The Life of Kenneth Tynan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Kenneth Tynan was the most famous and influential British drama critic since George Bernard Shaw. In his youth, he was the reviewer for the London Observer; he also wrote for magazines, he wrote books about the theater, and for two years he was chief critic for The New Yorker. At all times he used his considerable wit and style to contend for a more innovative, open, and sexually frank theater. Later, believing himself restricted by his role as critic, he served for ten years as the chief literary adviser to the British National Theater, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier. In addition, Tynan was the person most responsible for the 1969 staging of Oh, Calcutta!, the variety show which introduced unabashed nudity to the stages of New York and London.

The Life of Kenneth Tynan, written by his widow, is thorough and affecting in its study of Tynan’s early life. He grew up in Birmingham, apparently unaware until later in life that he was born out of wedlock and that his father, Sir Peter Peacock, had a wife and children with whom he lived part-time in Warrington, where he was the highly respected mayor, a justice of the peace, and a successful businessman. The only child of his parents, Kenneth Tynan was the precocious center of his mother’s life; he was sent to a good school, where his early interest in dramatics was encouraged and further developed. In 1945, he entered Oxford University, where he drew immediate attention among the postwar undergraduates for his flamboyant actions and dress. If the young Tynan never felt close to his father, there is no evidence that Sir Peter was ever less than kind to his illegitimate son, and it is clear that he was generous in his financial support; while his father lived, Kenneth Tynan never lacked for anything that money could buy.

By the time he reached Oxford, Tynan had already developed an unusual facility with words, both spoken and written. While in school and at university, he acted in and directed plays, but he seems to have recognized early that the attention he so obviously needed could be attracted most readily by his skill as a debater and his style as a writer. He made certain that in debates he defended the unconventional side and made his points as outrageously as possible. At the same time, he was becoming more and more devoted to the stage, working on university productions, traveling frequently to London to see the latest West End shows, and encouraging road companies to visit Oxford. At the same time, he was sharpening his skills as a theater critic.

After graduation (with less than the first-class honors he had expected), Tynan was active as a provincial theater director and as an actor. (He appeared as the Player King in Alec Guinness’ much-maligned production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1951.) At the same time, he continued to write magazine articles about the theater, and in 1951 he was given his first job as a critic, for Lord Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard. In 1952 he replaced a veteran as chief drama critic and reviewer for that paper. Two years later, he took the same position at the London Observer, where he was to remain for many years.

The British theater during the early 1950’s had become moribund, presenting a diet which was very heavy on Shakespeare and conventional comedies and light on anything experimental. Tynan made frequent visits to the Continent and argued, in his columns, that national theaters on the Continent—especially the French theaters and Bertolt Brecht’s East German company—were doing much more exciting and original things. He was sympathetic also toward Samuel Beckett, although less enthusiastic about Beckett’s minimalism than he was about Brecht and the Comédie-Française. When something original did happen on the London stage in 1956, Tynan was the most enthusiastic of London critics, lauding the appearance of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the first salvo fired by the “angry young men.”

Kathleen Tynan argues that her husband was a major element in the revival of British theater in the 1950’s, with his encouragement of such young actors as Robert Shaw and Peter O’Toole, his enthusiastic support of Osborne, Harold Pinter, and other playwrights, and his sponsorship of Brecht and other Continental dramatists. Yet Tynan seems to have recognized that critics have a limited role in the development of any art form: Originality does not arrive in response to critical demand. Impatient with what he regarded as a passive role, Tynan spent two years as chief drama critic for The New Yorker, finding the New York stage more to his liking than its London counterpart was. He also tried his hand at writing screenplays; he wished to direct plays; and he looked for other ways to become more actively involved.

For years, Tynan and others had agitated for the formation of a subsidized national theater for Great Britain. Finally, in 1963, such a theater was...

(The entire section is 2048 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Library Journal. CXII, October 1, 1987, p. 90.

London Review of Books. IX, December 10, 1987, p. 10.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 8, 1987, p. 3.

The New Republic. CXCVII, November 16, 1987, p. 23.

New Statesman. CXIV, December 4, 1987, p. 30.

The New York Review of Books. XCII, December 3, 1987, p. 5.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 3, 1988, p. 7.

The Observer. September 27, 1987, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, September 18, 1987, p. 168.

Time. CXXX, December 7, 1987, p. 85.