The Life of Kenneth Tynan
“Aesthetic, tall, appealing. I was riveted, because you didn’t see people like that in Birmingham.” That figure was Kenneth Tynan, the speaker one of his many generously minded female admirers. Birmingham, England’s second city, no less, center of the hardware trade, is generally acknowledged to be its most ugly, unappealing, and charmless.
Its whining accent is the most disagreeable sound to be heard from all the regions in England, being the inspiration for the Australian insult, “whining poms.” Between the wars, “Made in Birmingham” was the recognized trademark for shoddy mass-produced goods. The most distinguished men of the century sprung from this satanic “cemetery without walls” are Neville (“Peace in our Time”) Chamberlain, two comic geniuses, Sid Field and Tony Hancock, and Kenneth Peacock Tynan, born April 2, 1927, who said of it, “I have no more connection with my early life and Birmingham than I have with Timbuctoo.”
His repudiation’s course was swift, natural, and painless. “In any real sense of the word I was born at Oxford.” It was this patrician forgetfulness that characterized a lifetime of erratic, searchlight enthusiasms, trekking for fixed stars of certainty in theory, ideas, and art, and what he announced as “High Definition” in performance.
Birmingham’s only institutions of distinction, King Edward’s Grammar School and the Repertory Theatre, gawped and glowed uneasily as they previewed Tynan’s capering, mock epicene juvenile debut on their stages. He was an astonishing schoolboy, arguing against the debating society motion that “this House thinks the Present Generation has lost the Ability to Entertain Itself,” by praising the joys of masturbation. “He had to take your breath away,” a friend recalled. “And it went right through his life.” In the school magazine he was writing on Orson Welles: “He reproduces life as it sometimes seems in winged dreams.” The loveless Black Country midden was no launch pad for winged dreams, either for cock comics or the screech and strut of a lusty young peacock.
The sight and sound of this tantalizing flashbulb creature, ubiquitous, alarming, sometimes absurd and endearing, vexed and delighted a generation, many of them bystanders otherwise occupied in very different galaxies. The nondescript and common diminutive “Ken” became as instantly identifiable as those of his glittering idols: Orson, Larry, Noel. It was fame without honor on the whole, respected, distrusted, admired, envied; it inspired, above all, puzzlement. The elusiveness of the headlong, self-parodying exotic in what already seems, thirty years on, a decrepit and deserted landscape, looms throughout the pages of his widow’s biography, The Life of Kenneth Tynan.
Mrs. Tynan, understandably, often appears as baffled by her subject as those who did not share the experience of sixteen years within the private and most public cage of marriage. Often she seems to be appealing to outsiders for corroboration or insight (“The closest observer of our life together was our secretary”). By her own rather hapless admission, she confesses to being a poor witness either to his motives or inner life. This may be that although she was a participant in mutually shared events, she was privy to little that was not accessible to the cast of starry outsiders in his life. As a widow, Mrs. Tynan often gives her evidence like a passing pedestrian at a street accident. The feeling is not so much of testimony confused by grievous, privileged closeness but of being only another of a lifetime’s onlookers. It may be that his life only encompassed outsiders and she was the hesitant holder of a passkey.
The later account of their domestic years together makes distressing reading, not from any sense of being attendant on ill-expressed anguish, but of being held head down into a bowl of prurience. The aftertaste is one of guilt at being both a common snoop and unwitting prig to boot. One is forced to suspect that there are omissions here that conceal not pain so much as a lack of courage in the telling. That is fair enough, but even a want of frankness should provide its clues and, in this case, it points to self-justification, niggling ambition, a warring lack of trust, and, above all, loyalty in the recounting of these final, unprofitable, and bitterly alienated years.
Mrs. Tynan’s response to the early discovery of a Pandora’s box of Tynan’s erotic props, underwear, and a collection of pornographic photographs suggests iron-willed naiveté rather than innocence. “The theme of almost every study was of a woman in some stage of undress being spanked by a fully dressed spanker, usually a man.” After chancing on this lot, the new bride reeled from the Boschblack cabaret gloom of the Mount Street flat and was obliged to walk twice around Berkeley Square to “get my breath back.” To which one can only reply, “Come off it.” “That evening I told Ken. He was visibly affected. We must part, he said. There was nothing else for it.” This is pure Tynan charade and it is hard to believe that she was so obtuse or unworldly not to have been aware of her new husband’s “quirks,” as she daintily describes them. They were common knowledge in a wide circle and put about largely by Tynan himself. Underwear, spanking, masturbation, and other fairly commonplace English, not so unearthly, delights were as much part of his public portfolio as, at various stages of convulsive chic, were bullfighting, Zen, Reich, and Brecht. He was consistent in his sexual enthusiasms if nothing else. He proclaimed them. Participating exgirlfriends are admirably discreet on the whole. Not so Mrs. Tynan.
Tynan’s life and career have a Shakespearean unity to them. First the school-boy, charming and alarming family and friends. It is difficult to make out whether he concealed the knowledge of his illegitimacy and feigned shock on being told at his father’s funeral that his mother was unmarried to Sir Peter Peacock. From then on he dropped the name Peacock, but it is likely that he regarded his bastardy as regally as any medieval pretender. Like his stammer, he put it to skillful use as another item of small-arm weaponry.
After the Birmingham prologue comes the caparisoned entry into Oxford, the triumphal progress to London, the capturing of the Critics’ Crown; then hoisting his regent standard beside Olivier above the ramparts of the new-found kingdom of the National Theatre and the ill-planned battles with the Establishment barons; the turmoil of reckless campaign insurrection over Hochhuth’s play Soldiers—with its claims that Churchill conspired in the death of the Polish leader Sikorski—and the querulous skirmishing over Oh! Calcutta! Last scene of all: the Royal Pornographer across the water, confused exile and jester to the tinsel courts of California (“Here, they don’t even wait for me to start stammering”); failing body and betrayed heart, shackled to a show-biz typewriter and oxygen machine, sans everything but tattered courage. The recording hand that once strove, Hazlitt fashion, to freeze the lightning flashes among theatrical peaks for history’s sake was put to dubiously puffing the illuminations of Johnny Carson and Mel Brooks.
“Like me, you’re a driven person,” said Tennessee Williams to Kenneth Tynan. Driven indeed he was, and in the torpid landscape of postwar Britain such high spirits and dedicated spontaneity were as rare as civility in the local government offices, still enforcing austerity and food rationing. The nation was tired, rundown, sullen. Bread might be in short supply, but with Tynan sending advance notices of his arrival some felt the circus might come back to town after all, and even turn out to be fun. Oxford was the perfect opening date. Among the duffle coats of the ex-service undergraduates, his wardrobe alone provided mystification, bearing him aloft above mockery and defying indifference. Having stared out social derision and stammered down the Union Debating Society in triumph, he then packed his skip and luster for the Big One—London—the cheery lament of Isis in his ears: “The Golden Age is finished, gone the grace. / Who now so fit to fill KEN TYNAN’S place?”
Many a famous Oxford butterfly has been battered into gray moth under the harsh light of the metropolis, but Tynan was soon buzzing the capital like some gorgeous dive-bombing sky-writer. He changed and recharged the function of theater criticism almost overnight. Imitators were grounded to their dull spots. There were to be no heirs or successors. A whole generation of undergraduates stumbled out into the Sunday streets of provincial towns all over England in their dressing gowns to grab their Observer and see what Tynan had said this week. Like Olivier, whose unchallenged theatrical kingship depended not so much on a sequence of classic performances witnessed by a cultural elite, he shared a shrewd but sincere conviction that Englishmen were the inheritors of a God-like theatricality unique among nations. Tynan had stormed the old West End fortress of Loamshire and proclaimed a new realm of popular heroic passion. The English sense of drama was irrefutable. Did we not have the finest body of dramatic literature in the world? And players like Olivier, who had the very Nelson touch of common appeal? He turned the idea of theater into a passionate radical patriotism and apprehension of national divinity acceptable to all but the most obstinately disaffected.
What marveling boy could marvel so marvelously as the nineteen-year-old writing to the doyen critic, James Agate, about a little-known actor’s performance in Othello. “I have watched and become part of a transfusion of bubbling hot blood into the invalid frame of our drama…. I have lived for three hours on the red brink of a volcano, and the crust of lava crumbles still from my feet.” He “nearly had a heart attack during III.iii…. My heart was leaping and thudding about as I have never known it before. I was breathless and beautifully exhausted at each curtain. I experienced full catharsis.”
The prospect of an English reviewer, then or now, ever having experienced the merest pulse flutter in, say, the face of the Resurrection, let along catharsis, was as unthinkable as a soldiering feminist in the grip of priapic frenzy.
Who but Tynan would daze the catcalls of his peers with the challenge: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger“? His naked avowal of something as personal as love itself was enough to send his fellow journalists scurrying with embarrassment. Such standard-raising was unknown to a breed of scribblers who prided themselves on their professional detachment and refusal to be raised up by the impact of a mere dramatic entertainment. And yet it worked. He brought to the business of show-biz reviewing the art and fervor of those racing correspondents who declare their actual love for horses and worship of jockeys. In his case the adored objects were actors and the rapture of human performance, what he himself called the literature of testimony.
I first met Tynan a few days after the appearance of his review of my play. He rang me and invited me to Ealing Studios for lunch and to discuss writing a film script. The meeting was, I felt sure, not a success, rather like an audition that had gone horribly awry. Perhaps after the public protestation of love for my work I had expected warmth rather than polite, probing appraisal. My feelings about him, even now, are dominated by regretfulness, at my inability often to respond to his overtures and enthusiasms, for failing to write to him during the last years of lonely illness, and, finally, not attending even his memorial rites.
But reading through Mrs. Tynan’s book, I wonder if my spinsterish, self-protective behavior was not justified. Throughout, people give evidence of an aesthetic avidity on his part, a nymphomaniac spirit which mocked satisfaction and promised unjust humiliation. “The moment he left you, you were out of his mind and it was as simple as that,” said a Brummie girlfriend. “He was not brought up to be considerate.”
“He liked notes and hated loose change,” writes his biographer. At Oxford, “he would stand at the top of St. Giles’ by the taxi rank, pull the pennies out of his pocket and throw them down the street because he couldn’t bear the rattle of money.” He had no time for the common coinage of the masses in spite of applauding the “language of the man in the bus queue” into the new drama. Tynan would not have known what to say to such a creature. English obsessions like the countryside (“Ken didn’t have a blade of grass in him”), dog owning (enemies of democracy and upholders of the feudal system), lonely pursuits, stillness itself, were all beyond our Ken.
When the new Mrs. Tynan found herself cast as the ringmaster’s wife at the new house in Thurloe Square after the early rounds of being trailed like a handcuffed toddler to the palaces of performing culture, the strain of overseeing the ordering of a Gatecrasher’s Hall of the celebrated and mutually besotted invoked her to fits of panic. “If Ken was bored he could be awful. He never bothered to find out the first name of a wife he didn’t consider interesting. And if someone whom he did not find amusing dropped in, he would either walk out or watch television.” One of those approved guests, who presumably did not drive him to the box, describes Tynan guests as
“golden canailles,” a rabble where you might meet any kind of person…. Ken “wanted you to be very clever—which is actually something quite faded in English society now. He created an atmosphere where you didn’t want to fall short; you always wanted to glitter and sparkle.”
Even Jonathan Miller, a nifty social performer if ever there was one, saw these Tynan Presentations as productions cunningly directed by Ken, his wife acting as a somewhat timorous assistant stage manager. Bull Fever in the drawing room was ensured by “bringing together excitable people whose confrontation might provoke a lively row.” Hospitality was a blood sport, enlivened by carefully plotted tricks, traps of rehearsed revelations, and tests of intellectual dexterity. The ingenuity of an Inigo Jones masque even contained its courtly elements, like springing a dirty movie on Princess Margaret and her dismayed entourage, and proposing radical subversions like pee-ins at Buckingham Palace, taking over Covent Garden, and burning down the Old Vic. “His attention when it was directed at you was charismatic,” says the master reveler Miller. “You actually felt the less if you weren’t the subject of his attention or if you lost it.”
This drive to s’imposer, as Tynan detected it rightly in others, the ability to not merely “impose one’s will on others but also to dictate the conditions—social, moral, sexual, political—within which one can operate with maximum freedom,” seems to me to be not only disingenuous and insensitive but also banishes the intimacy and trust inseparable from either love or friendship.
As a girlfriend of later years says, “He wasn’t somebody you took your troubles to.” He dropped in on lives and, finding them dull or unoriginal, swiftly left. And yet, for some, the true dog stars and objects of his abiding admiration—Welles, Olivier, Dietrich—his approbation had a whiff of excess and domination that could produce a snarl of repudiation that would mystify and later hurt him. Like an importunate mistress, he could alarm the wary selfhood of the great indestructibles. Those who might have once feared his scorn would begin to shrink from his praise. As the furious years at Thurloe Square progressed, it is not surprising that its housekeeper often sounds like a plaintive Mrs. De Winter forever forgetting where she’s dropped Mrs. Danvers’s old bunch of keys.
“Raise tempers, goad and lacerate, raise a whirlwind.” This was the injunction above Tynan’s desk at the National Theatre. It was to prove a disastrous strategy. Like so many intellectual revolutionaries, he was a maladroit practical politician. During the dispute over the supposedly anti-Churchill play Soldiers, he rang me to enlist my support. I pointed out that I hadn’t read it. No matter. The principle of freedom was the issue. I knew that the play, by its propagandist nature, must be meretricious. He himself had once said, before achieving theatrical power, that nothing was so bad as a bad social play. And nothing is so bad as a bad political play.
Tynan persisted. Would I threaten the National Theatre board and its appalling chairman to withdraw permission for them to produce any of my plays in the future if they did not relent in their opposition to Soldiers? I again pointed out that it was not a threat likely to strike much terror in their pharisaical hearts of British oak.
“Come with us, Larry and me, to the National,” he had said to me earlier. “And make history.” “Thank you,” I replied. “I’ve already made it.” He quoted this afterward as an example of my peevish arrogance and, indeed, so it may seem. I was affronted by such glib, revolutionary certainty. In the event, the Tynan epoch that followed produced successes that would have been contained comfortably in the existing commercial theater and some tolerable disasters, all against a backcloth of misspent intrigue and unhappiness. His stewardship was honorable. It was not history.
The rest is a grim tale of wild self-pilgrimage. Flailing and grasping for light, air, and revelation, of an ever enclosing unfulfillment and, finally, an utter banishment of spirit. His cherished firmament became doused, its stars waned or simply grew tired and older. From the peacock’s mirror the image staring back at him made out the outline of some dread dodo.
When Tynan was asked if his first wife’s forthcoming novel would be any good, he would reply, “Oh, I shouldn’t think so, just another wife trying to prove she exists.” This Mrs. Tynan proves her own existence all right, achieved determinedly in the hideous circumstances of her husband’s own dwindling existence, terror, abandonment, and dying. Some few film scripts, a clutch of lovers, and liberating trips to political hot spots like Cuba made her point for her. It is hard to believe that the early days could have been so frothy in the light of the last bitter and vicious daily exchanges between them. Some might regard her flights of detachment as a blasphemy against an estate that Tynan revered, however he might have sinned against it himself.
“He was only a boy,” said William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, at his death. Still one of God’s children, less happy but gifted and often golden.
‘The Life of Kenneth Tynan’ January 21, 1988