KENNETH TYNAN: Theatre Writings Selected and Edited by Dominic Shellard.
First Paperback Version published in the UK by NICK HERN BOOKS, 2008.
Foreword by Tom Stoppard.
ISBN: 978 1 85459 543 0
Review: Kim Durham, 8 September 2008.
A link to the book on Amazon is below:
Razor-sharp observations of the post-war British theatre scene.
A theatre critic writing a review of a book of theatre criticism might seem to be reaching for a rarefied form of pointlessness. One imagines a particularly arid antechamber of Hell reserved for one such, right next to the cell where castrati sing of the sexual adventures of a fellow eunuch. But when the book of theatre criticism in question is a collection of the writings of Kenneth Tynan there is perhaps some justification.
For a start, he is a stylist, a writer of wit and precision. Reading Tynan would be an entertainment whatever he had chosen to write about. But he is far more than a grandstander simply exercising a talent to amuse. Above everything Tynan sought to be a serious protagonist in the world of the theatre of his day and more than any other reviewer before or since that is what he succeeded in being. As becomes clear from this collection, as well as a critic, he was a passionate advocate for a new kind of theatre and for a National Theatre, the creation of which was by no means universally applauded.
Covering the post-war years 1945 – 1965, these writings also provide a fascinating chronicle of a period in theatre a little prior to most of our personal recollections. The early reviews and articles describe an unfamiliarly moribund scene with Tynan keenly yearning for a renaissance in British playwriting. Initially championing the new wave of European writing which included Becket and, subject to even more of his enthusiasm, Brecht, he is quick to recognise the following wave of home-grown voices. His description of the relationship between Jimmy and Alison in Look Back in Anger shows him at his razor-sharp and economical best:
two attractive young animals engaged in competitive martyrdom, each with its teeth sunk deep in the other’s neck, and each reluctant to break the clinch for fear of bleeding to death.
As a quick thumbnail sketch that would be hard to beat.
Perhaps partly due to the dearth of new writing at the start of his reviewing career, Tynan is unusually good in his examination and description of acting. Whereas theatre critics today seem to regard the medium as largely belonging to the writer or director, Tynan is a great, incisive reviewer of performance, particularly of Sir Laurence Olivier, of whom he was a huge, but not uncritical fan. Here he is writing of a production of Macbeth in 1955:
Last Tuesday Sir Laurence shook hands with greatness, and within a week or so the performance will have ripened into a masterpiece: not of the superficial, booming, have-a-bash kind, but the real thing, a structure of perfect forethought and proportion, lit by flashes of intuitive lightning.
This followed by a detailed analysis, not of a production but of an actor’s characterisation. It’s perhaps not surprising then that such a respect for Acting should have led Tynan to an admiration of the newly emerging American Method at a time when this would have been an extremely rare taste amongst the British theatre establishment.
That he could also be vicious about a performance or performer is evidenced by his opinion of Vivien Leigh in the same production:
more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda, but still competent in its small way.
And that spectacular example of damning with faint praise is about as generous as Tynan manages to be to the unfortunate Miss Leigh, who he seems to pursue through the earlier part of this collection with a somewhat blood-curdling sadistic relish.
Entertaining, brilliant and, possibly, delivered with forensic precision as these attacks may have been, I think I prefer my critics a little less red in tooth and claw. But with Tynan, I expect that is all part of the whole, passionate in his advocacy of the good and coruscating in his view of what he saw as the bad. In the end, it is that intense focus from an intensely perceptive and combative mind that makes this such an engaging read.
The hard-back version of this book was reviewed by ReviewsGate co-editor Rod Dungate, the review can be found via the site search engine. Here’s the link to the Amazon copy.