Monday, February 28, 2005 +

Eric Bentley on Life and on Drama

More excerpts from Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (New York: Atheneum, 1964):

Life is but a small light in the midst of a vast darkness (p. 68).

A life which has a clear and unitary meaning, a direction, an utterly purposive movement toward an end. . . . There is nothing human beings more ardently crave than to be persons in such a drama (p. 80).

That Schopenhauer holds pessimistic views may well have less effect on his readers than the fact that he is sad—intelligently, sensitively sad, like Jeremiah and like his beloved Baltasar Gracián (p. 107).

Great drama has occurred only sporadically in history, and historians have often shown that a new wave of drama rolls in on an idea, that idea being the informing thought of a new movement in history, a new image of man. At such points in time, ideas don’t just happen to be selected by playwrights in search of interesting material: drama is a sort of river bed into which mighty ideas flow. In a sense, then, the playwright of such a moment is thoroughly unoriginal. He does not canvas his own special opinions; he may therefore not need the protection of a bill of rights or even a “climate of freedom” such as publicists nowadays represent to be a sine qua non of great arts; he gravitates toward the center of historical significance. The lesser playwrights of such a moment are those who fail to find it or who, not finding it themselves, become epigones, reciters by rote (p. 113).

Medieval drama will reveal its true merit only through [its doctrinal] content and [its didactic] intention, and when it has done so, the rather thin humor of the Second Shepherd’s Play falls appropriately into the background, and what we become aware of is the grandeur and sweep of a splendid vision of life. History is shown in terms of a guiding idea—the guiding ideal of civilized life in that age—and it is seen as a drama in many acts but with a definite beginning (the Creation), middle (the Fall and the Atonement), and end (the Last Judgment) (p. 117).

Does the parable of the prodigal son mean that it is better to be bad, so that later one can reap the harvest of repentance? Official apologetics on the point seem merely disingenuous. It takes a Dostoevsky properly to explore and present the human reality, and, when a Dostoevsky does so, it is to be noted that he comes much nearer to saying, “Yes, it is better to be bad,” than any churchman is likely to. This is the result of an artist’s extreme candor, and his commitment to the facts of experience. . . . For a Christian dramatist, sin represents a supreme opportunity (pp. 120–21).

Because there is commonly such a lack of candor in the discussion of this topic [propaganda] it becomes necessary to state what ought to be obvious: that we all relish propaganda (given a minimum of eloquence) when we agree with it and conversely that we none of us relish propaganda (however eloquent) for a cause we hold in abhorence (p. 136).

Only a cynic or a philistine will want to dismiss as unmeaning “experience” the impression given by all the great plays of a veil lifted, the scales falling from eyes. . . . (p. 145).

The most mature person bristles with immaturities; the least neurotic person is still neurotic (p. 163).

“The point,” says Jean Cocteau, “is not to put life onto the stage, but to make the stage live” (p. 169).

. . . not just a character, but a role (p. 170).

Juvenal says: “This is his first punishment, that by the verdict of his own heart no guilty man is acquitted” (pp. 260 and 330).

One must beware of steeping authors in their time so thoroughly that they drown. Even more than he represents other people, a great poet is himself (p. 291).

Following Freud, I distinguished two kinds of jokes, the harmless and the purposive. Only the purposive or tendentious joke, it was remarked, had enough violence in it to be useful in farce. This kind of joke is at the root, not only of farce, but of comedy in the Latin tradition. The harmless joke is rooted in sympathy, the purposive joke is scorn. The main or Latin tradition of comedy is scornful comedy. Its weapon is ridicule. But sympathy, if not of much use in farce, can be abundantly used in comedy. When it is at the heart of comedy, we have comedy of a radically un-Latin sort—such as Shakespear’s or Mozart’s. This idea can be elaborated by recourse to the old distinction between wit and humor. . . . (p. 311).


Mutual forgiveness of each vice
Such are the gates of paradise.

(pp. 323 and 330)

There is an unresolved ambiguity [in Hamlet] which is not that of the play alone, or even of its author; it is the ambiguity of a whole civilization—a civilization that has never made up its mind but has always had a double, nay, a triple standard: preaching forgiveness, while believing in justice, while practicing revenge (p. 331).

[King Lear, Act IV, Scene 7:]

I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.
                                                    No cause, no cause.

We are right to speak of the beauty of these lines in which there is no separable beauty of word or phrase. It is the beauty of a moral attitude that overcomes us, embedded as it is in character and action (p. 332)

The extreme virulence of modern tragi-comedy—like that of a Goya painting—is not easy to acount for. Yet most observers would concede that, in modern times, a peculiar vehemence of attack is called for by the conditions which provoke it and the torpor of the public that is addressed. “Black” tragi-comedy not only gives a somber account of the world, it also gives the public a shaking. Modern art is upsetting—and for a reason: the double reason I have just given (p. 344)

One would perhaps have to go back to Swift and Juvenal to be reminded that a furious desire to accuse, arraign, punish, and reform can consort with a passionate conviction that accusation, arraignment, punishment, and reform do not work. Swift and Jevenal are tragi-comic writers. . . . The purpose is survival: the easing of the burden of existence to the point that it may be borne (pp. 346-47).