Kenneth Tynan: Theatre Writings

Edited by Dominic Shellard
278 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-1854595430
Published 2008 by Nick Hern Books, £9.99


To many of my generation it isn’t difficult to recall the excitement every Sunday of comparing the views of Tynan and Harold Hobson in the Observer and the Sunday Times. Wasn’t it Jimmy Porter who defined the classic sound of an English Sunday morning as that of “Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree”?

Shellard describes Tynan as “seen to write for the young, the left and the new” and Hobson for “the middle aged, the right and the past”. Certainly Tynan was for all things German, social realism, American musicals, and new plays that dealt with the contemporary world, while Hobson preferred the French, the theatre of the absurd and Christian verse drama. Yet both responded enthusiastically to the first nights of “Waiting for Godot” and “Look Back in Anger”.

What makes Tynan so important and so readable, even 28 years after his tragically early death, is that he was not only a fine and perceptive critic but also a great journalist with an extraordinary ability to re-create a theatrical performance in print. Shellard begins his selection with a number of remarkable extracts from Tynan’s 1950 book He That Plays the King. (Tynan himself gave a less than successful performance as the Player King in Alec Guiness’s disastrous modern dress “Hamlet” in 1951.) Those extracts include descriptions of Olivier’s “Richard III”, “Oedipus Rex” and “King Lear”, Gielgud’s 1944 “Hamlet” and Richardson’s “Falstaff”, with Olivier as Justice Shallow. All of them must have been written when Tynan was still only in his late teens!

One of my few regrets at Shellard’s selection is his omission of the description of Olivier’s death fall at the end of his 1959 Stratford “Coriolanus”—“poised on a promontory some 12 feet above the stage he topples forward to be caught by the ankles so that he dangles, inverted, like the slaughtered Mussolini. A more shocking, less sentimental death I have not seen in the theatre: it is at once proud and ignominious, as befits the titanic fool who dies it”. Almost 50 years later Tynan’s words still bring it back as vividly as ever. I should know. I was there.

Of course Tynan wasn’t right about everything. He was wrong about the thrust stage and about theatre in the round and even at first about Harold Pinter. But he was right about so much. He was right about Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble, about Osborne and the Royal Court, about Beckett and Theatre Workshop. He championed the need for a National Theatre and the importance of abolishing theatre censorship. And as Tom Stoppard writes in his Foreward “you can open this book on almost any page and come across a phrase or a vignette which is the next best thing to being there”.

Theatre Writings is a fascinating record of 20 of the most important years of British theatre. It is living history of the highest order. It should be compulsive reading for anyone concerned with the history of our theatre.

Martin Bowley QC

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