Rather than limiting his judgment, a sensitive and catholic political intelligence simply added greater depth and perspicacity to Bryden's reviews. To understand many new plays in Britain at the end of the 1960s, such a perspective was essential. I can't imagine a review of Charles Wood's H which did not factor in awareness of the impact of declining empire on Britains' self-conception (also revealed in an earlier review of Sir Laurence Olivier). All the same, for Bryden to praise a left-leaning play there had to be more than eloquent anger in the work: there had to be a felicitous theatrical idea and a complex -- not reductionist -- message.
Bryden's 'style' was often to muse on a performance or play and the experience of being party to the presentation on that particular evening. And he looked for a moment, an image, a scene or a theatrical 'through line' which could focus the experience of it. What a journalist -- which after all Bryden had been with the BBC foreign service -- would call the story's "hook". This served not only as a means of structuring his review for the reader, but also as a way of ordering for himself the experience of the performance. As an approach to criticism, though, it is the antithesis both of the Canadian arts-criticism-as-reportage school and of the neo-intellectual performance deconstuctionism of arts journals. Bryden started from the event and moved to the idea underlying the play or performance.
One of the more revealing comments about what Bryden saw as the pleasures of being a drama critic comes in a review of Natalia Ginzburg's The Advertisement:
"Those good olds we always hear about, before the theatre became the sick man of the arts, were also the golden age in which new plays were sufficiently few and far between that critics had time to revisit old ones, reaching second thoughts about texts, and new insights into performances. Give me any day the disease whose symptom is 200 fevered first nights a year." (November 10, 1968)
It is coming face-to-face with the astonishing and the unique that is both the pleasure and the challenge of criticism. Bryden talked in some of our meetings about having been motivated by some intent to unseat British society's self-comfort. This higher public purpose is evident in his reviews, but by no means over-burdens them. His great pleasure was in finding that he and the audience had been offered a play or interpretation of a play that shed some light on human motives or on the art of the artist.
Bryden was special among his contemporaries in American, British and Canadian drama criticism in taking immense satisfaction in having been shown something different, either about the world or the theatre or some other art form. He may have had dramatic axes to grind -- interpretation for interpretation's sake, deliberate lack of clarity, patronizing ideas, for example -- but he was willing to put them aside if the total theatre experience was revealing of something of value to the audience.
For a critic so engaged by ideas, by interpertation and by experience, he was by no means a slave to language, to felicitous expresssion, even while recognizing language as the "most completely dramatically expressive action of which human beings are capable." In a review of D.H. Lawrence's A Collier's Friday Night, Bryden considers why literary men and women are usually unsuccessful in their efforts at drama (primarily "because of their preoccupation with endings.") In doing so, he evidence giving to each element of theatre its proper place:
"But in the theatre a playwright can't afford to subordinate too obviously events of a play to what will happen at the final curtain. He can't rely on making then interesting by knowing wither they tend. They have to hold the audience from moment to moment, to be interesting in themsleves. Too much form can drain the life from a play."
There is no denying Bryden felt most comfortable dealing with text and the idea behind a production. Yet he was always and unerringly able to find and explain the experiential soul of a production -- for the audience at least, if not necessarily for the playwright, director or actors who created it. But this attention to the soul of a drama -- sometimes to the exclusion of the limbs -- does tend to make his reviews incomplete as theatre hisotry.