On Kenneth Tynan
by Michael Billington
I feel very flattered to be asked to say a few words about Ken Tynan before we present the award.
Ken Tynan was, first and foremost, a drama critic who from 1954 to 1963 enlivened an English Sunday with his column in The Observer. It’s hard today to explain just how influential he was. He joined the Observer at a time when new writing was in the doldrums and he saw it as his duty to do a demolition job clearing the stage of genteel drawing-room comedies. In a famous early column he launched a fierce attack on what he called the Loamshire play. “Loamshire,” he wrote, “is a glibly codified fairytale world of no more use to the student of life than a dolls-house would be to a student of town-planning.” But Tynan wasn’t just a demolition-expert. He had a clear vision of the kind of theatre he wanted to see. And he was, in a sense fortunate in that the advent of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, the work of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East and, above all, the huge impact made by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble on a London visit in 1956 helped realize that vision. Without surrendering his critical judgment, he became a handmaid to a new movement in theatre.
That doesn’t mean he was always right. He signally failed, for instance –unlike his opposite number on The Sunday Times, Harold Hobson- to respond to Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1958. But even when Tynan was wrong, he was always exciting to read. He wrote about plays, actors, directors with a voluptuous precision and genuine passion. To put it very simply, he made theatre criticism sexy. He also had a profound effect on my own generation. I earned my first few pounds in journalism as a student by writing a parody of Tynan which happened to win an Observer competition in 1960. Many of my friends suggest I’ve been parodying Tynan ever since.
But in 1963 Tynan abandoned theatre criticism to become the dramaturg- or Literary Manager as he was called- for the newly founded National Theatre company at the Old Vic. This was an historic moment in several ways. For a start, the whole idea of a dramaturg was totally new to British theatre: it had previously been assumed that producers, directors or actor-managers bore sole responsibility for choice of play, for textual work and for accompanying research, if any.
But just as important is the fact that because the National Theatre company was itself still being formed, Tynan had enormous power to shape and define his role. Also because Olivier, although an acting genius, was not that widely read and not that familiar with European theatre, he relied heavily on Tynan’s expertise. What is fascinating about those early years at the National is the extent to which Tynan acted as co-producer as much as dramaturg. Tynan not only drew up a famous list of a thousand plays from world drama that should be explored. It was his idea that Zeffirelli should direct a Sicilian Much Ado About Nothing with textual revisions by Robert Graves. It was Tynan who suggested the National should do a Feydeau farce, A Flea In Her Ear, directed by Jacques Charon and translated by John Mortimer. It was Tynan who championed the work of Eduardo de Filippo leading to a famous production of Saturday, Sunday, Monday again directed by Zeffirelli and adapted by two regional, English dramatists, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Tynan helped choose plays and directors, prepared texts, wrote programme notes, supplied directors with reading-lists, worked with new writers and became the NT’s media front-man. Even if Tynan’s power was often resented by the NT’s fellow-directors, he defined the role of the dramaturg in modern Britain.
As an ex-critic, he was also very shrewd in his work on new texts. He once gave me a very concrete example. He told me that, in early draft of Equus, Peter Shaffer had his youthful hero fail to make love to the girl he fancied in her flat and then rush across town, in a fit of impotent rage, to blind the horses in their stable. At Tynan’s suggestion, the love-making was shifted to the stable itself so that the horses became a witness to the hero’s sexual failure and thereby provide a real motive for what otherwise seemed an act of wanton savagery.
So it is fitting that this award should be named in honour of Kenneth Tynan who is the patron saint of your profession. If the role of the dramaturg is accepted in Britain today, it is because of his example.
But is the role even now totally accepted? I only ask because I periodically meet playwrights who resent dramaturgical advice. I spoke to one only last week who talked to me about what she saw as the creeping danger of Hollywood formulae about story-telling being imposed on new work. I’ve no idea how true that is but it points to the fact that the relationship between the dramaturg and the living writer is one that requires tact and understanding on both sides. While it is right that the dramaturg should advise and encourage, it is also important to respect the authenticity of the author’s voice and not to impose an alien structure. John Osborne is a perfect example of a writer whose work is often structurally flawed but whose gift for rhetoric transcends that weakness.
I would also like to see dramaturgs today encourage theatres to be more wide-ranging and adventurous in their choice of play. That was where Tynan led the way. Of the 98 productions presented by the National in its first ten years, 47 had their origin outside Britain. That’s a remarkable statistic and a reminder that, amongst the standard classics by Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, the National in its early years did plays by Max Frisch, Carl Zuckmayer, Fernando Arrabal and many others. The British theatre has many virtues. But its vice is parochialism. And it is the role of people like yourselves to ensure that it looks outwards and becomes more internationalist.
But I am not here to preach. I am here to celebrate the first ever Kenneth Tynan award for Dramaturgy. All I can say is that this award could not be named after a better person since he not only defined the job for future generations but expanded the frontiers of British theatre.
(London, 16. October, 2011)