In his 1964 book The Life of the Drama, Eric Bentley introduces the reader to the intricate details, dirty secrets, and unacknowledged joys of the theater. As a writer, Bentley has been quite prolific, with almost a dozen books and several plays. Born in England 1916, Bentley attended Oxford University and studied under C.S. Lewis. Then, starting in 1953 he taught at Columbia University and became a critic. In 1998 he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame and last year, he turned 100 years old.
Written in 1964, at first this book was not well-received. Thanks to Bentley’s reputation as a critic, many in theatre were not very happy about his critical reviews of playwrights who later became quite famous and beloved (e.g. Tennessee Williams). But if the reader takes the book as just a thorough tome of instruction on the theatre itself and the best way to understand and navigate its many facets, the results are amazing. The format of the book is a history of sorts, with two main sections. The first main section describes the different aspects of a dramatic play. Bentley outlines the different parts of a play in sub-sections such as plot, character, dialogue, thought, and enactment. Within each sub-section he carefully examines the different ways each can be handled in a dramatic work, using his trademark dry humor to demonstrate the best and worst of each. For example, in the plot sub-section, Bentley states that “There is a halfway house been life and plot, and that is story…if one has a supply of incidents, all one needs to make a story of them is the word and” (12). As he has been wont to do, Bentley uses his admirable amount of experience to illustrate each part of a play and how it should be approached.
In the second main section, Bentley details the different types of plays that playwrights create. These sub-sections include melodrama, farce, tragedy, comedy, and tragicomedy. Again, each sub-section is carefully explained and then illustrated with examples of plays that have been written and produced onstage, sometimes very well – and other times, very badly.
Throughout the book, some main ideas emerge, in relation to plays – or drama. What is it about drama that is so appealing, and why? And what is it that makes drama actually good? Certainly, as an Oxford-educated, seasoned participant and critic of the theater, Bentley was in a unique position to explain its intricacies while many times sarcastically referencing its foibles. For example, “It is the worst men who give themselves to ideas most unreservedly” (100). Here is an accomplished playwright and theatre critic, whose entire life and career has been dedicated to his own thoughts, instructing the reader to not give themselves over to their own ideas.
Bentley continues with this thought by comparing such a man (writer) to Hitler, because the insane leader of the worst terrorist regime of all time thought all of his ideas meant everything, and history knows exactly where that ended up. Essentially, Bentley examines, ridicules, congratulates, and cautions on every topic that he deems fair game in the theatre. No feelings are spared, as he claims farce is a waste of time, melodrama is hilarious, and a plot is not a play.
This source is invaluable in two very important ways: First, it is a snapshot in time of theatre history. Second, it is a guidebook for the novice and a manual of reminders for the self-proclaimed ‘expert’ in theatre, almost as if Bentley is taking the hand of the reader and leading the way through what might sometimes be indistinct paths through the world of drama. This book is helpful to someone who needs to gain a firm understanding of how a dramatic work should be written and shaped, or how an actor should approach a difficult character role. But it is also enjoyable for those who are familiar with theater and love to read a funny book that dares to call it out on its own ridiculousness.
- Bentley, Eric. The Life of the Drama. Atheneum, 1964.