(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s obituary appeared in The New York Times, 8/5; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)
Mr. Bentley, who was also a playwright, was an early champion of modern European drama in the 1940s but had little use for American plays.
Eric Bentley, an influential theater critic — as well as a scholar, author and playwright — who was an early champion of modern European drama and an unsparing antagonist of Broadway, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 103.
His son Philip confirmed the death.
Mr. Bentley was among that select breed of scholar who moves easily between academic and public spheres. His criticism found its way into classroom syllabuses and general-interest magazines.
And more than dissecting others’ plays, he also wrote his own and had some success as a director. He adapted work by many of the European playwrights he prized, especially Bertolt Brecht, whom he first met in Los Angeles in 1942.
The English-born Mr. Bentley variously walked the corridors of Oxford, Harvard and Columbia, where he taught for many years with faculty colleagues like Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, literary lions in their own right.
At Columbia he became engaged in leftist campus politics during the volatile 1960s and surprised everyone when he quit — in part, he said, to experience life as a gay man, having divorced his second wife.
But it was as a critic that he made his first and most enduring impression.
The critic Ronald Bryden, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1987, said that Mr. Bentley’s 1946 essay collection, “The Playwright as Thinker,” “did for modern drama what Edmund Wilson in ‘Axel’s Castle’ had done for modern poetry; it established the map of a territory previously obscured by opinion and rumor.”
Mr. Bentley published one admired collection of criticism after another, among them “In Search of Theater” (1953) “What Is Theater?” (1956) and “The Life of the Drama” (1964) — “the best general book on theater I have read bar none,” the novelist Clancy Sigal wrote in The New Republic.
Mr. Bentley’s book “Bernard Shaw” (1947) prompted Shaw himself to say that he considered it the best book written about him.
Mr. Bentley argued that the great serious drama of the modern era had been written in Europe. He pointed to the operas of Wagner and the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, García Lorca, Synge and Pirandello as well as Shaw. And great drama was still being written, he said in the 1940s, referring to Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre and Sean O’Casey.
“Experimentalism in the arts always reflects historical conditions, always indicates profound dissatisfaction with established modes, always is a groping toward a new age,” he wrote in “The Playwright as Thinker.”
Mr. Bentley discerned a new naturalism in the modern voice. “What is it we notice if we pick up a modern play after reading Shakespeare or the Greeks? Nine times out of ten it is the dryness,” he wrote, distinguishing that from dullness — “the sheer modesty of the language, the sheer lack of winged words, even of eloquence.”
Mr. Bentley was less enthusiastic about American playwrights — even, at first, Eugene O’Neill.
“Where Wedekind seems silly and turns out on further inspection to be profound,” Mr. Bentley wrote of the German playwright Frank Wedekind in the notes to “The Playwright as Thinker,” “O’Neill seems profound and turns out on further inspection to be silly.”
As for commercialized Broadway, he judged it to be anathema to artistic theater, a view many readers regarded as tantamount to an attack on American culture. “Condescending and misanthropic,” Cue magazine said.
The drama critic Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, said that “Mr. Bentley does not believe in a popular theater” and feels that “the audience is incapable of valid judgment in aesthetic matters.”
Broadway’s defenders reminded Mr. Bentley that Sophocles, Shakespeare and Shaw had, above all, been popular. To which Mr. Bentley rejoined, “To be popular in an aristocratic culture, like ancient Greece or Elizabethan England, is quite a different matter from being popular in a middle-class culture.”
He eventually became more favorably inclined toward American dramatists, but he never let up in his goading of American theatergoers to pay more attention to Europeans like Brecht. For a time he even wore his hair in bangs like Brecht.
While at Columbia Mr. Bentley turned out a twin series of anthologies, “The Classic Theatre” and “From the Modern Repertoire,” which became standard reading in drama curriculums.
In the turmoil of the 1960s, he was a founder of the DMZ, a cabaret devoted to political and social satire whose subjects included the war in Vietnam, and he criticized Columbia’s handling of student political demonstrations on campus. In 1969 he quit his teaching post, shocking his friends and colleagues.
Many thought he had done so in protest, but he later said that he had simply realized that he wanted to be a playwright. “I always dreamed myself the author when I translated,” he said.
There were also personal reasons for resigning. He had decided to leave his second wife and live openly as a gay man, he said, and he thought his Columbia colleagues would not have tolerated that.
Around the time he began moving away from academia, the theater reporter Pat O’Haire of The Daily News depicted him in his 12-room Riverside Drive apartment, its walls and shelves dense with theater memorabilia:
“Away from campus, or the confines of teaching, Bentley can only be described as a sort of combination establishment-guerrilla,” she wrote. “He goes barefoot and wears jeans, but his shirt, though colorful, is a traditional Brooks Brothers button-down. His hair is long and flecked with gray; he wears a beard that is neatly trimmed in a Captain Ahab style, with the upper lip shaved. It seems as if he is straddling two worlds.”
Eric Russell Bentley was born Sept. 14, 1916, in Bolton, a northern industrial town in Lancashire, England, to Fred and Laura Bentley. His father was a respected local businessman. His mother had wanted Eric to become a Baptist missionary.
Mr. Bentley was a scholarship student at the prestigious Bolton School, where he studied the piano. He then went to Oxford on a history scholarship; C.S. Lewis was one of his teachers. Yet as a merchant-class student surrounded by upper-class swells, he felt out of place.