In the late 1980s, I was working on my MFA in playwriting at Columbia University when the chairman of the program, Howard Stein, invited Eric Bentley to be a guest speaker in our class. To say the experience was awesome for me would not begin to capture the spirit of the occasion. Eric Bentley was a rock star in the theatre world for us emerging theatre artists.
A decade later, after I had worked in the literary departments at various theatres (ranging from Playwrights Horizons to the now defunct Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays), I returned to Columbia to pursue a Ph.D. in theatre. One day, out of the blue, I had a stray notion unrelated to any of my classes: to sit down and have a conversation with Eric Bentley. This thought impelled me to send him a letter requesting an interview.
Given that well-established writers and scholars are often reputed to be eccentric, overbearing intellectuals, ego-driven charlatans, or talented creeps with insecurities galore, I did not feel put off by Mr. Bentley’s reply. He no longer gave interviews, he wrote, though he was curious to know why I wanted to interview him.
I wrote him back straightaway, highlighting how every aspect of his career had added to my intellectual growth: his scholarship, his involvement with Bertolt Brecht, and his own playwriting. In his reply, he asked what questions I would want to ask him. Using my research skills, I created 25 questions, which I sent him posthaste.
My industrious effort did not win him over. Only three questions, in his judgment, would “engage a good conversation.” In his handwritten reply, he referred me to the places where I could locate the answers to my other questions—in one of his many books or articles.
I sent him a new batch of questions, and this time only two made the cut. We continued in this fashion for months, partly due to the slow method of communicating.
Finally, I wrote to him confirming that our correspondence had led to 15 questions he thought worthy of a discussion. I wanted to know, could I interview him now? I had given it my best and was prepared for the letdown. Fortunately, I got a positive response.
To say the interview went smoothly would understate its success; Studs Terkel would have envied the result. It was not just the content provided by Mr. Bentley; it was that, despite the difference in our class, race, age, and sexual orientation, we got on exceptionally well.
During the interview, Mr. Bentley was at ease, self-assured and not above bursting into laughter. His voice had a British cadence tempered by an American intonation. Most important, there was an insatiable curiosity in his eyes, which corresponded with his body language to search further, to get it right.
Mr. Bentley asked what I planned to do with the interview. I mentioned that I knew editors at several publications and could get them to look at it. He then ended our conversation on a harmonious note, saying that I should come by for lunch at some point. I assured him I would.
Several weeks later, after having sent the transcript to Andrea Stevens, an editor of the theatre section of The New York Times, I got my first call back from her. I had been pitching her unsuccessfully for years, and I thought: Finally I had given her something that she could use.
I was wrong.
Her castigation placed me in the persona non grata category. Ms. Stevens was outraged because she had heard that I told someone that the Times would be publishing the interview, when she had only agreed to look at it. She was quiet on her end of the phone while I had my say: I had no idea where she had gotten that information, but that it was totally false. I agreed with her that one should never alert anyone of a piece’s publication until it is actually headed into print—a lesson I learned the hard way early on in my freelance career. After my straightforward explanation, I think she concluded that I was not at fault.
The piece appeared in September 2000 in the Times, to mark Mr. Bentley’s 84th birthday, as well as the publication of a volume of his theatre criticism. To this day I’m not sure what had gone wrong with Ms. Stevens; I surmise that Mr. Bentley had told his publisher that the Times had our interview, and the publisher mentioned that to Ms. Stevens. The incident alerted me to Eric’s craftiness, which would engage and entertain me for decades.
Though this was in the early stages of my friendship with Eric, it was a critical period for me. Completion of my dissertation was the priority. Though he did not read my dissertation chapters, he was on the sidelines urging me forward, always supportive.
As our relationship progressed, I realized that I had more access to Eric Bentley than anyone with the exception of family members and Lamont O’Neal, his dearest and closest associate. A natural byproduct of my association with him included our one-on-one conversations, which had literary advantages for me. Unlike the hurdles I went through for my first interview of him, my next two interviews with him (published in TDR and The Yale Review, respectively) presented no difficulties.
Jonathan Kalb once wrote, correctly, that Mr. Bentley was “considered indispensable to anyone serious about theatre.” Beyond his own scholarship, his criticism, reviews, translations, and playwriting, Eric wrote about, knew, or dealt with many of the major theatrical figures of the early to mid-20th century, from Thornton Wilder to Tennessee Williams, from Arthur Miller to Tony Kushner, from Helene Weigel to Hallie Flanagan.
Over many years and many conversations, I had the privilege of Eric’s sharing insider’s details, ranging from when he and Robert Penn Warren were on the faculty in the department of English at the University of Minnesota and he used his influence to have Warren’s play All The King’s Men (Proud Flesh) produced there, to his battle with Lillian Hellman over her objection of his using her letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee in his play on that theme, to Paul Green’s naïveté about how Jews were being treated in Germany during World War II.
Many of these conversations with Eric were priceless, and they were not always cerebral. They were often rich with earthy humor. One example: Eric was visiting England when he had a job interview with Shakespeare scholar John Russell Brown. During their meeting, Prof. Brown was called out to deal with an important matter. Before he left the room, he showed Eric a hidden cabinet where he kept his Scotch and told Eric to have a drink. The meeting kept Prof. Brown away longer than he had anticipated, and when he returned, Eric was obviously drunk.
In addition to the memories of our many conversations, there were events in Eric’s life that I will also always remember. Three stand out. First, though I had visited Eric in the hospital and shared lunches with him when he was bedridden with broken hips, I was unprepared when I went to visit him at his home and was part of an emotionally wrenching moment in which he had to be rushed to the hospital—he had suffered a minor stroke. What was uncanny about this experience, when death could have been imminent, was how calm Eric was.
Second: On Nov. 4, 2008, when Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, the first African American elected to that office, he had received a vote from Eric Bentley. Eric was 92 and walking with a cane; he had entered the phase of life where he could no longer manage certain things by himself. It was a major task for him to get to the voting booth, but he was determined and asked me to accompany him. When we arrived, Eric was prepared to stand in a long line. Fortunately, because of his age, he was escorted to the head of the line. He was very pleased and felt honored that he had the opportunity to vote for Obama.
Third: Before the tribute concert in honor of Eric’s 100th birthday at Town Hall in New York City in 2015, featuring a list of artists and scholars with a performance by soprano Karyn Levitt, a small group of guests gathered to celebrate Eric’s birthday privately at his home. I was honored to be among them. After the event was over and during my next visit to Eric, I remember telling him that the celebration was the first birthday party for someone who was 100 that I had ever attended. He stared at me to indicate that it was not only unique for me—it was a first for him as well. Eric had not only outlived many, he had also survived a number of legendary friends.
One of them was Columbia University historian Jacques Barzun, who was very supportive of Eric during his time at Columbia. Barzun died in October 2012 at 104. Shortly after Eric turned 100, I mentioned to Eric that he could live as long as Barzun had. Eric roared with laughter. (He would have been 104 in September.)
There were times when unexpected laughter in our conversations led to me learn about aspects of Eric’s career of which I was completely unaware; for example, his audition for Ellen Stewart, founder and artistic director of La MaMa. He was singing and Brad Burg was accompanying him on piano, and from the next room he heard a voice pitch in freely and frequently from the next room, “Fuck you, brother.” Ms. Stewart liked the audition and decided to produce the play, The Red White and Black, a Patriotic Demonstration, at La MaMa in 1971. The voice from the next room? That was Ellen Stewart’s parrot.
One time Eric mentioned that he and Langston Hughes were at a gathering, and Hughes playfully tugged at his socks in a signal to Eric that he was also gay. Another time he recalled a gathering at Ralph Ellison’s, at which he had the chance to chat with Ellison’s wife, Fanny McConnell Edison. Eric said he found her far more interesting than Ellison. Eric also noted that though he was responsible for getting Amiri Baraka a job at Columbia, he later regretted it, as Baraka’s attitude, behavior, and politics grew to infuriate Eric.
Many of our conversations were laden with historical significance. For example, in one of our last conversations, we offhandedly started to talk about HB Studio. Eric had a tremendous amount of respect for its co-founder, Uta Hagen, but had parted ways with her husband, Herbert Berghof, after he cut 20 minutes from an early version of Eric’s play, The Recantation of Galileo Galilei, at HB Studio, without the playwright’s consent.
At times these conversations were proof positive of John Guare’s six degrees of separation (or fewer). For example, it came to my attention that Eric was one of Phillip Lopate’s professors at Columbia; in turn, Lopate was one of my professors when I was a student working on my MFA at Columbia. And playwright William Branch, whose Times obituary I wrote last year, had been student of Eric’s at Columbia; Eric had recommended Branch for a Guggenheim Award in the late 1950s.
Like Lopate and Branch, I too was one of Eric’s students. He did not educate me about the theatre in a classroom setting, but he surely must have been aware he was educating me with his anecdotes and criticism. It was not only his conversations I gained greatly from; I also accompanied him or was his invited guest when he was spoke or served as a panelist at many events. At some point, I was able to return the favor, educating him about current productions I was able to see that he was only able to read about, due to his health.
Each of Eric’s birthday celebrations in recent years has had its own share of awkwardness, as I’ve encountered people to whom I had to explain that, yes, Eric was still among us, still alive. Eric was aware that death was not far away. When I said goodbye during our meetings in the last few years, I always wondered heart-wrenchingly if it would be our last goodbye, but there was always an optimistic look in his eyes when he sincerely stated that he would see me the following week.
The conversations I had with Eric will sustain me for the rest of my life. I did not pry for gossip, nor did Eric tell me his deepest secrets; nonetheless, he shared things with me I wished I could have recorded. Eric was quite clear about carrying certain things to his grave; this is something I intuitively understand.
In one conversation I had with Eric, he talked about George Bernard Shaw, one of his first theatre idols and the subject of one of his books. He said he had contacted Shaw and had planned to visit him, but Shaw discouraged him, saying that Eric would be disappointed; he would meet an old man, not the author he expected to see. Eric was later quite pleased when he visited the Shaw Museum to see that Shaw biography was the only one available in the gift shop. He went on to say that his greatest regret in life was not meeting Shaw. I know what he means: Had I not met Eric, it most certainly would have been one of the great regrets of my life.
Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, once wrote, “When people die, they cannot be replaced.” He is so right; no one could ever replace Eric.
Nathaniel G. Nesmith holds an MFA in playwriting and a Ph.D. in theatre from Columbia University.
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