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.
Tynan’s 1951 handling of Vivien Leigh, when she played both Shakespeare’s and Shaw’s Cleopatra, is a sterling example of this:
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.
Perhaps a biography of Wilhelm Reich, the controversial psychologist whose focus on the orgasm Tynan had embraced? As one who regularly consulted a Reichian therapist in his own life, Tynan may have been too close to the topic; the project won him a generous publisher’s advance but also a bad case of writer’s block. Perhaps pursue a career as a filmmaker, for which Tynan was well-connected? He’d collaborated with Roman Polanski in the adaptation of Macbeth (1972), and until 1975 was within a hairsbreadth of financing Alex and Sophie, an explicitly sexual work “with an erotic and anally sadistic theme” he’d scripted for himself to direct.
The sad comedy of this project’s failure to materialize is counterpointed by the actual sadistic love affairs Tynan engaged in during these years, for he was indeed addicted to spanking, and being spanked. “How infinitely more varied in its excitements is sado-mas than straight sex,” he writes after a visit to his extramarital partner.
The marks that stay on the bottom, giving one a reminiscent thrill with each twinge; the anticipation of punishment, which can go on for a week or more and provoke masturbation a dozen times before the whipping actually happens.
These frank digressions give extra buoyancy to those memories of Vivien Leigh. For despite the inevitable twinges of primitive embarrassment if you don’t quite share the fantasy, such unflinching confessions also make clear just why it was that Tynan could be so scathing in his critiques and yet still befriend his targets. He knew exactly who he was, and because he refused to be ashamed, found the courage to be as truthful about whomever else fell under his scrutiny. Those he wrote about recognized this, much as they might rage, and trusted it.
And it’s remarkable how completely they opened up to him. Marlene Dietrich describes sexual encounters with Edward R. Murrow and John F. Kennedy in droll detail. Louise Brooks, sitting for the 1978 portrait Tynan fashioned in her honor — the crowning achievement of his critical career, and one that restored the actress to fame after years of neglect — confides a graphic glimpse of her solitary sex life at age 71 that didn’t quite make it into The New Yorker: “I sit on that couch and the spurt from my cunt goes Poww! clear across to that record player on the other side of the room. That’s five-and-a-quarter yards!”
The inclusion of this tidbit here is an expression of principle. Brooks also observed (in an aria Tynan did publish) that, for her, reading a person’s life story was meaningless unless there was, near its core, an uncompromised revelation of that person’s sexual desires and fears. “It is the only way,” she said, “the reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions.”
Tynan is unsparing with himself about himself, and as a result these diaries become exactly the major work he had wished for at the start of what proved to be the last decade of his life. They’ve taken so long to see daylight because their honesty so disturbed his second wife, Kathleen, that — after Tynan’s death of emphysema in 1980 — she wrested control of the slim volumes away from their rightful heir, his eldest daughter, Tracy, and incorporated some of their contents into her worthy but overlong 1987 biography of her late husband. Upon Kathleen’s death in 1995, her two children by Tynan, Roxanna and Matthew, gave the diaries back to their stepsister. John Lahr has edited them with an adroit, exacting touch: The footnotes and bits of interstitial biography keep the reader well-oriented.
If the diaries have any defect, it’s simply this: For the moment, they constitute the only work of Tynan’s that is currently in print. His volumes of reviews and personal essays — particularly Curtains, Tynan Right and Left, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping and Show People — are nearly impossible to find through used bookstores because nobody who owns one ever lets it go. For Tynan was far more than a first-rate critic — he was a first-rate writer, one of the finest of his time. A great deal of what was rarest and most fleeting about those times lives at full blast in his prose. This last work — fiery, intimate, exact — is no different, and serves as such an excellent introduction that one can only hope it brings the rest of Tynan’s writing back to where it belongs, at center stage.
THE DIARIES OF KENNETH TYNAN | By KENNETH TYNAN, edited by JOHN LAHR | Bloomsbury/St. Martin’s Press | 439 pages | $33 hardcover