Kenneth Tynan: a riposte to Equity

The critic would not have listened to the edict to consider his own privilege before criticising others


This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Equity UK, the actors’ union, is now handing out advice to theatre critics, and it is advice backed up by considerable menace. 

In a list of “guidelines” issued last month “to ensure the work of theatre critics is of the highest quality”, Equity follows a formula we’re now used to from elsewhere. Having assured critics that they’re “free to express themselves openly and honestly without fear or favour”, it then goes on to bind them with the chains and padlocks of numerous caveats.

Reviews must be written, the edict goes on, “with sensitivity, empathy and understanding”. Critics must “acknowledge their cultural power and use it responsibly”. They should “define people as they would define themselves”, “use current and inclusive language” and “consider their own potential for bias and/or relative privilege when evaluating a production”. These new guidelines presumably come in the wake of reviews like Quentin Letts’s of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich at the RSC in 2018. In it, Letts argued that Leo Wringer, an actor of colour, had failed to convince as a country squire and complained about the RSC’s “clunking approach to politically correct casting”. 

A critic’s first responsibility is to audiences deciding where to spend their money, not to the sensitivities of a play’s practitioners

Immediately came a Twitter/press furore, Letts being castigated as “blatantly racist”. Yet some might have felt — did feel, in fact — that when theatre meets the affirmative action of quota-casting, critics have not only a right but a sacred duty at times to call out the choices sometimes made. Even the subsidised tickets at the RSC will pay for several cinema visits, quite apart from the train fare to Stratford-upon-Avon. A critic’s first responsibility is arguably to audiences deciding where to spend their money, not to the sensitivities of a play’s practitioners.

However, Equity is on the warpath now, emboldened by recent events. When “making amends” to actors of colour whose casting critics have been so insolent as to question, they must “apologise for getting it wrong and be willing to learn from their experiences”. To “play a more active role in combating racism,” they can “volunteer to mentor a person of colour who is interested in writing criticism”. 

Quentin Letts

They should offer “plus-one tickets” to people of colour, and “introduce critics of colour to commissioning editors”. The bullet-points conclude — as so many official communications do these days — with a list of recommended books to help said critics educate themselves about race, Ibrahim X. Kendi (author of How To Be an Antiracist) and Renni Eddo-Lodge (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) among them.

At this point one seems to hear gleeful, maniacal laughter emanating from Equity’s offices on St. Martin’s Lane, at the sheer presumptuousness of the challenge laid down and its potential to enrage. But the message to reviewers is clear: you are being watched, the power is with us, and this is a game you cannot win. From now on you’ll dance to our tune. 

One wonders what the late great critic Kenneth Tynan might have made of it all. Tynan, The Observer’s star reviewer in the 1950s and 60s, would surely have been torn. The Marxist in him — for so he declared himself — might perhaps have relished the onward march of social progress. The writer would have considered it a declaration of war. 

Does anyone starting out in theatre read Tynan anymore? For my generation, coming of age in the 1990s ten years after his death, Tynan was still the Alpha and Omega of theatre-writing. He was the writer who could explain this new continent of drama to us, tell us the major landmarks, give us the names of the tribal elders and account for their social standing. He showed us the form, outlined the social customs and taught us how to give the profession all the love and reverence it deserved.

Nobody could be less palatable to modern tastes. Avowed sexual sadist, bullfighting aficionado, polygamist, chauvinist-feminist, dandy, a Soviet fellow-traveller quaffing Krug, Tynan wouldn’t last a second in 2021 without heavily censoring himself — and a Tynan quivering in self-censored shame wouldn’t be Tynan. A many-coloured creature of the Sixties, he didn’t so much let it all hang out as thrust it in your face from an open window. That posthumously his peccadilloes more intrigued than shocked my peers is perhaps what marks us out from today’s generation. To be judgmental in the 1990s was to exclude yourself from belonging. It was social death. 

As for criticism, Tynan had his own developed views of what it was, and it had little to do with Equity directives. A critic he said, was “a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car”. Good criticism was “a self-knowing account of the way in which one’s consciousness had been modified during an evening at the theatre”. It was the “sheer complexity” of playwriting which had always fascinated him: “In an effort to understand it, I became a critic.” The rest of us may feel this about Tynan: that no writer better described what it felt like to be sitting in front of a particular play on a particular night. 

Monstrous or not, this is what the best critics can do: preserve what’s essentially transient

In the headlong pursuit of fidelity to events, he could be unremittingly cruel (not least to Vivien Leigh, to whom Tynan’s relentless and often savage critiques caused endless, unconscionable distress). Yet anyone who reads his description of Ralph Richardson’s disastrous 1952 Macbeth gets a vivid idea of why it was disastrous. When he describes Richardson’s Macbeth “stumping across the broad stage as if in need of a compass to find the exit” or of possessing an “unfocussed bluffness, like a teddy-bear snapped in a bad light by a child holding its first camera”, you know, 70 years on, exactly what it looked and felt like. 

Monstrous or not, this is what the best critics can do: preserve what’s essentially transient. Those who despise Tynan’s worst barbs might well read his diaries. The critic’s real brutality, they will find, is reserved for himself.

Luckily his enthusiasm was just as potent. Writing of Sir Ralph’s voice in Cyrano de Bergerac. he described it as “most delicate; breath-light of texture … a yeasty, agile voice. Where Olivier would pounce upon a line and rip its heart out, Richardson skips and lilts and bounces along it, shaving off pathos in great flakes.” Olivier as Justice Shallow in Henry IV, “pecks at the lines, nibbles at them like a parrot biting on a nut”. Of Edith Evans, Tynan wrote that her acting was “a succession of tremendous waves, with caps of pure fun bursting above them.”

If Tynan often seemed like a literary devil, regarded by the profession with dread and even loathing, he had a lot more angels at his command. He wrote without fear and made writing — the antisocial business of locking yourself in a room and agonising over what you felt and how best to express it — look sexy and natural, the best possible path to fulfilment. 

The whole atmosphere he gave off — of scurrilous gossip, long lunches, afternoon affairs, Dunhill Smoke and Gin-and-Ginger Marxism — was, to those of us born in the 1960s and 70s, a clarion call to the guilty treasures of adult life, its hidden, illicit perfumes. Very much yesterday’s man, he would, in the kingdom of Equity’s kitsch (to paraphrase Kundera) nowadays be a monster. But a sacred monster at that and, like all sacred monsters, worth treating with a certain amount of awe. 

“Write heresy, pure heresy” was Tynan’s motto, and he would have raised two nicotine-stained fingers at the current Equity thugs. It’s to be hoped modern critics — backed by robust editors — do the same. There are a host of online sources now, and anyone finding a reviewer not to their taste can easily look for one who is. 

There are different ways of handling criticism too, other than sending for Big Brother and dog-whistling for the Twitter mob. In 1959, having savaged Noel Coward’s Look After Lulu in a review the night before, Tynan was alarmed to find the two of them eating in the same restaurant. Worse still, Coward was making his way over to Tynan’s table with an inscrutable look on his face. Tynan primed himself for the inevitable — a tongue lashing? A slapped face?.

Coward, eyebrows arching, finally spoke to him. ‘”Mr. T,” he said. “You are a cunt. Come and have dinner with me.”

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover