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Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (12)

(Start at March 5th for the full essay . . . FINISHED!)

By the end of his tenure at The Observer, Bryden had become more introspective and reflective about the relationship between audience, play, actor and critic, as well as more critical of the appropriateness to society of the thought behind the play.

In 1970, he spent a week or so attending rehearsals and following development of Trevor Nunn's production of Hamlet at Stratford in order to test the legitimacy of the complaints by performers and directors that a critic's judgment of a production would be tempered if informed by some knowledge of what had gone into its making:

"This is not so much a review as a report on an experiment. It's a perennial battle-cry in the wars between critics and theatre-folk that we show-tasters judge a play by a single sampling, in the artificially fraught conditions of a first night. We decide its future in three tense, unnatural hours, as brutally and superficially as the eleven-plus decides a child's. Instead, it is urged, we ought to go into the kitchen and see the real work of a play's making: the whole evolving process, from read-though to premier, which is the true life of a theatrical production. I've been doing just this . . ."

And it would alter his 'show-tasting' from then on, allowing plays and performances a little more margin for error because of being always in transition and development.

It is interesting to speculate whether his personal enquiry into the art of theatre-making was determinant in Bryden accepting a post as play reader for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1971 under Trevor Nunn. Bryden's chief (though not exclusive by any means) fascination had always been for the playwright's part and the felicity of interpretation, rather than the mechanics and the skill of the "rude mechanicals" which transformed drama to theatre. And there is evidence anyway that the strain of "200 fevered first nights" every year for five years had begun to take its toll on himself and his family.

Even though Bryden remained of the theatre, on balance British theatre lost with his jumping ship. Personal prejudice aside, it is fair to say that Bryden was a generous -- some might say generous to a fault -- passionate, erudite and more often than not unerring critic. There are not many 20th century reviewers who could write something so passionate and clear as this summary of theatre's heart from a review of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth (February 15, 1970)

"The theatre is only sometimes about life -- Wilde scarcely notices it -- but it is always about acting. And the pleasure of acting is not believing that an actor is the character he portrays, but watching the skill with which he pretends to be. If he can pretend to be a character pretending to be another, the greater the skill and the pleasure in it. Theatre can't get away from dressing up, because that's what it is."

There is little point in speculating on what difference Bryden might have made to the arts in Canada (where he came to teach) had he been allowed a forum for writing about Canadian drama and theatre. It is an absolute scandal -- although one that will only interest a few -- and evidence of infantile parochialism in Canadian journalism that when he did come to Canada in the mid 1970s only Maclean's magazine was interested in his writing, and even then he was expected to report rather than comment! Newspapers and magazines in Canada have never really sought or accepted critics: they are happy with beat reporters who strive for the ordinary in observation and style.

For the past 15 years or so, I have largely avoided Canadian theatre, and long ago lost the energy to write drama criticism . . . once a dream. But re-reading Bryden's reviews, thinking again about the excitement of the hours spent trying to undertsand the relationship between intention and effect in a performance or a play, well . . . . ?

The problem for me now would not be finding performances worth seeing or plays worth reading. The problem is finding critics who can give to the "airy nothingness" of a theatre experience a shape, who can complete the experience by giving playgoers' feelings, sense or intuitions expression. . . something which can't be found alone, or in idle post-theatre chat.

No one writing theatre criticism in Canada today meets this test. Ronald Bryden did it for five marvellous years in Britain.

Keep 'Distant' Distant

Ronald Bryden - An Appreciation (11)