Eric Russell Bentley, born Sept. 14, 1916, enters his 100th year today. Bentley is a British-born American critic, playwright, singer, editor and translator. In 1998, he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and is a member of the New York Theater Hall of Fame in recognition of his many years of cabaret performances.
Bentley attended Oxford University, receiving his degree in 1938, and subsequently attended Yale University (B.Litt 1939 and PhD 1941). Beginning in 1953, Bentley taught at Columbia University and simultaneously was a theater critic for The New Republic. Known for his blunt style of criticism, Bentley incurred the wrath of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, both of whom threatened to sue him for his unfavorable reviews of their work. From 1960-1961, Bentley was the Norton professor at Harvard University.
Bentley became an American citizen in 1948, and currently lives in New York City.
Bentley is considered one of the preeminent experts on German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, whom he met at UCLA as a young man in the 1940s, and whose works he has translated extensively. He edited the Grove Press issue of Brecht’s work, and recorded two albums of Brecht’s songs for Folkways Records, most of which had never before been recorded in English.
Although a great admirer of Brecht, and someone who knew him intimately both in America and Europe, Bentley maintained his political independence. “Marxism was important to me,” he wrote in “The Brecht Memoir.” “I was and am deeply influenced by it. But I have never been a Marxist.” He chafed at those in literary, academic and theatrical circles whose primary allegiance to Brecht was based on his communist politics. Yet no one in the English-speaking world did more for Brecht’s work than Eric Bentley.
In 1968, Bentley signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1969, the same year he declared his homosexuality, coming out at age 53. He has cited his gayness as an influence on his theater work, especially his play “Lord Alfred’s Lover,” based on the life of Oscar Wilde.He won a Robert Chesley Award in 2007.
Bentley’s many critical books including “A Century of HeroWorship,””The Playwright as Thinker,””Bernard Shaw,””In Search of Theater,” “What Is Theater?””The Life of the Drama,””Theater of War,””Brecht Commentaries,””The Brecht Memoir,” and “Thinking About the Playwright.” In addition, he edited “Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938-1968,” which appeared in 1971. His most-produced play, 1972’s “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been: The Investigations of Show-Business by the Un-American Activities Committee 1947-1958,” was based on the transcripts collected in that book. His plays “Round One” and “Round Two” are modern-day takeoffs on Arthur Schnitzler’s play “La Ronde,” chronicling the sexual escapades of his generation at the turn of the 20th century.
Bentley has released a number of recordings, including”Bertolt Brecht Before the Committee on Un-American Activities: An Historical Encounter”(1961), “A Man’s A Man” by Bertolt Brecht (1963), “Songs of Hanns Eisler”(1964), “Bentley on Brecht: Songs and Poems of Bertolt Brecht” (1965), “Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule” (1965), “The Elephant Calf and Small Comments on Large Themes”(1968), “Bentley on Biermann: Songs and Poems of Wolf Biermann”(1968), and “Eric Bentley Sings The Queen of 42nd Street” (1970).
As Eric Bentley turns 99 and enters his 100th year, he is recognized as America’s oldest living playwright. Readers and theatergoers who appreciate Bertolt Brecht in English have primarily Eric Bentley to thank.
Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.
Photo: Brecht and Bentley outside the Schauspielhaus, Zurich, 1948. By Ruth Berlau, from “The Brecht Memoir.“