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He that Played the Fool

The Life of Kenneth Tynan by Kathleen Tynan

Kenneth Tynan had it to burn, so he burned it. The greatest critical talent since Shaw threw it all away. That, at any rate, is the generally accepted idea, which Kathleen Tynan’s biography, well written though it is, and even though it tries to do the opposite, can only reinforce. It’s the wrong idea, but it can’t lose. To explain the man makes him less dazzling. It helps cut his intensity down to size. Put out the light, and then put out the light.

Some such process of diminishment would have been inevitable, even if its subject had not appeared so enthusiastically to cooperate. Tynan wrote too well to be easily put up with by other cultural journalists. Even when they praised him they were looking for a weakness. In his early days, a weakness was hard to find. In his very early days he was even better than that.

For Tynan at Oxford and just after, the term “genius” seems not out of place. Certainly there is no precocity to match his in the whole of English prose. You would have to go to the novels of Radiguet or the plays of Büchner to find a parallel. His first collection, He That Plays the King—everything in it composed before he even got to Fleet Street—is a classic book which, were it to be republished now in its slim entirety, might give the new generation of journalists in the cultural field a salutary fright.

In places, Tynan’s astonishing first book is as precious as “The Unquiet Grave.” There are passages that out-posture Palinurus. But you can put that down to his age (twenty-three), exacerbated by the age—that period of post-war austerity which produced, as a reaction, Brideshead Revisited and the verse plays of Christopher Fry. What makes the collection timeless is Tynan’s wit, and there is seldom anything precious about that. Tynan could make his prose speak right out of the page: he had the essential button-holing gift of the star critic.

Tynan’s ostensible business, in those early days, was with heroic acting, of which, indeed, he was a peerless anatomist. But while in search of what he admired he had to see much which he did not, and about that he had the valuable gift of being amusing. “Joyce Redman tried unwisely to make novel use of her buxom build and strident voice by playing a strong, commanding Cordelia. Her best time came after she was dead.” This is tough but not cruel, because it leaves the actress the possibility of being good in other parts, or in the same part played a different way. About Eileen Herlie, playing Medea at the 1948 Edinburgh Festival, he was cruel. “I admit that in repose she is gracious: but she lunges rather than moves, and she has common hands.” Tynan was lucky to wake up next morning without finding his victim’s hands fastened around his neck. In pursuit of his passion, he had forgotten her feelings, or anyway, forgotten that they mattered.

His passion was for theatre. This is what so sharply distinguishes Tynan’s wit from that of previous critics whose writings are generally attributed with that quality, but who were in fact not theatre critics at all. Dorothy Parker, for example, funny though she could be, knew nothing about the theatre and had no judgement of it. She was using it as an opportunity to make wisecracks. Tynan’s imperative was the very opposite. He was enslaved to the theatre. You can tell by the way he praised the great moments of his heroic actors: Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Wolfit, Guinness. If they tended to remember how he dispraised their weak moments, even the most bitter among them were obliged to concede that he was merciless only out of a sense of duty to high ideals. Tynan had theatre instead of religion.

He also had it instead of politics. Later on, when he got interested in politics, he treated them as theatre, which is perhaps the clue to his later diffuseness. Orson Welles, in the preface which he contributed to He That Plays the King (the young author, whom Welles did not know, pressed the manuscript on him unsolicited, and Welles, in one of history’s few recorded cases of genius recognizing genius first off, coughed up a free plug), spotted a tendency which Tynan spent the rest of his life trying to deal with—“a confusion between high glamour and tragic truth.”

The words are Welles’s but the trouble was Tynan’s. In everything from how he dressed to what he worshipped, Tynan behaved as if purity could be attained just by screwing theatricality up to a high enough pitch. Somewhere in that assumption was an irreconcilable contradiction. He was under no obligation to reconcile it. Merely to have identified it and discussed it would have kept him going for a fruitful lifetime into a wise old age. But the drama within himself was the only one he could not review.

Kathleen Tynan, made well aware of this fact by the sad end it led to, tries hard and honourably to find reasons. It is not the first honour she has done him. She honoured him by putting up with him when he proved, like so many writers, to be no better fitted for married life than for self-propelled flight; and now she has honoured him by writing a book brave enough to take him seriously at the level where he came, in later years, to think himself most serious—as an assault pioneer of the sexual-political revolution. There can be no doubt that he would have thanked her for taking such a dare, so it would be niggardly of the onlooker not to thank her as well. One wonders, though, whether she has really uncovered much by revealing all. It is possible to lay a false trail with discarded veils.

Let no-one doubt her bravery. Her husband, on this evidence, was a psychological disaster area. His own explanation for his kinky sexuality was an identity crisis dating from his illegitimate childhood. On the other hand, he came to regard his kinky sexuality as a form of expression, with a right to be heard. He started off with the worthy aim of wanting to abolish the Lord Chamberlain and ended up with the less endearing determination to dress up as Louise Brooks. It was the usual story of a man being caught up with by the era he helped instigate, and making a guy of himself by trying to outrun it. But it meant harrowing times for his biographer, who can be forgiven for painting a picture of that sensitive face, skull-like from the beginning, being eaten up by the anguish within.

Such turmoil would explain anyone’s decline. Perhaps, however, it explains itself. Tynan’s penchant for transsexual dressing and the milder forms of flagellation did not cramp his prose style in the first place, so why should it have done so later on? When the marvellous boy hit Fleet Street, he went as far as his gift could take him—all the way to immortality.

Readers of the Observer could turn to his column and find sentences good enough to leave their breakfast cold. “His tragedy,” Tynan said of Uncle Vanya, “is that he is capable only of comedy.” Shaw himself is no comparison: you have to go back to Coleridge to find so much character analysis in such a short space.

Tynan became a force for good in the theatre. He helped raise its intelligence by the way he criticized it. And, as Kathleen Tynan points out, he was equally forceful when he took on the post of dramaturg for the National Theatre in what has proved, in retrospect, to be its formative period, before it got its own building.

Olivier, the man in charge, emerges from this book like the giant he was and is, but it is to Tynan’s lasting credit that when the man was matched with his hour, he, Tynan, was a match for the man. In service of Olivier, all of Tynan’s knowledge, judgement and love of the theatre were put to good use.

So where was the vice? It was in the virtue. He loved theatre so much that he thought life should be like that. It was not his trendiness that caught up with him in the 1960s, it was his seriousness. His late-flowering admiration for Brecht might not have been fatal if he had abetted it by some capacity for political analysis. But he tried to learn politics from Brecht. Tynan’s evocations of the Berliner Ensemble productions (to be found in his collection Curtains) are alive in all respects except the intellect. He didn’t think to ask why Brecht’s company had never been invited to tour the Soviet Union, or why Brecht himself had never written a single line, let alone a complete play, in direct criticism of any aspect of the East German regime. He could be so foolish only because he had failed to take history in. It was too dull for him.

Tynan had read every play in the world but very few serious books. There was no time. He dined in smart company almost every night. He lived the high life and could not bear to be away from it. He could have conquered his emphysema if he had kept to the desert air, but it would have wasted his sweetness. He had to be near the action—not because he was a snob, but because it was theatrical. The entrance on to the stage of Olivier as Othello was succeeded by the entrance into the dining room of Princess Margaret. For Ken Tynan, these events were comparable.

If Kathleen Tynan seems to think the same, the sin is more venial in her than it was in her husband. She has some innocent pleasure coming, after the pain he caused her, her worst pain arising from the requirement that she should witness his. No wonder she looks for a profound cause of why he fell to pieces. Without making light of the bewilderment he brought to his women and children, however, it should be possible to conjecture that he disintegrated for the same reason that a meteor does, which consumes itself in order to be brilliant, and presumably wouldn’t, if consulted, choose another course. To want an unfallen Kenneth Tynan would be to want the moon.

(Observer, September 27, 1987)


Generously hoping to illuminate the legend by showing us the man, Kathleen Tynan’s biography of her husband inadvertently helped bring his reputation down to earth, but it had a lot further to sink. Fifteen years later his diaries were published. We already knew that his sexual imagination was like a Japanese comic book for adolescent males, but here were the pages that had previously been glued together. Faced with the shocking-pink evidence of flagellation and buggery, even some of his remaining admirers bailed out. If this had been the real man, what was the reputation ever worth? But in the age of biography the critic’s duty, even when writing about another critic, is to go on plugging away at the elementary truth that the only real man is in his published writings. Armed with the biographical details, the journeymen conspire to haul him down to their level. Jobbing columnists would like to believe that Tynan wrote a version of what they write: a trifle snazzier, perhaps, but of the same order. Not a chance. Ordinary expository prose, no matter how workmanlike, has only a formal connection with the style that electrifies. The difference is in the concentration of dramatic effect. Supernumeraries sometimes stray into the spotlight if they are lucky. Tynan never strayed out.