Kenneth Tynan's Theatre Writings

Contact Us

BBC Radio 7, 8-12 March 2010
For nearly two decades until he retired from full-time reviewing, Kenneth Tynan was the enfant terrible of British theatre criticism. His weekly columns in The Observer became required reading, not only for their trenchant comments on a variety of plays both classic and indifferent, but also because of their enthusiasm. Tynan was a man of particular theatrical tastes; but he wielded such power at that time that he could make or break a playwright's career. His support of plays such as Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger helped to transform them into both popular and critical successes.
Amber Barnfather's five-part selection from Tynan's criticism, read by David Horovitch and Michael Sheen, covered all of his career as a reviewer, from his precocious beginnings as an Oxford undergraduate to his last days at The Observer. We learned of his enthusiasm for Olivier - both as a Shakespearean actor and creator of Archie Rice (in The Entertainer). On the other hand Tynan disliked Vivien Leigh, on the grounds that she was too mannered an actress to convey real emotion across the footlights. Tynan was an indefatigable campaigner against stage censorship - particularly the archaic process (which still existed during the 1950s) by which all new plays had to be submitted for approval by the Lord Chamberlain. His view alone determined whether they could be performed or not. This led to some absurd decisions; despite the fact that Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge had already enjoyed a successful Broadway run, the Lord Chamberlain refused to issue his seal of approval. The only way the play could receive a London performance was under club conditions, where the punters paid an annual subscription (as well as admission fees) to enjoy a series of plays. Technically speaking this was not a 'public' but a 'private' performance for members only. Tynan rightly satirized the absurdities of this system.
By the early 1960s the theatrical climate was changing: Beyond the Fringe signalled the return of satire to the West End stage, even though Tynan believed that it was a peculiarly English form of satire, redolent of the BBC Home Service. The National Theatre (as it was then) was about to be opened; in the meantime many of the actors who would subsequently form part of that company were spending a season at the Chichester Festival Theatre under Olivier's direction. Tynan hated two of the three productions performed there - Beaumont and Fletcher's The Chances, and John Ford's The Broken Heart - but believed that Olivier redeemed himself with a groundbreaking revival of Uncle Vanya.
Tynan subsequently spent ten years working for the National Theatre as its Literary Manager, but lost his job once Olivier had been superseded as director by Peter Hall. Thereafter the great critic's career went into steep decline; he died in 1980 aged only 53, without any further gainful employment. Nonetheless he left a great legacy, as this five-part programme proved - a corpus of work capturing great performances and personalities. We shall not see his like again.