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October 27, 2007, 3:00 PM

The Critic as Thinker: How Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and Stanley Kauffmann Re-imagined American Theater Criticism

Participants: Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, Roger Copeland (moderator), Stanley Kauffmann

In 1946, Eric Bentley published The Playwright As Thinker, a revolutionary study of modern drama that helped create the intellectual climate in which serious American theater would thrive in the second half of the 20th Century. In 1964 Robert Brustein published an equally influential study of modern drama entitled The Theatre of Revolt. And in 1966, Stanley Kauffmann began a brief, combative stint as first-string theater critic for The New York Times. Kauffmann's short-lived tenure at the Times dramatized the enormous gap that had arisen between mainstream taste and the alternative vision of the theater that he shared with Bentley and Brustein. Collectively, these three critics championed the European modern dramatists, like Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, and Genet, whose plays were rarely if ever performed on Broadway. They also embraced the early work of performance groups like Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theatre when they were either ignored or deplored by most mainstream reviewers. Above all, they challenged a time-honored conception of the theater, one that stretches back to Aristotle and forward to Stanislavski and the Actor's Studio: the idea that the primary goal of the theater is to provide the audience with an emotional catharsis achieved by realistically identifying with the dramatic protagonist. By contrast, Bentley, Brustein, and Kauffmann championed a theater that emphasized poetic stylization, intellectual seriousness, and social engagement. This panel will examine the legacy of three of the most important American theater critics of the past fifty years, who helped re-define the nature of theatrical imagination itself.

Eric Bentley is a playwright, critic, and scholar. He was drama critic for The New Republic for 4 years. His plays include Lord Alfred's Lover and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been. His critical works include The Playwright as Thinker, What is Theatre?, which has been steadily in print for half a century, and The Life of the Drama, which began as the Norton Lectures at Harvard. He was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1997.

Robert Brustein is University Senior Research Fellow and former Professor of English at Harvard University, as well as past Dean of the Yale Drama School. He was the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, where he now serves as Creative Consultant. He has been theatre critic for The New Republic since 1959 and is the author of 15 books on theater and society. His most recent book, Millennial Stages, was published in 2006, and a new book, Shakespeare's Prejudices, will be published in 2008. In addition to eleven adaptations, including The Wild Duck, The Master Builder, and When We Dead Awaken (directed by Robert Wilson), he has written several full-length plays, including Demons, Nobody Dies on Friday, The Face Lift, Spring Forward, Fall Back, and The English Channel. Mr. Brustein is the recipient of numerous awards, including The George Polk Award in journalism, the 1995 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts, and the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

Roger Copeland is Professor of Theater and Dance at Oberlin College. He has written about theater, dance, and film for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Partisan Review, The New Republic, American Theater, The Village Voice, and The Drama Review, and many other periodicals. His film Camera Obscura won the Festival Award at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh in l985. In 2000, he was the recipient of the Stagebill Award for theater journalism. His books include the widely used anthology, What Is Dance?, and Merce Cunningham: The Modernizing of Modern Dance. He recently wrote and directed a feature length film titled The Unrecovered, a fictional narrative about conspiratorial thinking in the aftermath of 9/11.

Stanley Kauffmann is former theater critic of Channel 13, The New York Times, The New Republic, and Saturday Review, as well as long-time film critic of The New Republic. He has published two collections of theater criticism and seven of film criticism. His latest book is a group of memoirs entitled Albums of a Life.


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Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Steve Capra says:
Given that it's the critic's job to educate the public, and that only a small percentage of the American public attend theatre, isn't it true that we American critics have, on the whole, failed? Why haven't we been more effective in capturing the public imagination?
- Steve Capra

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