Kenneth Tynan, gifted controversialist, effeminate womanizer, emphysema-ridden smoker, and purveyor of eros for the intelligentsia, died too young, in 1980. Yet he crammed his life and writing with passion. Tynan's Profiles
are a masterful mix of observation, wit, and intellectual ferocity, and happily, this glittering collection of letters is marked by the same qualities. Edited by his wife Kathleen, they are a strong delight from the very first entry (one of many castigating editors) to his final communiqué, a verse marking his son's birthday, which ends: "NOW THAT YOU'RE NINE, / I'M SURE YOU'LL BE FINE-- / FUNNY, AND FINE, AND CLEVER-- / AND I SEND MY LOVE FOR EVER."
Tynan is never one to be restrained by received values. In 1943, aged 16, he is already dashing off an amorality play: "The whole point of it, I feel, is that the Devil is horrified by the goodness of God and considers him immoral." (In a later missive, he claims that Christ was "something of a criminal flop"--when it came to His earthly career, at any rate.) And a really good day for the young overachiever consists of chatting with an amiable Communist, listening to a skeptic on Anglo-American relations, and going to the flicks with two girls; "Necked with both--both have filthy minds but are pretty and well-spoken," he reports. "We therefore got on excellently."
Throughout, Tynan is magnificently aware of his strengths--beginning one epistle with "Credit title: this is a damned good letter"--and profligate with his bon mots. Detailing one sexual conquest, he waggishly confides, "I have not yet decided whether I am the fly and she the flypaper, or I the fly and she the ointment." He's also capable of going from the ironic to the lyrical, though it's sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. When Tynan tells one of his many Oxford girlfriends, "I feel a sort of divine compassion for the whole human race when I'm with you--because they aren't," he seems utterly sincere, but it's hard to avoid the note of taunting superiority. Nonetheless, this collection really comes into its own in Tynan's university years, for postwar Oxford "was fast, piratical and quite clever," and he was among the best and brightest. The mere thought of his being one of C.S. Lewis's students gives one pleasurable pause.
Tynan's early accomplishments are almost legendary, and this book will only fuel the flames. After he graduated, his success both in the theater (which he saw as central to public life) and journalism seems to have come easily, but these letters prove how tireless he was. They also are important as cultural and social history. Here are Tynan's earnest and acidulous takes on his famous debate with Truman Capote over the moral responsibility of the writer; the scandal that eventuated from his use of the word fuck live on the BBC; as well as his sincere defense of pornography and struggle against censorship. This last, unfortunately, led to his squandering his talents on the mass-market naughtiness of Oh! Calcutta. Writing to his wife Kathleen, Tynan claims, "I know that nobody ever changed history with a letter...." Many audacious examples in this collection prove him wrong. --Kerry Fried
From Library Journal
Tynan was educated at Oxford and went on to become an actor, writer, director, and the behind-the-scenes mastermind of Sir Laurence Olivier's National Theatre in England. He is perhaps best known on both sides of the Atlantic as a dynamic and merciless critic. The letters here collected by his wife, Kathleen, who died in 1995, include communiques to many of the literary, film, and theater giants of the century: Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Paul McCartney, J. Paul Getty, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, and Tennessee Williams, among many others. Copiously footnoted so that each letter is in context with previous letters and with replies, Mrs. Tynan (The Life of Kenneth Tynan, LJ 10/1/87) has also interspersed text explaining Tynan's personal life and the social and political events occurring at the time the letters were written. A fascinating memoir, recommended for public and academic libraries, especially those with strong film and theater collections.?Katherine K. Koenig, Ellis Sch., Pittsburgh
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