Monday, December 4, 2006

Ronald Bryden

My mentor and friend, Ron Bryden, died about two years ago last week. He was a great critic, and if you want to get some idea of exactly how great, take a look at Shaw and His Contemporaries: Theatre Essays by Ronald Bryden, ed. Denis Johnston (Mosaic Press/Academy of the Shaw Festival, 2002). Anyway, I came across a letter from him today, which set me thinking and eventually prompted me to to go in search of this piece which I wrote for his memorial service at the invitation of his daughters---two truly lovely women:

I first met Ron more than two decades ago when, as a young undergraduate, I was cast in some of the Drama Centre’s productions at Hart House Theatre. Ron had been teaching at UofT for a few years by then, but he had only just been appointed the Director of the Drama Centre, and naturally, there was a great deal of excitement about his appointment. People always seemed to be talking about what he had done and quoting certain things that he had said and written---probably with more enthusiasm than accuracy—--and the effect was that Ron had assumed a sort of legendary status in my mind before I ever met him.

When I did finally meet him, of course it was immediately clear what it was that people found so fascinating about him. I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves in awe, at one time or another, at that Miltonic mind of his, with its encyclopaedic knowledge not just of the theatre, but (as it sometimes appeared) all of Western Culture. And then there was the way he spoke: so beautifully, in well-formed prose, combining in conversation the same elements that characterized his writing: the raconteur’s gift for telling a story as vividly and succinctly as possible, along with that startling acuity of insight which made him such a brilliant critic.

But I think what most impressed me about Ron at the time—an impression confirmed again and again over the next twenty-odd years—was that, for a man so accomplished, he seemed to be so gentle, so warm, and so utterly lacking in any discernible pretension. It was surprising sometimes to discover over the years just how well acquainted Ron was with this or that famous person, because he gave little hint of this in his conversation. In fact, while he was always happy to speak warmly of his family, I seldom heard him talk of himself—and whenever he did, fleetingly, in any story he told, there was never any hint of self-aggrandizement.

On the other hand, neither was he guilty of false modesty. I recall one occasion, about fifteen years ago, when I was a Junior Fellow at Massey College and was sitting in the common room, alone, reading the newspapers after dinner. Suddenly the door to the Master’s lodging opened and out walked Ann Saddlemyer (then the Master of Massey College, and a distinguished professor), with a group in tow that included Ron, as well as Claude Bissell (the President emeritus of University of Toronto), Pauline McGibbon (the former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario), Douglas LePan (winner of the Governor General’s Award for fiction and poetry), Robertson Davies and Northrop Frye. The next day I saw Ron in class and said to him: “You certainly were in august company last night!” And Ron looked at me and said (deadpan but with a touch of feigned indignation): “Well, so were they.” Ron was being witty, of course, as he so often was; but I think there was something of principle here too. He was, as they say, “no respecter of persons”; rather, he treated everyone with dignity.

One can see this idea cropping up all over his life. A number of years ago, I came across a piece that Ron had written on Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Eventually, this became a hugely celebrated production, of course, but at first, Ron was one of only a select group of critics who praised it warmly. As I remember, what Ron had loved about it more than anything else was the way the production broke down barriers—between the audience and the actors, among classes, among ages, even among cultures. And this same idea, essentially, was characteristic of Ron’s attitude towards the classroom. I think now of a graduate seminar in post-World War II British drama that I took with Ron, in which I am sure we students said many callow and fatuous things; and yet, notwithstanding that everything Ron said was so wise and so much to the point, there was never the sense that our views were of any less value to him, or that he suspected he would hear little of interest said by us about an area which he knew better, perhaps, than any other person living.

This gentleness and warmth seemed to be present in every other context I encountered him—whether as a writer, a director, a scholar or as a friend. Now, the way I speak of him comes, I know, embarrassingly close to hero-worship, though, naturally, I am aware that Ron was capable of being irascible or forgetful or so on. But those are qualities he shared with all of us. What was exceptional in him—the reason that I always have and always will regard him as my mentor—was his magnanimity of spirit; his immense erudition that always remained uninfected by any snobbery; his generosity and kindness; and his passionate engagement with the world.

I miss him very much, but my life has been immeasurably enriched by having known him.

1 comment:

Janet Fraser said...

Ronald Bryden was my ex-husband's thesis advisor and a true friend to him and me. He was a brilliant critic, an elegant talker and writer, and the most knowledgeable and interesting person I've known.
I loved him for his honesty, vulnerability, tenderness and compassion. When he died I grieved as if for my beloved uncle. Thank you Craig for writing an accurate, deeply perceptive portrait of this amazing man.

Janet Fraser