Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
He was born in Birmingham, England to Peter Tynan and Letitia Rose Tynan. As a child, he stammered, but early on was in possession of a high degree of articulate intelligence, and by the age of six, was already keeping a diary. In grammar school, he had already taken up his lifelong smoking habit.
He was 12 when World War II broke out; by the time the war ended, he had earned a scholarship to the University of Oxford. Well before then, he had already adopted a fairly colorful set of views (and wardrobe items). During grammar school debates, he advocated repealing laws against homosexuality, legalizing abortion, and once gave a speech on the pleasures of masturbation entitled This House Thinks The Present Generation Has Lost The Ability To Entertain Itself. In Oxford, he developed a flamboyant lifestyle, but was already beginning to suffer from the effects of his heavy smoking.
In 1948, he received a nasty shock when his father died, and he discovered that his father was not "Peter Tynan" after all: he was Sir Peter Peacock , the former mayor of Warrington, who had been successfully leading a double life for more than 20 years. Sir Peter's body was returned to Warrington for burial, and Tynan found himself unable to trust anyone for years thereafter.
Three years later, on January 25, 1951, he married the author Elaine Dundy (official site) after a three-month whirlwind romance. They had a daughter the following year, who was named Tracy after Spencer Tracy, and asked Katharine Hepburn to be godmother, which she accepted. (Tracy is currently a costumer designer for the film industry; see her IMDB entry.)
His career began taking off in 1952 when he was hired as a theatre critic for the London Evening Standard. Two years later, he left for The Observer, and it was there that he rose to prominence. The timing for a witty, eloquent theatre critic was perfect, as the 1955-1956 theatre season in Britain was almost revolutionary. Plays such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot premiered that year, for example.
His marriage was increasingly strained in spite of his success (and Elaine's: she successfully published her first novel in 1958). Both had extramarital affairs (though his were much more blatant than hers), and he developed a dependence on alcohol. In addition, his sexual tastes started ranging towards sadomasochism, and this didn't help their marriage much either.
Francis Bacon, a painter whose works were renowned for their grotesque (and often gory) quality, once smiled warmly at his daughter Tracy and declared her to be "as pretty as a picture". He goes down in history as one of the few people who ever managed to shock Tynan into silence.
In 1963, Laurence Olivier became the Royal National Theatre's first artistic director and started looking for a literary adviser. Tynan recommended himself for the role. Olivier, possibly fearing critical savagery in the face of disappointment, accepted, and Tynan left The Observer to become the National Theatre's full-time literary manager.
Tynan's marriage ended in divorce the next year.
On 13 November 1965, during a live debate broadcast as part of the BBC's satirical show BBC3, Tynan, commenting on the subject of censorship, said "I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word "fuck" would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden." The occasion marked the first time the word fuck was used on television. In response, the BBC produced a formal apology. The House of Commons signed four separate motions signed by 133 Labour Party and Tory backbenchers. And most amusingly, Mary Whitehouse, a frequent critic of the BBC over issues of "morals and decency," wrote a letter to the Queen, suggesting that Tynan "ought to have his bottom spanked". If she had only known. The episode further encouraged Whitehouse's campaign against the BBC and summarily cut short Tynan's television career.
By 1967, his career had suffered further. His left-wing tendencies, his lifestyle, and his failing health made him something of a poster-boy for Sixties decadence in London. That year, he married Kathleen Halton , a journalist who gave up her career to support him politically and socially. Her writing fell by the wayside during these years, as their home became a sort of focus of left-wing personalities in London.
Tynan was fiercely against censorship and determined to break taboos that he considered arbitrary. Among his efforts was the erotic revue he wrote (in collaboration with notables such as Samuel Beckett and John Lennon) called Oh! Calcutta!, which debuted in 1969.
He took up his childhood habit of keeping a journal in 1971, detailing his last few months with the National Theatre, which he left in 1972. Virtually a pariah of the mainstream at this point, he lingered in London for another four years and moved with his family to California in 1976. His diaries, which he kept until the end of his life, are a combination of direct self-examination, and blatant gossip, frequently hilarious but tinged with disappointment and coloured by a mixture of wisdom, passion, and the occasional foolish notion. He also wrote several books.
In his last years, he wrote articles, most notably for The New Yorker. His second marriage began falling apart with Kathleen finding success as a screenwriter and author (see her IMDB entry), and they lived a strained relationship for the last few years. Their marriage produced two children, Matthew and Roxana.
Tynan's influence on the theatre scene (particularly London's) was great, though his criticisms were often controversial and stinging. Some considered his influence mildly frightening. Nevertheless, he deserves part of the credit for the theatrical revolution of the mid-Fifties, and the continued popularity of such playwrights as Samuel Beckett.
Selected quotes of Kenneth Tynan
- A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.
- The greatest films are those which show how society shapes man. The greatest plays are those which show how man shapes society.
- [Upon moving to a house in California well above his means:] What have I doneómore ominously, what am I going to have to do to deserve all this?
- [About Vivien Leigh's performance in Titus Andronicus:] She receives the news that she is about to be ravished on by her husband's corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.
Selected bibliography and other works
- "When Kenneth met Lulu," The Guardian, "Saturday Review," p. 4 (November 21, 1998). Discusses the story (told by Kathleen Tynan) of Kenneth Tynan's obsession with Louise Brooks. Kathleen produced a screenplay, the rights to which were bought by Martin Scorsese in 1998. So far as I know, the movie hasn't been made yet.
- The Girl in the Black Helmet. Tynan's original article on Louise Brooks, published in The New Yorker in 1979. It was subsequently published in Tynan's Show People: Profiles in Entertainment (which see).
- Some Plays -- a List Compiled for The National Theatre. Kenneth Tynan. Referred to in the National Theatre biography mentioned above, his list is available from the National Theatre website as a Microsoft Word 97 document. Google also has a cached version of the text.
- Kenneth Tynan: Letters. Kathleen Tynan [ed]. ISBN 0517399261.
- Tynan Right and Left: Plays, Films, People, Places and Events. Kenneth Tynan. 1967. ISBN 0689102712.
- Life Itself!. Elaine Dundy . 2001. Contains a definitive autobiographical account of Tynan's first marriage as written by his first wife. ISBN 1860495133.
- The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan. Kenneth Tynan (ed. John Lahr). 2001. ISBN 0747554188, ISBN 1582341605.
- "Tynan the vulgarian should be a lesson to us all", in The Observer by Peter Conrad . October 14, 2001. Review of The Diaries, and a critical synopsis of Tynan's life.
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