Oh! Kenneth Tynan!

August 23, 1995

The Life of Kenneth Tynan
By Kathleen Tynan
Phoenix, 1995. 467 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Some people know Kenneth Tynan (who died in 1979) as the best drama critic since George Bernard Shaw. Conservative members of the theatrical elite despised him for bringing politics into the theatre (left-wing politics of course; their right-wing politics are permitted). Probably his greatest claim to popular fame was to be the first person to say "fuck" on the BBC, and as the creative force behind Oh! Calcutta!, the erotic review which crashed the sex barrier in 1967 and played for a quarter of a century after that.

This biography by Tynan's second wife, the novelist Kathleen Tynan, shows why it is still worthwhile ferreting around on library shelves for Tynan's superb, but alas out-of-print, essays and theatre criticism.

Born in 1927 in Birmingham, Tynan had an easy road into Oxford in 1945, where he made his name by his debating skills, writing flair and wearing outrageous clothes with a philosophy to match. He might have trod the path of the spoilt intellectual brat, but his intense involvement with the theatre eventually dragged him into politics.

Tynan found himself in demand for the "new and special brilliance, style, wit and learning", as James Thurber put it, that Tynan brought to the theatre page. His growing left-wing commitment from the mid-'50s gave Tynan an ability to create controversy (never harmful for sales of the magazines he wrote for) and to build a large and keen readership looking for an intellectual beacon amidst the political fog of the Cold War.

Jaded by the fact that so much British theatre dwelt upon the lives of the upper middle class, with all its negative petty bourgeois introspection, Tynan discovered Brecht in 1955 and declared, "I have seen Mother Courage and I am a Marxist". Well, not quite — Tynan's was a romantic Marxism of the liberal anti-authoritarian kind, generously spiced with Reichian sexual libertarianism, the "elliptical communication beyond words" of Zen Buddhism, an obsession with pornography, especially the female bottom, a belief in having personal power over women and the conservative Christian theology of C.S. Lewis, which had a mysterious hold over Tynan.

Nevertheless, Tynan adopted a clear stance on the left, learning about the repressive state when a police horse trod on his foot at a demo in London in 1956 against the Anglo-French war against Egypt over Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal. An engagement with the anticommunist witch-hunters of the Senate Internal Security subcommittee disabused Tynan of his illusions in US democracy. The Cuban Revolution, censorship, racism and nuclear disarmament, and opposition to the war against Vietnam, were causes he took up.

Tynan had most success in helping to crack the walls of censorship. When he said "fuck" on the BBC, Mary Whitehouse said he should have his bottom smacked, whilst 133 Tory and Labour backbenchers tabled four motions attacking him in the House of Commons. Tynan asked "why one simple word of four letters should provoke more reaction than words like 'Vietnam', or 'apartheid'". He had the final say with the phenomenal success of Oh! Calcutta!

Tynan's politics added bite to his theatre reviews. With his ability to get to the important issue, and his scepticism of reputation and fad, Tynan threw a new light on theatre trends. Samuel Beckett's word-brilliance, for example, could not hide the conservative despair at his core: "There, says Beckett, stamping on the face of mankind; there, that is how life is. And when protest is absent, the step from 'how life is' to 'how life should be' is horrifyingly short." The Absurdists wallowed in "privileged despair" and "impotent anguish" at the pointlessness of existence when there were other possible, life-affirming, reactions to the human predicament.

Mainstream theatre was an enjoyable target for Tynan. He summed up the commercial fare of Broadway as the "intricate, stunningly resourceful and brilliantly manned machine for the large-scale utterance of carefully garnished banalities".

During the '70s, Tynan retreated from the public sphere, hitched an uncomfortable ride as contributing editor for Playboy, and his private life became marked by unpredictability, hysteria and a little violence. It was a sad personal end for one of the finest prose writers of this century.

The left fought over Tynan. Eric Hobsbawm praised him readily. The Workers Revolutionary Party wrote him off as a "champagne socialist". The truth lies somewhere between. Tynan's motto — "rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds" — and his literary brimstone rattled the bars of many cages which had kept human freedom imprisoned, but he missed the mark on others.

His theatre criticism is his greatest legacy. It still throbs with an instinctive liberationist pulse of anti-fatalism. He championed plays whose characters attempted to "shape the circumstances in which they live". For Tynan, as for us, that equally applies to life.

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