- Shaw and His Contemporaries: Theatre Essays
Ron Bryden's foreword to his theatre essays begins 'Caveat emptor!,' with a humorous warning that most of these pieces began life as program notes, and that those who seek the 'grand theoretic formulae' of the 'post-modern, post-colonial, neo-feminist or even palaeo-patriarchal' will be disappointed. But his playful modesty does little justice to this enjoyable and informative collection. Bryden, who died in 2004, was one of Canada's foremost theatre critics, and one of the most influential critics of his generation. His career as a journalist, critic, scholar, and dramaturge spanned five decades, beginning at the BBC in London in the 1950s. In 1971 he was appointed dramaturge at the Royal Shakespeare Company, before coming to the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama at the University of Toronto in 1976 , where he served two terms as director of the Centre. He was literary adviser to the Shaw Festival from 1992, retiring finally in 2002.
Theatre Essays is a selection of Bryden's book reviews, performance reviews, and program notes, the latter written for the Shaw and Stratford festivals in Ontario, and for the National Theatre of Great Britain. Although the majority date from the 1990s onwards, there is a sprinkling of his earlier writings, including a 1964 review of Olivier's blackface Othello, and a 1977 review of the Toronto Art Theatre's production of Edward Bond's The Sea. In total there are more than thirty pieces on theatre, ten of them on George Bernard Shaw, four on Noel Coward, and three on Chekhov and Gorky, as well as reviews of books on Shaw, O'Neill, Wilde, and Kenneth Tynan.
Bryden's essays are disarmingly easy to read, but he compresses a wealth of historical, literary, and biographic research into each short piece. It was his great talent to present scholarly material in digestible slices, without ever patronizing his audience. These pieces have been cleverly edited so that each is complete in itself, but can also be read as part of a larger narrative. Thus the first section in the book, titled 'Bernard Shaw,' has ten program notes ordered by the date of Shaw's plays. The section begins with Mrs. Warren's Profession, where Bryden's essay focuses on Shaw's experiences as a rent collector in the slums, and on prostitution in Europe before the First World War. In the essay on Arms and the Man, the reader follows the author's progress, while Bryden's swashbuckling version of the Mountbatten family history gives the record of the Serbo-Bulgarian war a romantic sheen. But these pieces also incorporate insights into Shaw's dramaturgical technique. In the program note for You Never Can Tell, Bryden identifies this play as the point at which Shaw turned away from Ibsenite naturalism to develop his own conception of theatre.
The other two sections of the book are titled 'Shaw's Contemporaries' and 'Critic at Large.' The first of these offers a range of reviews and [End Page 316] program notes for plays by J.M. Barrie, Maksim Gorky, Anton Chekhov, Noel Coward, Anita Loos, Clifford Odets, and others. The program notes for The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and Gorky's Summerfolk provide a glimpse of Russian theatre history, incorporating Konstantin Stanislavsky, Olga Knipper, and Vasilii Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko into the familiar world of the Shaw Festival. Two of the most intriguing pieces are Bryden's 2001 program notes for Peter Pan at Shaw, and his 1966 review of the same play for The Observer. These essays - printed in reverse chronological order - show that Bryden's ambivalent response to the play remained strong over the years. The 'Critic at Large' section includes a review of the Windmill Theatre, a London burlesque house, first published in 1962, and two sharply witty book reviews, of The Life of Kenneth Tynan and of Anthony Holden's Olivier, both originally published in the 1980s.
Bryden raises, in his introduction, the limitations of the program note as a form. But...