Great Backstage Gossip, But-A Craven Tynan? Never!

I’m glad I caught up with Austin Pendleton’s unusual backstage story, Orson’s Shadow, which has settled in for a long run, I hope, at the Barrow Street Theatre downtown. For one surprising thing, it’s a treat to see Laurence Olivier onstage again.

Olivier, greatest classical actor of the 20th century, is also to be seen at Barrow Street in the company of that neurotic porcelain beauty, his soon-to-be ex-wife, Vivien Leigh, as well as his young, somewhat dumpy future wife, Joan Plowright-not to mention that wrecked American genius, Orson Welles. Our host for the evening is Kenneth Tynan, finest drama critic since George Bernard Shaw.

This is the second time Tynan has been portrayed onstage recently-quite a compliment for a critic. They’ll be building a statue to him next. The only thing missing in Orson’s Shadow is the Lunts, I’m glad to say. There’s something laborious about the Lunts. But Mr. Pendleton’s royal flush of theater gods is in a heavenly league of its own (with the exception of Ms. Plowright, who is still alive). The playwright’s clever and playful idea is to re-create the trauma behind the scenes of the 1960 London production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, which Welles directed, starring the middle-aged Olivier and his lover Plowright.

The manic Vivien Leigh, in trauma at the loss of Olivier, saunters grandly into the action in a brilliant performance from Lee Roy Rogers. The idea of mere mortal actors from Chicago’s distinguished Steppenwolf impersonating the greats has obvious dangers. Who could possibly play Olivier except the man who performed him all his life-Olivier?

But the quartet uncannily captures the magical essence of things. John Judd has only to suggest Olivier in gesture and hooded glances, in his fussy stage fears and lordly, vulgar greenroom luviedom. His enslavement to Leigh’s whims is one of the great love stories, and as with all good gossip, the gossip in Orson’s Shadow is almost true. Mr. Pendleton, the dramatist, is a distinguished actor himself, and he understands and loves actors, being on intimate terms with their ways and fragile egos.

We couldn’t be in the hands of a better backstage guide, nor a more splendid production (within a production) than David Cromer’s. Orson’s Shadow ultimately conveys a touching melancholy about the theatrical twilight of the gods and their gradual passing into dust from the ravages of age, illness and even insanity. But if Mr. Pendleton understands actors, he doesn’t quite understand critics, if I may say so.

He cannot help himself. Mr. Pendleton lovingly embraces actors, but cannot bring himself to embrace a critic. His version of Tynan-played by Tracy Letts, the talented dramatist of the psycho-thriller Bug-is to make him craven. It’s the one thing Tynan never was. Tynan’s Achilles heel was that he adored star actors-particularly Olivier and Welles-whom he defined by their God-given “high definition performances.”

For myself, the phrase “high definition performance” is more appropriate for the sale of Volkswagens. But Tynan’s manner was never insecurely, loudly craven. I met him a few times, though I wouldn’t pretend to have known him. At the height of his power-as opposed to the mystery of his emphysematic decline in Santa Monica, of all places-he possessed an effortless swagger of talent. He was like one of Whistler’s suave, elegant, languorous aristocrats.

When Mr. Pendleton has Tynan announce about himself at the start that “no one really took seriously a word I wrote. You see, I am a critic,” the laugh from the audience is automatic. But I’m obliged to respond on behalf of the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Critics-a.k.a. the RSPCC-that everyone took seriously every word Tynan wrote. His column for the London Observer-my old newspaper-was the one we all read.

Tynan actually defined a drama critic as someone who knows the way, but can’t drive the car. True, yes? But Mr. Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow is a fanciful version of true events and therefore forgivable in two or three details. The following shouldn’t affect your pleasure. They’re just additional notes. But if you think they might spoil things, please resist reading on.

Still with me, eh? It isn’t crucial, but Mr. Pendleton has deliberately conflated events. Tynan wasn’t yet the dramaturge of the National Theatre in 1960 and Rhinoceros wasn’t staged there. It was produced at the Royal Court, and Tynan was still the London Observer’s critic. He was, in fact, silenced by the Machiavellian Olivier when he later hired him in 1963 to be his brains and the power behind the National’s throne.

Mr. Pendleton has surprisingly missed one of the great lines in theater folklore. Tynan wrote to his hero Olivier suggesting he become his dramaturge. But he had all but killed Olivier’s beloved Vivien Leigh in a murderous review of her sweet Cleopatra. (“She picks at the part with the daintiness of a debutante called upon to dismember a stag.”) Olivier was married to Ms. Plowright by then. “How shall we slaughter the little bastard?” he asked her about Tynan. And thus it came to pass that he defanged the most powerful critic in England by hiring him.

Incidentally, Olivier first met Ms. Plowright when she took over the role as Archie Rice’s daughter in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. She was-sniffed Osborne, who was also mad for Vivien Leigh-“an unlikely Wallis Simpson to Olivier’s Duke of Windsor.” Archie was Olivier’s first role out of tights in 20 years. But during the casting of the famous play, about a seedy third-rate comedian, Olivier-who was still obsessed with Vivien-actually wanted her to star in the play as Archie’s working-class mother!

When the incredulous Osborne and the director Tony Richardson very politely inquired how the still-beautiful Vivien could possibly play his old mum, Olivier suggested in all mad sincerity that she could wear a rubber mask.

“Oh dearie, dearie me!” Richardson, convulsed with laughter, said afterward. “Rubber masks! Whatever next?”

So if you think the backstage lunacies of Olivier et al. in Orson’s Shadow are exaggerated, take heart.

In July 2000, Alexandra Boyd, who originally played Joan Plowright, innocently wrote to her-“I felt compelled to drop you a line”-about Mr. Pendleton’s version of Rhinoceros and the “exciting” times that belonged to theater history. I shudder to think how the lady responded, for she’s a stickler for facts. But then, if facts made a good play, good plays would be a cinch to write.

In her memoirs, And That’s Not All, Ms. Plowright writes prissily that “‘exciting’ is not exactly the word to describe the catastrophic nature of events that surrounded that production.” Mr. Pendleton’s lovely, well-meant play is about the catastrophe. But in the end, was the Welles-Olivier-Plowright production such a disaster?

Tynan, though he worshipped Olivier and Welles, could be harsh about his favorites. He famously dismissed Welles’ wayward Othello as “Citizen Coon.” But he reviewed Rhinoceros quite favorably for the London Observer, although he never admired the absurdist Ionesco (and still didn’t). In spite of the backstage idiocies we’ve learned about from Mr. Pendleton’s reimagining, Tynan wrote admiringly of Welles’ direction: “The overlapped dialogue, the whirligig moves, the boisterously assured utterance-these are Mr. Welles’s trademarks, and the production as a whole is exactly what we have come to expect of him: a carefully orchestrated battle of egos, performed by actors who have learned from their director that being inhibited gets you nowhere in the theater.”

The ingénue Joan Plowright didn’t merit a mention from him. But he nailed what was surely the weakness in Olivier’s performance. The greatest actor of his time couldn’t play an ordinary, anonymous man.

“Laurence Olivier, as the last exemplar of individualism, is not so much miscast as undercast,” Tynan wrote wittily. “Wearing an inexplicable Apache wig, and behaving with a determined kind of boyish, hangdog charm, Sir Laurence skitters gracefully around the stage, rolling his eyes and trying hard to seem humble and insignificant. The task is not an easy one; there is never any doubt that with one breath, one vocal blast, one surge of his enormous humanity, he could blow the part to smithereens, and with it the play.”

A craven Tynan? Well, not really. But see Orson’s Shadow just the same. Great Backstage Gossip, But-A Craven Tynan? Never!