Swans Commentary » swans.com May 7, 2007  



A Neglected Critic
Ronald Bryden's Shaw and His Contemporaries: Theatre Essays


by Charles Marowitz


A Book Review



Bryden, Ronald: Shaw and His Contemporaries: Theatre Essays, Edited by Denis Johnston, Mosaic Press: ISBN: 0-88962-791


(Swans - May 7, 2007)   One of the great curses of the theatre is that almost no one ever reads program notes. Members of the audience scan the credits and the cast list as they calculate how many scenes will precede the intermission when they can relieve the accumulated strains of art with a visit to the bar or the loo, but they rarely ever settle back and digest the one or two-thousand word essay an industrious dramaturg has sweated over to orientate the theatergoer to the play they are about to see.

How imaginative then of Denis Johnson, the former Head of Publications of the Shaw Festival in Ontario, to have gathered together the writings of the Canadian-British theater critic Ronald Bryden in a collection that preserves some of the finest program notes of this rather neglected drama critic between the covers of Shaw and His Contemporaries: Theatre Essays.

Although the lion's share of the book consists of material relating to productions at the Shaw Festival, the rich catholicity of that repertoire is such that it embraces the work of playwrights such as Harley Granville-Barker, Noel Coward, J. M. Barrie, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and Harold Pinter -- as well as GBS himself. On Shaw, Bryden writes with an intimacy that suggests that he is (like Granville-Barker was rumored to have been) a direct offspring of the superannuated Irishman and privy to facts gleaned from firsthand experience. He delves deeply yet lightly into the backgrounds that spawned works such as Arms And The Man, You Never Can Tell, Major Barbara, Heartbreak House, etc. They are essays that are not only about Shaw, but Shavian in the sense that they combine wit, insight, and deep-seated social awareness.

I knew of Ron Bryden's work from his contributions to British outlets such as the London Review of Books, The Observer, and the New Statesman, but must admit, I never had sufficient exposure to him to form any conclusive opinion as to where he stood in the concatenation of British theatre critics. The looming presence of Ken Tynan tended to obscure almost every other scribe writing between the late 1950s and the start of the '80s when Tynan, having forsaken the plume, succumbed to emphysema in Santa Monica. But having belatedly discovered this collection, one is somewhat abashed not to have appreciated Bryden properly when he was alive. (He died in November 2004.)

He was not only a smooth and highly informed drama critic, he was also an outstanding dramaturg -- first at the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequently at the Shaw Festival. Not so much in the fashion of present-day dramaturgs that tinker or tweak the work of fledgling playwrights and whom authors devoutly pray would just get run over by a bus -- but in the sense of being an archival explorer who immersed himself in the literature of the past uncovering treasures that simply flicked past less perceptive litterateurs. For instance, it was Bryden who, excavating ancient tomes such as John Bernard's l8th century Retrospections of America and the more obscure writings of William Hazlitt, dredged up John O'Keeffe's comedy Wild Oats that, after some three centuries, was rehabilitated at the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequently revived in repertory theatres throughout the UK and the USA.

Bryden wears his erudition as lightly as a boutonnière, but one that can suddenly transform into a dazzling corsage when the critic yields to an enthusiasm or deftly uproots a dazzling intellectual nuance. He strikes a perfect balance between erudition and straight talk. There is never anything pompous or presumptuous in his judgments, just solidly grounded, easily comprehended good sense expressed in a prose as fluent as it is lucid. He clearly took to heart Ken Tynan's dictum: "It is a critic's duty not only to assess what he sees, but also what he does not see." He never felt the need to mount a hobbyhorse or bellow through a megaphone to convey his enthusiasm or proclaim his advocacy. His eye was as sharp as that clairvoyance that enabled him to look beyond what many other critics took to be "settled facts."

Bryden is bang on, for instance, in describing the transformation of Arthur Conan Doyle's nimble-witted sleuth into a humanized, flesh and blood character via William Gillette's 1899 potboiler Sherlock Holmes. It was Gillette, the efficient and successful professional man-of-the-theatre, who finessed the melodrama that ultimately turned Holmes into a British icon. Bryden argues convincingly it was the Gillette play, rather than Conan Doyle's tales, that established Holmes in the popular imagination with his "deerstalker cap" and who "made Professor Moriarty a household name." Even with a legend as exhaustively researched as Sherlock Holmes, Bryden throws luminous shafts of light on to a subject that we had thought -- mistakenly -- had been sealed into faits accomplis.

In his program note for Harold Pinter's Old Times, he puts his finger on precisely what made that work such a great success with the British public in the early 1970s, quoting Anna's description of the time that she shared a London flat with Kate:

Queuing all night, the rain, do you remember? My goodness, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden, what did we eat? To look back, half the night, to do things we loved, we were young then, of course, but what stamina, and to work in the morning, and to a concert, or the opera, or the ballet, that night, you haven't forgotten.

"The references to queuing all night or half the night," writes Bryden, "gives Anna's vagueness a specific time frame. They called up the postwar years when, food and clothes rationed, consumer goods in short supply, there was little for the British to spend money on but culture. .... In l971, Anna's attempt to bring back the bliss of that dawn when to be young was very heaven struck deep, painful chords within British audiences of Pinter's generation. The promised Utopia had not arrived. Instead, the island seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into economic crisis and class warfare. The smell of what eventually would identify itself as Thatcherism was in the air." And in that same essay, Bryden concludes with a rueful but startlingly apt summation of the dashed hopes that characterized the period:

As the twentieth century nears its end, it becomes clear that its most important events have been mass refusals to believe -- America's loss of belief in the '60s in the national dream according to Eisenhower, the Soviet empire's loss of belief in the gospel of Stalin, Chinese youth's loss of belief in Mao and his little red book. With these can be placed the postwar British struggle to wake up from the Churchillian dream of the Empire and its finest hour. Like all really great plays, Old Times seems to float above and beyond politics, but nevertheless to articulate in its bones the central idea of its time.

Something very similar can be said of Bryden's critique. It blends drama criticism and social insight in precisely the way Pinter's work melds human relationships and the political malaise in which they were played out in the 1970s. It describes the context, not only of Pinter's play, but the society into which it was disconcertingly introduced.

Bryden is equally perceptive on Noel Coward and Chekhov, Barrie, and Shaw. His writing achieves what the very best theatre criticism is supposed to do but rarely does: recreate the theatrical event within the framework of the history, past and present, which brought the play into being in that particular amalgamation of thought, language, action, and spirit.

Denis Johnson's final quote in the book's introduction echoes this same idea and puts it succinctly in Bryden's own words. Answering the query: Why the theatre? Bryden writes: "Perhaps it's because the stage is almost the last really public art, the one which depends not on a private, solitary response but a shared one, common to neighbors not of one's choosing. In this, it is still, as someone said, like the world."

Not as dazzlingly brilliant as Tynan, not as penetrating as Eric Bentley or as academically savvy as Robert Brustein, nevertheless for clarity, prescience, and sheer hypnotic readability, Bryden earns his special corner in the critical pantheon.


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Published May 7, 2007