Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (3)

(Part three of an essay on Ronald Bryden, the first two parts of which were published earlier this week. You can read some of Bryden's drama criticism in a book called Shaw and His Contemporaries: Theatre Essays)

Looking back, it is evident that few countries other than Britain have experienced such a compressed and intense outpouring of genius. As a theatre critic, Bryden was virtually compelled to try to make sense of it, and more important to separate the special from the merely novel.

This was made only slightly less daunting because he wrote for a weekly newspaper, which made reflection and consideration possible. On the other hand, it also forced him to select only one or at the most two productions to consider in depth each week. This constraint notwithstanding, Bryden rarely missed or dismissed an important evening or anything worthwhile simply because of lack of space.

His unwillingness to type quickly or ignore a performance, however, was more than just a good acquittal of professional responsibility. Bryden was looking for excellence. As he said in a review of a biography of Alexander Woollcott -- whose style he admits to having imitated during his school day writing -- "But at least I can recognize him now as our profession's hideous warning. He is what becomes of a critic who lets his own career take priority over the quest for excellence; who allows himself to become a personality, a turn, part of the show."

If Bryden found excellence in the whole -- or even a part -- of a play, production or performance, he would draw it out and turn it over and over to determine the reason for it, and then move on. Among young British playwrights he sometimes found excellence obviously and easily, as in the case of Tom Stoppard. Stoppard is one of those who certainly lived up to the genius that Bryden recognized and encouraged beginning in 1966: "Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, first seen in a student production at last year's Edinburgh Festival, seems more than ever in its handsome National Theatre mounting the most brilliant dramatic debut of the sixties. " (April 16, 1967) Stoppard was grateful for the encouragement as well (as were many young British playwrights). I remember seeing a copy of the published version of the play in Bryden's library inscribed by Stoppard with thanks for having recognized his potential publicly . . . before all others.

Stoppard, however, was only one among more than a dozen important playwrights who either presented new works during Bryden's term -- as did Christopher Fry, Harold Pinter and Joe Orton -- or were premiering early efforts, including Stoppard, Edward Bond, Charles Wood, David Mercer, Howard Brenton and David Hare.

Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (4)

Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (2)