatre of that caliber. I don’t think the situation is any worse than in the past, and in some ways it’s better. There are truly plenty of good writers around, and the arrival of women writers as a new force is interesting, culturally, and positive.

BRUSTEIN: What’s different, Eric, is the audience. We haven’t discussed the audience. When you go to the theatre on Broadway or even Off Broadway, do you recognize the audience any more? I used to recognize my aunt in her mink coat going to the matinee, you know? There was an audience there that was regular, passionate. Whether their taste was any good or not, they went to the theatre. I don’t see that audience anymore. Now it’s mostly tourists and expense account people. And as a result, look at the readership, say, of the New Republic—that was the place where criticism had a very noble history, starting with Stark Young and including all of us. The fact is, the New Republic has virtually done away with its theatre criticism—for political reasons. Time and Newsweek have also, but I think at the New Republic it’s because the readership has kind of moved to the right, and it’s not a theatregoing readership. It’s not exactly neo-con, but it’s more politically organized than it is culturally organized. That’s a serious change.

And as for changes at the New York Times: I yield to no one in my admiration for Frank Rich’s op-ed page (applause), which is the one consistent onslaught that we’ve got against this incredible, appalling president that we have to deal with every day. Thank heaven for Frank Rich in that regard. But as a critic…. (Laughter.) He was a triumphant, witty, powerful middlebrow, and he prevented a lot of very important playwrights and directors from being produced in New York. I date the downfall and deterioration of the American theatre from Frank Rich’s quite brilliant regime. He wanted those people on stage that he approved of, and he didn’t want them if he didn’t approve of them.

And that, by the way, is why I turned down the offer of a job at the New York Times when it was offered to me in 1965. I did not want to be in the position of preventing people from being employed because I had an opinion. But that is what happened with Rich, and I think we can really trace the history of a kind of deterioration in American theatre—in the quality and aspiration and ambitions of American theatre—to that regime. And Ben Brantley is very much in his footsteps. (Applause.)

KAUFFMAN: By the way, after Bob turned down that job, the Times people told me that when it was offered to him, he said, “It ought to be abolished.”

BRUSTEIN: And I recommended Stanley, who has never forgiven me for it. (Laughter.)

KAUFMANN: Well, there’s no use animadverting against the current critics of big publications. Our real concern, I think, here, is what’s the future? Is there a future for those who will never be critics for mass circulation journals? Will they have to be, by the rules of the game, at a lower level than the best minds available? What’s the future for the intellectual critic?

Author and critic Roger Copeland is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

To read the complete transcript of the event, please visit the Philoctetes Center website at www.philoctetes.org.