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Ronald Bryden

Ronald Bryden who served for some years as theatre critic of the Observer, teaches at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at Toronto University.

Olivier Rex

Ronald Bryden, 1 September 1988

Anthony Holden’s is the 16th book about Laurence Olivier, and his foreword tells of two more biographers, John Cottrell and Garry O’Connor, too intent on their own deadlines to discuss their common quarry with him. All this activity may puzzle the lay person. Holden’s final pages report Olivier alive, as well as can be expected at 81, residing tranquilly in the Sussex countryside, still swimming occasional lengths of his pool in the altogether and attending the first nights of the three children who have followed Joan Plowright and himself into the theatre. Anyone likely to be interested in this book or its successors must remember that the actor published his own autobiography only six years ago, and a complementary professional memoir in 1986. In such situations, biographers usually hold their fire, waiting for time to unlock more secrets, death more tongues. Instead, Olivier’s are behaving as if a landslide of new evidence, too hot to hold there, had fallen into their laps. What is going on?

Swanker

Ronald Bryden, 10 December 1987

Kathleen Tynan says that she wavered for some time between writing a personal memoir of her 16 years with her husband Kenneth and embarking on a full-dress biography, embracing the 36 before they met. As she foresaw, making the second choice has produced an odd, hybrid book, not quite one thing nor the other. At times deeply intimate, at others coolly dispassionate, her narrative becomes an antiphony of two voices in uneasy tension. Frequently, one feels that she might write more emotionally were it not for the biographer looking over her shoulder. Almost as often, one finds oneself reading passages of straight reporting as if they were playing the tricks of a novel, using flatness to imply feeling, disguising as unruffled objectivity the chilled revulsion of a wife.

Shaw tests the ice

Ronald Bryden, 18 December 1986

In his last will, made the year before he died, Shaw let his modesty hang out for once. He left his diaries, with his account books, cheque stubs, box-office statements and business records, to the London School of Economics. Their only interest, he said, would be to economic and legal historians, and occasional biographers, ‘seeking documentary evidence as to prices and practices during the period covered by my lifetime’. He was not, he recognised, one of nature’s diarists. He lacked the confessional itch of a Boswell, the bureaucrat’s recording instinct of a Pepys. Only once, during the dark years of the Great War, did he turn the scrutiny of his art, like Virginia Woolf, upon himself. In January 1917 he started a detailed journal of his life at Ayot St Lawrence with his wife Charlotte. On 9 January he had to record a difference between them. He tried to amuse Charlotte with news of a marital scandal in provincial musical circles. She was unamused and offended by his levity: she took his bohemian tolerance of such things as sign of ‘a deplorable looseness in my own character’. He abandoned the subject and, the following day, the diary. Clearly he could not keep it truthfully without some betrayal of his wife. He had not the first loyalty to self of which great diarists are made.

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