The Critic as Thinker: A Discussion at the Philoctetes Center of New York City

By Copeland, Roger | American Theatre, February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Critic as Thinker: A Discussion at the Philoctetes Center of New York City


Copeland, Roger, American Theatre


ROGER COPELAND: The three panelists sitting around this table are three of the hardiest long-distance runners in the business, and because all of them have been so tirelessly productive for so many years, the task of introducing them and doing justice to their achievements is going to be nearly impossible. One of Eric Bentley's earliest books is called A Century of Hero Worship, and I'm going to have to restrain myself from succumbing to hero worship, since these three titans of the theatre are, indeed, personal heroes of mine. Despite my strongly secular leanings, I think it's fair to say that I worship them in an almost religious manner. (Laughter.) So here goes, with no delusions of adequacy about doing justice to the warp and woof of their careers.

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Eric Bentley is a playwright, a critic, a scholar and, it seems, a gentleman, too. He is also a marvelous cabaret performer, something that seems only fitting for the man who did more than anyone else to introduce the work of Bertolt Brecht to America. Eric was the drama critic for the New Republic from 1952 to 1956, and he taught for many years at Columbia University. His plays include Lord Alfred's Lover, which is the best play I know about Oscar Wilde, and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been, about spinelessness during the McCarthy era. His critical works include The Playwright as Thinker; What is Theatre?; a great book about Bernard Shaw--I think it's just called Bernard Shaw; and The Life of the Drama, which began as the Norton Lectures at Harvard. Mr. Bentley was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998.

Robert Brustein is currently university senior research fellow and former professor of English at Harvard, where he was also the founding artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre. Many of us in this room know him best as Dean Brustein, the former dean of Yale School of Drama, who, in the mid-1960s, almost singlehandedly whipped a place that had fallen into lethargic decline into a whole new shape and a whole new life. He's been the theatre critic for the New Republic since 1959, although I fear, technically speaking, that may not still completely be the case--and that's one of the scandals that we may want to talk about. He is also the author of 15 books about theatre and society, the most recent, Millennial Stages, published in 2006. A new book, Shakespeare's Prejudices, will see the light of print in 2008. He has also written many full-length plays, including Demons, Nobody Dies on Friday and a delightful new play that I just read a couple of months ago, about a certain Will Shakespeare and a certain Kit Marlowe, called The English Channel.

Stanley Kauffmann has been the film critic for the New Republic since before a lot of people in this room were born, and he's probably best known to a lot of you as one of the few truly major film critics of the second half of the 20th century. This afternoon, even though he's not wearing a hat, he is going to put on, metaphorically, one of his other hats, that of theatre critic. At various points in his long career, Stanley has served as the theatre critic for Channel 13 in New York, the New Republic, the Saturday Review and some really obscure publication called the New York Times. His latest book is a group of memoirs entitled Albums of a Life. One of those memoirs is about his eight turbulent months working for the newspaper of record.

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The book that provided the title for today's panel is, of course, Eric Bentley's The Playwright as Thinker. I'm not proposing that this afternoon's gabfest be an examination of the Bentley legacy, pure and simple, but I think it's a very logical place for us to start. …

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