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He Who Played the King

When Kenneth Tynan submitted articles on politics to Playboy during the Sixties, in his capacity as contributing editor, they were always accepted. But every time he offered the magazine an article on sex, as his late widow Kathleen records in her fair and forgiving biography,1 the upholders of the Playboy Philosophy felt obliged to turn it down. His “scholarly homage to the female bottom” was judged by Hugh Hefner’s men to be afflicted with “an archness which is middle-aged.” Of his piece on female underwear, an editor wrote, it “comes off not only as a little bent but boring to boot.” Even his defense of hard-core pornography was too much for the magazine that defined itself as the caretaker of the Sexual Revolution.

This was all the more surprising in that Tynan, the most shamelessly dazzling critic in the England of his time, had set out, from boyhood, to be the big-screen Oscar Wilde, and complicated the matter often by living up to his own billing. A scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, as Wilde had been, he took up lodgings above the Oscar Wilde Rooms, and swanned around in gold satin shirts, signing off his letters with Sarah Bernhardt’s motto: “Quand Meme“—“even though.” One of his proudest acts, he says, though not (to his occasional regret) gay himself, was to stand bail for a friend arrested for “homosexual offenses.” And having appointed his own Boswell at eleven—“My collected works will bulk small but precious,” he pronounced while in his teens—Tynan even as a school-boy was throwing off epigrams that showed the breadth of his ambitions (“Orson Welles is a self-made man and how he loves his Maker”). Yet never, surely, did he expect that the Wilde he would most come to resemble might be the sad figure of the final years, improvident, exiled, deserted by his friends, and best known for his petty indiscretions.

Such melancholy thoughts are occasioned by the publication of The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, the long-awaited journals from Tynan’s final, diminished decade, which ended in his death at fifty-three, in Los Angeles, in 1980, smoking cigarettes in the emphysema wards, his eldest daughter tells us, with tubes of oxygen hanging from his nostrils. The diaries, accompanied in England by a publicity kit complete with padlock and key, are being published with some fanfare in the hopes that readers will come running to accounts of Tynan licking the anus of an actress still prominent, and secondhand reports of threesomes in Noel Coward’s bed. But the diaries are a desultory and dispiriting series of jottings, a mishmash of not so bon mots, obscene limericks, lame puns, lame puns repeated, and rather desperate attempts to conscript Evelyn Waugh and D.H. Lawrence to the cause of spanking. Even the tidbits are seldom new. Kathleen Tynan’s graceful and wrenchingly honest biography drew heavily and faithfully on the best parts of her late husband’s then secret journal, while performing the good spouse’s duty of consigning the rest to oblivion.

In his day—publishing his first book at twenty-three, in 1950, and installing himself as London’s most visible theater critic, for The Observer, at twenty-six—Tynan could match the performances that exhilarated him in dashing, impenitently vivid prose. By 1970, however, when the diaries begin, he was serving time as literary manager for Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, fighting administrative battles for which he was singularly ill-suited, and confining his criticism (often as searching as ever) to his memos or his notes. The royalties for Oh! Calcutta!, the show about offbeat sex that he had masterminded, kept him going, just barely, but he had graduated, as he saw, from being the richest of the poor to being the poorest of the rich. Much of the decade was spent trying to raise money for a porno film he wanted to direct (at one point he asked the junkie billionaire J. Paul Getty Jr. why his funds were not forthcoming, only to learn that Getty was in the hospital with priapism). Much of the rest of his time he was working on a book, never completed, on Wilhelm Reich. Reichian therapy, along with rolfing and bioenergetics, was one of the eighteen fads of the early Seventies that Jerry Rubin mocked himself for trying.

In the diaries we find Tynan with the makeup off, reading the obituary columns and annotating all the ways he’s let himself, and everyone around him, down. The young Tynan was always at his best on stage; in the diaries he is, by definition, alone, in his study, with the lights on low. And as his public life began to fade, he descended deeper and deeper into the dungeon of his private fantasies. He records dreams in which he is interviewing “a blue-eyed blonde whom I introduce as ‘TV’s tittering bumhole girl!’” He passes on, with seeming reverence, the Yogi Berra-ish maxims of his longtime spanking partner (“The only thing I mind about being out of work is having to work”). He describes picking a woman out from a magazine ad for a threesome that culminates in Tynan and his mistress addressing the third, “We both adore your anus.” Those who hope that such doodles were never intended for posterity have to reckon with the fact that Tynan was forever threatening a “totally honest” autobiography, one of whose projected titles, he tells us here, was Sans Taste.

The lurid parts of the journals, then, are unfailingly the least interesting; sex always got the better of Tynan, and in some ways the self-styled champion of sexual liberation was mostly imprisoned by his longing to be louche. A “Savonarola of sex,” in Kathleen Tynan’s apt words, he looked on his secret life, his wife wrote, with “a mixture of the deepest guilt and the deepest reverence.” Sadder still, he remained agile enough to try to justify the lowest parts of himself with the highest, and then to call it philosophy. “Whatever the public blames you for,” he here quotes from Cocteau, “cultivate it: it is yourself.” All too often one feels that perversity has become an end in itself, and the ability to startle has curdled into a far meaner wish to shock (even himself). Asked to define a humanist, he opines that “a humanist is someone who remembers the faces of the people he spanks.”

The other subject on which Tynan (pace Playboy) should never have written was politics. And the journals are as much soapbox as confessional. The Common Market, he pronounces absurdly, is “the greatest historical vulgarity since Hitler’s 1000-year Reich.” Watching TV in 1975, he decides that in Castro’s Cuba “a new kind of man is being evolved by life in a system where the common weal has replaced personal pleasure as the primary focus of existence.” Even as late as 1971, he was telling himself, “No Communist country has ever dropped a bomb on a civilian. Repeat and remember that. No Communist country...” As ever, he was wise enough to see, and deplore, the ironies of being part of the “left-wing rich,” courting the powerful even as he extolled the common man, yet such insights could not by themselves resolve the contradictions. At one point he extends a (rather self-conscious) hand to a member of the Baader-Meinhof gang of terrorists; at another he drives off to a distant corner of London to pay homage to a his-and-hers team of pornographers whom he has decided to defend. As they describe how the world can be redeemed by LSD, he records the “inner serenity” they find on acid with an innocence he’d never extend to, say, the plays of Harold Pinter.

Tynan often seemed determined to be remembered more for his follies than his intelligence, and the diaries oblige him in this by shining a light on the captious man at the expense of the sparkling writer. Often merciless in criticism himself, he grows prickly and defensive as soon as he is criticized; and his hunger for self-abasement is sometimes made worse by a strain of self-pity that becomes almost Nixonian (“From now on it is open season on KT,” he writes after being lampooned in Private Eye). Years earlier, the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard had said that growing older would be especially hard for Tynan, who increasingly prided himself on his youthful attitudes. “The compensations which other people discover, and collect,” she predicted, “would not be his. He’d just fight it all the way, hate it.” Sure enough, in the solitary confinement of his diaries, Tynan sees his own frustrations reflected in everyone he reads—Gide, Hemingway, Hesse; more and more his criticism became a form of veiled autobiography.

The sadness here lies partly in the sight of a natural wit recording his dinner table sallies with a pride that is itself a sad obituary; but it is made sadder by the fact that the strained puns are set against loving reminiscences of glamorous outings in the past. Even at the end of his days Tynan could still toss off charming puns for his children’s birthdays and improvised parodies of the subtitles of boring Russian films; but the aphorisms that glitter when found in the folds of his essays look flat when seen naked on the page, and are asked to work too hard (“Lazy is the passive tense of selfish”). Even the teenage Tynan, one feels, would have sneered at “Madame Flanner: ‘Some en-Janetted evening.’”

Indeed, part of the curiosity of the diaries is that someone who wrote at fourteen as if he were at the center of the literary establishment wrote, when truly at the center of the literary establishment, as if he were fourteen. His very terror of being bored makes him boring, and the same person who could explore the nuances and implications of Brecht better than any other critic in England is here shown dreaming up sequels for The Bad News Bears. One item, in its entirety, reads, “Harper’s Bazaar is the Third Avenue Elle.” Another, more typical, begins, “Friendless virtually at forty-three.”

Yet what is saddest of all, perhaps, is that even in his most straitened circumstances, Tynan could not help responding to every performance he saw with uncommon vitality and excitement (and then wondering, as any reader might, why he’s no longer doing it for a living). He has only to encounter a play, or a piece of literature, and instantly the sound of scratches and whispers recedes and the man comes to life. Claudius, he offers casually, is “infinitely more sympathetic than Hamlet,” a “pacific diplomat” and “man of courage” who will rule Denmark far better than his nephew could. “It is to be noted that nobody in the play except Hamlet has a harsh word to say about Claudius.” Elsewhere, he suggests that the whole drama could be staged with Hamlet as Claudius’s bastard son, by Gertrude—not necessarily the only reading, Tynan (himself illegitimate) admits, but at least conducive to some intriguing possibilities. And his eye for performance extended far beyond the stage. Gore Vidal, he writes, has “superb and seamless armour” and yet it can seem armor worn for a battle “that cannot be won by anyone who is incapable of surrender.”

Even when faced with a music hall clown called Max Wall, Tynan lights up. “That face! It’s a condemned playground, a fever-chart of intense but utterly unfelt emotions.” Wall’s body, when a joke falls flat, is “a walking wince.” For a moment we are back with the Tynan of old, a “tireless pleasure-seeker,” in his own words, whose gift was to find pleasure everywhere and then reflect it back. Art worked on him like a drug, he often said, and, unusually for one so high-flown, he had the ability to make his enthusiasm infectious.

It was this oddly democratic touch—in one who boasted of his friendship with Princess Margaret and railed against the “employing class” after ten years of helping to run the National Theatre—that allowed Tynan to embrace America at a time when most of his contemporaries in Britain were still wondering where the Empire had gone; part of his radical freshness came from the fact that he was one of the first to intuit, at the end of the war, that the center of cultural energy was increasingly Broadway and Hollywood, not London. Tynan saw, with a customary prescience, that a new kind of aristocracy was coming into being, based upon what we now call the celebrity culture, and he also saw (with more painful results) that it offered an opportunity for him. America, in some sense, became one of the larger-than-life forces of nature (like Orson Welles or Olivier) to whom he was happily in thrall.

In the journals we find a responsiveness to the same performers that many of the rest of us might idly overlook. In Ethel Merman, for example, he finds a “defiance” that makes him think of Seneca, and an “effortlessness” that moves him to say, “What she sells is the song, not herself.” Even in such indifferent stars as Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Tynan saw an “unforced, unservile wish to please” that was rare, he thought, in Britain. He may not always have been right in such pronouncements, but there’s no doubting his sincerity; Tynan was least affected when passing on his excitements, whether writing of Pepys to Marlene Dietrich or of Delacroix to Johnny Carson. One of the first to see that literary culture and show business could be brought together for their mutual benefit—he tried to get Paul McCartney to compose songs for As You Like It—Tynan was perhaps the first truly transatlantic essayist, able to mix high culture and popular without seeming pretentious on the one hand or campy on the other; insofar as his effect is still felt, it is in the likes of Martin Amis and Clive James.

At the same time, however, the diaries give almost no hint of the way in which America emancipated him most profoundly; for even as he was sitting in California writing about his inability to write, he was also turning out, in his final years, the fifty-page profiles for William Shawn’s New Yorker that may be his most indelible achievement. It is paradoxical, and apt, that the magazine famous for its refusal to print four-letter words was the one that really liberated Tynan, partly through the exacting selflessness of its house style. In the patient and attentive pieces he wrote on Tom Stoppard, Ralph Richardson, Johnny Carson, and (as he might have put it) Mel and Louise Brooks, he began to find a new style, clear and funny, that was brilliant largely in what it left out. It is equally characteristic that, in the journals, he hardly mentions this Indian summer, and concentrates instead on sex shows in Hamburg.

The twenty years since Tynan’s death have not been kind to the man who wanted so much to become a legend. Kathleen Tynan’s biography, inevitably, focused on the man, impossible and irresistible by turns, more than on the writer who had done much of his best work long before she met him; his letters, published a few years ago,2 blaze at the beginning with the bravura and self-intoxication of a prodigious schoolboy, just clever enough to see that he may never attain to wisdom, but they dwindle, toward the end, into long pages of pleas for money and feuds over petty points of pride. The journals—his Liber Amoris, he might have hoped—complete the task of effacing from view the stammering Mercutio who electrified a gray and rationed Britain.

The task for those who still see much to admire in Tynan’s prose is to try to recover a sense of the hopeful flamboyant who, even at sixteen, was writing that the “characterising feature of hell is not that it is immoral, but THAT IT HAS NO STANDARDS AT ALL.” To go back now to the pieces he wrote in the Fifties is to be reminded that Tynan’s particular strength was his ability to describe a performer in his physical gestures, and, by reproducing them, to engage the reader’s mind and eye at once, even when his judgments were extreme. Arthur Miller, he wrote in 1956, is “Lincoln, one might say, in horn-rims, making dry jokes in gnarled, relaxed language. When Miller talks seriously, he sometimes gets woolly; but the wool is home-spun and durable; it is meant to last.” The images say more than does his relatively conventional comparison between Miller’s “stern, Ibsenite heritage” and the moist extravagances of Tennessee Williams. Likewise, Tynan finds in Peter Brook “a sure, sage little man who listens as intently as a dictaphone.” He “belongs to the future,” Tynan goes on, “because he is obsessed not by words but by sights and sensations”—and this was seventeen years before Brook did indeed leave London to venture off into wordlessness and mysticism.

At his most engaged, Tynan’s gift was the actor’s gift, of so losing himself in attention to his subject that he begins to evoke the person from within; one recalls that Wilde was said to be a great conversationalist in part because he listened so well. Alec Guinness’s face, he writes, is “a signless zero” and the carefully invisible man “might be mistaken for a slightly tipsy monk.” Yet deeper than the phrasemaking is an intuition that can seem clairvoyant. “Whatever he may do in the future,” Tynan wrote of Guinness forty-nine years ago, “he will leave no theatrical descendants…. He has illumined many a hitherto blind alley of subtlety, but blazed no trails.”

At his best, Tynan, unlike many a dandy, really did exult in seeing others do something brilliantly; in that sense, the posing was itself a pose. In most critics, it is the destructive impulse that scintillates, while appreciation simpers; but in Tynan’s most memorable pieces, the opposite is true—he actually works to reconstruct a performance, using his intelligence not to tear it apart but to put it together again. He could demolish a bad actor as gleefully as anyone; but even as an undergraduate he was writing, “What distinguishes man from beast is, I am persuaded, the power of admiration.”

If he could never quite make a whole that was greater than the sum of his parts, that was largely because he lacked a larger vision. None of the books for which he received advances ever got written, as John Lahr writes in his compactly elegant introduction to the diaries; and his only full-length work was on bullfighting, of all things. Part of the pathos of the diaries is that they reveal someone with much more talent than direction; part of the deeper pathos is that they show someone trying to concoct a sense of purpose, even of belief, without a sense of morality (Zen sometimes serving as Tynan’s confused way to slash through the contradictions). Over and over in the course of his journals, Tynan picks up a book by the Oxford tutor to whom he always remained surprisingly devoted, C.S. Lewis, and feels himself being briefly pulled away from his bad-boy attitudes. But his De Profundis never appeared.

When you come and see me,” Wilde wrote at the end of his days, “you will see the ruin and wreck of what once was wonderful and brilliant, and terribly improbable.” One can imagine Tynan appropriating those lines for himself, along with Wilde’s abiding fear that his life might be reduced by posterity into a “story with a moral.” But the greatest difference between the two men—as Tynan saw, to his sorrow—was that Wilde was betrayed, in public at least, by someone other than himself.

  1. 1

    The Life of Kenneth Tynan (Morrow, 1987).

  2. 2

    Kenneth Tynan, Letters, edited by Kathleen Tynan (Random House, 1998).

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