Bentley Sees Theater With Eye for Past

WHAT IS THEATRE? A QUERY IN CHRONICLE FORM, By Eric Bentley 273 pp. Boston: Beacon Press, $1.75.

A large question, "What is theatre?" In his latest book Mr. Bentley, a professor of dramatic literature at Columbia, and the drama critic of The New Republic, has not so much answered the question as asked it. But he does give some answers, most of which are embedded in the reprinted reviews which form the largest part of this book. And thus the volume itself raised another question: "What is drama criticism?"

Mr. Bentley here supplies part of the answer when he writes, "Theatrical criticism is a branch of reporting." And so it is; a description of who did what on a certain evening in a certain theatre, and how it was done. The criteria of this aspect of criticism are just the same as for any other kind of reporting--it must be accurate and detailed. Mr. Bentley's descriptions of the last two New York theatre seasons are accurate, since he is a fine observer and knows what to look for in a production, both the feelings which it imparts to the audience and the technical details which produce this feeling. And his reports are reasonably detailed since The New Republic gave him more space than most critics have.

Facts Versus Form

But if a drama critic has a duty to his readers as a reporter of facts, he has another, this time to the drama as an art form. Critics are, or should be, something of a conscience for the actors and producers and playwrights who make up the theatre. That Mr. Bentley can claim to be, for he has a vast knowledge of the theatre, both practical as director and translator (though, it should be mentioned, with mixed success), and theoretical, as a professor. He brings all his knowledge to bear in his reviews, which, as is appropriate to a voice of conscience, are often most annoying--to the people whom they criticize as well as to the occasional theatre-goer and reader of reviews.

For instance, most of us are so disposed to admire the work of Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan that when Bentley points out how author and director got in each other's way in the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the revelation comes as something of a shock. But Bentley is right: Williams did write what might be called a "dirty" play, and Kazan did do his best to dress it up in grandeur and golden light. And Bentley is right because, unlike most other drama critics writing today, he can see the implications of a production as well as its surface.

If a single argument runs through both the re-printed reviews and the longish essay which concludes the book, it is a plea for honesty. Mr. Bentley asks that Broadway examine itself in the light of the great theatrical traditions of the past, which, by showing what roles the art of the drama has filled in other societies, can teach us what it should be in our own. It is this plea, and the depth of his insight, which makes the reviews gathered in What Is Theatre? worthwhile reprinting and re-reading.