‘Kenneth Tynan brilliantly achieved an intellectual slum-clearance of the stage’

Over 10 highly successful years, the Observer’s theatre critic helped transform the ailing British theatre and reinvent the role of the reviewer

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Rarely have we needed the arts more. Rarely have they been so threatened. If we can’t imagine a better future we won’t get one. But we are living in a Gradgrind age. When a recent education secretary declares that it “couldn’t be further from the truth” that it is helpful to study the humanities. When it is hard for all but the rich to get through drama school. When an institutionalised contempt makes the minister for arts the minister for football.

It has always been one of the glories of the Observer that it has stood up for the arts by covering them critically as well as zestfully, not being suborned by PR machines. And it has long been received wisdom that the most famous of my predecessors, Kenneth Tynan, was a dazzling advocate and gadfly. Asked to look through the archive of arts pieces, I decided to put his reputation to the test. It survived.

Fervour and precision; pungency and political commitment. Above all, it is his range – of subjects and emotions – that knocks me out. It has long been evident that when Tynan talked about “high-definition performance” he was evoking himself. What’s more, he changed things.

Tynan was the Observer’s theatre critic from 1954 to 1963. In those years – fewer than I had thought – he made it seem that dramatic criticism was the natural prism through which to look at the whole of life. He said that a good critic identifies what is important on the stage; a great one “perceives what is not happening”. Tynan did both.

First he diagnosed the malaise. A tepid English stage tradition. A place that he called “Loamshire”, unpalatable to anyone under 40 – which was, of course, a place that could be called England. In the 1950s he found a London theatre scene that was dominated by “detective stories, Pineroesque melodramas, quarter-witted farces, debutante comedies, overweight musicals and unreviewable revues”.

Then he found what he considered the remedy. Tynan’s most famous word is “fuck”: he was the first person to say it on telly. His most celebrated piece is still his review of Look Back in Anger, which he reviewed in the spring of 1956. Loamshire citizens had reacted biliously to John Osborne’s play. On the wireless, the critic Ivor Brown considered it unthinkable that, as a colonel’s daughter, Alison Porter would have remained in such an “unspeakably squalid” setting. The impresario Binkie Beaumont walked out. The first-night audience was said to gasp at the sight of an ironing board on stage, though one spectator told me that the real surprise was seeing people reading the Sunday papers. Enter Tynan, declaring that Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, ribald, candid and despairing, was “the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet”. And, of course, proclaiming: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger.”

Jimmy Porter, played by Kenneth Haigh, dances with his friend Cliff (Alan Bates) while his wife Alison (Mary Ure) uses the offending ironing board in a scene from John Osborne’s 1956 production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Jimmy Porter, played by Kenneth Haigh, dances with his friend Cliff (Alan Bates) while his wife Alison (Mary Ure) uses the offending ironing board in a scene from John Osborne’s 1956 production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Photograph: Picture Post/Getty Images

It was a gauntlet review, defiant as well as supportive. The person it was thought to do for was Terence Rattigan, master of the well-made play. Actually, Rattigan’s pain and subtlety have made his plays last better than Osborne’s. He is more penetrating because he is more oblique. Tynan brilliantly achieved what he praised Bernard Shaw, in his role as critic, for carrying out: “an intellectual slum-clearance” of the stage. The theatre was altered definitively, utterly improved for having its gentility shaken, for losing its gazebos. Yet though I am pleased that Look Back in Anger exists, I don’t want to see it again.

Tynan’s judgment wasn’t flawless. Most critics would surely like to be remembered for identifying important talent before it is established. In that regard, Tynan’s critical adversary on the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson, had at least as good a record, speaking up early for Beckett and Pinter. The film critic Penelope Gilliatt described the characteristic sound of Sunday mornings as that of Hobson barking up the wrong tree. Sometimes that barking was Tynan’s. It was, though, more melodious and more memorable than Hobson’s.

Tynan’s genius was for evocation, for trapping a performance in ink and making it matter, showing that the theatre could send you back to daily life with enhanced eyes. He did not suffer from the bane of drama critics: adjectival effusion – the sort of phrase that gets critics’ names up outside theatres. He summoned up particular presences, leaving you with the fragrance or the stink of an evening. He conjured up John Gielgud: “His present performance as a simpering valet is an act of boyish mischief, carried out with extreme elegance and the general aspect of a tight, smart, walking umbrella.” He excoriated Vivien Leigh’s “periwinkle charm”, slating her Lady Macbeth as “more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery”. Leigh’s husband, Laurence Olivier, offered Tynan the job of literary manager at the newly formed National Theatre, exclaiming: “God – anything to get you off that Observer.”

His famous dandyism – plum-coloured trousers, yellow socks, cigarette held between the third and fourth finger – was part of what made him right for the job. He was responsive to flesh and fabric and gesture, as well as word and theme and thought. The opposite of a deskbound inkpot, he moved around the world, and his pieces were unusually three-dimensional. He never fell into the trap of being too literary: of reviewing a play as if it were a book inconveniently cut up into human beings. He looked for total theatre – and found it in Joan Littlewood.

He was buoyant not only in reviews but in the less famous profiles. Here, free not only to react but to seek out subjects, he made good choices as well as good sentences, not merely fashionable or youth-pleasing. He admired Noël Coward, some of whose idiom entered his prose: “With the passage of time, the profundities peel away and the basic trivialities remain to enchant us.” And in the same year that he saluted Look Back in Anger he sought out the 84-year-old Edward Gordon Craig, the prophet of modern theatre, who was living near Nice, impoverished and forgotten.

Craig, the son of actress Ellen Terry, was a visionary designer and director, and a profligate lover. Tynan chronicled marvellously his mixture of the inspired and the haywire: new ideas about The Tempest; memories of a childhood meeting with Lewis Carroll: “Tried to divert me with a puzzle about ferrying six cows across a river on a raft. Very tiresome…”; and the suggestion that Shakespeare’s sonnets must have been addressed to a cat. Craig told his interviewer he had the right face for a critic: “The look of a blooming martyr.”

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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