By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The great pleasure of Tynan’s diaries derives from the very powers that made him great as a critic: his delightful ability to bring the most fleeting scenes to life; his fierce, good-humored and unrelenting moral sense; his insatiable curiosity and juicy commitment to sexual candor. Photo by Mary Evans/Roger Maine
“The critic’s job — at least nine-tenths of it — is to make way for the good by demolishing the bad,” Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1975. By then, it had been more than a decade since he himself had worked as a critic, but he was in the habit of confiding play and film reviews to his diary. In this case, seething with boredom over an evening spent with Michelangelo Antonioni’s film The Passenger, he was appalled that so many of his former colleagues should “laud this pretentious drivel” and concluded: “Antonioni is at present blocking the street. He almost makes me wish I were back at work bulldozing.”
This wish was in his marrow. Tynan, born in 1927, achieved fame in his early 20s as one of the most ruthless and brilliant theater critics writing in English. His deep voice (as velvety on paper as it was in person), his faint stammer, his fey habit of brandishing a cigarette between his middle and ring finger, his flamboyant dandyism (long scarves, pastel shirts, leopard-skin pants, all in 1950s London, if you please) made him a vivid, magnetic public figure, as well as an irresistible target. Film director Alexander Mackendrick loved to recall that Alec Guinness was “obsessed with Tynan” and that Guinness had deliberately caricatured him when creating the effete thug who plans the bank robbery in the 1955 Ealing comedy, The Ladykillers. This was exactly the sort of response Tynan hoped for. “As long as I’m not ignored I’m happy,” he’d written as a teenager.
His first book of criticism, He That Plays the King (1950), threw a gauntlet in the dozing faces of his elders: “This sad age needs to be dazzled, shaped and spurred by the spectacle of heroism,” he wrote, “a passionate preoccupation with large and towering personalities: a sort of hero worship of which I am not the least ashamed and which I think the theater ought to encourage.” This by no means meant he wished to flatter his heroes:
What I am saying is that attack, not apology, passion, not sympathy, should be behind the decorous columns of our drama critics . . . Criticism has taken a wrong turning into imperturbability and casualness; it has ceased to worry about communicating excitement or scorn . . . It calls for great flexibility of reaction and above all, great flair and cocksureness.
In all her gentle motions there is no hint of that attack and upheaval, that inner uproar which we, mutely admiring, call greatness; no breath of the tumultuous obsession which, against our will, consumes us. She keeps a firm grip on the narrow ledge which is indisputably hers; the level on which she can be pert, sly and spankable . . . Taking a deep breath and resolutely focusing her periwinkle charm, she launches another of her careful readings; ably and passionlessly she picks her way among its great challenges, presenting a glibly mown lawn where her author had imagined a jungle.
Leigh was understandably furious; her then-husband, Laurence Olivier, who received glowing notices from Tynan in the same piece, in his own memoirs ruefully noted the connubial miseries these words generated years later. And yet, as one learns from the newly published Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, edited by John Lahr, that odd adjective “spankable” must have dialed an unlisted number in Leigh’s psyche, for not long thereafter Tynan and his first wife, Elaine Dundy, were invited for a weekend with the couple. While Sir Laurence was napping downstairs, Tynan, sleeping in a guest room,
. . . felt the sheet slowly turned back and a hand placed on my genitals. It was Vivien, naked under a peignoir. I began to respond and then suddenly thought how impossible it would be to cuckold a man I venerated under his own roof — a really cock-crinkling thought. I muttered it to Vivien, who pouted a bit, but eventually rose to her feet.
Later, once the others had risen and were getting drunk in the living room, Leigh donned a suit of armor, then stripped to her bra and panties in front of her elderly parents:
Mum is appalled: “Now miss,” she says, addressing the 48-year-old like an errant schoolgirl. “That’s quite enough of that. You mind your manners!” “What are you going to do, Mummy?” says V. provocatively. “Spank me with a hairbrush?” Mum seems on the point of doing just that (what a scene that would have been!) when V.’s attention wanders back to me: “Let’s see how Ken looks in armor!” she cries. Larry, drinking brandy in great gulps, looks up to meet my eye, nods heavily and goes on drinking.
The great pleasure of Tynan’s diaries derives from the very powers that made him great as a critic: his delightful ability to bring the most fleeting scenes to life; his fierce, good-humored and unrelenting moral sense; his insatiable curiosity and juicy commitment to sexual candor. When he began these pages in 1970, he was flush with the success of Oh! Calcutta, an evening of erotic entertainment he’d devised using sketches by Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Edna O’Brien, Jules Feiffer, John Lennon and himself, among many others. The show’s revolutionary nudity made its success a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic, affording Tynan a wider fame than ever — yet it burdened him, too. Friends accused him of selling out, and though he refused to be cowed, he was eager — perhaps a bit desperate — to accomplish a major work.