All in Criticism

So we are to believe that the commitment of executives to environmental responsibility is wavering. According to a study by the the gandalf group reported in Canada's The Globe and Mail, 152 Canadian executives are less sure than they were 15 months ago that a carbon tax is a good idea  and no longer support a cap-and-trade system for carbon management with the same zeal.

As is pointed out, the results evidence some pulling back on environmental responsibility because of the imagined costs of economic turmoil and the impact of punishing increases in the price of oil. "Ensuring an adequate supply of energy is much more important to executives than fighting climate change or controlling energy prices," concludes the report. Support for a carbon tax has fallen from 63% in February 2007 to 47% today. Support for a cap-and-trade system has also fallen from 57% to 47% over the same period

There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth as people see evidence in this of lack of fealty to sustainability among Canadian corporations. Sure enough the Globe and Mail sought out interviews with executives who confirm they are even questioning the effect of GHGs on global warming. (Ignoring strangely an article just a few days before by Rick George, president and CEO of Suncor Energy Inc., expressing strong support for linking corporate objectives to social realities).

But when you factor in a confidence index of +/- 7.32% the ambivalence is hardly definitive and not especially shocking. The results may in fact be over-stating a decline that is not surprising really and not indicative perhaps of anything more than a reasonable caution in the face of economic instability.

There is also some good news in the study that shows some forward (if slightly defensive) thinking. Approximately 87% of respondents support government investment in emerging technologies: 85% support building new nuclear plants and 78% backed major investments in wind and solar energy alternatives. And aren't these alternatives the best and lasting answer to climate change?

Vehicle_electric What I found most troubling is the comment about government investment in emerging technologies. Haven't we been told time-and-again by business that it is a better midwife to innovation than government? Look at what GM is doing with its Chevy Volt. Let's not start asking for handouts.


Strumpette has raised its head one more time to make a loud and articulate plea to be considerably more restrained in our embrace of reputation strategies focused on social media. There are only a few comments on the post, which I take to mean either that people are completely confused by this anti--blog or that, like me, they are such neophytes in understanding the new social media dynamic that being clear about what is right or wrong in the 'Amanda Chapel' harangue will take a lot of reflection. And I promise to do that.

I do know there are a few (well more than a few) preposterous and ahistorical claims which undermine Strumpette's case ("Fact is, by and large we've become the business of aiding and abetting the forces destroying our culture.") put there one suspects just to kick us in the ass.

But at least one sentiment rings terribly true: "PR is (should be) the business of making the case to the public on behalf of a client. Exclusively! Period. And the disappearance of the skill of writing in our business is inextricably related to the loss of the ability to do just that. By default, this is absolutely why today the business endorses 'the conversation.' It's because the business has lost the ability to make a convincing, meaningful and memorable presentation. If you cannot do formal, endorse casual."

Finally, I don't have to feel so guilty about my own pedantic blogging and its attempts to be convincing and meaningful (although certainly not memorable I am afraid.)

(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.

(Start at March 5th for the full essay . . . Not too much more to go.)

Set designers especially were orphaned in Bryden's reviews. If the elements of set design were not apparently a significant contributor to the experience of the performance, then they were largely ignored. A review of Iris Murdoch's The Servants and the Snow (October 4, 1970) is typical of how little attention Bryden usually paid to the set, even when it may have had a central place in the creation of a mood or interpretation which he was praising. Only rarely did he comment on why the setting or costumes were able to support the play. Nor did he take apart how the effect was achieved:

"Roger Butlin's designs, icy white vinyl, mirrors and furs, have all the magic you could wish, but within them the cast are left struggling with virtually unspeakable lines, wavering uneasily between costume-drama stilted and mythical-portentous."

Occasionally, his intense focus on experiential 'soul' simply went too far. A review of David Storey's In Celebration mentioned earlier says virtually nothing about the production . . . except that Lindsay Anderson directed it. No actors are mentioned, nothing about the staging is highlighted. The evening in Bryden's experience of it was purely one of history and ideas; that is, a matter of dramaturgy.

This inattention to the constituent parts of a production initially included acting, although as Bryden's tenure extended, he became more sensitive to the power of performance. After a year in his post at The Observer Bryden evidenced greater confidence in dissecting the actor's craft. His starting point, as should be for any critic, was recognizing the simple fact of the preeminence of technique to good performance:

"Technique as absolute as hers (Elisabeth Bergner) is so rare nowadays that it's worth recalling what the word means. Technique is the sum of the ways in which an actor holds attention, establishes command over an audience. As a hypnotist does, it combines charm and bullying; the sure precision of speech and movement which define superiority with volatility so swift that ear and eye follow it, riveted, afraid of missing some sudden shift. Its summa, I suppose, is Shakespeare's Cleopatra: with no way of showing her sexual hold on Antony, he wrote for his boy-player a dazzling compendium of theatrical tricks, a part of which consists of technique and nothing else." (December 10, 1967)

His reviews then began to look more frequently at the play or production from the point of view of what it revealed about, or offered to, the actor. He also began to track specific careers and assess the value of particular roles for actors of real worth . . . Irene Worth and Tom Courtenay (Romeo and Juliet, Decembr 31, 1967) among them. By the time Paul Scofield's Macbeth is transferred to the Aldwych Theatre in January, 1968, the entire review becomes an assessment of the "noble half-failure" of Scofield's interpretation . . .

"To play Macbeth, an actor must comprehend not only evil but also its enjoyment. Scofield confronts it with brave, distressed understanding, but never for a moment grasps or offers its pleasures." (Januar 7, 1968)

(Start at March 5th for the full essay . . . It's worth the read . . . so says the author.)

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.

(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)

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

Only rarely, and then usually in the case of a transplanted Broadway comedy, does Bryden ever casually dismiss a work, although with great failures like Marguerite Duras' The Viaduct, his judgment is harsh. But there are a few dramatists with whom he had little patience, including Jean Anouilh and Friedrich Durrenmatt who are part of an intellectually over-blown European dramatic tradition:

"Unfortunately, like Anouilh he's (Durrenmatt) been seduced into following a playwright whose sophistication he can imitate only at a hopelessly naive distance -- Giraudoux. As Giraudoux used the Greek myths, Durrenmatt uses the German marchen, producing grim modern fairy tales in which science, politics and death are used for general, dark portentous colouring rather as the Brothers Grimm used witches and forests." (July 31, 1966)

Only one other genre could elicit more irritation than the hollow imitations of some European intellectual dramatists -- the Broadway musical. Bryden shared the concern of some of his American contemporaries that American theatre was in decay as a consequence of the commercial pressures of Broadway -- and the consequent push to charm -- when what was needed was "more small theatres for more people who want art to face themes to which charm is inadequate."

When confronted with Broadway musicals which are all treacle and manipulative sentiment, Bryden could be as nasty as the next critic, including hard-nosed (but no less erudite) critic John Simon, as in a scathing review of the enormously successful Man of La Mancha.

"At the Picadilly, the main if not the only interest of the American musical Man of La Mancha is its demonstration of why off-Broadway, where it originated, had to be supplanted by off-off-Broadway." (April 28, 1968)

Or the equally harsh tossing aside (who can blame him?) of Butterflies are Free:

"The less stable a society, the more reassurance it needs. It would be pointless to discuss Butterflies are Free, the Broadway hit comedy at the Apollo, as if it were a play. It's a piece of marketing: packaged, instant self-congratulation for the wealthy middle-aged who alone today can afford the New York theatre."

There is a patrician intellectual disdain apparent in the tone of his comments on American theatre. Even while praising a musical, Bryden finds nothing of lasting value at its core. Entertainment alone, except if it is of the Joan Littlewood "popular theatre" variety, does not really stand as a value for him:

"All Broadway comedies boil down to two plots: the one about the little old lady who persuades Macy's, Standard Oil or the Internal Revenue that money is not everything; or the one about the couple confined together in a flat, like pandas, until they copulate."

Among American writers who works were seen in London only the serious -- Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit and Arthur Miller -- are spared Bryden's occasionally acerbic pen.

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

What he looked for was the felicity or wholeness of interpretation by the director and occasionally the actors. What he wanted from a production, whether it was at the Royal Shakespere Company, the National Theatre or small provincial theatres was what he found lacking in Karolos Koun's production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford-Upon-Avon:

"He offers a fascinating and perfectly valid version of the tragedy -- in some ways, perhaps, a loftier one than the extravagantly admired Zeffirelli production of 10 years ago. But it never seems more than a version: there's no sense of a dramatic event so charged with its own life that it might be turned about and regarded from another aspect. It's a memorable Romeo and Juliet; it never persuades you that it's the play itself." (September 24, 1967)

Even when reviewing a performance of Sir Laurence Olivier as Shylock -- surely one of the standards against which all other past and future Shylocks are and will be measured -- it is director Jonathan Miller's achievement which stands out to the critic. Miller unlocked something in the play that had not been seen before:

"The main, astounding achievement of the new Merchant of Venice at the National is to make horrifyingly credible, surely for the first time in a century or more, the gruesome old bargain at the heart of the play. It virtually rewrites the original to do so. Out goes much of the comedy, out Belomont's fairy-tale romance. Instead, there's the assumption that the central, unavoidable experience of the play is the explosion of frank, murdering tribal hatred at the core of it: that the task of any revival is not to skirt round this, but create afresh a believable world from which it can spring." (May 3, 1970)

With productions of Shakespeare as with reviews of the avant garde, Bryden was never the novelty chaser, even though his tolerance sometimes seemed extravagantly forgiving of new works. His judgements of some such as Canadian Stuart Gilman or of John Bowen's After the Rain anticipated a better future for them than materialized. The fact the "brilliant theatricality" of Bowen's After the Rain was never repeated (as far as I am aware anyway) reflects less misplaced judgement on Bryden's part, perhaps, than the lack of persistence or commitment of the writers themselves in pursuing the strengths in their own craft.

Neither did he succumb to popular fashion. Bryden preferred Peter Terson's Mooney and His Caravans to Hair (again defending the primacy of language or ideas over physicality -- May 19, 1968) and John Osborne's less well-known play Time Present to other of his works calling it, "Osborne's most mature, least self-indulgent play". (May 26, 1968) And in the same review he attacked mercilessly the popular Unknown Soldier and his Wife by Peter Ustinov.

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

Bryden's twin imperatives for the avant garde in the latter half of the 20th century -- shock with verbalised language and explore the infinite world of possible human motives -- found their masters in Tom Stoppard, Jean Genet, Bertolt Brecht even Terence Rattigan. But Harold Pinter is especially favoured. Pinter, of course, uses language and its limitations to circumscribe motive and character:

"So that where Beckett's people become types, caricatures, gabbling turnips, Pinter's are precisly individuated. Rumsey, Bates and Ellen in Silence are little more than three antiphonal litanies of recurring phrases, but the phrases are so sharply, arrestingly chosen that Anthony Bates, Norman Rodway and Frances Cuka can build them into formidable cameos of character, stonily unlike anyone else you ever knew." (July 6, 1969)

Bryden rightly saw in Pinter's choice of words and silences, and the antiphonal relationship between the two, the near perfect union of intention and words; of idea and presentation.

Given Bryden's conviction that the textures and use of language are the most dramatic of human gifts, it would seem to follow that Shakespeare's plays would engage him most urgently. This was the case . . . but not exclusively for reasons of poetry. Bryden's approach to productions of Shakespeare's works, especially at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, was not to linger over the meaning of the poetry or Shakespeare's implied intentions -- both academic exercises and, in the theatre, pointless at that. The issue for Bryden wasn't the writing, or what Shakespeare meant to say, or how Elizabethan theatrical convention can inform our understanding of the playwright's intentions. Bryden wanted to explain the experience engendered by the sum of elements brought together . . . at that performance . . . at that time.

(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)
(Part four of an essay on Ronald Bryden, the first two parts of which were published in the past two weeks. Please track back to find the introduction and parts one to three)

In retrospect, the richness of British drama and theatrical arts in 1966, when Bryden began to review for The Observer, makes stange the preoccupation at the time of discovering some form of "New Wave". Bryden identifies the concern in November 1966 in comments on two plays -- Henry Livings' Little Mrs. Foster Show and Charles Wood's Fill the Stage with Happy Hours.

After first making merry of the trainloads of critics and impresarios who disembark in Liverpool and Nottingham to sniff out these offerings of the "new Wave", he does try to find in the plays hints that they bring something new to the theatre. His final judgement -- a little tentatively or hesitantly drawn it's worth noting -- gave them credit for having brought to the theatre new flavours, but did not venture so far as to herald the birth of a new genre.

Preoccupation with unearthing trends is a hazard of criticism anywhere, but seems to have been an unavoidable problem of living in Britain in the 1960s. It often led to novelty chasing on the part of directors, actors, playwrights and sometimes critics. This was just as true, of course, elsewhere. Many of Bryden's contemporaries, including venerable American critic Walter Kerr (God on the Gymnasium Floor), succumber to feverish first nights of avant garde events, constantly trying to discover in them something which could be called new or truly different.

For Bryden, however, gimmickry and novelty for their own sake ranked as sins next to writing to audience prejudices, manipulative ideologues and dullness. Difference -- whether by nudity, role changing, shock or extravagance -- had to be informed by purpose: "Clifford Williams' production (ed. an all male As You Like It) is interesting, sometimes astonishingly lovely to look at. But it proves nothing -- it's hard to see what it could hope to -- about Shakespeare or his play."

(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.

(Part two of an essay first posted yesterday, and to continue throughout the month.) The second (way in which I am qualified to write about Ronald Bryden - ed.) is more personal, yet no less germane. Although I had completed an individual directed reading course in post-war British theatre and a seminar in the craft of theatre criticism with Professor Bryden, I can't say we had a personal relationshp. I could never bring myself to call him 'Ron' -- 'Professor Bryden' seemed to have just the right amount of deference and formality. Nevertheless, while in Europe I wrote letters to a number of 'friends', only one of whom ever responded . . . one friend that is, and Professor Bryden. Bryden's letter I recall not only urged me to enjoy a "dejeuner sur l'herbe" in Paris where I was living, but offered assistance in making the kind of contacts that might see my articles published. It was an encouraging and unselfish act that, I think, evidenced a respect for youthful energy and a tolerance of excess. That tolerance and acceptance of the self-confident but shaky quest of a young person who loved drama is important to understanding Bryden's place in British theatre. For a critic who was so learned and so comfortable with the canon of English-language and European literature -- in a way completely foreign at the time to Canadian drama criticism -- Bryden was immensely catholic in his sympathies to ideas, to forms of presentation, to legitimate exploration of ideas, to excess caused by a surfeit of passion. British theatre at the time (1960s) was well served by Bryden's catholicity and exuberance for ideas, and at the same time demanded it of its observers. The theatre was experiencing one of those periodic explosions of immense talent that seems to correspond to the decline of social and political infrastructure. In Britain, the body politic was recognizing -- a little belatedly perhaps -- that the nation had become something of a bit player in the new world order. But in the theatre, almost as a counterbalance to the defeated national psyche, British actors, directors and writers had assumed centre stage again . . . at least among English-language countries and, according to Le Nouvel Observateur critic Guy Dumur (in a personal interview with me in 1978), among many non-English language countries as well. In the same week that Bryden recognized the genius of Tom Stoppard, he was reviewing a brilliant Royal Shakespeare Company production of Coriolanus directed by John Barton and starring Ian Richardson, as well as Joan Littlewood's famour production of MacBird. He could just as easily have been admiring Harold Pinter performing one of his own works, or Sir Laurence Olivier with his grand Shylock, or Maggie Smith (Bryden - "One of the theatre's great queens of comdey) in Farquahar's The Beaux Strategem. He could be so engaged by the exploration of the concept of supposed British national virtues in Charles Wood's H that he might be forgiven had he missed the powerful imagery in Edward Bond's Narrow Road to the Deep North. But he didn't.

(To be continued . . . )

I haven't posted for nearly a month for a variety of domestic (renovations; son home from university for reading week), personal (bad cold and the resulting ennui) and work (three trips to Ottawa, one to Montreal) reasons. (No evidence of wailing and gnashing of teeth at my absence I have to say.) The time hasn't been without its pleasures . . . a fine production of Gotterdammerung by the Canadian Opera Company that finally made sense of Wagner for me; a spare, turtle-paced production of Thorton Wilder's Our Town; and wild boar at a restaurant called Perigee based on the Japanese dining concept Omakase (meaning trust me)..

The reason I am back is contained in the somewhat cryptic title to this post. About 10-12 years ago I wrote an essay (never published) on a British theatre critic and professor named Ronald Bryden with whom I had studied in the late 70s. Sadly I learned not too long ago that he had died at the age of 76, and I am not sure now whether he knew I had written this piece. Since my appreciation of Professor Bryden never saw the light of day, and this blog affords a good opportunity for personal reflection, I am going to post the essay here over the next few weeks. Perhaps some graduate student will crib from it for a more detailed study of Professor Bryden. Here goes . . . :

In 1978, shortly after completing an M.A. from the graduate program in drama at the University of Toronto's Graduate Drama Centre, I went to live in Europe for a year to begin what I had hoped would be a career in arts journalism. The career aspirations came to nothing (that's another story about the parochial interests of Canadian newspaper and magazine editors when it comes to theatre criticism). But it was an important year, and in at least two ways means I am especially qualified to take a look at the art and influence of Ronald Bryden, literary editor (1961-1963) of The Spectator, theatre critic for The Observer between 1966 and 1971, subsequently play reader for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and for many years director of the Graduate Drama Centre.

First, I had the opportunity to meet with a number of British playwrights -- Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, Snoo Wilson and David Edgar among them -- and such directors as Stuart Burge, then managing the fortunes of the Royal Court theatre, and Peter Brook who had known Bryden professionally. By the time I spoke with them, the memory of his criticism had been supplanted to some extent by opinions about his recent tenure as dramaturge of Britain's premier theatre company. In all their comments there was evident an interesting mix of fondness and respect, even for some as disdainful of theatre critics and journalists as Edward Bond and David Edgar (a recent play of his had been rejected by Bryden as unsuitable for the RSC).

I also remember well a conversation with Michael Coveney who had been editor of Plays and Players magazine and at the time was theatre critic for The Financial Times of London. Without prompting, Coveney spoke at length about Bryden's significance to British theatre and drama, a significance that in Coveney's view went well beyond what one would expect from such a relatively short stay at the drama critic's desk. Bryden's respect for the efforts of new dramatists, said Coveney, "was sorely missed."

(Essay to be continued . . . )