My friend and colleague, David Bradby, died this morning. Caridad Svich asked me to write something for Contemporary Theatre Review, the journal that he took over - with Maria Delgado - and asked me to join as associate editor. I was of course happy to write something; well, no, not happy. I’d rather not have had to write anything like this, but this is what I wrote.
David Bradby, our friend and colleague, died this morning.
I wouldn’t have had a career without David Bradby. He interviewed me for my PhD, advised on it, helped me to get my job, mentored me through some of my early attempts at lecturing. He was even external examiner for my undergraduate degree. More broadly, he has encouraged me and others to think that an academic stance of almost geekish enthusiasm for the obscurest corners of a theatre culture is no bad thing.
Enthusiasm. That’s what David had in such boundless quantities. He studied at Oxford in the 1950s and was very much of the John Osborne generation which is probably why whenever I hear that speech from Look Back in Anger, I think of David: ‘Oh, heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm—that's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out “Hallelujah! Hallelujah. I'm alive!”’ His enthusiasm was infectious. In classes, he had a spirit of youthful play. I’ll never forget observing his Ubu Roi class and watching him demonstrate Jarry’s anarchic impulse by chasing a room full of students, most of them a third his age, with a rolled-up newspaper, trying to whack them on the arse.
In staff meetings he had a devil-may-care attitude that was immensely reassuring. I still laugh to recall the misjudged memo that came down from on high and was passed round from worried hand to worried hand. When it reached David, he glanced at its contents and, without a beat, tore the thing up. He sat there beaming at us all – that’s what makes me laugh to think of it, the beaming smile – and the proposal was never heard of again.
As a colleague, enthusiasm reigned. He was forever passing me new French plays he’d read: the austere L’Arche volumes, the sepia covers of Actes-Sud editions, the white uniformity of Éditions de Minuit (the Frenchest-looking books I’ve ever seen). Sometimes he would stop me in the departmental office to read aloud some sweary bit of French monologue, chuckling at the profanity. One Friday in 1997 he mentioned he was popping over on the Eurostar to see M(o)uettes a radical rewrite of Chekhov’s The Seagull by his great friend Patrice Pavis in Paris-Marly and he insisted that I came along. The next morning there I was with my travelbag full of French phrasebooks and confused changes of clothing. I won’t say David exactly had a knotted handkerchief on a stick but he certainly travelled light and, to this anxious traveller, seemed enviably at home wandering onto trains, taking in the landscape, sitting outside French bars with a glass of beer.
And the books kept coming; he was an early advocate of Arthur Adamov, then a partisan for Vinaver and a zealot for Koltès. He got me into Durringer, Pellet, and Lagarce and others. How did he persuade Methuen to publish two volumes each of Vinaver and Koltès? A collection of plays by Eric-Emmanel Schmitt? These were improbable miracles of publishing. He tirelessly translated and wrote about new writers, new directors, new productions. His Modern French Theatre 1940-1990 is rigorous and elegant. In his books on Planchon and Vinaver he writes like someone thrilled that he got to bring you the news. I can’t bear the thought that he won’t be bringing me the news any more.
His books were terrific but he had a much broader sense of the responsibilities of an academic. As a public advocate for our discipline, as a giver of papers and chairer of panels, he had a commitment to clarity, lucidity, of inviting everyone to join the broadest possible conversation about the theatre and its relation to the world. I don’t think he was ever completely convinced of the value of theory as it swept through our discipline in the 1990s, but he loved the conversation. ‘I’m hoping to be told I’m an old fart!’ he used to roar delightedly. He was one of the founders of the modern discipline, in so many ways, but not least with his small but admirably punchy Director’s Theatre, written with David Williams, making the case with typical energy and verve that the work of the director is as vital to theatre studies as the work of the writer. He borrowed a term from Planchon (in whose company he briefly performed): ‘écriture scénique’. As the playwright writes on the page, so the director writes on the stage. I would debate this with him: does the metaphor of writing not betray a persistent reverence for a literary theatre? I would ask. Is there not some lurking conservatism in this call for directors to have the same canonical systems and status as the playwright? He would disagree and then agree and disagree again, thoughts and memories of vivid productions tumbling from him.
He had quite an appetite for politics. Not for departmental politics – he saw no point to that and happily managed to spread this spirit of benign collegiality to the rest of us. But as a young man his political consciousness was raised by reports of French atrocities – massacres, the use of torture – in the French-Algerian War and then again by les événements of May 1968, in particular their theatricality, their pataphysicality, their playfulness. He was one of the first academics to celebrate the work of Joint Stock, inviting them to a conference at Kent University, whose Drama Department he co-founded. He wrote on popular theatre, political theatre, with energy and commitment but never finger-wagging sententiousness. He remained loyal to a vision of a theatre that mattered, that changed things, that spoke to the world and let the world speak to it. He had an enthusiasm for justice. An exuberance at the fun of protest. ‘Quelle connerie la guerre!’ wrote poet Jacques Prévert towards the end of the Second World War, a line that became a slogan for the pacifist left in France and which David was fond of quoting during the first and second Gulf Wars.
A few years ago, Maria Delgado approached me to see if I’d like to co-edit a festschrift to mark David’s retirement. Of course I accepted, but it became clear to us that the usual dry and unread academic volume would not be a fitting tribute to David’s many contributions to our field. We agreed quickly that this should be a book that would be used, that students would want to buy and read and keep. We wanted it to be a book that lived in the hand and the mind, not on a shelf. It’s a measure of the affection in which David is held that everyone we asked to contribute to the book responded with tremendous enthusiasm; even if they could not contribute, they conveyed their warmest wishes to David. Contributors voluntarily refused payment for the volume, allowing Contemporary European Theatre Directors to be lavishly illustrated, generously laid out, and compendious in scope. He was delighted with the book, which pleased me immensely.
At the launch we held to mark its publication, David was, naturally, centre of attention. We were anxious that he would be too weak, that he would find the event a strain. Instead, he bounced, he positively bounced, renewed by appreciative company, starting by sitting down, then standing, and eventually rushing from friend to friend in his enthusiasm for friendship and theatre and fine things. Enthusiasm again.
I last heard from him three weeks ago. I’d sent him a newsy message, telling him some of the things I’d been up to. He responded, as he always did, with generosity, fascination, and an eye for the absurd. He seemed so sharp and energetic I dared to hope he was rallying, turning a corner. It’s a metaphor, of course, to say that someone is ‘full of life’. But David would have had no time for any pious anglo-scepticism about metaphors. David was full of life, which makes his passing even more incomprehensible, even more meaningless.
David Bradby, my friend and colleague, was a huge presence in my life, in the life of the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway, and in the life of our discipline. I am so lucky to have known him and, however I do, to carry an imprint of him and his endless, magnificent enthusiasms.
17 January 2011