A fairly serious essay on playwright Tom Stoppard, plus four personality profiles in the quote-heavy, flashback-and-forward...


SHOW PEOPLE: Profiles of Entertainment

A fairly serious essay on playwright Tom Stoppard, plus four personality profiles in the quote-heavy, flashback-and-forward New Yorker manner (where these originally appeared) . . . but with one important difference: they're all by Kenneth Tynan, who's probably the best writer on show folk, high and low, in the world today. Adapting the often-languorous Profile formula to his own lean, edged, just slightly egocentric intensity, Britisher Tynan even moves in here on quintessential Americans Mel Brooks and Johnny Carson--with mixed, though equally engaging, results. Hanging around with Brooks & Co., Tynan mostly just stands back, in a sort of smirking awe, recording the outpouring of comic assaults; he does note how Brooks ""extracts a unique comic euphoria from a fundamental pessimistic view of life,"" and he briefly studies all the films, but Tynan-the-critic can hardly get a word in edgewise, so gorgeously quotable is the manic Mr. Brooks. The Carson piece is far more ambitious: Tynan is less interested in the real Johnny C. than in how his particular relaxed talents and miniature skills--""TV's embodiment of Zen in the Art of Archery""--epitomize the televisual experience; and, after pages and pages which evoke and salute the Carson mastery (along with some longueurs accompanying J.C. on a promo trip to Harvard) the conclusion is that he ""is a grand master of the only show-business art that leads nowhere."" Less satisfying is an odd meditation on Jazz Age/decadence filmstar Louise Brooks--the first half an infatuated picture-by-picture appreciation of her small, striking oeuvre, the second half an interview with the now-invalided Ms. B. in Rochester, N.Y.; 71-year-old Brooks is a salty, bitter raconteur (she was always on the verge of downright prostitution), but Tynan is not at his most evocative with film, and the piece never really quite rises above the What-Ever-Happened-To genre. Also less than totally successful: the analysis of Stoppard's clever, uncommitted canon--which, though not entirely uncritical (parts of Travesties are ""unadulterated junket""), seems a bit too incestuous for comfort (Tynan supervised Stoppard plays at London's National Theatre); and Tynan complicates an already somewhat unfocused profile/essay/critique by introducing the career of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel--in whose life and work he finds resonant parallels to Stoppard's. Still, even when not quite in command of the long-essay form, Tynan is always sharp, clear, amused--and in his affectionate portrait of Sir Ralph Richardson (that motorcycling septuagenarian who says of his own face ""I've seen better looking hot cross buns""), all his descriptive and analytic talents come together effortlessly, beautifully. Not without its problems, then, and less likely to stand up to time than some other Tynan collections, but further, invigorating evidence that show business can be written about without heading straight for the lowest common denominator.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1979


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1979

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