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Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (9)

(Part nine of an essay on Ronald Bryden. Please track back to March 5th to find the beginning.)

This is not to say that Bryden was enraptured only by the dour and discursive. On the contrary, his pleasure ranged from Frank Marcus comedies to the popular theatre of Joan Littlewood. His own list of favourites is captured here:

"Almost inevitably, I am about to over-praise the National Theatre's Volpone. Every critic has one or two plays before which, in barely competent performance, he rolls over and purrs with helpless, infatuate pleasure. I admit to at least four: The Seagull, Major Barbara, Giraudoux's Ondine and Jonson's comedy. Call the first three weaknesses if you like -- I confess a certain protectiveness about their vulnerable young heroines and reliance on charm. But Volpone bowls me over, like a playful lion, with sheer, gorgeous strength. Intoxicated, I come away sharing momentarily the seventeenth-century judgement that Shakespeare had a nice touch with landscape and human emotions, but Jonson is what one really meant by art." (January 21, 1968)

This self-professed pleasure in art is a little misleading, however. Bryden had a propensity to take more seriously drama with a message, preferably a message which was circumscribed by socialist humanism. There is a place for message in the theatre, and in Bryden's aesthetic:

"It's a commonplace of aesthetics that no message, however righteous, can add a banana-skin to the value of a work of art. I've always found this questionable . . . " (February 4, 1968)

Like many intellectuals in the mid-1960s in Britain, and around the world, Bryden was a socialist. His political leanings made him especially tolerant of the young crop of renegade dramatists that included Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, David Storey and David Hare. He had less patience with the "angry" 1950s playwrights, being especially critical of neo-Marxist working class writers like Arnold Wesker, John Arden and John Osborne. In a review of David Storey's In Celebration he makes the point that:

"One's left to suspect that the real trouble lies in the kind of Northern nationalism which the 50s writers constructed as a refuge from the foundering post-war sense of British identity. Not genuine enough to sustain them or keep them there, it still racks them with guilt at living elsewhere, in truce with the Southern enemy."

Whether as a consequence of ideology or just the right response of the intelligent, his columns did do battle at the time against the power of the Lord Chamberlain to license plays for performance. For a time, his reviews frequently began with caustic or witty sideswipes at the Lord Chamberlain's position. His opposition to the censor came to a head in a defence of Edward Bond's Early Morning which was refused a licence just shortly after a Bill to eliminate the Lord Chamberlain's licensing role had passed second reading in the British House of Commons:

"The banning of Bond's play is as unjust as it is foolish, but the real wrong is the government's delay in ending this absurdly inequitable repression of one particular art." (April 14, 1968)

Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (10)

Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (8)