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The Drama Critic as One-Man Show : THE LIFE OF KENNETH TYNAN by Kathleen Tynan (William Morrow: $22.95; 500 pp., illustrated)

November 08, 1987|Charles Champlin

The new, third edition of Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia adds the name of Kenneth Peacock Tynan (1927-1980) and gives him an epitaph that might have pleased him. Secretly.

"English drama critic," say the encyclopedists. "Immensely influential during the 1950s and '60s. Tynan eloquently supported the raw new drama of the ANGRY YOUNG MEN and was a leading figure in the post-World War II renaissance of the British theatre."

Another figure in that renaissance, playwright Tom Stoppard, speaking at a memorial service for Tynan in St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, said that Tynan's "paragraphs--paragraphs were units of his prose, not sentences--were written to outlast the witness."

Stoppard then turned to Tynan's three children and said, "For those of us who were working in the English-speaking theater during those years, for those of us who shared his time, your father was part of the luck we had."

It was a tribute relatively few critics might deserve, and even fewer would likely be paid, posthumously or otherwise. But as the drama reviewer for the most potent London Sunday newspapers, Tynan grew famous young for his eloquent enthusiasms and for his outrageous and often punning dismissals ("The World of Woozy Song" and, of Orson Welles' "Othello," "Citizen Coon").

As the literary manager of the National Theater in its first formative years, Tynan--always a champion of the thrusting and uncomfortable new work from the Continent, like Berthold Brecht's Berliner Ensemble--continued his campaign to force open the sealed drawing rooms of West End drama.

There was always a struggle with the conservative lordships on the National's ruling board, and even with the nominal support of Sir Laurence Olivier (who headed the National but was always more comfortable acting than leading), Tynan at last had to leave. But he had shown that the National could and should do more than mount glossy revivals of the classic catalogue.

Tynan, Stoppard also said in his tribute, possessed "toughness of mind, and the intellectual sense that history could be nudged and the politician's sense of how to nudge it." To be the passive, aisle-sitting critic was not his style. When he came to invent theater, it was as the conceiver and co-author of "Oh! Calcutta!" with its marvelously unsettling presentation of a cast barefoot up to its chin.

Tynan was a flamboyant dandy who invented himself in a kind of continuous one-man show. He stammered, and it always seemed to suggest not physical disability but a torrent of ideas and opinions colliding in a rush-hour gridlock.

His private life was a conspicuous and untidy shambles, with fights, betrayals and ardent reconciliations frequently conducted in public. Yet the wives and the many other women in his life--including his last wife and now his biographer, Kathleen--never stopped adoring him, evidently because they had never known anyone else quite like him.

Kathleen Tynan, who earlier wrote "Agatha," about the brief, mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie, was courted by and married to Tynan for 16 years. "It is an odd business," she writes, "to turn sleuth on one's husband, to excavate and plunder a life, not just that married term to which a wife might lay claim, but the whole extravagant span."

Objectivity was out of the question (presuming that it is ever in the question) but so was an affectionate memoir of unblemished happy times. Tynan was a man of paradox and contradiction, daunting to any biographer, let alone his widow. "He took violent sides, but didn't join," she says. "He was hors concours , a solo performer."

In their very stormy life together, Kathleen Tynan says, she thought of herself as "trying to fly with this bright-plumed bird, trying to keep up, though I was much else as well: adoring, admiring, loving, entertained, angry, suicidal, and at many other stations of the cross of romantic love."

It may be that her evident willingness to be confessional herself invited an answering candor in the other women and the men, friends and foes, in his life. The biography that emerges from half a dozen years' work is as dramatic in its scenes and conversations as many novels. It is written with an eloquence to match Tynan's own and a depth of detail that proves the patient research.

The candor is considerable, especially about Tynan's flagrant philanderings, but it is, if unsoftened, not vengeful: The public posturings and the willful self-creation never obscure the intellectual passions that drove Tynan.

In a letter to his agent about the autobiography he intended but finally had no time to write, Tynan called himself "a talent snob. . . . I've always wanted to meet and know and analyze the people I admire." The book, he said, would be about his "attempts--as journalist, propagandist and impresario--to celebrate talent and make more room in the world for it to flourish." He was not falsely modest.

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