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Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (5)

(Part five of an essay on Ronald Bryden, the first parts of which were published in the past month. Please track back to find the introduction and parts one to four . . . and, remember, a blog is chronological so start at the beginning of the month.)

Bryden applied the same yardstick -- the need to be informed by purpose -- to the avant garde. In what is surely one of the most cogent analyses of the limited potential of avant gardery in the 20th century (and, Canadians take note, made in a review of Charles Marowitz's production of John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes) Bryden comes up with an answer for what the avant garde can 'do' -- provide the shock of verbalized intelligence:

"But his production points up a problem of avant gardery generally. What on earth today is there left for it to do? For longer than our lifetimes, the mainstream of drama has been revolutionary. Pirandello, Shaw, Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett -- each great name of the twentieth century theatre has shattered conventional pieties and definitions of a play. Symbolism, expressionism, surrealism, the Theatres of Cruelty and the Absurd -- all have been assimilated, every form of stage and staging has been tried.

The avant garde has been thrown back on the ultimate taboos, and now even these -- blasphemy, violence, obscenity, nudity -- are crumbling. What possible radical novelty remains . . . The only novelty left to the avant garde, I'd say, is that of language and ideas: the shock, always bound to appeal to a minority of a minority, of verbalised intelligence. The range of possible physical actions will always be limited: the world of possible human motives infinite."

As much as any single paragraph can hold the key to a critic's aesthetic, this does for Bryden. It explains, for example, why among the avant garde, Peter Brook fairs better in Bryden's judgement than Jerzy Grotowski. Bryden could find in Brook's Oedipus "sheer brilliance, risk and inventiveness:"

"He packs into one evening enough ideas to last an ordinary director a lifetime, once more proving himself light-years ahead of his nearest contemporaries, making the most of what passes for avant garde nowadays look tamely nostalgic." (March 24, 1968)

Grotowski on the other hand comes up short not just in inventiveness but in ideas which can challenge the complexity already available in life itself. Bryden embraces the experience of participating in Grotowksi's The Constant Prince, but finds more texture, complexity and richness in ordinary pleasures:

"One sees where Peter Brook found his phrase 'holy theatre': it is ritual, religious in its passionate concentration. It's only as you emerge, dazed and winded, that you notice how much the world, as with religion, is left outside; how many ordinary pleasures, impure but benign, have been sacrificed to monastic fervour. Grotowski's theatre is marvellous, it's all that they say. Including poorer." (September 28, 1969)

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