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The best job in the world

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.


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Like everything else...

It's all down to available resources. In some ways it was ever thus, but values  fluctuate. A comparison could be made between that and the lack of genuine literary editors in publishing houses who had the innate skill of fostering talent and creating real careers for writers.

Theatre is about spectacle as well as the script. But there can be an unwieldy pre-occupation with special effects which are budget-absorbers. It's always a matter of whose talents are best showcased. Ideally, they should be complementary. Sometimes one can carry the other through.

Sensitive translation is important, but with the shrinking globe, my perception is that different cultures are being more zealously guarded. For instance, the countries of the European Union have distinct identities and languages. In the British Isles, Welsh is thriving and to a lesser extent, Gaelic. It's astonishing how, in a country as small as this, the idiomatic phrases of different areas and many of the accents relating to them, are little understood by other parts of our map.

Yes, I agree, that literary consultants had a fantastic job. But what that job description means now is an agency paid to vet documents for publication!


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Thank you for your thoughtful

Thank you for your thoughtful response.  You are right of course that theatre is about spectacle as well as the script, but  (as a text lover)  I feel that a good grasp of all aspects of the text (if there is a text) is sine qua non of all good theatre.

When I checked the term "literary consultant" for this post I saw that the term does not apply anymore to  the position held by  Ronald Bryden. It is sad that now a consultant is another word for a "promoter".


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I rechecked my memory (and

I rechecked my memory (and Google) and thanks to your comment remembered that the correct term was a "literary advisor"

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Thanks, Orna

I didn't know that :)