The British critic’s personal jottings from the 1970s chronicle a glamorous life with characteristic wit, underpinned by melancholy.
It wasn’t an entirely happy decade for Tynan, who found it increasingly difficult to write as his emphysema worsened. (Diagnosed in the late ’60s, the disease finally killed the cigarette-smoking 53-year-old in 1980.) The entries begin in the closing years of his tenure as literary manager of Britain’s National Theatre, where he was frequently frustrated by executive director Laurence Olivier’s timidity regarding the politically and sexually provocative plays Tynan championed. Nasty comments about Olivier, on whose acting Tynan had lavished praise as a critic in the ’50s and ’60s, reveal a decidedly catty side to his personality, as do the vitriolic remarks concerning director Peter Hall, who bumpily assumed the reins at the National in 1973. After he left the National, Tynan drifted, trying to get financing for an erotic film and to stage a follow-up to his scandalously successful stage review, Oh! Calcutta! His own sex life revolved around spankings and whippings described in juicy and surprisingly cheerful detail—leave it to Tynan to make S&M sound like a day at the beach. Since the hairbrush got applied mostly to girlfriend Alison, relations with wife Kathleen were understandably strained in this period. Tynan’s habit of attending glittering upper-crust parties and favoring the guests with his adamantly socialist opinions can’t have enhanced his popularity either: “I enjoy testing people,” he admits in one entry. He enjoys hobnobbing with them too: name after famous name, from Marlene Dietrich to Mel Brooks, appears after the words “dinner with” or “drinks with.” The mood darkens in the late ’70s, as Tynan is plagued by money worries and health problems, but his prose still sparkles, his opinions still strike sparks. We sorely miss a critic who writes sentences like: “It is a dangerous fallacy to assume that being a perfectionist is the same thing as having good taste.”
A candid and revealing snapshot of mid–20th-century cultural life, seen through eccentric but shrewdly perceptive eyes.