Portrait of the Critic as a Spent Man: The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan

What do drama critics do when they’re old and gray and clapped out? They go on reviewing plays, of course.

What do drama critics do when they’re old and gray and clapped out? They go on reviewing plays, of course. But Kenneth Tynan, the most gifted theater critic since Hazlitt, gave up the reviewing game at the peak of his scintillating power to become Sir Laurence Olivier’s literary manager at the new National Theatre in 1963. In search of something more nurturing and prestigious than reviewing–or so he thought–he wrote a letter nominating himself for the job and thereby sealed his fate.

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“How shall we slaughter the little bastard?” Olivier asked his wife, Joan Plowright, as he considered the unexpected offer. Olivier had recently been mauled by Tynan–who otherwise hero-worshipped him–for his season of plays at the Chichester Festival and was still fuming. In a brilliant, neutralizing, neo-Shakespearean maneuver, Olivier therefore hired him at the National–acquiring Tynan’s youth and brains to build the new repertory of plays while stopping him writing. “God,” Olivier wrote to him. “Anything to get you off that Observer .”

That Observer in London, it so happens, became my first home in journalism, and one day when I was a novice reporter in the mid-60’s, I saw Tynan sweep rakishly into the building as if he owned the place, which he did in a way. Always dandyish, he was wearing a white suit on a rainy day, and to my young, wide eyes it was like glimpsing royalty. I remember–I’m slightly embarrassed to admit–that I immediately called home to tell my parents excitedly: “I just saw Ken Tynan, and he’s wearing a white suit !”

Nobody wore them in those days, not even Tom Wolfe. But Tynan was the man we all read at school and at college, devouring everything he wrote. He’s the man we still read. As John Lahr writes in his elegant introduction to The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (published by Bloomsbury and edited by Mr. Lahr), he possessed a fizzing, unequaled “power both to spread the word and make it memorable.” Intoxicated by theater, Tynan couldn’t wait to tell us the news, good, bad or disastrous. He believed–my goodness!–that theater matters, that it counts for something big and important and unholy.

“I certainly miss our duelling days,” he wrote nostalgically to Harold Hobson, drama critic of the Sunday Times ( The Observer ‘s opposition). Memorable duels need memorable opponents, and the Christian moralist Hobson could be a good match for the atheist champagne-socialist Tynan. He was writing to Hobson before his death, at the age of 53, from emphysema in godforsaken Santa Monica, Calif. “The trouble with our successors,” he added, “is that nothing seems at stake for them.”

But, alas–and damn it!–the Tynan diaries leave us with the overwhelming sense of a life helplessly adrift and all purpose spent in a no-man’s land where absolutely nothing is at stake. This forlorn, furiously name-dropping, occasionally sadomasochistic record of the years 1971 to 1980–held back from publication by his widow, Kathleen, and now released by his eldest daughter, Tracy–shock and sadden us in the miserable picture he presents of himself “snarling, retching and wanking” into the abyss.

His well-known Victorian-schoolboy taste for spanking and caning–the disapproving headmaster’s cane! Nanny’s reprisal!–proves about as interesting as naughty middle-aged fantasies of a peculiarly English kind invariably do. Besides, he gleefully wrote about his soft-porn sex life before these diaries. (And he writes about it badly.) No, the shock of these rambling, doodling diaries comes with the horrible realization that, overwhelmed by melancholy and self-loathing, this most golden of talents has been reduced to “Diary of a Nobody.”

By the time Tynan was 40, his dazzling self-confidence was on the wane. “Such is servility,” he writes bitterly of his decade-long relationship to Olivier at the National. Wanting to create and direct, he devised the first trendy nude revue, Oh! Calcutta! But his book about William Reich was never finished; movie projects came to nothing; his will to write at all deserted him. “The sensation of vanishing. Nothing registers on me: I register nothing,” he wrote. By 1974, he was recording: “I have no active professional identity at all–a sepulchral prospect on which to wake up every morning. Were I to commit suicide, I would be merely killing someone who had already ceased to exist. These grim reflections have had a markedly depressing effect on my libido. Sex in such a context seems as trivial as reading comics in a cancer ward.”

Yet what purpose and wit he once possessed. It’s hard to believe, as David Hare said, that this century’s most celebrated theater critic worked his craft for a mere 13 years, from 1950 to 1963. “I counsel aggression,” Tynan wrote of the deadly postwar British theater. “Because, as a critic, I had rather be a war correspondent than a necrologist.” Passionately embracing the modern, he rallied the New Wave with his famous endorsement of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger .”

Who can forget his critique of Orson Welles’ grandiloquent, eye-rolling Othello as “Citizen Coon”? Or his brilliant note about Sir Michael Redgrave: “The difficulty with judging this actor is that I have to abandon all my standards of great acting (which include relaxation and effortless command) and start all over again. There is, you see, a gulf between good and great performances; but a bridge spans it, over which you may stroll if your visa is in order. Mr. Redgrave, ignoring this, always chooses the hard way. He dives into the torrent and tries to swim across, usually sinking within sight of the shore. Olivier pole-vaults over in a single animal leap; Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tight-rope; Redgrave alone must battle it out with the current …. ”

Tynan was “part of the luck we had,” as Tom Stoppard told the young Tynan children at his memorial service in London. And for an astonishing, brief time, he himself was lucky. His was the age of the convulsive new dramas at the Royal Court, the first plays of Beckett and the French Absurdists, the revolutionary new work of Brecht. The greatest actors of the century–Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and so on–were still onstage. It was all there for him to report, which he did masterfully.

To be sure, there are flashes of the old lightning in the diaries of the irresistible, superior Tynan that used to be. On Fred Astaire: “The poet of late capitalism … he is the froth thrown up by the maelstrom of a condemned era, and miraculously, he has outlived it.” Or this breezy diversion: “To ensure immediate arrival of breakfast in hotels, lock the door, remove all your clothes and go to the lavatory.” A dour evening meal with several leading British journalists “in their blue suits with their defensive, hedging, qualifying manner” kicks him back to whiplash life. “God, the lack of selfhood and certainty! I can talk about not writing with more passion than they talk about writing. They look about as vivacious as a group portrait of the Bulgarian chess team.”

The last years in Los Angeles, where he’d gone for his health as he was dying of emphysema in the late 70’s, were salvaged by the kindly William Shawn of The New Yorker , who financed him. In return, Tynan produced two or three of the finest profiles ever written. The performer in him found an audience again, but too late.

“Still a non-smoker, but, alas, a non-worker,” he wrote cryptically to Louise Brooks, with whom he had a memorable, platonic love affair. But there’s the broken marriage to Kathleen. In a peach of a Freudian spoonerism, he asks her: “Did you remember to close the deadroom bore?” There was his S&M affair with the obliging Nicole, a young actress: “Then Nicole and I played the roles of count and countess whipping a new housemaid for theft and drunkenness …. ” And there was the joyless round of Hollywood parties with the usual suspects, including the well-traveled Princess Margaret.

When it came to name-dropping, Tynan was in a super-league of his own. The most priceless example in the book is an account of a London party to celebrate the wedding anniversary of “Princess Margaret and Tony” in the early 70’s. “The Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mum were also there,” he notes en passant .

Tynan’s fatal flaw–his inner insecurity–was his love of names, from royals to showbiz royalty. His need to hero-worship performers went hand-in-hand with his celebration of theater. In a sense, the stars he knew and worshipped legitimized him. Tynan himself was the illegitimate son of a successful self-made businessman and a former laundress who ended her life in a mental institution. The rest I leave to the psychologists. What I know–and am glad to know–is the enduring value of his work. Judging by these diaries, so full of despair and self-loathing, Kenneth Tynan couldn’t have imagined that it would be remembered 40 years on.

Portrait of the Critic as a Spent Man: The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan