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Columbia Fetes American Theater Legend Eric Bentley

Eric Bentley
Eric Bentley

Photo by Erich Erving

While a crowd was gathering in Low Library for a World Leaders Forum on Sept. 20, another, rather different, though equally political, crowd had assembled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lounge. Their purpose was to celebrate the life and works of Eric Bentley, who turned 90 on Sept. 14.

Participants, who included Bentley’s friends and family as well as many of his former colleagues and students, agreed that there is no easy way to sum up Bentley, who for so many years has served as a force majeure in the world of American theater.

While there are roles he didn’t play—such as that of Broadway critic—these are easily outweighed by the roles that took on and mastered, including that of:

  • academic. He joined Columbia in 1953 as the Brander Matthews professor of dramatic literature.
  • drama critic. When writing for The New Republic, his blunt criticisms put him at odds with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.
  • director. He once served as Bertold Brecht’s assistant.
  • translator. He was first to introduce the works of Bertolt Brecht to the United States.
  • playwright in his own right. He has written plays on the lives of Galileo and Oscar Wilde.
  • author. His book The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times (1946) paved the way for modern theater studies.
  • performer. He has performed in cabarets for years and was inducted into New York’s Theater Hall of Fame.

Appropriately, the celebrations consisted largely of theatrical readings and performances of songs from Bentley’s most powerful works. Also appropriately, Bentley had scripted the evening himself and was one of its star performers. (He went so far as to provide the evening’s master of ceremonies, Martin Meisel, another Brander Matthews professor of dramatic literature emeritus, with detailed notes.)

Of the program’s many highlights, three stand out:

  • Actor Craig Smith reciting Bentley’s translation of Chekhov’s comic lecture The Harmfulness of Tobacco.
  • Isaiah Sheffer singing “Songs for an Army Chaplain,” with Bentley accompanying him on the piano. Bentley had written the original lyrics for a Brecht production that Scheffer directed at Columbia in 1967. For this special occasion, he had reworked the lyrics to deliver a sardonic statement on President Bush and Vice-President Cheney’s military endeavors in Iraq.
  • Bentley’s grandson William performing a cornet solo of two pieces that not only share a common melody but have special meaning for Bentley’s life: God Save the Queen in honor of his mother country, England; and My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, in honor of his adopted country, the United States.

The celebrations were hosted by the Department of English and Comparative Literature, the School of the Arts and the Bernard Shaw Society.

--Erich Erving, Visitors Center


Symphony Space is hosting its own 90th birthday celebration for Bentley, on Oct. 6.

“The Thinker as Playwright: An Interview with Eric Bentley,” by John Louis DiGaetani

“A Conversation between Eric Bentley and Robert Hupp”

“Eric Bentley Sings the Queen of 42nd Street”(Smithsonian Folkway Recordings)

Published: Sep 29, 2006
Last modified: Nov 14, 2007