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On Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan joined the Observer in 1954, the year I became a junior journalist, but I don’t think I was much aware of him for a couple of years. When a friend told me about an “amazing play” at the Royal Court in distant London, I’d never heard of Look Back In Anger, so, clearly, I knew little or nothing about Tynan. Then things changed, and Kenneth Tynan became my required reading. I suppose Tynan mattered to us because theatre mattered to us, but it actually felt as if it were the other way round, and Tynan mattered especially, for his youth, his virtuosity in print, his self-assurance, his passion and above all for his self-identification with the world he wrote about. So in 1960 when I sat down to try to write a play, I was consciously trying to write for him.

In the event I was too late to have a play reviewed by Tynan. He gave up the Observer, and theatre criticism, in 1962. Remarkably, during these 50 years, he has had no successor. Naturally, theatre criticism has continued to exhibit degrees of virtuosity, self-assurance and passion, and I dare say there are critics of equal or greater perspicacity (though few, if any, with his range of reference), but no critic - no one - has ever taken his place as the lightning rod for the electric charges that change the weather we work in. To call him that is not to claim infallibility for him (he didn’t “get” the first Pinter), but if it’s an overstatement, it’s an easy one to fall into, such was Tynan’s visibility as a publicist and polemicist. Yet, one shouldn’t suppose that his was a triumph of personality. His reputation as a critic – whatever reputation has filtered down to anyone under forty – rests paradoxically on his artistry. His gift for describing what he saw and heard was close to genius.

Here is Ralph Richardson as Falstaff rejected by the new king:

…the old man turned, his face red and working in furious tics to hide his tears. The immense pathos of his reassuring words to Shallow even now wets my eyes: ‘I shall be sent for soon at night.’ He hurried, whispered through the line very energetically, as if the matter were of no consequence: the emptiness of complete collapse stood behind it. It was pride, not feasting and foining, that laid this Falstaff low …

Reading this now, I know, as surely as I know anything, that more than one Falstaff I have seen took note; and the same may be said of several Shakespearean portrayals pinned to the page by Tynan’s beady eye and accurate pen. In that same production of Henry IV, Olivier played Shallow:

he pecks at the lines, nibbles at them like a parrot biting on a nut.

There could and should be a book devoted to Tynan and his hero Olivier. Of Olivier’s Richard III (1944), Tynan, writing for himself, notices how Olivier prepares the ground for Richard’s turning against Buckingham:

From the window in Baynard’s castle where he stands, Richard leaps down, tossing his prayer book over his shoulder, to embrace Buckingham and exult over their triumph. In mid-career he stops, mindful of his new majesty; and instead of a joyful hug, Buckingham sees the iron-clad hand of his friend extended to be kissed, and behind it, erect in horrid disdain, the top-heavy figure of the King of England.

This description would be well done with the film version on disc and the pause button in hand: to imprint the scene exactly, from who knows what kind of seat in the New Theatre, is uncommon, and to hit upon that perfect “top-heavy” is rare. Then comes the killing of “this enormous swindler” whose fury comes from being “vanquished by an accident of battle … His broken sword clutched by the blade in both hands, he whirls … writhing for absolute hate; he dies, arms and legs thrusting and kicking … stabbing at air.” Check the DVD for that, and for Olivier’s taking the text “at a speed baffling when one recalls how perfectly, even finically, it is articulated”; and then return to Tynan’s review to be told that Olivier “tends to fail in soliloquy” and to be told why. Tynan was a teenager when he wrote it. The idea of that makes me laugh with delight. His last review, or one of the last, was of Olivier again, in “Uncle Vanya” as a “superlative Astrov” whom Tynan effortlessly sums up as “a visionary maimed by self-knowledge and dwindled into a middle-aged “roue.”

Between Richard III and Uncle Vanya, and beyond into the dramaturg years at the National Theatre, Olivier and Tynan were sometimes like father and son in a marathon play by O’Neill. At other times, Tynan’s disappointments were those of a lover who has been let down. Either way, there was a sense of the two being joined in a continuous drama which intermittently broke surface in grievances and embraces… By the time Tynan parted company from the National Theatre he was not much less famous in Britain than Olivier (and not entirely for having been the first person to say “fuck” on television.) In one way or another he had been intermittently somewhere near the centre of my consciousness for about fifteen years, I’m surprised now to realise how short a time that was.

For a few months in 1962 I was a fellow reviewer, for a weekly magazine, and despite that, despite everything, I never worked out at the time why Ken was a natural critic and why I felt I was out there on a bluff. I clung to the idea that a play (particularly a new play), or a given performance, had an innate score (out of 10, say) irrespective of my presence or even my existence, and that my task was to deduce it and assign it. I never understood, or never had the assurance to understand, that for better or worse the only thing that counted was the effect the experience had on me in my seat in the stalls. Any other criterion was a mere posture. Ken embodied that principle with the grace of utter confidence, accepting that his mind was being continuously prepared anew by the experience itself. Thus, his reviews are not a record of where Tynan was “right” and where he was “wrong”: they are, rather, what he wrote in lieu of an autobiography, the adventures of someone who happened to care very much about the art of theatre. If he had lived he would be eighty five this year, young enough to be writing still, but it’s not at all clear which way he would have gone or how far. He was undeniably a star and irredeemably a fan. The two waves of energy interfered with each other, and so didn’t carry him as far as his brilliance ought to have done. But he was a beautiful writer, and it is not necessary to have known him to love him for that.


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