Tuesday, February 15, 2005 +

Eric Bentley on “Plot”

“I feel that the Church has lost the plot a bit.”
Piers Paul Read

Excerpts from the first chapter of Eric Bentley’s The Life of the Drama, (New York: Atheneum, 1964). Bentley considers this book his best work of criticism.

The living experience of a play, as of a novel, or a piece of music, is a river of feeling within us which flows, now fast, now slow, now placidly between broad banks, now in a torrent between narrow ones, now down a slope, now over rapids, now cascading in a waterfall, now halted by a dam, now debouching into an ocean (p. 3).

We only dream of being national heroes. But this is another way of saying that we are national heroes in our dreams. Once we realize that we dream most of the time, we have to reverse conventional view and declare that our lives are dramatic after all (pp. 5–6).

Violence interests us because we are violent. . . . I have sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t make better sense to teach budding playwrights, instead of the usual Dramatic Technique, two rules grounded in human nature: if you wish to attract the audience’s attention, be violent; if you wish to hold it, be violent again. It is true that bad plays are founded on such principles, but it is not true that good plays are written by defying them (pp. 8–9).

Greek scholars are always explaining that, for Aristotle, imitation does not mean imitation. Nevertheless, it does (p. 9).

The flowers of dramatic art have their roots in crude action (p. 10).

Aristotle does not say that plot is an imitation of life. He says: “the plot is the imitation of the Action.” What is the Action? Aristotle forgot to tell [I should say that plot is life with a shape, and that that shape is Action. LW] (p. 15).

In art, recognition is preferable to cognition: a good story is one we have heard before; that is, a good storyteller aims at the effect of re-telling, a good dramatist at re-enactment. . . . New stories must always be old if they are to take hold of us (pp. 17–18).

For the past century and a half Shakespeare has been a popular author, but on what account? Chiefly, it would seem, for the Poetry and the Great Characters. The Poetry can be exhibited in extracts. The Characters could be celebrated in books which abstracted them from the play and invented for them what the poet had forgotten to mention [this applies to many books about Jesus and to Catholic books about Mary. LW] . . . . One can read thousands of pages of what is reputed to be the best Hamlet criticism and not find the primary questions dealt with if these be questions of plot (pp. 25 and 27).

It is the child in us that responds to stories, and the modern antagonism to narrative is much too exclusively adult an attitude for an artist (p. 29).