Theatre in Wales

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'“Drama is all about wishing, because we are all about wishing...”

On Criticism & Critics

David Edgar , Eric Bentley “Life of the Drama” , April 29, 2021
On Criticism & Critics by David Edgar The first, slow thaw in the Deep Freeze has begun. In London Nick Payne's “Constellations” gets another airing, a work that well deserves it.“Under Milk Wood” takes to a stage, the company including Lee Mengo, Iwan Huw Dafydd, Gillian Elisa, Alan David.

Gombrich wrote in his essay “Meditations on a Hobby Horse” about the infinite connectedness of expression:

“For that strange precinct we call “art” is like a hall full of mirrors or a whispering gallery. Each form conjures up a thousand memories and after-images. No sooner is an image presented as art, than by this very act, a new frame of reference is created which it cannot escape.”

Words engender words. Stig Abell wrote a newspaper article 18th April on the joy of re-entering a bookshop. He had read during the Freeze, he said, an Elmore Leonard about a wiseguy joining a Civil War enactment society. From there he read a history of the war, and on to Gore Vidal's “Lincoln.”

“Each book is a world in itself”, said Abell, “and a link in an endless chain.”
In the first month the film “Outbreak” became a Netflix hit, Camus a big-seller once again. In the fourteenth month it was time for me too to read “The Plague.” The copy I read was published in 1980 and had a press cutting inside. It was a review of Olivier Todd's substantial biography of Camus. On the reverse side, in a wonder of serendipity, David Edgar was author of an opinion piece.

Edgar wrote on 12th October 1997.

“I have read Eric Bentley's “Life of the Drama” twice...But reading it again was a reminder that I had actually been rereading it for most of the intervening thirty years.

“When you go back that far, it's usual to find a couple of things that you thought came from somewhere else. There is one on almost every page of Bentley's celebration of the dynamics of my craft. There is a fashionable opinion that- to quote Martin Amis in this very publication- drama comes a poor third to prose and poetry because “plays are all dialogue, a knack the writer either has or hasn't got.”

"For Bentley, however, plays are all dialogue only in the sense that paintings are all brushstrokes. There is hardly a single memorable line in the whole of Ibsen or Chekhov. But, in combination, something wonderful ensues, As Bentley puts it, “Actors who till then had noticed only the banality of each sentence in a Chekhov scene are amazed to find that the scene as a whole is a poem.”

“But the argument that resonates through his book is that great theatre is in fundamentally the same game as the crudest melodrama. Unlike lyric poetry and the novel, which tend to conceal their base origins, drama wears its guts on its sleeve. Far from being the opposite of cheap narrative, “it is soap opera plus.”

“Which is why drama is so uniquely fitted to explore the depths as well as the heights of our being. We like watching murders because we are murderous, in our souls if not in reality. And while it is true that bad plays are founded on such principles, “it is not true that good plays are written by defying them.”.

"It is for this reason that Bentley- a disciple and translator of Bertolt Brecht- none the less believes that his mentor's project is ultimately doomed. Brecht wanted to elevate the intellectual over the emotional, to replace a childish theatre with an adult one. There is obviously a good deal to be said for this,” Bentley remarks, “What you cannot say for it is, however, is that it is possible.” And it is impossible because the theatre confronts us with the side of us that is regressive, fantastic, prurient, barbarian- and magical.

“I would merely add that it does so for a purpose. Drama is all about wishing, because we are all about wishing; a wishing that gives us fantasy and daydreams but also that power to speculate, to calculate the results of action, and to plan, which has made us the species we are.

“Understanding this explains why drama of all kinds is important and why theatre will survive.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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