Ronald Bryden had the best job; I met him as a student at the Drama Centre in the University of Toronto. He has just arrived from England where he was “a play adviser “ (he didn’t call it a dramaturge) for the Royal Shakespeare theatre. He explained that his job was to help the director and the cast to understand the play and the characters in the context of its time and culture. I have never heard of such a job, but knew that it was indeed the best job on earth. . In Bryden's course we put up a production of The Marquis of Keith by Frank Wedekind. This was the same play that he did with the Royal Shakespeare. We certainly enjoyed his expertise as we knew nothing about Wedekind and Munich at the beginning of the tentieth century. As students we were happy to spend endless hours on the play, getting to know Wedekind and his era through the exciting tutelage of Bryden. However, “real” actors don’t have that time and a good literary advisor provides them a useful short-cut.
I don’t know how many theatres still employ serious play advisers; from my experience, not many. When the budget is tight literary research seems like a luxury. But the absence of that nowledge leads to a limited understanding of the play and results in a mediocre and superficial productions. It is not a problem with the classics, the Greeks and Shakespeare, as there is a body of knowledge and a long tradition of producing them. But the ignorance is obvious when producing a contemporary translated play, a recnt play from previous generations or from a different but familiar culture. When the distance between the two cultures seems small the play could be read as transparent, this reading is insufficient, partial and results in a superficial and empty production. A good example of ignorance of the context of a play was the production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett which I saw in Israel. It wasn’t only because of the Hebrew, I have watched many great translated productions. Rather, I believe that the director felt that the play was clear and was not aware of the complex issues hidden in the text. Thus the richness of the text that had to do with the class system, private all boys education system and the subtle homosexual cultural subtext, fell flat.
In today’s world perhaps we don’t need play advisrs anymore, the knowledge is available and accessible if the director would only like to have it. But he or she should be careful, even if the play seems clear, as there is a lot to learn and to understand before letting the actors say their lines.
P.S From Ronald Bryden's obituary
Bryden was a civilised man and exemplary critic: I remember Stanley Reynolds saying that, with his hawkish profile and plump stateliness, he even looked like a theatre critic. But, following the Tynan route, Bryden forsook criticism in 1972 to become play adviser to the Royal Shakespeare Company.