Lightly Toasted

Show People: Profiles in Entertainment

by Kenneth Tynan
Simon and Schuster, 317 pp., $11.95

Laughter, soft light, the rustle of napkins: Kenneth Tynan’s collection of New Yorker profile-essays is a posh affair, a cork-popping evening spent in the company of the famous and the famously forgotten. In a perplexing foreword, Tynan says that in recent years “essay” has become an odious world. in certain corners of the lit-crit world. “Many critics maintain that the essay is an inferior form; and many publishers believe that modern readers care only for long-distance, marathon writing….” If these experts are correct, Tynan muses, then Montaigne must be given the heave-ho. “To the bonfire with William Hazlitt, closely followed by Max Beerbohm, Sainte-Beuve and John Aubrey. A brusque kiss-off to Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, La Bruyère and the best of Mencken, not to mention Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars; and into the garbage goes Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, perhaps the finest book of profile-essays ever written.”

Who are these fiendish vandals longing to torch Hazlitt and trash Dr. Johnson? Tynan doesn’t name names, but Show People is clearly aimed at their doubting heads. The lives chronicled here belong to Sir Ralph Richardson. Tom Stoppard, Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks, and Louise Brooks, who are all amusing, articulate, and (he says) spellbindingly gifted. “Last and far from least, they all rank high on the list of people whom I would invite to an ideal dinner party.”

Tynan’s first and best guest is Sir Ralph Richardson, who stirs and fusses like a vague, flustered ghost. At the age of six Richardson visits his grandmother in the company of a mouse named Kim. When a servant refuses to allow the rodent indoors, the impudent child says, “In that case, when’s the next train back to Brighton?” He and Kim are finally admitted. Impressed by the boy’s sassiness, the grandmother remembers him in her will a decade or so later, leaving him five hundred pounds—a sum that allows Richardson to quit his job at a law office (where he used to walk along the window-ledge to draw a crowd) and enroll in the Brighton School of Art. A few months later, Richardson sees a production of Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, and realizes his life isn’t meant to be a litter-trail of broken brushes and slashed canvases. He decides to become an actor, and as the years flip by like calendar pages in an old movie, he scales the Shakespearean heights as lago, Caliban, Bolingbroke. Petruchio, and Prince Hal, stars in contemporary plays by Somerset Maugham and J.B. Priestley, appears on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, and, in 1944, triumphs in the role he cherishes most, Peer Gynt.

Punctuating this brisk account of applause and acclaim are several comic explosions. On Guy Fawkes Day in 1937 or 1938, Richardson sets off a rocket on Laurence Olivier’s lawn that comes crashing into the dining room, setting the curtains ablaze. “According to Olivier, it also wrecked a lot of priceless antique crockery and …

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