The first letter in this collection, dated February 12, 1938, written when Kenneth Tynan was only ten years old, already shows a distinctive personality, one that would concern itself with the making of great work in the performing arts. He writes to the editor of Film Weekly to protest the report that Warner Bros. intends to cast Humphrey Bogart in a series of “B” (that is, second-rate or modest) movies. He confidently points out that the studio is making a great mistake. Bogart had shown his great talent as a character actor in films such as Dead End (1937), Marked Woman (1937), and Stand-In (1937). He deserved “real recognition.” The letter is only two sentences long, but it assumes an air of authority surely unusual for one so young. It is almost as if this youth thinks his opinion will carry some weight. At any rate, he will not let such a travesty occur without putting in his oar.
Kenneth Tynan made his reputation as a postwar critic and theatrical impresario with just this kind of sound judgment, which sometimes—as in the case of Bogart— had the air of prophecy. In 1938, Bogart had not yet made Casablanca or The African Queen. He was not a screen icon. Even the precocious Tynan could not forecast Bogart’s development not merely as a great character actor but as a romantic lead as well, but it was his way of drawing attention to the important figure, work, or phenomenon that made him a bellwether.
Yet why should even such a shrewd observer merit first a long recent biography and now a large collection of letters? One answer is simple. Both were written and edited by his last wife, the late Kathleen Tynan, who championed her husband’s significance as a cultural figure larger than the term “critic” encompasses. Her judgment seems correct. For Tynan did not merely review what came his way; he looked for and established trends and styles. He argued in eloquent terms for what art should be. Most revealing is that he had so many friendships with first-rate creative people—with novelists such as William Styron and the actor/director Laurence Olivier, for example. For Tynan, the act of criticism took him right to the center of the arts. He conveyed the impression of not writing simply from an audience seat but as someone deeply immersed in the process of creating art.
It is something of a mystery as to why Tynan did not do more than write about the theater. Early on, he tried his hand at directing and was humiliated when a distinguished actress had him removed from a production. Did he lose his nerve? Did writing serve as a more satisfying form of participation in the arts—one over which he had total control? Perhaps, but Tynan did get his hands dirty, so to speak, in his collaboration with Olivier on Great Britain’s National Theatre. As literary manager, Tynan urged the famous actor, then head of the new institution, to do daring plays and to battle censorship. In this context, Tynan showed no fear of failure or controversy. Quite the contrary; he thrived on it, even to the point of annoying Olivier. In fact, Olivier only half-jokingly remarked that he chose Tynan as his collaborator because he could then at least silence Tynan’s more vitriolic reviews of his performances.
Perhaps Tynan saw at the start of his career that as a director he would have to do all kinds of plays—popular and avant- garde, good and bad—and disliked the prospect of submitting to that kind of grind. He enjoyed the good life, travel, many affairs with women, and the exercise of wit, little of which would have been his lot as a director in a Britain taking a long time to recover from World War II. Tynan was a man of expansive moods and ambitions; he did not want to harness himself to productions. He simply wanted to go where the action was. He saw himself as pushing the envelope of what it was possible to do in the theater.
A good example is his 1969 production of Oh! Calcutta!, essentially a confection of pornographic skits that he solicited from many prominent writers. Tynan wanted the shock value of bringing a show (it can hardly be called a play) with full frontal nudity to the Broadway stage in New York and to the fabled West End theaters in London. He promised his collaborators that though their names would be listed in the credits, no one would know which author wrote which sketch. That he succeeded in mounting these productions was a kind of triumph in itself, if hardly a major contribution to dramaturgy. Yet Tynan seems to have realized that it was not the nudity per se that was important, but rather his insistence that neither sex nor any other subject matter should be segregated or declared, by definition, out of bounds for art and artists.
Oh! Calcutta! did contribute to the image of Tynan as one of the swingers of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but in fact he thought that full frontal nudity...
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