Friday, October 15, 2004 +

Eric Bentley

From an interview by N. Graham Nesmith:

Shaw said he would change the opinions of England -- change the opinions of everybody around. No playwright ever achieves that, of course. When he was an old man, Shaw wrote that he had been telling people what to do for 90 years and no one had done it. The actual effect was nil.

I have written plays that people have described as gay plays. I am not afraid of being called gay, but if it means that I am just addressing a gay audience and that I fill the plays with private jokes that only gay people get, that is not true. I always have in mind all the family -- my mother could be there if she was still alive. One must never be deliberately exclusive -- except of course people who would lynch actors. The theatre audience, even if it is small, should be mixed: both sexes, all sexes, all races; perhaps even all classes, including the classes who pay 100 dollars on Broadway or nearly 300 dollars at the Met.

I don't attach any importance to [Brecht's] theories, only to his practice, and even those are not necessarily the model for anyone.

I think of [Brecht] only as a great artist. And I like to arrange to get his plays done, and to get them done well, which does not necessarily mean according to his own views.

I have known Shakespeare, Shaw, and Brecht, playwrights who influenced me a lot, from the stage. I never read Brecht: of course, I do when I translate him, but I never sit down just to read a Brecht play.

"The young will come here, knocking at the door for retribution." The line hit me like it was poetry. It was a perfectly ordinary line, but the atmosphere had been created that somehow you understood the vast meaning of the line.

[On postmodernism]. Much of what was said was true but it could be said without the terminology. And, it had already been said.

I think we use the word experimental too loosely; and if you look at [the work of] writers who are original -- a word you can use -- it isn't experimental. It is venturesome -- you can use many other words -- but they are not fooling around. They are not trying to find out if something works. They have found something that does work.

One of the main ideas of the 20th century, if it is an idea, and I hope we are emerging from it, is degradation. The modern producers of Shakespeare degrade him. They bring him down to earth and then some. A Midsummer Night's Dream, no longer an airy-fairy romance, high in the stratosphere, is coarse, totally physical but not nice to look at. That is modernism, unfortunately, and of course, the authors I admire are involved in it. Waiting for Godot [1956] is a perfect example. That is a representation of Beckett himself, degrading himself by putting himself in a mere play. Brecht does the same, identifying himself with Macheath and Baal. He does not make his poet a German intellectual; he makes him a criminal and a beast.

Already in the 19th century, Nietzsche asked, What is noble? Meaning by that question: Do we have the least sense of what nobility is, any more? What Peter Brook, the best of our directors, did with his otherwise wondrous productions of Lear [1962] and Dream [1970] was to take the nobility out of them and thus to degrade them. Should we say: degrade them to our level? Even worse than that, they are degraded to the level indicated in Jan Kott's very 20th-century book on Shakespeare: the level of dehumanized Poland during World War II.

Writers in the 20th century were not content to exhibit this degradation. They wrapped themselves up in it, and therewith enveloped their readers or spectators in it. They made themselves, all too often, into the degraded poets of a degraded world.