Book review: Kenneth Tynan’s theatre writings

KENNETH TYNAN: THEATRE WRITINGS

SELECTED AND EDITED BY DOMINIC SHELLARD

(NICK HERN BOOKS, £20)

KENNETH TYNAN: PROFILES

SELECTED AND EDITED BY KATHLEEN TYNAN AND ERNIE EBAN

(NICK HERN BOOKS, £14.99)

To describe Kenneth Tynan as a “theatre critic” would be like referring to Muhammad Ali as simply a “boxer”, James Brown as a mere “singer” or to reduce Samuel Beckett to the bald noun “playwright”. That is to say, it would be accurate, but utterly insufficient.

   The simultaneous release of these two books – a new collection of his theatre reviews and essays for the London Evening Standard and The Observer, and a republication of his in-depth profiles, most famously for The New Yorker – reminds us that Tynan was, like Ali, not only “the greatest” among his contemporaries, but the undisputed champion in his field well beyond his retirement from the profession and, indeed, long after his death. 

   Tynan had all the qualities of a truly great critic. He was, crucially, an advocate, not a mere judge. Like William Hazlitt, he was a side-taker and a pugilist. Like George Bernard Shaw, he was a craftsman in the English language and a true lover of witticism.

   In contrast to Shaw, however, he did not simply make a career stop at criticism, as if refuelling, on the way to his ultimate destination. Long after his 18 years of writing reviews, Tynan – who became literary manager of the new National Theatre in 1963 – remained, somehow, a critic.  

   Tynan understood that criticism exists in the discrete space between journalism and art. He was, above all, a stylist. Responding, in 1956, to American writer Theodore L. Shaw’s assault on criticism, Precious Rubbish, he treads a careful, but confident, line between the stultifying snobbery of much criticism of the day, and the early rumblings of a pseudo-democratic cultural relativism.

   “What counts”, Tynan wrote of critics, “is not their opinion, but the art with which it is expressed… The subtlest and best-informed of men will still be a bad critic if his style is bad. It is irrelevant whether his opinion is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: I learn more from GBS [George Bernard Shaw] when he is wrong than from Clement Scott when he is right.”

   This is quintessential Tynan; incisive, insightful, entertainingly humorous, and wielding his pen, simultaneously, as a magic wand and the sharpest of daggers. Scott is skewered upon Tynan’s praise of George Bernard Shaw. 

   As if to prove his thesis about the greater importance of style over opinion, Tynan was given to the occasional embarrassing slip in judgement. He famously dismissed Harold Pinter’s first staged work, The Birthday Party, with a typically wry paradox: “Mr Pinter sounds frivolous, even when he is being serious.” Yet, he did believe in the importance of good judgement, and much of his 1960 review of Pinter’s The Caretaker is a self-critical corrective of his critique of the earlier play.

   Most of the time, however, Tynan criticised with both fine judgement and flamboyant, yet disciplined, style. His response to the English-language premiere of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in 1955 (in which he famously defined theatre as “basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored”) explains eloquently the defiant potential of the short theatre review. Like a heart-stopping sonnet or an arresting novella, its brevity is matched by its artistry.

   Whilst all around him – with the exception of his mentor and sparring partner Harold Hobson, critic of the Sunday Times – chose to keep their heads, and denounce Beckett routinely, Tynan, wisely, lost his; describing the impact of the play with a metaphor which is worthy of any poet. “It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport and nothing to declare: yet it gets through as might a pilgrim from Mars.”

   Searing, beguiling and, on occasion, excoriating though his prose is, Tynan’s extraordinary writing style does not, on its own, explain his pre-eminence among modern critics. Nor does his private life; which is regularly reduced to the platitudinous adjective “colourful”, having been made so splendidly public with the publication of his diaries.

   Despite the numerous misfortunes of his too-short life (he was just 53 when he died of emphysema), Tynan was blessed to have become a critic during a period of change. In the Fifties, Britain was emerging from post-war austerity. The greatest challenge to any critic is to relate astutely and stylishly to new theatre writing, and Tynan had the good luck to be able to champion writers and dramatists – Beckett, Pinter, John Osborne, Joan Littlewood – who were, in their different ways, dragging theatre out of its bourgeois stupor. 

   Today, both the theatre and, consequently, criticism lack that sense of urgency. Too many playwrights and directors appear to have thrown in the towel; accepting the odious lie that the ubiquity of television and Hollywood movies has shrunk theatre. Criticism, in turn, has a tendency to collude in making the theatre a comfortable feather bed for the unambitious and the mediocre.

   In his introduction to the theatre writings, Tom Stoppard (who, as a young playwright, was profiled memorably by Tynan: “you might mistake him for an older brother of Mick Jagger, more intellectually inclined than his frenetic sibling”) pays homage to Tynan’s unmistakeable passion for theatre. “Tynan’s disappointments”, he remembers, “were those of a lover who has been let down.”

   That passion, which is, perhaps, only matched these days by the pugnacity and erudition of the Australian critic of the visual arts, Robert Hughes, was forged in the flames of a great period of modernism in English theatre. That was Tynan’s great fortune; and, as these volumes attest, it is also ours.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald in January 2007

© Mark Brown

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