The Life of Kenneth Tynan 
by Kathleen Tynan.
Weidenfeld, 407 pp., £16.95, September 1987, 9780297790822
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Kathleen Tynan says that she wavered for some time between writing a personal memoir of her 16 years with her husband Kenneth and embarking on a full-dress biography, embracing the 36 before they met. As she foresaw, making the second choice has produced an odd, hybrid book, not quite one thing nor the other. At times deeply intimate, at others coolly dispassionate, her narrative becomes an antiphony of two voices in uneasy tension. Frequently, one feels that she might write more emotionally were it not for the biographer looking over her shoulder. Almost as often, one finds oneself reading passages of straight reporting as if they were playing the tricks of a novel, using flatness to imply feeling, disguising as unruffled objectivity the chilled revulsion of a wife.

For this is not, it must have leaked out by now, the traditional saint’s life expected of literary widows. Mrs Tynan chose to write a biography, she says, because she felt the need to assert her husband’s rightful place in 20th-century English letters and theatre history, but she has not erected the conventional pious monument. It is hard to imagine Mary Shelley canvassing the opinions of former secretaries, asking how the Shelley ménage struck them at the time, or the second Mrs Hardy interviewing the novelist’s former mistresses, discussing his sexual preferences. Mrs Tynan does all this and more, stopping short only (by whose decision she does not say) at comparing notes with her predecessor, the previous title-holder, Elaine Dundy. Before she dwindled into a wife, Kathleen Halton was an excellent journalist, from a family of some renown in the business, and she has done her leg-work conscientiously and well, excavating all the truth she could uncover about the erratic, divided egotist she married. But the objectivity with which she invaded the regions of his life not shared with her was, she recognises, unnatural, and the strain she put on herself in doing so translates into an underlying strain running through her book like the San Andreas Fault.

Nonetheless, it’s a compelling piece of writing, and her choice obviously was the right one. To tell only the story of her years with Tynan would have been to unfold a mystery with no key, the sort of cryptogram Tynan’s favourite film, Citizen Kane, would have become had Orson Welles’s studio bosses cut the childhood episodes which explain Kane’s dying word, ‘Rosebud’. The Tynan for whom she forsook her own first marriage in 1964 was a man glittering with success and his own pleasure in it: leading drama critic of the English-speaking world, newly-appointed dramaturg of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, someone who could claim, like Oscar Wilde, a symbolic relation to his time. The husband whose agonising death from emphysema she watched in California in 1980 (this is the book to give a smoker you love for Christmas) was a lost, wasted man whose misery and sense of exile stare hauntingly out of the book’s last photograph. The explanation for that change does not lie in the years during which it took place. To account for it, Mrs Tynan had to go back to the beginning: to the indulged Birmingham schoolboy who was always to maintain that he really was born on his first day at Oxford.

The time to which Ken Tynan bore a symbolic relation was the quarter-century following the Second World War, during which the generation of grammar-school children to whom the Education Act of 1944 opened Britain’s older universities created a new society open to their talents. Tynan was the first, and flamboyantly the foremost, of their number. In fact, his father Sir Peter Peacock, chairman of the family chain of Midland drapery stores, could easily have sent him to a public school, and wished to. But his mother, Letitia Rose Tynan, feared that if he left home, he might discover his parents’ guilty secret. She and Sir Peter were not married; the knight had an obdurate wife and four older children in Warrington, where he had served six terms as mayor. So Ken went to King Edward’s School, got a better education than he would have found at most boarding-schools, grew up heterosexual and entered Magdalen, Oxford in 1945 on a demyship of £50 a year. His spending allowance, ten pounds a week, was larger than that of most undergraduates in those days and enabled him to become more conspicuous, famous for his technicolour suits (one green, one purple) and gold satin shirts. But essentially he was in the same situation as scores of clever provincial boys after the war, feeling their way into the new world which had given them equality with Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists, but left them to prove it.

Any age in which new classes thrust in among old ones is an age of dandyism. The vividest method of telling an old class you don’t believe in their game, but can beat them at it anyway, is to out-swank them ironically. You can then move among them easily, using all the right noises and gestures, sharply caricatured, to proclaim your difference. Tynan was, in effect, the earliest of the scholarship grubs who, with the help of new voices, fanciful wardrobes and an affectation of malicious exhibitionism, turned themselves into butterflies and swarmed through the old universities in the late Forties and Fifties. The logic of their situation made them theatrical. Tynan happened already to be in love with films and theatre, and therefore became, so to speak, theatrical squared. Their situation also made them competitive. As Michael Young was to point out in The Rise of the Meritocracy, élites based on education lack the security of the old aristocracies of land and money. To live by one’s wits is a nervous business: every younger brain, each new foot on the educational ladder, is a potential threat. Hence the competitive displays of educational firepower codified only half-jokingly in this period by Stephen Potter’s Lifemanship books. Hence the cut-throat games of vocabulary-flashing and cultural reference pinned down by Harold Pinter and Joe Orton as Britain’s post-war national sport. Tynan, a bookish, unathletic boy, made this kind of competition his own. A compulsive player of word-games, he spattered his early writing with challenges to duels of literacy. A flip through his first collection of reviews turns up cateran, cicisbeism, erethism, esurient, Galgenhumor and dompteuse. (He over-reached with erethism, describing someone in a play as fathering a child in a moment of it. It would be difficult to do so in any other state.)

The most theatrical, the most competitive of his generation, he went further than almost all the rest. The penalty he paid was his inability to find his way back. His fellow meritocrats made the question of how to go home again, how to stay in touch with your roots, the great theme of British fiction and drama in the Fifties and Sixties. Tynan praised them but ignored it. Having turned his back on Birmingham, he never returned. His wife thinks he made the discovery of his illegitimacy, when he was 21, the excuse for a course he probably would have followed anyway. Having invented a new self, made himself a changeling, he seized on the falsification attending his birth to slam the door of the past behind him for ever. Some years earlier, he had discovered that his mother’s first name was not Lilian, as she had pretended, but Letitia. Perhaps discovering that she shared the secret name of Wilde’s Miss Prism helped too, making him feel entitled to the life of someone found in a handbag. His mother died in a home in Yorkshire in 1961, mentally deranged. Mrs Tynan quotes a passage of self-accusation, written years later, from his journals: ‘If she had come to London and lived with me in the Fifties, she could have been sustained by human contact ... I could have postponed her death at the expense of my own absorption in self-advancement. I chose not to.’

The point is not that he neglected his parents. We are all guilty there. It is that he hid from himself things from his Birmingham past which returned to haunt him. In making new selves for ourselves, we cannot avoid using old materials. Where, in those years of clothes rationing, did he find the stuffs for his purple suit and gold shirts but a draper’s shelves? Elements of the life he chose to forget made their way, similarly metamorphosed, into the life he made for himself. In California, his wife says, he fell back when not dining out on the ‘brown foods’ of his boyhood-sausages, kidneys, Worcester sauce, mulligatawny soup. Tastes and attitudes formed in his schooldays shaped what he became, assisting him in some ways, limiting him in others.

His wife’s book is a moving personal story and a valuable strand of social history. But its chief use in the long run will be that it clarifies and explains the kinds of critic Tynan was. He was imprinted for life by his first love, films. Like the rest of us who grew up on what we felt to be margins in the Thirties, he made Hollywood, its gods and goddesses, its imaginary America of swing, white telephones and good-sport girls, his myth of the desirable centre. His first published writing, he admitted; was a letter sent to a film magazine when he was ten, asking the Warner Brothers for more of Humphrey Bogart, just seen in The Petrified Forest. His last, a New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, reads like a farewell hymn to Aphrodite Cinematica, ageless epitome of all the girls loved over the years on thousands of silver screens. It seems to have been by way of film that he was drawn to his next love, old Broadway. As fans devour the implausible details of their idols’ home-life in Beverly Hills, he became fascinated by the earlier off-screen life of his favourite films, The Philadelphia Story, The Women, The Man Who Came to Dinner, in the New York theatre. The last, Kaufman and Hart’s poisoned valentine to Alexander Woollcott, with its portrait of the critic as wit, tyrant and friend of the celebrated, clearly allured him. Echoes of its style appear frequently in his undergraduate writing, part of a generalised admiration for the world of the New Yorker, Cole Porter musicals and the Algonquin Round Table. I don’t mock the progression. My own was identical.

Films implanted his obsession with stardom, the making and wearing of those golden masks with which his favourite performers – Dietrich, Garbo, Hepburn, Tracy, Chaplin, Welles – vested themselves, like pharaohs, with power and timelessness. He became fascinated by the skills involved, the technique of imposing oneself on an audience, as hypnotists do, by a combination of bullying and seduction. Mildly sado-masochistic himself, he came to see this process as the exotic flower of which his condition was a bud, and to revere it with erotically-flavoured humility. Out of this came two of his central beliefs about acting: first, that all great actors have a strain of androgyny which enables them to seduce both sexes in an audience, as the boy playing Rosalind threatens to do in the epilogue to As you like it; second, that all great acting is tinged with danger, with the possibility of cruelty or violence, or, as in the meeting of matador and bull in his favourite sport, a combination of both.

From his film-going, too, I think, came one of his greatest virtues as a critic. He wrote about stage acting as if it were on the screen: that is to say, as if film’s international language of movement were the essential, to which language itself was a late, added sound-track. What he admired and described was actors’ physical movement, often isolating it from language as if to discriminate the player’s creation from the playwright’s. This effect was heightened by his frequent use of animal similies. To emphasise the purity of the movement in itself, he would remove it from its human context and display it like the movement of an animal in a zoo. Anthony Quayle’s Coriolanus reminded him of a young bull, Donald Wolfit’s Iachimo of ‘a vast, gloating reptile’, while to evoke Louise Brooks’s Lulu in Pabst’s silent film he summoned comparisons with a swan, a gazelle and a tropical fish. He could use animal imagery to be scathing, as well. Alan Badel’s Romeo brought to his mind a restless marmoset, Dorothy Tutin’s Ophelia ‘a mouse on the rack’ and Claire Bloom’s Jessica in an Old Vic Merchant of Venice, gazing adoringly but disconcertingly into Lorenzo’s eyes, ‘a sea-lion awaiting a fish’. He almost resented actors such as Gielgud, whose movement had no animal quality for him to catch. Like film cameras, he preferred actors with thinking bodies to those whose heads control their performances. Implicitly, this committed him to preferring a cinematic realism on the stage – in the Fifties he wrote of the need for ‘a theatre continuous with real life’: but he also pictured the great, ultra-theatrical actors he admired as great beasts, holding your attention by sheer animal magnetism. The exercise of finding those animal parallels imposed a close, detailed attention to the stage which make his descriptions among the most vivid in theatrical criticism.

The king of his bestiary, of course, was Olivier. Of his Titus Andronicus in 1955, Tynan wrote: ‘All the grand, unplayable parts, after this, are open to him: Skelton’s Magnificence, Ibsen’s Brand, Goethe’s Faust – anything, so long as we can see those lion eyes search for solace, that great jaw sag.’ Olivier was his star of stars, drawing from forgotten depths the pure fan-worship of the child who spent long Birmingham mornings in bed with Film Pictorial. Elaine Dundy has told of his excitement when he went to visit Olivier and Vivien Leigh at Notley Abbey in 1955 and heard for the first time of the possibility that Olivier might head a national theatre. When the time came in 1963, he offered himself as its dramaturg. ‘How shall we slaughter the little bastard?’ snorted Olivier, handing his letter to Joan Plowright, whom he had married in the interim. Tynan had contributed, Olivier believed, to his – Olivier’s – first wife’s mental breakdown by his derisive reviews. More recently, he had attacked the Chichester Festival, under cover of which Olivier was assembling his National company. Miss Plowright persuaded him to swallow his rage and accept the offer, and so the famous partnership began.

Kathleen Tynan says, with justice, that the full, balanced history of the partnership, and of Olivier’s National Theatre, has yet to be written. The short chapter she devotes to Tynan’s years with Olivier makes clear that the relationship misfired, but does not make clear how. Tynan alternated between humbling himself to Olivier and trying to bulldoze him with intellectual superiority in a way, she admits, that made it hard for Olivier to trust him. They never found a common language. The Oliviers would entertain the Tynans to family lunches on Sunday in Brighton, Olivier carving the roast in shirt-sleeves and braces, and Tynan would use the occasion to try and goad his employer into new displays of political or artistic adventurousness. ‘We were never Mick and Mack,’ says Olivier in retrospect. He refused Tynan permission in the Seventies to write his biography or even a New Yorker profile of him, believing that he had betrayed confidences to a New York newspaper and perhaps aware of some of the disparaging things Tynan used to say behind his back to Fleet Street colleagues about the management of the National. But he points out what Tynan never knew: that when the National board were baying for Tynan’s dismissal, after the Soldiers affair and Oh! Calcutta!, Olivier saved his skin by threatening his own resignation if Tynan went.

If your childhood dream is of snaring gods and goddesses, what do you do when you find one in your net? Whatever else may be possible, an equal relationship is not. The adorer wants to adore from below, and if denied this grows scornfully familiar. Like most players of Stephen Potter’s games, Tynan had difficulty finding friends to whom he felt equal. Either he felt cleverer than other people, he confessed to his journal, and despised them, or he felt that other people were cleverer than him, and feared them. Olivier, it seems clear, offered Tynan friendship, but Tynan could not decide whether he adored his genius or despised his lack of education. The only relationship he could imagine was one in which, having hitched the star to his wagon, they soared together to ever more amazing heights of ambition and self-invention. Once or twice, when he prevailed on Olivier to play Othello and Edgar in Strindberg’s Dance of Death, this happened. But for the most part Tynan’s demands for Olivier to astonish him even further fell on the deaf ears of a man who, for the first time, was discovering the pleasures of ordinariness, domesticity and team play. Offered a place in this picture, Tynan backed off. He was not, as his wife says, a team player.

This would account for the uneasy, pantomime-horse nature of the National Theatre which Olivier and Tynan ran between them. It accomplished fine things, but the finest were seldom those to which Tynan’s ambitions led it. What Olivier could have run best and most happily would have been a very British national theatre, exploring not too adventurously the byways of English and European drama. As it is, my brightest memories of the Olivier National, after his own star performances, are William Gaskill’s superb revivals of The Recruiting Officer and The Beaux Stratagem, John Dexter’s A Woman Killed With Kindness, Coward’s Hay Fever, Stoppard’s Jumpers, Clifford Williams’s all-male As you like it, and Olivier’s own productions of Three Sisters and Juno and the Paycock. All of those, I’m sure, were Tynan’s choices, but one can imagine most of them happening with other dramaturgs. The National productions I can’t imagine happening without Tynan and his ambitions for a theatre of European stature are those curiously ill-judged replicas of famous foreign productions – Mother Courage, Hedda Gabler, A Flea in her Ear, the Brechtian Coriolanus (it was almost Brecht’s Coriolan, but Olivier put his foot down) – and such items of imported avant-garderie as Arrabal’s Architect and the Emperor of Assyria. They are all plays well worth staging, even in borrowed mountings, but they belong to a Tynan, not an Olivier, National Theatre. It was the sense of such differences within the National’s Sixties seasons that made it seem less than whole-heartedly successful.

In the end, as we all know, Tynan tried to push Olivier too far, into staging Hochhuth’s Soldiers with its accusation of Churchill’s complicity in the death of General Sikorski, and Olivier was only able to protect him from his board by demoting him to ‘consultant’. But, as Oh! Calcutta! went on to demonstrate, the difference between the two partners was not simply one of political judgment or artistic caution. One of Tynan’s truly profound insights was that their belief in decency was what prevented Englishmen from making revolutions. Only by overthrowing the decencies could the country be changed. To someone of Olivier’s generation, such a proposition smelled of treachery, as it had to – nothing new is brought about without betraying the old; some of it in oneself. It was at this point in Tynan’s career that he began, his wife thinks, to be a man deeply divided against himself, forcing himself to outrage more and more deeply the decencies in himself that he felt he must outgrow. With half his mind, he planned a life of Wilhelm Reich, martyr of the orgasm; a pornographic film; an anthology of masturbation fantasies by various famous hands. With the other half, he blamed himself guiltily for the harm his insistence on sexual freedom was doing to his marriage, and wrote notes to the London producer of Oh! Calcutta! complaining of grossnesses, such as two actors miming buggery, which had crept into the performance.

The extent to which he had moved away from reality is revealed by the degree of shock he felt on discovering what his public image in England had become. This, as much as the onset of emphysema, says Mrs Tynan, was the motive for his self-exile to California; he was particularly shocked by the attacks on him by John Osborne and William Gaskill in Logan Gourlay’s collection of essays on Olivier. Mrs Tynan’s last chapters make depressing reading. More and more, as his illness advanced, he took on the grotesque likeness of Kaufman and Hart’s Sheridan Whiteside, the Man who Came to Dinner: overbearing, querulous, tyrannical, the classic invalid determined to make everyone else suffer for his invalidism. ‘Beware, young man, of what you wish for in your youth,’ wrote Emerson in one of his essays, ‘for assuredly it will be given to you in your age.’

That said, what is the place to be claimed for him in 20th-century English letters and theatre history? The usual claim is that he was the finest theatre critic since Shaw. It’s not a brilliant contest to win, against the blasé A.B. Walkley, the quasi-mystical Charles Morgan and the appalling James Agate, and personally I’d choose C.E. Montague: but let that go. He was certainly the most entertaining after Shaw, but there I’d say the comparison ends. He lacked the political centre from which Shaw’s jokes sprang. All too often, his are simply Oxford revue skits and parodies, run up to make a clever column when a play stirs no special response. His politics were the result of his conquest by Brecht’s aesthetic. Shaw’s aesthetic was the result of his own politics.

The claims I’d make for him are different. His liveliness made the theatre he wrote about seem lively in a drab time, and therefore important. As a result, it began to behave as if it were important, and became so. One can’t say he made the English theatre the best in the world in the post-war decades, but he made English audiences realise that it was and the quality of their relationship to their playwrights was for twenty years the envy of the world. And finally, he could draw in words. I think that’s what the rest of us envied most. When he described Richardson’s ‘cheese-face’ or Gielgud’s brusque, wrought-up manner of talking to other actors ‘as if he were going to tip them’, he caught in a line what we had seen. That seems the important thing to tell posterity. The pictures he drew of Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and Redgrave, of Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorn-dike and Maggie Smith, are true likenesses. We saw them too, and he can be believed.

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Vol. 10 No. 2 · 21 January 1988

SIR: I much enjoyed Ronald Bryden’s review of Kathleen Tynan’s biography of her gifted and tragic husband (LRB, 10 December 1987). But he is surely mistaken in his remarks on Kenneth Tynan’s behaviour at Oxford. It may well be that the 1944 Education Act ‘opened Britain’s older universities’ to ‘a generation of grammar-school children’. But Tynan went to King Edward’s, Birmingham, a fee paying grammar school with a record of sending boys to Oxbridge since the 1840s and its great headmaster James Prince Lee. To attend a school which has produced Archbishop Benson and such eminent Classical scholars as Bishops Lightfoot and Westcott, not to mention J. Enoch Powell nearly a century later, would hardly have put Tynan at a disadvantage compared with Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists. Such disadvantage belonged to poor chaps from ordinary non-fee-paying grammar schools with no tradition of Oxbridge entrance. Tynan, I suspect, felt much closer to public school men. And, of course, by the usual definition of membership of the Headmasters’ Conference, King Edward’s was a public school. The sources of Tynan’s dandyism and pushiness must be sought elsewhere. ‘The new classes thrust in among the old ones’, in the sense Bryden implies – industry and trade versus land and titles – was more a phenomenon of the mid-19th century than the mid-20th.

D.G. Wright
Shipley, West Yorkshire

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