It would be a great pity--and a major injustice--if Kenneth Tynan, the British theatre's great critic-activist from the...



It would be a great pity--and a major injustice--if Kenneth Tynan, the British theatre's great critic-activist from the 1950's to the 1970's, were to be remembered primarily as the ""deviser"" of Oh! Calcutta. This long biography, by Tynan's second wife (a novelist/screenwriter), should help prevent that from happening--because, while candidly examining Tynan's rather tortured private life, it gives a rich, well-researched account of his professional (often behind, the-scenes) achievements. Oddly enough, the book is best in the years before the author appears on the scene as a first-person observer. She lucidly considers all the psychological ramifications of Tynan's bizarre family background: the ""indulged love child"" of a knighted Birmingham politician who started a new family under the ""Tynan"" alias, Ken didn't know he was illegitimate till his father's death in 1948. His wunderkind years--as multi-faceted Oxford superstar, prococious professional director, ""king"" of London's experimental theater-club scene, and flashy young critic--are filled in with wry exuberance; his cruelties are acknowledged, but overshadowed by his energy and integrity--in championing Look Back in Anger, fighting censorship, campaigning for a National Theater and, later (as Olivier's literary manager at the NT), for directors' right to artistic autonomy. Quoting from diaries, letters, and recent interviews (with, among others, Lord and Lady O.), Mrs. Tynan sheds new light on old quarrels and controversies. Tynan's failings and obsessions are vividly, but not luridly, exposed: his nightmarish marriage to Elaine Dundy; his sexual despotism, double standards, compulsive philandering; his guilt-ridden taste for mild S-M. (""I was, despite my innocence, undisturbed by Ken's curious declarations, sensing that they masked a tender man."") And, despite occasional lapses into moist self-dramatization, Tynan's second marriage is firmly chronicled, too--from a ""sad little soap opera"" of adultery through happy times to Tynan's tragic last years: dying of emphysema, mired in doomed projects(including a pornographic film-script), often alienated from family, yet able to produce his fine New Yorker profiles of Ralph Richardson, Louise Brooks, and others. American readers may not welcome--or appreciate--all the details and documentation here; and a few of the assessments (e.g, Tynan's role in promoting Brecht) may seem a trifle inflated. But this is a solid, probing, remarkably objective life history overall, balancing literary seriousness with spirited anecdotes (Mrs. Harold Pinter insulting Princess Margaret) and a strong sense of Tynan's volatile, charming, complex personality throughout.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1987


Page Count: -

Publisher: Morrow

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1987