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Kenneth Tynan – Theatre Writings (Nick Hern Books) £20

Theatre criticism, as this long neglected and often plagiarised collection by the man considered to be its greatest 20th century exponent makes plain, is far from what it used to be. In these days of the quick-fix sound-bite, if Kenneth Tynan had continued his tenure beyond the 12 years he blazed a trail through British, then world theatre as an arbiter of taste at a crucial time in post World War Two history, what he would have made of the current state of play in the information age is anybody’s guess. Outside of cinema, after all, there was little popular culture to entertain Tynan’s fancy, let alone write about, and today’s equivalent, one suspects, would be as equally well-versed in Buffy The Vampire Slayer as with Hamlet or King Lear.

Then again, the narrow cultural canvas he drew upon left Tynan spoiled. Arriving on the scene from Cambridge in that prissy and already anachronistic no-man’s-land where what he dubbed the ‘Loamshire’ play – cut-glass country-house set thrillers that still, somehow, prevail – dominated, numbing audiences into torpor rather than submission, his bristling sense of frustration can be felt from the off. First with The Evening Standard, then on The Observer during that long, dark, pre-1956 era before Waiting For Godot and Look Back In Anger thumped a nation rudely awake, Tynan’s stance and reputation as a prick-kicking enfant terrible was assured.

Afterwards, while his mission may have been accomplished, Tynan didn’t quit criticism until 1962 when he joined his hero Laurence Olivier as dramaturge of the newly constituted National Theatre. Even before this most elegantly-styled poacher turned establishment gamekeeper, rather than snipe from the sidelines, Tynan the terminal narcissist preferred to occupy centre stage.

He did, however, snipe beautifully. Published alongside his equally insightful, though also long remaindered compendium of Profiles (Nick Hern Books, £14.99), Tynan’s Theatre Writings are a living masterclass for some of today’s short-memoried hacks with little sense of historical context. Lovingly and authoritatively selected, edited and contextualised by Dominic Shellard, introduced by Tynan’s son Matthew and with a foreward by Tom Stoppard, we see in chronological order Tynan’s transition from maverick young turk and unashamed Olivier fan-boy to untouchable elder statesman rubbing shoulders with his subjects.

Characters are assassinated with brevity and pith. So Vivien Leigh’s turn in the Olivier directed The Skin Of Our Teeth is compared to ‘an adolescent Katherine Hepburn slightly bemused by drugs’, while Ralph Richardson in Sheridan’s The Critic is ‘an elderly jitterbug, twitching and hopping about like a maimed insect’. Noticeably crueller to actresses, one verbal thwack at Joyce Redmond’s Cordelia suggests that ‘Her inertia…was profoundly moving’.

This is kids stuff, though, compared to Tynan’s later and prevailing obsession with censorship and the setting up of a national theatre. His hunger for artistic highs, be they from Europe, America and eventually London invest his words with a throbbing lasciviousness which leaves his dreary diaries, published a couple of years back, decidedly limp. Because, above all, it is Tynan’s relish for the shock of the new that jumps off the page, be it from Beckett, Osborne or Brecht. One can only speculate on his response to the 1990s in-yer-face generation of playwrights, let alone moves into devised, verbatim, total or whatever forms are doing their growing up in public this week.

While undoubtedly a man of his age, and as prone to the critic’s curse of pompous absolutism as anyone, Tynan understood his place in the scheme of things, even though he would eventually transcend it. Of critics themselves, Tynan noted in that crucial year of 1956 that ‘the true critic cares little for the here and now. The last thing he bothers about is the man who will read him first. His real rendevous is with posterity.’ With that self-mythologising phrase alone, Tynan secured an immortality that has finally come home to roost.

Th Herald, February 17th 2007

ends

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