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Eric Bentley 

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Music man: Bentley brings his cabaret act to Sonoma State on Sept. 29.

Author Eric Bentley still shaping theater

By Patrick Sullivan

FOR SOME FIVE decades, Eric Bentley has been a major force in the world of American theater. His criticism in The New Republic in the 1950s cut the likes of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller down to size. His own plays have provided fascinating reinterpretations of the lives of Galileo and Oscar Wilde. His books, such as The Playwright As Thinker, have helped shape contemporary ideas about the dramatic arts.

Last, but hardly least, Bentley's translation and promotion of the works of Bertolt Brecht helped introduce the controversial German playwright's work to the United States. Indeed, Brecht scholars have been eagerly awaiting the publication of Bentley's latest work, Bentley on Brecht, due out this fall. That book was Bentley's initial reason for his upcoming swing through the Bay Area, but things didn't work out as planned.

"I was originally coming out to do some readings in bookstores of my new book," Bentley says from his home in New York City. "But the book isn't ready, and I'm coming anyway."

Bentley, now 82, will instead appear at Sonoma State University on Sept. 29 to perform his unique cabaret act and to speak about his personal and professional relationship with Brecht.

But what exactly does Bentley think the world's most famous communist playwright, who brought the class war to the stage, has to offer the apparently very capitalist world of the 1990s? Does Brecht have any relevance to contemporary theater?

"Well, yes, but I think it's not along the lines of his politics," Bentley says. "I was never really a part of that. I always maintained that Brecht's work had merit quite independent of any communist propaganda. I'm glad I said that then, because it's even more true now that the Soviet Union is gone. Either nothing is left or we're left with good plays that simply happen to be good plays, like other people's."

Bentley first met Brecht in 1942 at UCLA and soon began translating the playwright's work into English. It was Brecht's strong interest in bringing ideas and issues to the stage that attracted the attention of Bentley.

"I was a budding playwright and an adapter of other people's plays, and I was not happy with the theater scene as it was at the time," Bentley says. "Brecht's kind of theater appealed to me. It put me on a new track in my own life."

After Bentley went on to become a theater critic, he quickly became well known for his blunt observations on contemporary drama. His caustic criticism put him at odds with some playwrights, including Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

"I had arguments, even quarrels with them," Bentley recalls. "But I was harsh on Brecht too, at times. I suppose I was a contentious kind of critic."

Miller and Williams even teamed up to threaten Bentley with a lawsuit in the early '50s after the critic argued in print that the two playwrights owed much of their success to Elia Kazan, the director who brought their work to the stage. But the lawsuit vanished after the two realized they wouldn't win.

Bentley's life has been jam-packed with accomplishments of a wildly eclectic nature. The playwright also made a name as a scholar at some of the most prestigious educational institutions in America. In the late '60s he came out of the closet and declared that he was gay--an experience that he says helped inspire Lord Alfred's Lover, his play about Oscar Wilde. But surely the venerable Bentley's most surprising accomplishment is his decades-long career performing in nightclubs, in which he plays music from Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, among other works.

Still, Bentley's first love remains the theater. So he was extremely pleased when he was recently inducted into New York's Theater Hall of Fame, though it also felt a bit strange.

"I was very flattered, and the people who handled it were very nice," Bentley says with a chuckle. "The fellow who presented the citation was the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, which I thought was good going for me and Brecht. We're now recognized on Wall Street."

Eric Bentley appears Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the Warren Auditorium, SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $10 for general admission, $6 for students and seniors. 664-2353.

From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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