Sunday, February 13, 2005 +

Thinking about the Playwright

Excerpts from Eric Bentley, Thinking about the Playwright (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987):

“Political Theatre, Pro and Con”
[The] making of excessive claims for art comes, oddly enough, from having too little faith in it. We search far afield for its purpose only bcecause we cannot look it in the face. It is to gain the whole world for us, because it has lost its own soul. What wories us is the modesty, the intimacy of art as it really is: its real effects are small, internal, personal, and hard to describe or even to observe. Hence, though the purpose of the Ninth Symphony may be to introduce universal brotherhood, the chilling fact is that it has failed to do so. Shall we join the Salvation Army, which undoubtedly has more success in that direction? I would respect the man who drew such a conclusion more than the man who trumpets that our modern artists must strive to succeed where Beethoven failed. There is a third possibility: to find what the Ninth Symphony can actually do for people—what it has done for some and will do for others. What actually happened to you when last you heard that work may seem rather a small incident compared with the invention of the atom bomb, but must you have an inferiority complex about this? The arts depend for their existence on our repect for such small incidents. The exploration of drama and society must properly start from respect, not for society, but for the individuals whom it comprises, and in the first instance, for their private experience. Second, artistic activity must be taken as a good in itself and therefore not needing justification on ground of its utility in other fields, such as religion or politics. It satisfies a natural and not unhealthy craving. It is part of the good life. It is not suspect. It need not be on the defensive. If these two points—which are really one—are accept, we must conclude that whatever, if anything, the arts may do for a society, they make a contribution to the life of individuals.

The prospects for anything good are always black. The good things were often flatly impossible until they happened—it is only afterward that they were found to have been inevitable.

The public, as is well known, is likely to find Death of a Salesman just as noble and profound as King Lear. The invalidity of this proposition has prevented critical people from seeing the corollary: King Lear is just as noble and profound as Death of a Salesman—in other words, the mass public has nothing, finally, against King Lear, but is willing to be as moved and impressed by it as by a much more easily accessible modern work. . . . The masterpieces of dramatic art may have subtleties in them that it takes generations of scholars to decipher. They certainly have a characterstic which is far more important socially: they are emotionally powerful, and their principal emotions are such as make an immediate impact on a crowd. I think one might even say that the subtleties are at the periphery and that the center of each great drama is a certain simplicity. I do not, of course, mean superficiality, but rather that inessentials are so fully eliminated that we face an elemental and universal subject in its nudity. In this sense, the story of the Crucifixion is simple as told in the Gospels, even though men still disagree as to what it means.

“How Translate a Play?”
All the best people perpetrate howlers. Those who believe the English Bible was written by God must believe that even God perpetrates howlers, because there are quite a few in the only translation that’s really great, the King James Version. I am told that the same is true of John Florio's Montaigne. Perhaps the best translations are the ones with the most mistakes? No reason why not. The primary criterion is what a text amounts to in the language it is (now) in. Florio and King James’s clergymen made great books—as well as lots of mistakes. We have translators today who make few mistakes, perhaps none, and who make bad books, bad plays.

“Is the Drama an Extinct Species?”
You are not surprised to find money changers in the temple; the surprising sight is Christ with a whip. One is amazed at Shakespeare and Ibsen; Thomas Dekker and Henry Arthur Jones one takes for granted.

“What Is Theatre?”
It could be that, in the eyes of the gods, there is no Problem of Modern Drama, no special and different task for the modern writer. Even so, we who are not gods can only see a perennial task in its urgent and present form. “Teaching the human heart the knowledge of itself,” says Shelley. Assuredly he spoke for all time. Nevertheless, in the age following his death, the perennial task took a form which, it seems to me, can be roughly expressed in the words: teaching the human heart that it still exists. Or, better perhaps, teaching the human heart that it can exist again, that it can be brought back to life. . . . There is a line of Schiller that sums it up in advance: “Dass der Mensch zum Menschen werde” (“That man may become man”).

“Letter to a Would-Be Playwright”
With all this goes a technical change that some people think the most important change of all. The dramatists are no longer writing for a box set hidden behind a proscenium arch. The proscenium arch may still be there, because the buildings can’t be made over in a hurry, but it is ignored, canceled out, defied. The box set has been carted off stage forever. What the new generation clamors for is some sort of open stage, possibly Elizabethen, possibly also a Roman circus or a Greek arena. Whether such a physical change is the most important change or not, it is one that implies the others. The different shape and functioning of such a stage implies a fundamentally different technique of drama and, with that, a different view of art and life. Take one feature alone, the relation of the action to the eye of the specatator. In the nineteenth-century theatre, the specatator is asked to peep through a little door, like Alice, into an illuminated garden; in the twentieth-century theatre, the actors are brought out to him. In the one, the spectator is a voyeur; in the other, the actor is an exhibitionist. Here too, in the demands they make on the physique of the stage, the more alert modern playwrights have been searching for the classic theatre. The naturalistic theatre offered a peep through the keyhole into the room across the way. The classic theatre provides a parade ground for passions and thoughts and for the human beings above or below life size who experience them.