Obituary: G. E. Bentley
Saturday 27 August 1994
G. E. BENTLEY was a great scholar of Jacobean drama and theatre. His volumes are the bedrock for serious study of drama and its institutions in Britain from 1616 to 1642. Any graduate student or academic working on the plays or the theatrical culture of the period has to start with Bentley.
Bentley was an early member of what was in the Forties a very small band of Shakespeareans gathering at Stratford-upon-Avon under the aegis of Sir Barry Jackson and Professor Allardyce Nicoll. The first volume of the annual Shakespeare Survey appeared in 1948, and it printed an influential essay of Bentley's, 'Shakespeare and the Blackfriars Theatre', which had originated in 1947 as a lecture at the Stratford International Conference. In that paper Bentley placed Shakespeare's last plays in what he always saw as the proper context, 'the London Commercial theatre and the organised professional troupe'. He put forward the view that the distinctiveness of the four romances - Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest - could be traced to Shakespeare's response, under the influence of Beaumont and Fletcher, to the new stage conditions and the privileged audience at the 'private' theatre at Blackfriars, in London. Bentley continued to attend the bi-annual conferences for many years as his own research took him regularly from the United States, where he had a teaching post, to Britain.
Ged Bentley was born in 1901 in Brazil, Indiana, the son of a Methodist bishop. He took his AB at DePauw University in 1923, the year in which Sir Edmund Chambers published his monumental four-volume The Elizabethan Stage. He went on to take the AM at the University of Illinois in 1926. But his ambition had long been to go to London to work on theatre history with Allardyce Nicoll at London University, where he took his PhD in 1929.
Bentley later wrote that it was Nicoll who initiated him into a scholar's London and who suggested to him the project of carrying on the survey begun by Chambers. The first two of what was destined to become the seven volumes of The Jacobean and Caroline Stage were published in 1941. Three more volumes appeared in 1956 and the last two in 1968. The scholarly consensus is that Bentley's authoritative and well- planned volumes surpass the work of Chambers. Bentley's achievement is all the more remarkable in that much of the research and writing was carried out in wartime and without such modern aids and luxuries as frequent sabbaticals, air travel, photocopying machines and computers.
Bentley later made available and accessible to students and other readers much of his prodigious research into such matters as censorship, control of playhouses, court performances, and the earnings of writers and actors in two briskly organised books, The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare's Time (1971) and its sequel, The Profession of Player (1984). He also published Shakespeare and Jonson: their reputations in the Seventeenth Century compared (1945) as well as Shakespeare and his Theatre (1964) and Shakespeare: a biographical handbook (1961). It is perhaps revealing that this handbook puts forward no theory about Shakespeare's sexuality. Not that Bentley was averse to speculation. In the preface to the 'three long overdue volumes' of 1956 he wrote that he had 'tried to suppress my comments on the literary and dramatic values of the plays - not always successfully.' He added that he had at first proposed to refrain also from any speculation and to print only the evidence at hand.
Most of Bentley's work was done at the Public Record Office in London and in the great research libraries of Britain and the United States. In all these labours he was aided by his wife, Esther, who (he said in 1941) was responsible for half the solid work. In 1956 he recorded that his wife had read with him in all the libraries, revised all the copy, typed all the versions, checked all the manuscript, scrutinised all the proofs, and charmed all the assistants.
Bentley's main years as a teacher were spent at the University of Chicago where, between 1929 and 1945, he progressed from instructor to professor, and then from 1945 to 1970 at Princeton, where he held the Murray Professorship. As a teacher, he was rigorous, demanding, even formidable. He insisted that graduates' oral reports should be well presented and precisely timed. To achieve this, he would set an alarm-clock to the time indicated by the speaker, and usually his first question was 'How was his delivery?'. Each student had also to read the term-paper of one of his fellows to check for loose arguments and errors of transcription. This was not a dodge to relieve the professor of work, for almost invariably Bentley had found more errors than had the student. It came as a surprise to hear him confess say that he always felt tense when teaching Shakespeare - but occasionally a slight tic betrayed a nervousness behind the seeming control.
Ged Bentley's manner was genial, almost bluff. He could have been mistaken for a military man or even an oil tycoon. He was deeply Anglophile but not in the least Anglicised and he always retained something essentially Midwestern. He and Esther were proud that their son Gerry became a distinguished Blake scholar, publishing as GE Bentley, Jr. Esther's death in 1961 devastated Bentley, but in 1965 he married very happily a family friend, Ellen Voigt Stern, who always accompanied him to conferences. Occasionally he would call her 'Esther' - she did not flinch.
Together they retired to a rather grand retirement complex not far from Princeton called Meadow Lakes. Ellen died in 1990. Ged survived, increasingly frail but devotedly looked after by his son and his family. In his apartment were many books, including the seven volumes of The Jacobean and Caroline Stage bound in leather. These will outlast many ephemeral works of criticism - past, passing, or to come.
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