Theatre in Wales

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A First Draft of Theatre History

Theatre History Book

Kenneth Tynan “Theatre Writings” , Nick Hern Books , August 1, 2010
Theatre History Book by Kenneth Tynan “Theatre Writings” The New Critics initiative of the National Theatre of Wales sent me to the Hay Festival. The induction had sparked an interest in criticism as a genre. The visit to Hay sent me to the Cinema Bookshop and to a good-as-new copy of a collection of Kenneth Tynan's writings. Its editor is Dominic Shellard of Sheffield University and its foreword is written by Tom Stoppard.

It dates from 2007 and Adam Mars-Jones was a first reviewer. “A critic of the performing arts whose writing lasts is a great paradox, a parasite that outlives its host, an illness that survives the patient.” It is rare and the book resembles “Seasons of Discontent” by Robert Brustein whose time-span of theatre it part-shares. Brustein was sour about Wesker's “Roots” where Tynan enthuses. With both men the quality of writing vaults it out of the realm of quotidian journalism. The collection of 110 pieces makes it a first draft of history as it was lived.

Tynan's posthumous reputation is of a man of unpleasantness. But as a writer he is more sprightly than Brustein. “Separate Tables” is reviewed as a dialogue between Aunt Edna and a Young Perfectionist. Tynan engages in parody where Brustein is ever-severe. But the coverage at moments stretches cleverness to malice. He has a sharpened eye for acting but there is too much relish on display when he writes a line like “She executes all the accepted repertoire of femininity-vapid eye-lash fluttering, mock unconcern, plain silliness- with convulsive effect and yet always with her brows arched in affected boredom.”

Brustein juggled a career between critic and practitioner. Shellard includes an interview, previously unpublished, in which Kathleen Tynan, his second wife, observed. “One of the saddest things about Ken was that he really wanted to be a director than a writer- much more- and although one could argue about why didn't he go to the provinces and learn his craft and do it, he never seemed to make it clear...But he felt after a while very frustrated because he wasn't his own person, he was always advising and always in the background, and, as a very flamboyant personality, I think he suffered because of that.”

When Richard Eyre interviewed Frith Banbury he asked about the influence of Tynan. The veteran director remembered the tussles with Rattigan. “Of course, Tynan always got the better of him in a revolting way, I thought, because it was horrid what he wrote.” On Tynan's personality Banbury said “there was a very obvious bitterness at the back there...Tynan obviously wanted to direct and wanted to act. He tried both with no success at either, but the one thing he could do was write wonderful prose and brilliant invective.”

Notwithstanding the descent into what feels like vindictiveness the collection sparkles with interest. Many a play up for revival is on show here at its first glimpsing. The first sight of Brecht is “Mother Courage” in Paris in January 1955. In June the same year Tynan writes a superb close-up analysis of the Berliner Ensemble doing “the Caucasian Chalk Circle.” “The Entertainer” and “A Taste of Honey” are both received with lavish praise.

Shellard includes Tynan's summary-cum-parody of theatre's staple in what he called“the Loamshire Play”. There is always a schadenfreude of hindsight to be had when those old guys in the past got it wrong. “Is America really peopled with brutalised half-wits?” starts a review which goes on to end “an interminable, an overwhelming, and in the end intolerable bore.” The date is May 31st 1953, the author is Harold Hobson and he is watching that fountain of pure joy “Guys and Dolls.” To give Shellard his due the book also reprints Hobson on “Waiting for Godot” Aug 7th 1955. Tynan sees it later in New York in April 1956 with Bert Lahr in the cast. He includes a mention that the advertising asked for 70000 intellectuals to make the production pay.

Back in London one of his heroes Orson Welles is in London playing Ahab and directing magnificently. As for the background Tynan writes an exhaustive twelve page essay on the now absurdity of theatre censorship. The list of censured subjects would be comic were it not so serious. Gay life can nibble at the edge as long as it is not explicit and comes with a due eventual punishment. “Who is the Lord Chamberlain?” asks Tynan “As I write, he is Cameron Fromanteel, first Baron Cobbold, educated at Eton and Cambridge, and a former Governor of the Bank of England: a cheerful, toothy, soothing chap in his early sixties.”

The collection is filled with snippets to interest. On February 17th 1957 Tynan includes an item of news. “Peter Hall, until recently the director of productions at the Arts Theatre” he records “is going into management and will stage a series of plays under his own banner.” That banner was set to be the grandest of them all.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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