The popular image of Kenneth Tynan has been one of a cultural and social provocateur, a reputation stemming from his various gestures on behalf of the sexual revolution of the 19605, notably the erotic revue he devised with others, Oh! Calcuttal! (1969). Of far greater significance, though, was his contribution to British theater as the most respected and influential of postwar theater critics, and as the first literary manager of Britain’s National Theatre, working under Laurence Olivier. Underlying all of these activities was the fundamental skill which he deployed in all his areas of interest—his ability to write strikingly expressive prose. This was underpinned by his sheer love of language, a passion ingrained at an early age—in 1944, the precocious 16-yearold described himself as a “soft old word fancier,” advising a close friend to “worry about words; they are the only consistent elements in your life. as remy de gourmont [sic] said, ‘ideas are well enough until you are twenty; after that only words will do.’”
Tynan’s early letters and articles for school and university magazines reveal an omnivorous intelligence using an eclectic array of verbal means—from puns and clerihews to French quotations and Latin tags—to recount his personal experiences, to elaborate his constantly changing views on literature and the world, and, most tellingly, to document keenly his avid theater-going. These early writings show him constantly searching for the precise phrase both to represent his state of mind as spectator and to bring alive the material characteristics of performances.
His student notes and writings resulted in his first book of theatrical observations, He That Plays the King (1950), published when he was 23. He became a fulltime theater critic, after coming down from Oxford, until the early 1960s. His prose of that period consists largely of short pieces of around 1000 words—perhaps too short to be normally considered as essays. Yet Tynan developed a style of rich compression, which probed and scraped away the generalized impressions typical of so much writing in the genre, to achieve a muscular directness and concreteness of evocation. Cumulatively, the reviews also constitute a larger exploration of the nature of performance per se and an affirmation of Tynan’s belief in the importance of theater in the overall cultural fabric. (The appropriation of Hazlitt’s title A View of the English Stage for his 1975 compilation of reviews—perhaps an act of both audacity and deference—suggests their essayistic ambition.) It could be said that these individual pieces are essay-like in their depth of examination and in their grounding of the writer’s subjective view in persuasive terms of debate. In reviews of actors, comics, and other performers, his prose displays a kind of filmic rhythm, swooping in for close-ups before drawing away to restore balance and an overarching perspective. This is evident even in an early review, of Olivier as Shakespeare’s Richard III (1944), where Tynan homes in on the voice—“slick, taunting, and curiously casual; nearly impersonal, ‘smooth as sleekstone’, patting and pushing each line into place. Occasionally he lets out a gurgling, avuncular cackle, a goodhumoured snarl: and then we see the over-riding mephitic good humour of the man”—before panning out to consider the overall interpretation as exemplifying “Blake’s conception of active, energetic evil,” with analogies to Sidney’s elegiacs and Gor’kii’s Lower Depths.
Tynan’s writing grew more versatile as his theatrical experience deepened. While the wit, use of apposite phrase, and crystalline precision of description remained constant, his style grew in flexibility, and his responses—in accordance with his gradual assumption of idealist/socialist ideas about the perfectibility of humankind—were increasingly adumbrated by a greater sense of social and political concern, reflected particularly in his admiration for Bertolt Brecht. Stylistically, he could resort both to playful pastiche (as in his affectionate Runyonesque review of the musical Guys and Dolls, 1952.) and to pointed parody (in his “Slamm’s Last Knock,” 1958, a mock-Beckettian two-hander bemoaning the increasingly fatalistic ennui of Beckett’s characters), while also making bold and confident claims for works he championed. Welcoming Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1955), he stated that “it forced me to re-examine the rules which have hitherto governed the drama; and having done so, to pronounce them not elastic enough”; and he eulogized John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) for presenting “post-war youth as it really is,” famously concluding: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.”
On taking up his post at the National Theatre, Tynan gave up regular theater reviewing.
His writings thenceforward were of a more occasional, but more varied, nature. In the athletic metaphor he used on several occasions, the short-distance “sprinting” of the reviews increasingly came to be replaced by the “middle-distance” running of essayfeatures.
The subdivisions of his collection Tynan Right and Left (1967)—“Theatre,”
“Cinema,” “People,” “Places,” and “Comments and Causeries”—usefully summarize the fields of all his longer writing. Earlier pieces tend to be commentaries on theatrical subjects—overviews of the careers of actors, writers, and directors, considerations of theater styles (e.g. “Prose and the Playwright,” “The Lost Art of Bad Drama,” 1954), and unashamedly partisan interventions in larger cultural debates, such as lobbying for the establishment of a National Theatre (“The National Theatre: A Speech to the Royal Society of Arts,” 1964) and the removal of theater censorship (“The Royal Smut-Hound,” 1965). These articles appeared in a variety of publications, including the Harper’s Bazaar, the Observer, the New Yorker, Playboy, and Holiday.
The form of essay in which Tynan came to specialize, however, was the profileessay— the portrait of an outstanding individual who was either an epitome of his or her type or, very often, considered by Tynan to be sui generis. The earlier of these were more obviously logical extensions of his theatrical and cinematic experiences, allowing him to synthesize instances of performance into larger characterizations of an individual’s style and significance, while also supplying biographical and anecdotal sidelights. But the profile-essay especially allowed him to take the notion he elaborated of “high definition performance”—“supreme professional polish, hard-edged technical skill…the hypnotic saving grace of high and low art alike, the common denominator that unites tragedy, ballroom dancing, conversation and cricket”—and apply it to a wide range of people, taking in other expressive artists (writers, matadors, jazz musicians, film directors, television personalities), pursuing the attributes of the performative in both an individual’s public and private lives.
Of all the publications to which Tynan contributed profiles, none was more important to him than the New Yorker, the magazine which the teenage Tynan revered in provincial Birmingham as representing the peak of American urbanity and sophistication, and whose style under its editor Harold Ross he lauded in 1951 as “pungent and artless, innocently sly, superbly explicit: what one would call low-falutin’.” Collaborating now with William Shawn, Ross’ successor, Tynan spent much of his last years writing his longest profiles for the New Yorker. The magazine’s image and scope of interest was, in some quarters, then deemed somewhat conservative (essays such as Tynan’s 1966 “Meditations on Basic Baroque,” on the erotic history of the female bottom, understandably appeared elsewhere—despite its references to James Joyce, François Villon, Henry Vaughan, and Edmund Burke!). More importantly, however, Tynan shared the New Yorker’s high sense of writerly discipline, admiring its punctiliousness enough to spend hours in discussion with the editor and his staff over phraseology.
In the preface to Show People (1980)—the collection of his final, longer New Yorker profiles—Tynan offered a context for his writing, and, in characteristically witty vein, an explicit defense of the essay form: “Many critics maintain that the essay is an inferior form… Out of the window—if these experts are right—goes Montaigne. To the bonfire with William Hazlitt, closely followed by Max Beerbohm, SainteBeuve and John
Aubrey…and into the garbage goes Samuel Johnson’s Lives ofthe Poets, perhaps the finest book of profileessays ever written… Any theory that regards works like these as second-class…is transparently dotty.”
While not comparing himself to all the “masters” he cited, he felt he might “go a couple of rounds” with Charles Lamb. The pieces that follow—on writer Tom Stoppard, actor Ralph Richardson, television star Johnny Carson, silent-film actress Louise Brooks, and comedian Mel Brooks—tackle high and low culture with equal verve, in each case mapping out the contours of a distinctive terrain. Tynan’s profiles vary in tone and orientation—here, for example, the Louise Brooks piece is a kind of homage to a forgotten star and personal idol, the Mel Brooks piece delves into the relationship of comedy, fear, and ambition, and the Stoppard article is an extended musing on writing, style, and political commitment. But, while all include many examples of “vintage” Tynan, in his reportage of personal encounters (performances, dinner parties, interviews, letters), such elements are subtly worked into a widening and deepening perspective. A profile often begins obliquely, by virtue of apparently unrelated anecdotes or random information; then essential biographical information is lightly introduced, and thereafter the portrait is built up incrementally, as a shape and thesis emerge. The profile is rounded out by quotations from others on the subject and the deployment of a battery of cultural references. The most marked contrast with the shorter writings is the cooler, analytical quality that emerges in a more measured pace; the sprinting, dazzling prose is calmed by direct, yet always elegantly written, exposition and by pertinent, well-grounded comment.
At Tynan’s funeral, Tom Stoppard summarized the potency of Tynan’s writing as resting in “his paragraphs—paragraphs were the units of his prose, not sentences,” written to “outlast the witness.” While this quality contributes to the exceptional eloquence of his theater reviews, nowhere is the comment more apposite than in regard to the later profile-essays. It is ultimately in this sense of creating a permanence for the ephemeral through the written word, so that the prose fascinates even when its subject may be only dimly familiar to the reader, that Tynan lays claim to a place in the history of the modern essay.
Kenneth Peacock Tynan. Born 2 April 1927 in Birmingham. Studied at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, 1938–45; Magdalen College, Oxford, 1945–48, B.A. in English, 1948. Director, Lichfield repertory theater company, 1949; director, 1950, and actor, 1951, London. Married Elaine Brimberg Dundy, 1951 (divorced, 1964): one daughter.
Drama critic for the Spectator, 1951–52, the Evening Standard, 1952–53, and the Daily Sketch, 1953–54; drama critic, 1954–58 and 1960–63, and film critic, 1964–66, the Observer, script editor, Ealing Films, London, 1956–58; drama critic, 1958–60, and feature writer, 1976–80, the New Yorker; editor, Tempo television arts program, 1961– 62; literary manager, 1963–69, and literary consultant, 1969–73, National Theatre of Britain, London. Married Kathleen Halton, 1967: one daughter and one son. Moved to California for health reasons, 1976. Died (of emphysema) in Santa Monica, California, 26 July 1980.
Essays and Related Prose
He That Plays the King: A View of the Theatre, 1950
Persona Grata, 1953
Curtains: Selections from the Drama, Criticism and Related Writings, 1961; as Tynan on Theatre, 1964
Tynan Right and Left, 1967
A View of the English Stage, 1944–63, 1975
The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, 1975
Show People: Profiles in Entertainment, 1980
Profiles, edited by Kathleen Tynan and Ernie Eban, 1989
Other writings: books on Alec Guinness (1953) and bull fighting (1955), radio plays, theater adaptations, and correspondence. Also collaborated on the revue Oh! Calcutta! (1969).
Kihn, Patricia Lenehan, Kenneth Tynan and the Renaissance of Post-War British Drama (dissertation), Detroit: Wayne State University, 1986
Tynan, Kathleen, The Life of Kenneth Tynan, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York: Morrow, 1987
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