RONALD BRYDEN: 1927-2004


Ron Bryden, c. 1966, courtesy of The Observer. Photo provided by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden. (Photographer unknown.)

One day in 1976 an elegant and courteous gentleman, not yet bearing the rumpled casual rotundity of later decades, appeared in the offices of the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for Study of Drama (the Drama Centre). We had corresponded for over a year in preparation for this meeting, ever since I heard that Ronald Bryden might be ready to move on from his role as celebrated dramaturge to the Royal Shakespeare Company. But this was our first meeting, and he marked it by delivering out of his pocket a small piece of slate from W.B.Yeats’s tower in the west of Ireland. Of course I was charmed—but only later did I realize how typical a gesture that was of the man and the critic. Ron not only did his preliminary research, he invested it with well-tempered humanity and a sensitive awareness of the other person. He himself has partially explained this in the story of his upbringing: an exile from one colonial society (Trinidad) who moved to another (boarding school and college in Canada) to a Britain in the process of discovering its own outsiderness in a newly minted world of alternative cultures. No wonder the works of E. M. Forster – whom he met in Cambridge and who, he suspected, had eased his way onto London’s literary scene – were an early and abiding passion.

That part of the Bryden biography is well-known: born in Port of Spain in 1927 of third generation British immigrants, at 14 he was sent to Ridley College near St Catharines and stayed to graduate with a B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1950. While at Trinity College he wrote libretti for a musical comedy (What, No Crumpets!—perhaps the first indication of his lifelong fascination with The Importance of Being Earnest) and an operetta (Saints Alive); Keith MacMillan wrote the music to both. A year later he was at King’s College, Cambridge, where he garnered another B.A. in 1953 and an M.A. in 1956. More importantly, he began writing book reviews. This led to work at the BBC and seven years as a book reviewer, chiefly for The Listener (whose editor was Forster’s cousin), The Spectator (which he joined in 1961 and where for 18 months he was literary editor), and The New Statesman. Then, in 1963, he became editor of Town Magazine. In 1964 he inaugurated his position as drama critic for The New Statesman with a review of Olivier’s Othello. Two years later he replaced Kenneth Tynan as theatre critic for The Observer, where his singular praise of a new play by Tom Stoppard – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, produced by the Oxford Theatre Group at the Edinburgh Festival – announced not only a new voice on the stage, “punning, farfetched, leaping from depth to dizziness,” but one in the stalls. Finally, from 1971 he served as dramaturge for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“Plays are highly individual transactions between playwrights and their times, whose meaning is created jointly by the text, the text’s theatrical interpreters, and the minds of the audiences who come to see it,” he wrote in his introduction to Shaw and His Contemporaries. As critic Ron Bryden not only honoured that transaction, he persuaded us to experience it, using an armoury of wit, insight, impressive knowledge of theatrical and social history, sympathy, and confident certainty. That he admired Shaw helped but, like GBS, he never lost sight of his demands on the interpreters – nor what he himself demanded of the theatre. He preferred Olivier’s Solness to Redgrave’s because it was less Nietzschean hero and more our contemporary, existing “socially, in a social play”; was excited by David Warner’s Hamlet, “young enough to play the prince as a real student, learning as he goes along”; loved Brecht and Chekhov for their breadth and pity and because they were less about individuals than about society; disliked the “theatre-fortheatre’s sake” enthusiasts.

And he knew so much, storing away nuggets of fact from a wide-ranging reading of letters, biography, and social history, used later to illuminate an argument with a graceful insouciant aside. A programme note for The Seagull begins with the seemingly inappropriate lecture on the destruction by fire in 1994 of Moscow’s Slavyansky Bazaar, and only once we are drawn in do we realize that this is a key not only to Chekhov’s play but to the historical meeting between Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko. Emma Lazarus’ poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty is recalled to emphasize the generation gap of Awake and Sing! The history of Thornton Wilder’s mother’s marriage prepares us for a perceptive analysis of The Matchmaker. But most of all he loved the excitement and search for the forgotten jewel – like his rediscovery of O’Keeffe’s Wild Oats and Boucicault’s London Assurance, comedies that not only brightened audiences and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s coffers but taught us something of our own theatre history and, on reflection, our times.

He also admired scholarship, but only the kind that never lost sight of the play as theatre. In a few sentences – sometimes only a phrase dropped sideways – we glimpse his own carefully concealed understanding of text, stage, and audience. A production of Heartbreak House is praised because “its action consists of the unmooring of the play from the reality in which it begins, floating it above and beyond that reality like an airship, and bringing it home on target to the reality of wartime” (Shaw and His Contemporaries 42). Despite its flaws, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is compared to Hardy’s The Dynasts: “Beneath the somewhat glacial, invented language, Arden fishes as Hardy did ponds like the one haunted by Ted Hughes’s pike, deep as England” (Unfinished Hero 97). He passionately desired a theatre that meant something, not “that eternally middle-aged sleeping beauty, the English theatre.” “One of the great weaknesses of the modern theatre,” he observed, “is its lack of sheer stuff – information, gossip, glimpses of other lives instead of our own souls” (Unfinished Hero 82). Admittedly, this last was uttered in exasperation before the Lord Chamberlain retired as protector of those souls, but Ron understood the role contemporary theatre should play: “a place where something – a new experience – should happen to you.” Consider this comparison of Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence with Miller’s Death of a Salesman:

I can’t see the English play making its way round the world, as the American one did, as a universal modern tragedy – there are too many places where it wouldn’t apply. But it works here; and tragedy, despite the teachings of the English Schools, is a mechanism with a quantitative measure of success. It succeeds by the number of fears and anxieties it can gather up from its audience, load on its protagonist and, by a balance of identification and alienation between them, discharge in his destruction. (Unfinished Hero 80)

And despite the admission that acting is an art “ten times more difficult to write about than writing” (“Foreword,” Unfinished Hero 14), his noble assessment of Olivier draws the template for evaluation of technique: “[A]ctors evoke reality [...] by selection and amplification, blowing up details which in life would be too tiny for significance until the surface of everyday behaviour seems swollen with meaning” (Shaw and his Contemporaries 202). These are the observations not only of a great critic, perhaps the most embracing since Shaw, but of the superb teacher.

For 16 years Ron was central to the growth and development of the Drama Centre as teacher and – for an unprecedented two terms – its Director. None of us during that time will ever forget what we learned from his interest in and compassion for others, his generosity and willingness to put the student before administrative or personal concerns, his wily manipulation of limited resources, his stylish wit and impressive knowledge. He steered an extraordinary number of candidates through to their final PhDs; he was equally, unjudgmentally sympathetic to others who moved on to non-academic careers, loyal and proud always of their achievements too. He will be remembered by so many as “one of the luminaries that lit up the sky,” “one of the great inspirations of my life.”

As a colleague, too, he was inspirational, not only for the uniquely phrased summation he could provide of a play, a person, or an event, but the excitement of discovery that never left him. This was one of the reasons he took up directing, to explore and learn something new from the text in performance. I learned much from playing his Gertrude in Hamlet and Miss Prism in his own four-act adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, with its experimental Noh-like setting. Years later when composing his programme essay for the Shaw Festival’s production of the play he teasingly recalled our Wilde collaboration (and doubtless his early Trinity libretto): “You’ll be pleased to know that I’m anointing Prism the pivotal character in the plot, as central as the Old Shepherd in Oedipus Rex, and comparing her recognition of the handbag to his recognition of the scars on Oedipus’ ankles” (Personal E-mail). Michael Sidnell recalls Ron’s intense excitement as he explained the set design of The Tempest, which he was directing in the Ignatieff Theatre, with its magic diagram on the stage floor, clearly and unashamedly prepared to accept the reality of John Dee’s magic. Under Michael’s direction Ron ventured on the Hart House stage (perhaps for the only time) in The Changeling; few will forget his resonant Robert Morley-ish voice boldly uttering,“ This is hell, nor are we out of it: it circumscribes us here.”

During those years Ron served on the board of Theatre Plus Toronto and, notably, from 1978 to 1984, of the Stratford Festival, where he was instrumental in bringing Robin Phillips to Canada. After retirement he continued to teach for a number of years, extending his long relationship with Trinity College, serving on the board of Modern Drama, and shepherding the last of his graduates through their theses. But when Christopher Newton invited him to become literary adviser to the Shaw Festival Theatre, his enthusiasms and roles coalesced in a glowingly satisfactory decade. Modest yet certain, wise but tactful, extraordinarily knowledgeable but generous in his sympathy, he became a strength and support to the entire company. Here he was able to indulge to the full his great love of drama, acting, and actors, and to look back at the playwright/critic whom he frequently evoked in his earlier years as critic.

“For a professional critic, his reviews are his life” (“Foreword,” Unfinished Hero 18), Ron once admitted. A consummate professional writer, he published only two volumes of selected reviews and programme notes: Unfinished Hero, and Other Essays (1969) provides a vivid history of English theatre during the heady days of the 1960s and 70s; Shaw and his Contemporaries: Theatre Essays (2002) offers new and refreshing views of the world out of which the plays of the Shaw Festival erupted. His revaluation of plays by Arnold Wesker, David Pinner, and Cecil Taylor for Penguin’s New English Dramatists 10 (1987) illuminates his own trajectory since his London days, while the wide-reaching introduction to Whittaker’s Theatre (1985) reveals deep understanding of the Canada of the 1940s and 50s. Brief though his commentaries are, they are packed with insight and profound wisdom about the theatre and the worlds in which he lived. He quotes with approval Tynan’s argument that “it is a critic’s duty not only to assess what he sees, but also to complain of what he does not see” (“Preface,” Whittaker’s Theatre xi). Typically, he himself translated this into action: having decided to make Canada his home, he packed his family into a car and drove across the continent to see not only what was there, but what was not. This country would once again be his stage.

For in both classroom and in print, Ron drew on his own life and learning, never hesitant to bring in autobiography as well as biography to make his point. The realism behind Noel Coward’s Point Valaine is confirmed by memories of his own boyhood experience on the Carribean island a year after the playwright’s visit there. More tellingly, in his sympathetic but clear-eyed assessment of Kenneth Tynan, was the admission of his own similar progression from the lure of Hollywood films through the world of the Algonquin Round Table to the theatre. Most revealing of all, perhaps, were his comments on Osborne’s return to the English Stage Company in September 1964, in a tragedy, admittedly not great, but special in its very parochialness.

He is still the voice of my generation. Others have written better plays – Arden, I’d say, and Whiting. Wesker, in spite of everything, seems more admirable once you are outside the theatre; Pinter, in spite of everything, craftier inside it. But only Osborne startles you each time with the sense that he has stolen your thoughts, lived your very life, travelled the same road one jump, more articulately, more desperately, ahead [...] The uncanny had happened again. In his seclusion, Osborne had detoured and come out once more ahead of us on the road. There we were again on the stage, our inmost selves: older, unhappier, self-accusing, but recognised, spoken for. I don’t suppose teenagers will dig Inadmissible Evidence much, and the old will enjoy it for old, discreditable reasons.But if you grew up in the Fifties, it is yours, to harrow and console. Osborne is still our voice [...] His unit is the sermon-soliloquy, addressed to audience or eternity. The other characters may listen, but never really hear. (Unfinished Hero 76)

Again and again Ronald Bryden heard, and importantly, stylishly yet poignantly, charmed us into hearing too. We shall miss his voice.


Bryden, Ronald. Personal E-mail, 27 January 2004.

–––. Shaw and his Contemporaries: Theatre Essays. Ed.Denis Johnston. Oakville,
Ontario: Mosaic Press and the Academy of the Shaw Festival, 2002.

–––. The Unfinished Hero and Other Essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

–––, and Neil Boyd, eds. Whittaker’s Theatre: A Critic Looks at Stages in Canada and Thereabouts 1944-1975. Greenbank, Ontario: The Whittaker Project, 1985.