The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan

Edited by John Lahr
Hardcover: 420 pages 
Publisher: Bloomsbury Pub Plc
ISBN: 1582341605


Kenneth Tynan came to prominence as drama critic for England's The Observer where he championed the New Wave in theatre, passionately praising John Osborne's Look Back in Anger as "the best young play of its decade."  Possessing a stinging, often wicked, wit, his influence was great and even frightening.  To prevent Tynan from pillaging him in print, Laurence Olivier invited the critic to serve as a consultant for the National Theatre from 1962-1971 where Tynan felt frustrated that, as a critic, he observed rather than created art, becoming "everybody's advisor...and nobody's boss, not even my own." 

By the time he began his diaries in 1971, he was already suffering from the hereditary form of emphysema that would claim his life nine years later, and attempting to pay for a lifestyle too lavish for his dwindling finances. After emigrating to California in 1976 where his second wife, Kathleen, "rented a huge movie-star-type house for us in Santa Monica," Tynan wonders, "What have I done - more ominously, what am I going to have to do to deserve all this?"

What Tynan wanted to do is stage a sequel to the controversial revue Oh, Calcutta which he created, finish a biography of Wilhelm Reich that he had been contracted to write, and find financing for a sex film he hoped to direct.  The sequel came to pass, as did a job writing six profiles for the New Yorker (where he had been employed for two seasons as the magazine's drama critic), but the book was never completed, and the film proved nothing more than a dream.  But Tynan found comfort and a certain artistic satisfaction in what he calls "the last refuge of whatever ego one has" - his diary. 

The private scribbling of famous writers have a voyeuristic allure.  Even if the words are written with eventual publication in mind (and what diary is not?), the reader hopes to see the luminary the way the reader sees himself: with every blemish exposed and maneuvering his uncertain way through the booby traps of life.  The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan do not disappoint.  Page after page reveals a highly intelligent man as mercilessly honest when critiquing himself as he is in critiquing others.  "I don't mind failing," he writes, "so long as the air is filled with cries of incredulity and compassion."  Of Olivier, he says, "He does not trust anybody.  He does not understand participation." 

There are insightful takes on Ethel Merman, Jerry Lewis, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Miles Davis, Gore Vidal and other celebrities whom Tynan either met or whose performances he witnessed with an eye unclouded by the smoke from the publicity machine. 

But Tynan doesn't need to drop famous names to hold the attention.  He offers illuminating thoughts on a wide range of topics, including economics ("Inflation rides high," he notes in 1973, "and I believe intentionally.  A super-rich class is being built on top of the existing structure..."), the difference between theatre and film ("The greatest films are those which show how society shapes man.  The greatest plays are those which show how man shapes society"), politics (Tynan was a socialist) and sex, the taboos against which he was devoted to shattering.

A devotee of sado-masochism, Tynan does not shy away from recording, in vivid detail, his fondness for spanking.  Some sensational passages are devoted to his exploits, but when read as a whole with the entries documenting his failing health and wounded spirit, they simply serve to complete the portrait of a fiercely gifted but disappointed man who pursued pleasure to escape his very real physical and psychological pain.

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan are often funny, occasionally shocking, and always sad, wise and readable.  The cover blurb gets it right: this is "compelling literature."

Brian W. Fairbanks
Entertainment Editor