His own worst critic: Saviour of London theatre was as self-destructive as he was brilliant
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 August 2003)

Kenneth Tynan, the best theatre critic of the 20th century, began his career convinced that the reviews he was reading in British newspapers didn't amount to much. As he saw it at age 23, criticism had taken a wrong turn. It had become casual and imperturbable. It had ceased to communicate either excitement or scorn. He set out to change that, and did, in the years when he wrote about the London theatre, 1952 to 1963.

He brought to his work a great critic's genius for persuading the audience to share his enthusiasms, and a great propagandist's ability to focus attention on what he thought significant. His London Observer reviews were the best-written journalism in England. They made the theatre seem more important than it had for generations.

Since his death in 1980, at the age of 53, his admirers have been able to read a biography by his widow, a thick volume of his letters, a collection of diary entries from his last years, and a memoir by his first wife, Elaine Dundy. As a result we know about his sexual frustrations, his numberless adulteries and his particular perversity, what the French call le vice anglaise -- he liked to spank women.

But these books provide only a sketchy notion of why he's worth remembering. So Dominic Shellard of the University of Sheffield tries to straighten the record with his thoughtful, well-documented biography, Kenneth Tynan: A Life (Yale University Press). Shellard mentions a recent Guardian piece that stressed Tynan's prose but nevertheless appeared under the heading "Spanks for the Memory." That won't do, Shellard argues. Instead he emphasizes the years when Tynan brought passion back to criticism and helped bring the theatre back to life. As Shellard says, London's theatre was the most insular in Europe when Tynan began. Ten years later it was the most dynamic. Much of the change was due to him.

Tynan expressed adoration with witty originality ("That which, drunk, we see in other women, we see in Garbo sober") and applied the same talent to his aversions, such as Vivien Leigh, who in Titus Andronicus "receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband's corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber."

Once established as a critic, Tynan unfortunately fell in love with the work of Bertolt Brecht. He wildly overshot the mark, praising Brecht so passionately that even the best Brecht plays couldn't live up to Tynan's claims. Foolishly, Tynan also adopted (or thought he did) Brecht's Marxism. He seems to have understood little about Marx, but he turned into an evangelist for revolution. This was spectacularly hypocritical, talking like a communist while living in an eight-room Mayfair apartment and cherishing friendships with Princess Margaret and Cecil Beaton. He didn't care.

Nor did anyone else, when he was young. Those contradictions were just part of his performance, like the purple doeskin suit and gold satin shirts he wore at Oxford. But in middle age he sensed that people were no longer amused. At 43 he told his journal that he was now friendless: "I have alienated my traditionalist friends by my left-wing politics, and my left-wing friends by my love of pleasure."

In the politics of the theatre he handled himself no better. He fought for the creation of a National Theatre, and worked there as literary manager under Laurence Olivier. He proved both brilliant and self-destructive. Dundy said that in their marriage he would habitually "pour oil on troubled water and then light it." At the National Theatre that erratic temperament produced institutional chaos, particularly when he argued fiercely for the production of a play, Soldiers, that accused Winston Churchill (only recently dead) of murder. Later he left the National in bitterness, convinced that Olivier had treated him badly: "What a traitor he has turned out to be."

Despite Shellard's efforts, we can't help noticing that even the great events in Tynan's life end in tears. In 1956 his most famous review made a hit of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. But in the end Tynan and Osborne despised each other. In 1975, Osborne modelled a spanking-obsessed character on Tynan in an otherwise forgotten play.

Tynan created one stage success, the nude sexual revue he called Oh! Calcutta! (Peter Cook said it "was so tacky that even I refused to get involved in it.") It would have made Tynan rich if he hadn't mismanaged his affairs and let the profits go elsewhere. The letters and diaries of the last 10 or so years record one abandoned project after another, from his autobiography to his biography of Olivier. He also worked, fitfully, on a biography of Wilhelm Reich, the dodgy Viennese analyst who conned an army of intellectuals with his view that better orgasms would save humanity.

Through it all, Tynan's sense of humour never quite left him. In 1974 he wrote in his diary about the Reich book: "I have been working on it non-start since January." He had become famous in the 1960s as the first man to say "f---" on television, and when he found himself impotent in his last years he imagined a newspaper head: "Man Who Said F--- Can't F---." Unable to have sex, constantly coughing, he discovered he had also acquired a genital infection. He wrote: "Feel that God is making his point with rather vulgar overstatement."

In 1974 he considered his career finished. "Were I to commit suicide, I would merely be killing someone who had already ceased to exist." In fact, he was committing suicide by nicotine, continuing to smoke heavily long after he developed emphysema and needed an oxygen mask.

In Shellard's account, Tynan died profoundly disappointed with himself. He suffered, it's clear, from an adamant refusal to recognize the nature and value of his talent. He was a great journalist, whether as critic of Shakespeare or writer of profiles for The New Yorker. Yet somehow he considered this work unworthy. He wanted to be an actor, or a director, or a producer. He didn't understand that his reviews placed him at the head of his profession and made him a major figure in the theatre. He lived an amazing paradox: Though something of an egomaniac, he was cursed by a chronic inability to appreciate himself.

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