Books Reviewed by Allison Burnett

Posted: Fri., Jan. 11, 2002, 5:01 pm PT

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan
(Bloomsbury; 420 Pgs; $32.95) John Lahr, Ed.

By Allison Burnett

When Kenneth Tynan died of emphysema in Los Angeles in 1980, the world lost not only the finest drama critic of the age, but one of its greatest wits. With the publication of these diaries, the contemporary reader has a chance to sit back and drink at the wellspring of a magnificent mind, possessed of humor, insight, honesty, and a magical sense of fun. He also has a chance to learn more than he might ever have wished to about the mad, secret glories of erotic spanking.

Kenneth Peacock Tynan was born in 1927 in Birmingham, England (a "cemetery without walls," he called it), but he was not truly born until his seventeenth year when he entered Magdalen College, Oxford. There, he was free to spread bright wings as the resident wit, dandy, and enfant terrible. As an undergraduate, he wrote a 6,000-word essay a week -- the equivalent, this volume's worthy editor, John Lahr, tells us, of five full-length books.

By the time Tynan graduated, his critical scalpel was honed, ready to sink deep into a moribund British theater desperately in need of heroic intervention.

The success of any critic relies on no small share of luck. There must be subjects worthy not only of censure but of praise. Tynan had such good fortune early, because the English theater was in transition between the stale offerings of the post-war ("Pineroesque melodramas, quarter-witted farces, debutante comedies, overweight musicals and unreviewable revues ") and the emergence of a new sort of theater, inaugurated by the explosive debut in 1956 of John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger."

Tynan's rarest gift as a critic was his ability to capture in words the evanescence of live performance. "I mummify transience," he wrote in the preface to his first book. "I am an echo, a mould which recasts things, set-pieces, atmospheres, manners, gestures, into something more weatherproof." Tynan was lucky here, too, because a new sort of actor was also emerging, personified by the likes of Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Tom Courtenay, and Joan Plowright. Such a field of talent demanded a new sort of dramatic literature and a new sort of critic. Tynan was that critic. His style was a blend of the classical and contemporary: He may have used a scalpel, but the bottoms of his scrubs were belled.

Our epoch is devoid of many things and paramount among them is wit. As much as anything these journals are a delicious compendium of wit, not only of Tynan's, but of the scores of luminaries with whom he came into contact.

The humor runs from low to high. The low is often little more than wordplay: "Joke conceived in the loo yesterday: what would the Variety headline be if Rex Harrison slugged an autograph collector? Answer: SHIT HITS FAN." At the high end, it is tiny pearls born of aesthetic irritation. Of Dirk Bogarde's "highly artificial" performance in Death in Venice: "A middle-aged man pretending to be a young man made up as an old man."

Just as diverting are the bon mots of others: Orson Wells attributes this to Molnar: "Never touch shit, even with gloves on. The gloves get shittier, the shit doesn't get glovier." Wisdom to live by, especially in Hollywood.

And then there is Alan Bennett, who said of Christopher Plummer:

"He's his own worst enemy -- but only just." One of the best laughs of all comes from his daughter, Tracy, who tells of a local Hollywood tour guide, who says:

"And this is Otto Preminger's house. I beg your pardon -- a house by Otto Preminger."

Tynan was also a gossip of the first order. Anecdote abounds, much of it as salacious as any in today's unauthorized biographies. You will read of Vivien Leigh crawling into bed with the author while Sir Larry sits just downstairs. There is Marlon Brando daring the author to kiss him on the mouth as a proof of friendship. (Tynan does.) There are details of Marlene Dietrich's trysts with Edward R. Morrow and President Kennedy. An anecdote about Louise Brooks's solitary bedroom habits as an old woman is too scandalous to be quoted here, or virtually anywhere else.

Along with the wit, there is plenty of wisdom. Comparing Sir Laurence Olivier to Spencer Tracy, Tynan writes: "Larry may have greater power than Tracy in the portrayal of monsters, but he can't play nice men with anything like Tracy's monumental authority." He also collects the wisdom of others, such as John Huston's advice when it seemed that Tynan was about to direct his first feature film: "Always shoot each scene as if it were the most important in scene in the picture."

These journals, which chart the last nine years of Tynan's life, might just as well be titled, "The Public Diaries of Kenneth Tynan," because above all else, Tynan was a man who needed an audience and every entry is written with the reader in mind. If further proof is needed, when Tynan died he left the diaries to his daughter, Tracy, whom he trusted not to burn them. Destroying them would not have been as outlandish an act as one might suppose, for they include not only a trove of intellectual diversion, but a playbook of Tynans's fetishistic indulgences, all centered around the female posterior -- and around his own. A warning to the faint of heart, Tynan spares the reader little in the way of detail: "Lunch with Nicole, who receives a one-point enema, a wiped bottom in the loo, and a good smacking."

It must be said that a dark vein of tragedy runs through every page. One is left with a poignant and enduring portrait of a brilliant and decent man who never truly fulfilled his talent. William Butler Yeats famously wrote that one must choose between the perfection of the life and the perfection of the work; Tynan, tragically, achieved neither. His critical works are out of print and his life was plagued by depression, nicotine addiction, and sensual excess. Yet, in a world tending every day towards the barbarous, it is a joy to spend time with a man whose mind and spirit, although not his appetites, were if nothing else supremely civilized.

(Allison Burnett's novel, "Christopher," was recently published by Broadway Books.)