Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Log 309 : Sitting again at the feet of Kenneth Tynan, the greatest drama critic since Bernard Shaw, and a model for any writer to follow

English: Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard...English: Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw writing in notebook at time of first production of his play "Pygmalion." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Norman MailerCover of Norman Mailer My friend I am staying with in Dubrovnik has an immense library about (mostly) English things. I mentioned the deceased British critic Kenneth Tynan the other day and she came up with three books by him, which have reminded me of the 11 years I lived in England.

I first read Tynan in the early 1950s when he was drama critic for The Evening Standard, a somewhat meretricious evening paper owned by Beaverbrook.

His criticisms of theatre struck me as rather immature. He was a young man desperately trying to draw attention to himself by making excessive criticisms of iconic figures in the British theatre. Obviously, he could write exceptionally well, but I didn’t exactly warm to his evident ambition.

When I returned to England for The Montreal Star in 1960, I believe he had succeeded in drawing attention to his gifts so thoroughly that he was installed as drama critic of The Observer, that excellent, serious Sunday weekly (which still exists, although now in some sort of marriage with The Guardian, once known as The Manchester Guardian, and today I would think without doubt the outstanding British daily newspaper).

By this time Tynan was able to relax, and reading his criticisms of theatre became a weekly delight. A superb writer, insightful and challenging, he stood for the same sort of values as I felt I did, at least politically, if not personally. The only critic I could compare him to was the great George Bernard Shaw, whose pieces one read simply for the quality of their writing. I was pleased to note in a Guardian obituary of Tynan, who died at the age of 53 in 1980, that Nicholas de Jongh mentioned this comparison with Shaw when he wrote: “He (Tynan) helped in the course of a decade to change the shape and purpose of the modern English-speaking theatre. In the process he became the most influential theatre critic and also the wittiest since Bernard Shaw had acted as Ibsen’s advocate and imposed his own brand of imaginative ridicule upon the trivia of the 1890s.”

I have been reading a collection of Tynan’s pieces in a book called The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, and I was particularly struck by a passage in a long interview he gave to a reporter for Esquire magazine that was never published (probably because so much of it dealt with Tynan’s advanced views on sex and erotica) in which he espoused the value of reporting and other non-fictioinal writing. He estimated that about 30 per cent of fiction writers were following their true m├ętier, but that the rest would have been better off writing non-fiction. As an example he mentioned Norman Mailer, a great reporter, and a second-rate novelist, who, he said, would have been better to have stuck to what he was really good at.

I have thought a lot about this subject, because from the time I first got interested in writing I was convinced that the only writing worth doing was what is usually called “creative writing”, otherwise, fiction, and I have always aspired to produce a worthwhile work of fiction, and considered that my failure to do so is proof that I have never been better than a second-rate writer. I have always harboured a suspicion that this prejudice of mine could be wrong: after all, I have always believed Bertrand Russell is a model writer for all writers, a master of clarity and precision who could explain the most difficult subject so clearly that almost anyone could understand what he was saying.

Here is a typical piece of Tynan, himself an eloquent and clear writer almost beyond compare:

“One must ask oneself constantly about the relevance to life of so many things which we formally describe as art. Let me put it this way: people who are able to share one another’s minds and bodies, people who are able to fulfil themselves adequately by their relationships with others, these healthy people spend much of their thinking, or reading or watching time in venerating the visions and moral insights of neurotic people who are frequently unable to live a shared and fulfilled life themselves, and these latter are known as artists and politicians…. Much of art consists merely of messages transmitted from the lonely to the lonely. There is too much veneration accorded to the imaginative visions of failed human beings. Total happiness, as Cyril Connolly said, is the enemy of art. Forced to choose between the two, I would recommend happiness.”

I can’t help but agree with that, and I agree even more with his next paragraph:

“When one listens to extremely nice, happy, fulfilled, rational humane people desperately trying to accommodate themselves to admiring some perfectly hysterical and ludicrous daub passing as a work of art, one wants to shout STOP! One seems more and more of this, of happy people growing miserable through trying to enrich their already satisfactory lives by struggling to appreciate some vapid trash which they’ve been persuaded they must understand in order to improve themselves.”

Amen to that, brother, as the religious guys might say. It is a perfect example of what I mean when I say that one reads critics not for their opinions on this or that play or film, but for the quality with which they write and the unusual insights they offer.
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  1. Thanks a lot, Macadavy. I spilled some wine on my keyboard and am making do with an alternative Croatian keyboard that enables me to struggle by until I can get home in September and buy a new laptop.