Fizzing and kicking

<strong>Theatre Writings</strong>

Kenneth Tynan <em>Nick Hern Books, 278pp, £20</em>

ISBN 185459

Pinned to the wall above Kenneth Tynan's desk was the following mantra: "Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds." Between 1954 and 1963, as the Observer's scourge-like theatre critic, that's exactly what he did. His weekly storm-blast of a column lashed insipid postwar British theatre into shape and became required reading for intelligent, irreverent young things on the make.

Since his early death from emphysema in 1980, though, Tynan's corpus of glittering criticism has remained glaringly out of print. There have been a couple of biographies (one by his second wife, Kathleen), a volume of letters and the naughty, now infamous diaries, in which Tynan revealed a penchant for spanking prostitutes. But the words that made his reputation have survived only in archived yellowing news print and scarce, moth-eaten editions.

That is, until now. The specialist theatre publisher Nick Hern Books has packaged together more than 100 of the critic-maestro's reviews, selected by Tynan's second biographer, Dominic Shellard, and with a deft foreword by Tom Stoppard. At the same time, it is re-releasing Profiles, 50 of his pungent showbiz pen-portraits, many of which were written for the New Yorker.

The reviews have presumably languished out of the limelight because it is assumed that there is no audience for burnished paragraphs recording opening nights from the 1950s - even if those nights included premières for now canonical heavyweights such as Waiting for Godot and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. There is common-sense logic to this view. Everyone knows that journalism is the flimsiest of ephemera. Tynan himself was well aware of the brevity of theatre's shelf life, too. As he wrote at the start of a hatchet job of Vivien Leigh in 1951, "Who now remembers Rose Elphinstoune, of whom it was said in 1865: 'Nothing can ever have moved the passions more than her Belvidera in Venice Preserv'd?'"

Yet such are Tynan's powers that the usual rules do not apply. Theatre Writings is an infal lible chronicle of a crucial phase in the history of this country's drama, when all sorts of elemental talents (many of them now household names) were swishing around the alembic of our theatres. It is also a bible of prose style, a storehouse of iridescent aphorisms and aperçus, and a hoard of sneering, snarling put-downs that will make lesser talents - ie, almost everybody - green with envy.

What makes Tynan so good? His flair for preserving the present was second to none. In Stoppard's words: "You can open this book on almost any page and come across a phrase or a vignette which is the next best thing to having been there." Listen, for instance, to Tynan on Ralph Richardson suffering Falstaff's rejection at the end of Henry IV, Part II: "The old man turned, his face red and working in furious tics to hide his tears. The immense pathos of his reassuring words to Shallow even now wets my eyes: 'I shall be sent for soon at night'." This comes from He That Plays the King, Tynan's precocious treatise on theatre criticism published - with a foreword by Orson Welles - in 1950, when he was 23. In the epilogue, he wrote rather grandly: "I mummify transience." That may make you cringe, but you must concede he had a point.

Then there is the fizz and kick of his language. Tynan was a meticulous miniaturist, a Nicholas Hilliard of the written word. Beneath the sheen and flash, though, his whip-cracking words could be brutal. His lip curled at the "pert, sly and spankable" Vivien Leigh (Laurence Olivier later said that Tynan saw his wife as "an interloper between myself and my fucking genius"), and watching him verbally spank her in review after review offers a guilty pleasure. Her Lady Macbeth is "more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda"; as Cleopatra, "she picks at the part with the daintiness of a debutante called up to dismember a stag", presenting "a glibly mown lawn where her author had imagined a jungle".

His line of attack is revealing. He skewered Leigh for being genteel, treating her prim concern for "niminy-piminy" propriety with the same contempt he felt for his humdrum Midlands background. Likewise, he poured boiling scorn over what he satirically christened the generic "Loamshire" play. This was typically a vacuous country-house drama full of exclamations like "Oh, stuff, Mummy!" and other stultifying politesse - a "glibly codified fairy-tale world" that bore no relation to reality but went down a treat with the Lord Chamberlain, who retained powers of censorship.

Tynan pined for meatier, blood-dripping fare, a "pink-eyed, many-muscled, salivating monster" of a masterpiece that would crunch up deadening refinement before spitting it out. He famously found one at the première of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1956, praising its hero Jimmy Porter for deploring the tyranny of "good taste".

Two months before his death, Tynan received a letter from Harold Hobson, his former mentor and critical rival on the Sunday Times. Hobson referred to their duelling as part of "some legendary Homeric past". Flicking through this col lection today, it seems as though giants, not mortals, stalked the theatreland that they reported (Richardson, Gielgud, Olivier, Burton). Of course, it's easy to mourn the passing of a non-existent golden age. But in Tynan's case, it's hard to resist the myth.

Alastair Sooke writes for the Daily Telegraph