With one lover already under the bed, one hears the husband’s knock at the door, and the second lover is crammed into the closet. Subsequently, and with the ease and speed of dreaming, the first glides to the bathroom, the second to the fire escape. Of course it’s nice to be so much better informed than the husband; but why these volleys of silvery laughter from the stalls?

This fictional situation is somewhat different from anything most of the laughers can ever have experienced. Some of the women have had lovers, and a few may have been surprised by their husbands; but few can have been disturbed under precisely these conditions. They are not laughing because they recognize the situation; which is why the fellow in the closet is so interesting. He is totally improbable; he is there “for the sake of argument.” That is to say, he is just the kind of invention we habitually make for heuristic purposes, even of a trivial sort. He reminds us of other aspects of our behavior, more familiar but equally fictive, which we have developed for our comfort, in so far as that depends on an intellectual grasp of the environment. If my wife and I are simultaneously killed in an auto accident, the appropriate court will “deem,” that is, pretend, that she died first; in fact they will do so, I gather, even if she survives me by several days. This is an equitable dodge or fiction which prevents the double payment of estate duties. There are many such fictions, and not only in law. Vaihinger explained the degree to which intellectual activity in general is penetrated by them. Nobody confuses them with fact, and they therefore escape any critique of probability. They may be the only way to avoid the tautologies inherent in logical thinking. Bentham, who disliked legal fictions, was nevertheless willing, on certain terms, to admit “the necessity of mixing falsehood with truth, on pain of being without ideas.” However, he excluded poetry as entirely dependent on falsehood. It was Nietzsche who pushed ahead and argued that the world, as it concerns us, is wholly a fiction, so that knowledge is fiction, a man-made dream which, the poet says, must be our final belief. The test of such a fiction as the man in the closet is not one of probability, but of human value and human use.

There seems no reason to think that literary and dramatic fictions are generically different from others, though it appears that even among themselves they can be in some measure differentiated by the kind of work in which they are used. The man in the closet is a device lacking verisimilitude; it works in farce, but if it occurred in a novel we should be tempted to say that this was not a novel at all, but something else. Of all living practitioners the one who has most concerned himself with questions of this kind, so far as I know, is Sartre; and he has argued that words ought to give a plausible rendering of the comfortable everyday illusion of causality, holding that because of a failure to do this L’Etranger was not a novel at all. Sartre also thinks that within this context of fictive causality human beings must be represented as indeterminate, free. “Life,” he notices, “is not a novel.” He recognizes the prevalence of comfortable fictions in it, the stale evasions of the salauds. The re-imagining of reality that a novel requires is different from these. And yet it must not depend on palpable improbabilities. There is more to it, of course, but this, from his reviews of Camus and Blanchot, seems roughly to be Sartre’s line. I suppose it would be fairly widely acceptable.

Yet elsewhere we are able to accept as sufficient for certain purposes degrees of probability which fall short of verisimilitude. We do so even in life; we are notionally aware of the uniqueness or discreteness of every situation in which we find ourselves, but presume an inherent repetitiveness in events as a means to make ourselves easier about the future. But even this degree of interest in probability strains the human material, and it is a pleasant relief to find a situation from which it is artificially, and by consent, exiled. If in life we saw a husband about to enter the room in which we knew his wife to be in bed with a lover, we might be concerned about a range of possible outcomes, or we might even be amused, though it is doubtful if we should show this, even if there were two lovers. But in a farce the situation is pure, and the consequences determined; no great harm will come of it. The sense that there is a real agreement to this effect, and that Shakespeare had broken it, is behind Rymer’s indignation at Othello, as we can see from his calling the play “a bloody farce, without salt or savor.” Farces should not be bloody, and they should be salty. In tragedy, Rymer thought, we are entitled to ask for a plausible account of how a man came to act thus and thus; but to ask for such an account concerning the man in the closet would be to introduce questions of probability at just the wrong moment. This spoils the whole thing, since the fiction in farce does its work by excluding all such questions as perpetually bother us in life—questions of responsibility, guilt, and so forth. The characters are not free; they are types, worked like puppets and inhabiting a world in which time itself is not the time of the world. This is necessary to the operation by which this fiction discovers something of human importance. It is a fiction which presumes upon probability; lest there should be a mistake about this, the extra man is in the closet.


This exercise in dramatic probability-theory is an attempt to work somewhere near the level of Eric Bentley’s radical new look at the grammer of theater. It is a very full book, founded on years of thought and experience; and it is written with a clarity which testifies to the completeness of this preparation. In short, this is a work of exceptional virtue, and readers who find more in it to disagree with than I do will still, I think, want to call it central, indispensable.

If one had to guess at the single small seed from which this burgeoning argument grows, one would guess that it was what the blurb calls “psycho-dynamics.” Bentley, for the purposes of dramatic theory, borrows back J. L. Moreno’s therapeutic psychodrama, holding that its success shows Moreno to have been right about the drama itself. The patient acts out his neurosis, the analysts play parts, and other patients, in the role of society, look on. For Bentley the idea is valuable not so much because it re-asserts the therapeutic value of the drama, though that thought is in his mind, as for the evidence it provides of an “intimate link between theater and life.” It supports Schopenhauer’s claim that “the drama is the most perfect reflection of human existence.” The book justifies its title by being precisely about the ways in which life manifests itself in the theater.

Bentley is always talking about his link and this reflection, and dealing with the many difficulties they present, of which improbability is but one. It seems to me extremely creditable that he manages to do so without reducing the whole question to one of archetypes, which in turn reduce life by suppressing differences and creating resemblances. When the link, if it is to be established at all, has to be subliminal, he uses a Freudian psychology. But principally he maintains that life is, if you really look at it, dramatic; when it seems otherwise it is because we are having our conflicts in dreams.

This view precludes any generic distinction between high and low kinds; all theater has this link. “Great narrative is not the opposite of cheap narrative; it is soap opera plus.” Indeed, the higher forms are complicated by intellectual and moral activity to a degree which makes their “life” harder to define; so Bentley gives a lot of attention to melodrama and farce. Here the problem of superficial unlifelikeness, of “theatricality” in that pejorative sense, can be directly tackled.

First, though, there are interesting points about plot, especially on the way a plot—as in Greek drama and indeed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as opposed to the earlier Hamlet—can balance certainty and uncertainty, when the outcome is in fact known in advance. This is of course lifelike in a crude sense; one knows one will die, but not when and how. But there is more to it than that; how much more only a fictional plot which explores the issue intensively, like that of Macbeth, can say. The balance is what counts; and we can hardly achieve it except by a fiction. There is the somewhat similar matter of the plot’s being unlifelike in consisting entirely of relevant action and sharp climaxes. This is one of the places in which Bentley falls back on dreams, and perhaps misses an opportunity; let me explain why I think so.

It is apparently “natural” for us to entertain two or more different notions of time simultaneously. It is curious that Greek has three words, all with separate meanings we can recognize, to cover our notions of time. We can use them roughly to distinguish our notions. The time we are vaguely aware of as passing is chronos; the decisive moments (in history or in personal life) are kairoi. The continuum in which we achieve a kind of immortality by reproducing ourselves is aion. (I had better say that this is too simply put.) Now in drama all time is the time represented by kairos; in other words, it represents life as we habitually represent it to ourselves, as if chronos did not exist. And we do this consciously; in the unconscious, we are told, there is no time at all. The fiction (which is that chronic time should be ignored “for the sake of argument”) is therefore thoroughly human and involved in consciousness. When Mr. Bentley writes so potently about death in tragedy and its link with the deaths of everyday life, he pauses to remind us that the kairos of death (the coming of our “time”) is unique in that we cannot see both sides of it. Our uncomfortable inability to do so produces characteristic fictions, and the death of the tragic hero belongs to the class of apocalypses, fictions of the final kairos. Once more, whether we are thinking of history or of the personal life, we use, under pressure from the thought of death, the characteristic human fictions, tragedy and apocalypse; because they are so grand they produce what Goethe called das Schaudern, the tragic (or apocalyptic) shudder.


Though I was in that paragraph trying to develop a point of Bentley’s without his recourse to dreaming, what I said confirms his view that tragedy is the most accurate representation we have of the human personality freed (by a fiction) from its normal desire “not to go into” the matter of dying. “We begin to live,” said Yeats, “when we conceive of life as a tragedy.” This fiction concerning death is a maker of life; that is the use of fictions. Bentley remarks that “the opposite of Tragedy is not Comedy but Christian Science.” Everything depends upon an induced willingness, among us guilty creatures sitting at a play, to take terror by the hand and measure the personal agony against the facts and fictions of survival. “Wer spricht von Siegen? Uberstehn ist alles“—Rilke, as Bentley observes, puts part of the case. The flat last lines of Lear put another: “The weight of this sad time we must obey.”

In great tragedy the loss of a chronic verisimilitude is the price to be paid for a sharp rendering of life as obsessed by the idea of death. This is a point made in different ways throughout Bentley’s argument. Dramatic characterization tends to produce types, because types have more general significance, more heuristic value. As every moment tends to become a kairos, and every character a type, so every meeting becomes an encounter, and every dialogue is preternaturally meaningful. The irrelevant, essentially inhuman fuzz is cleared off time, character, and speech; human encounters have their true rhythm, which they can only have in fiction, however much we desire it in life. And this imposition of high human fictions on the world is surely not dreamlike; it is more awake and more human than without it we can be.

The force of Bentley’s argument depends, as I have said, to a considerable degree on his answers to the questions raised by the lower theatrical forms. He therefore gives melodrama and farce more space than tragedy and comedy. With some air of paradox he stresses their closeness to life: “melodrama is more natural than Naturalism;” and it is human, though less human than tragedy. As to farce, it becomes the crucial case. Assuming its closeness to life, one can choose between a Platonic-moralistic condemnation (it “waters the growth” of undesirable passions, which seems to be the view behind the current moralistic attack on the English Theater of Cruelty) and an Aristotelian cathartic theory: farce gives one a valuable emotional “work-out,” a restorative laugh at the institution, for instance, of marriage. Bentley’s view, though it is refined and qualified, is of the second variety.

Clearly this is right as far as it goes; but it underplays the conscious delights of the genre. It is true that the great age of French farce was also an age of tragedies about adultery, and a somewhat repressive age. But one cannot give the farces to the id and the tragedies to the super ego; Bentley admits the large element of intellectual interest in good farce, as in excellence of invention and timing. Tragedy and farce, as Rymer failed to see, are means of extracting from similar material wisdom or comfort appropriate to different phases of human need; they make different fictions “for the sake of argument.” Thus in tragedy it is assumed (as some assume in life) that you can’t have adultery off the record; that it will have consequences, and that they will be dark and sad. Yet as a matter of experience we know there are adulteries with no public consequences of any kind. Farce will allow this, and also assume, for the sake of its argument, that when such consequences occur the pain attendant upon them is not inevitable. No matter how hopeless the situation as the husband beats on the door, and, when he enters, locks it, he is not terrible and the end will be happy. In the meantime, of course, there are uncertainties to balance against this certainty, and we can admit the necessity of the man in the closet without in the least desiring to be in his place. In short, each form requires a restriction of probabilities and interests (though it is greater, usually, in farce) each provides a different aspect of the kairos, a different help in being human; and this is true even if you want to reduce the psychodynamics which animate us all to a mere bovarysme.

On the modern anti-play, with its elastic attitude to illusion, Bentley speaks very valuably. His strong historical sense enables him to speak with originality and understanding of Ionesco and Beckett. Having insisted throughout on the presence in all great drama of a strong intellectual, indeed ideological element, he has no difficulty in establishing its presence in professedly anti-intellectualist theater. The drying up of the dialogue in Waiting for Godot, the blasting of “illusion,” the operations on the border of farce and tragedy—all these devices, in so far as they make for a considerable play, obey the general grammatical laws he lays down.

Antonin Artaud, whose views are at present having a success in the world, says in the first manifesto on the Theater of Cruelty that the only value of theater “is in its excruciating, magical relation to reality and danger.” Those who are implementing his program are paying much attention to the occult aspect of this relation. Peter Weiss’s play on Marat now running in London may have had its origin in a remark of Artaud, when he proposed “a tale by the Marquis de Sade, in which the eroticism will be transposed, allegorically mounted and figured, to create a violent exteriorization of cruelty, and a dissimulation of the remainder.” The result is theatrically of high interest, though it is precisely on the ideological issue that it fails; and this could be because Artaud himself never seemed quite certain of what he was talking about. I mention him only because, so far as I can see, his theory of drama is implicit in Bentley’s larger and cooler thesis, and his hysteria is replaced by a civil wit. For his clarity and civility Bentley pays a small price: occasionally he seems to labor the obvious. That would be hard to avoid in an enterprise of this kind; Aristotle did it, and we wish he had done it still more. If you see any crucial interest in such topics as the death of Cordelia, Godot’s non-arrival, or the man in the closet, this is a book to be read and read again.

This Issue

December 3, 1964