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Bentley and the Theatre: Critic With A Vengeance

THE DRAMATIC EVENT, (by Eric Bentiey, Horizon Press, $2.50; 276 pp.)

By Dennis E. Brown

To most readers, a collection of play reviews will seem as lifeless as a museum place, and about at topical. After the plays have left Broadway and the reviews safely consigned to the morgue, the drama critic would be better off writing an organized criticism of the American theatre, instead of arranging critical tombstones between cloth-bound covers. Eric Bentley, however, has seen fit to publish approximately fifty reviews, apparently in the hope that they will have both literary value and significance for American drama.

Happily for Mr. Bentley, and The Dramatic Event, his reviews do not make the dull reading one would expect from a book of this type. He has a facility for acid criticism and a predilection for commenting on the social scene--two talents which give his work the quality of especially readable essays. While not essential to good dramatic criticism, these talents have been a boon to followers of the New Republic, and they should attract more than a few chance readers to his latest book.

Labels Blurred

For his strictly dramatic criticism, however, Bentley's virtues are not so clearly defined. He has been heralded as the precursor of a new era in criticism; at times he poses as a modern Cassandra, decrying the decadence of Broadway; more often he seems to be a crank, who doesn't really care for the theatre.

None of these labels fit Mr. Bentley exactly, least of all the first, yet they all have validity. In the role of a leading critic, he can boast of insights which twist far from paths beaten by New insists, for instance, in identifying new York's reliable, if staid reviewers. he schools, in categorizing techniques, and in drawing parallels between the social scene and the theatre. One can accept Bentley's need for categories for they are indispensable to any form of criticism, and one may even except the labels he chooses to use. But it is difficult to escape the impression that Bentley is often the visiting of his own theories. Like the seademician who professes to see great trends, he becomes so devoted to labels that he often falls to see beyond the end of his need.

For this reason, the New Republic's drama critic would undoubtedly pan the first genius to appear on the American stage, should one happen to come along. Bentley's plea for an American Shaw, coupled with his dark musings on the theatre in general, might then seem ridiculous in retrospect.

It is Bentley's aversion to "mealy mouthed" reviewing which leads to his highly critical notices and lends some substance to the impression that he is a man who doesn't like his jobs. Often he goes to extremes unconsciously trying to avoid the "made-up" praise of critics who have long since become bored with the theatre Although he would deny it, his work in these instances seems to disagree simply for the sake of disagreeing, to smash idols on slender pretexts from motives of sheer perversity. He scorns Shirley Booth, for instance, because she is a "common-man" actress who makes love to the public by portraying the common level. For Bentley, the relationship between Miss Booth and her audience is purely erotic.

No Perversity

It would be unfair, however, to accuse Bentley of conscious perversity because his reviews sometimes seem tiringly quarrelsome. he hopes that, "his faults as a critic are real ones, and not assumed for the occasion." Undoubtedly this is so. And undoubtedly these faults help make The Dramatic Event a worthwhile book for anyone interested in the American theatre.

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