Diary of a disappointed man
THE DIARIES OF KENNETH TYNAN edited by John Lahr Bloornsbuty, £25, pp. 352, ISBN 0747554188 After the biography of Tynan by his wife, Kathleen. and the letters she so lovingly edited, we now have his diaries. Kathleen did not want them published, hut Ken did, and tried to bequeath them to his daughter, Tracy. The bequest was not legally valid, but Kathleen kept the diaries and when she died her two children by Ken generously gave them to Tracy to do what she liked with. They have now been edited by John Lahr, son of Bert and biographer of Orton.
Do they tell us anything new about Tynan? Not really. There are very precise descriptions of his sado-masochistic sex life, mainly spanking and role-playing, but these are only a small part of the book and never become tiresome. The diaries include his endless partying with the rich, the famous and, it must be admitted, the gifted and the learned, a sea of celebrities without which he could not breathe or swim. Choked by emphysema and in constant need of oxygen, but still smoking, be continued his life style almost to the end. He moved to Los Angeles, where the climate could not have been worse, and tried to conceal the terminal nature of his illness which would prevent him getting work as a journalist or scriptwriter. There is a great description of him in the last stages, listening stony-faced to a psychiatric social worker — 'What can some young punk tell me about dying?' Self-pity was not in his nature; he was a great admirer of Seneca.
The diaries cover the period from 1970 to the last year of his life. They include the last years of his time as Literary Manager (a term he invented) at the National Theatre, his boring but successful porn revue Oh, Calcutta! and the long portraits of individual personalities for the New Yorker, It is the record of a disappointed man, though he registers that as coolly as his descriptions of his sex life, his illness or his response to performances in the theatre. When I knew him we were working together in the first years of the National Theatre at the Old Vic, 1963 to 1965. Every evening we would meet in Olivier's office in a prefabricated hut in a yard in Waterloo — Olivier, Tynan, John Dexter and myself, the two associate directors, and Stephen Arlen the administrator. Over a bottle of Scotch we would plan the repertoire. Dexter and I were puritans from the Royal Court and wanted an ensemble of dedicated actors, Ken wanted dazzling performances from stars, but we were united by enthusiasms, particularly for the work of Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble. Olivier took what he wanted from us and went his own way. Somehow the combination was rich and productive. They were heady times but didn't last. By 1970 I had left and Dexter was soon to leave. The National had settled into the erratic institution it has been ever since, Ken had a wonderful response to the theatrical experience but had very little literary judgment and Tom Stoppard was the only new writer he sue
cessfully promoted. When Peter Hall was announced as Olivier's successor at the National Ken's dream collapsed — if there was a dream, which I sometimes doubt. The diaries endlessly demonstrate that he lived sensually, in his response to the moment. Even his socialism which is the one element in his make-up which makes one consider him more than a supremely gifted stylist and social playboy, is argued with passionate immediacy.
His pieces in the New Yorker were all too long, in some cases, like Mel Brooks', grotesquely too long, for the talent of his subject. But the passages about acting in the diaries are wonderfully succinct and as good as anything he wrote as a critic. His gifts lay not in his critical evaluation but, like all great theatre critics, in his ability to evoke the experience of the moment or, more exactly, the impact of a unique and gifted performer. There is enough of this in the diaries to compensate for the sad picture of the decline of his own brilliant talent. And it was performers, whether actors, comedians or singers, about whom he writes at his best. I think he had very little understanding of the actor who does not go out to the audience but expects the audience to come to them. He writes of Edith Evans:
Within the limits I don't deny her excellence. But her strongest suit by far is the curiously restricted one of disdain. Warm disdain. icy disdain, mischievous disdain, murderous disdain but always disdain.
I worship Evans this side of idolatry, but this brings me up short. His perception makes me reassess. He is wonderful on Oliver:
And Larry, for all his rage and virtuosity, is a cold actor: he can with an effort simulate passion but it is not communicated, and often leaves an audience wondering rather shamefacedly why they haven't been more moved.
He is perhaps best of all on popular entertainers. On Ethel Merman;
I love her defiance, the feeling that she can survive anything — as with Seneca's heroine, you sense that if the world collapses, Medea superest.
His piece on Max Wall is the best thing in the whole book and one of the best things I've read about any performer.
The book has irritating biographical footnotes by Lahr which he tries to excuse in his excellent introduction. As much of the diary consists of long lists of the guests at the parties Tynan went to some of the pages become swamped unnecessarily. If you don't know who A. J. Ayer, Edna O'Brien, Peter Sellers and Eric Hobsbawm are you probably shouldn't be reading this book anyway. One small correction: Harold Lang, the friend of Ken's who died, was the British actor and Stanislavsky teacher, not the American dancer. Ken told me with relish that he had died, as he liked to live, in a gay brothel in Cairo.