Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan was one of the greatest theater critics of the 20th Century


This Knol written by Jon Hopwood
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Kenneth Tynan was one of the most famous theatrical critics of the 20th Century. He earned his own permanent place in the history of the English theater when he became the first dramaturg of Laurence Olivier, when the great actor finally realized his dream and became the director of the new National Theatre. Tynan's tenure at the National proved controversial, and he was forced to resign after championing Rolf Hochuth's play "Soldaten" ("Soldiers"), which essentially accused Winston Churchill, the wartime Prime Minister, of complicity in the murder of Free Poland's head of state, General Sikorsky. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the secret files of Soviet intelligence agencies, it generally is assumed that Skiorsky was assassinated by the Soviets.)

Born Kenneth Peacock Tynan in Birmingham, England on April 2, 1927, the illegitimate son of Sir Peter Peacock, the former mayor of Warrington, who was leading a double life with his mistress and assumed the name of Tynan. (His son did not find out the truth until his father's death in 1948). While at Oxford, he acted and produced play and won a reputation as a brilliant pubic speaker at the Oxford Union. He also edited and contributed to college magazines. In 1952, The London Evening Standard newspaper hired the 25-year old Tynan as a theater critic. He wasted no time in establishing a reputation for himself of recklessness, boldness, and iconoclasm. He moved over to The Observer in 1954, and it there that he played a key role in the revolution of the London theater that began in the 1955-1956 theater season, with the debut of John Osborne's watershed play Look Back in Anger (1958). He also championed Franco-Irish absurdist Samuel Beckett's masterpiece "Waiting for Godot". But it was Osbourne's play that, overnight, made the English theater that immediately preceded it old-fashioned and out-of- date, making such popular playwrights Terence Rattigan seem almost obsolete. From his pulpit at The Observer, Tynan espoused the theatrical realism of the group of playwrights that became known as The Angry Young Men (and whose works were derided by the proponents of a more genteel theater as "kitchen sink drama"). Laurence Olivier, keen to not let fashion slip by him and become a living relic himself, became a convert to The Angry Young Man school, partly through Tynan's criticism and partly through the praise of Arthur Miller, with whom he had seen "Look Back in Anger" at the theater. Olivier approached Osbourne, who wrote "The Entertainer" -- one of Olivier's greatest roles -- for the theatrical knight.

In 1963, when Olivier was named artistic director at the state-subsidized National Theatre, he appointed Tynan dramaturg, or literary adviser. Tynan had recommended himself for the job. After the appointment, Tynan left The Observer for the National Theatre, where he established an international reputation for himself. He had been contributing pieces to The New Yorker since 1958, but during the '60s, he became one of the most influential people working in the English-language theater, welcomed on both sides of The Pond.

In many ways, Tynan was at the right place at the right time. He wanted to overturn censorship and extend the boundaries of speech, and the 1960s were a propitious time for iconoclasts. He has the distinction of being the first person to use the "f"-word on English television, on a November 13, 1965, BBC broadcast of a live TV debate. The incident caused a public outcry and condemnation in Parliament. One biographer said that his use of the word was "his masterpiece of calculated self-publicity". The BBC had to issue a formal apology, and the fallout from the notoriety eventually hurt Tynan's career as he was banned from British TV.

Tynan had gotten The Observer to publish an "obscene" word in 1960, and by 1969, he was prepared to branch out into pornography, in the spirit of the times which saw Tom O'Horgan and others in the UK and America introduce nudity on stage. Thus, his musical production of "Oh! Calcutta!" can be seen as part of his campaign against censorship and his taboo-breaking propensity for expanding expression. "Oh! Calcutta!", a kind of erotic revue featuring scenes written by such authors as Beckett and John Lennon, featured music and dance, but the selling point to the public was that its performers, both male and female, were often nude. The show ran for decades, though Tynan himself made only about $250,000 from it.

In the new decade of the 1970s, Tynan adapted (along with director Roman Polanski), Shakespeare's of The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) for producer Hugh M. Hefner of Playboy Magazine fame. The movie, before its release, became notorious for nude witches and a sleep-walking scene in the buff by Lady Macbeth. When it was finally screened, the movie was attacked more for its graphic violence than its nudity, which was modest. This version of The Scottish Play (so-called as the play is supposed to bring bad luck to actors who mention its name) made Tynan even more notorious, and his position at the National Theatre became even more precarious. He quit in 1972, while Olivier, who had supported his dramaturg in the "Soldaten" episode and others to the detriment of his position with the toffs who oversaw the NT, followed him in 1973.

Tynan's position in England deteriorated, as the vitality that had infused British and theater and film for a generation after the Suez Crisis had waned by Edward Heath's Tory government of 1970-74. He and his family moved to southern California in 1976. Although his influence on theater was now dissipated, he continued to write and be published, pieces for the The New Yorker, and books.

Kenneth Tynan died on July 26, 1980in Santa Monica, California, of a pulmonary emphysema. He was repatriated after death and buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford.