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1960's English Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan

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1960's English Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan Empty 1960's English Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan

Post  eddie Wed Apr 25, 2012 8:13 pm

T is for Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan's criticism and personality tower over British theatre in the 50s and 60s. Today, his impact is no less felt

Michael Billington, Wednesday 25 April 2012 10.02 BST

1960's English Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan Kenneth-Tynan-critic-1965-006
'Indispensable to British theatre' … Kenneth Tynan. Photograph: Stuart Heydinger for the Observer

Most critics report on the theatre that confronts them. A precious few help to shape it. Shaw did it in the 1890s by demolishing the theatre of vacuous spectacle, praising Ibsen and writing the kind of morally taxing dramas he wished to see on the British stage. Kenneth Tynan did it by penning a seductive weekly column for the Observer from 1954 to 1963, then by joining Olivier's newly formed National Theatre company as its literary manager. Tynan didn't just review theatre: he also influenced it.

In a way, Tynan was lucky in his timing. He came of age when the British theatre was in need of urgent reform and when new institutions, such as George Devine's English Stage Company at the Royal Court and Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, were starting to emerge. Tynan not merely had the wit to attack the stale conventions of drawing-room comedy; he was also there to act as a guide, philosopher and critical friend to a new movement that saw the advent of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker at the Royal Court, Shelagh Delaney and Brendan Behan at Stratford East. That's not to say that Tynan didn't have his blind spots. He was brutally dismissive of Terence Rattigan, and signally failed to spot the exuberant promise of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party when it first appeared in 1958. But Tynan's columns became an indispensable part of the theatre's renewed urge to address social issues.

But that is only the half of it. Tynan's supreme gift was his ability to write about the theatre with a glittering wit and voluptuous precision. He had few peers in describing performances: witness his account of Gielgud's valet in Coward's Nude with Violin, which had, he wrote, "the general aspect of a tight, smart, walking umbrella" or, in his review of Olivier's Coriolanus, his evocation of a voice which "sounds, distinct and barbaric, across the valley of many centuries, like a horn calling to the hunt or the neigh of a battle-maddened charger." Like all great critics, Tynan could also be wrong: he often attacked Peggy Ashcroft on class grounds – he referred more than once to her "Kensington vowels" – and wrote off Michael Redgrave's supreme Hamlet because of its supposed failure to connect with other actors. But, even when at his most prejudiced or capricious, Tynan reminded us that the critic's chief mission is to write well.

Tynan genius for criticism – which I don't think is too strong a word – was also complemented by the ability to see British theatre in a global context. At a time when newspaper budgets were less constrained than today, he travelled regularly to New York, Paris and Berlin and on several occasions to Moscow and eastern Europe. Tynan was certainly no naive spectator who easily succumbed to anything foreign: he was often sceptical about French acting for what he termed its "aversion to realism". But he was the first British critic to recognise Brecht's Berliner Ensemble as one of the world's great companies, wrote brilliantly about the Moscow Art theatre and was deeply responsive to the work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, saying of the latter's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that the dialogue "begs for speech so shrilly that you find yourself reading it aloud".

For all these reasons, and many more, Tynan was the critic that all theatre writers of my generation aspired to be. So much so that I earned my first fee from a national newspaper, as an Oxford student, by writing a parody of him for an Observer competition. And, even if one tries eventually to hack out one's own path as a critic, I feel I have been creeping about in Tynan's inescapable, giant-size shadow for much of my professional life.

Read on: Curtains and Tynan Right and Left: Plays, Films, People, Places and Events (both selections of the criticism)

The biography: Kenneth Tynan: A Life by Dominic Shellard (Yale University Press)
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