Picks and Pans Review: The Life of Kenneth Tynan

updated 02/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/29/1988 01:00AM

by Kathleen Tynan

"Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds," read the exhortations that hung over Kenneth Peacock Tynan's desk. As his widow makes clear in this splendid, even-handed biography, Tynan turned those words to live by into his mantra. Indeed the man who was considered by many the finest drama critic since George Bernard Shaw and Max Beerbohm was a force majeure in shaping Britain's National Theater. Not incidentally he devised the purportedly erotic stage revue Oh! Calcutta! and was the first to say the f word on television. Tynan, the illegitimate child of a wealthy businessman, was born in Birmingham, England, an industrial powerhouse. "The ugliest city in Europe, that cemetery without walls," was how native son Ken described it. Shocking even as an adolescent, Ken sang the joys of masturbation in a school debate against the proposition that This House Thinks the Present Generation Has Lost the Ability to Entertain Itself. His manner of dress was almost as shocking as his manner of speech. His pre-Oxford University wardrobe included a black-and-white-check lady's raincoat, a pair of plus fours and a pink satin tie. At Oxford, Tynan, resplendent in his purple doeskin suit or the bottle-green outfit, gold velvet ties and green suede shoes, became a lady-killer par excellence, drama critic of the university literary magazine, an actor and director in the drama society and a mainstay of the debating society. "Ken pulled himself out of a hat, and he did it all before the age of 18," notes Mrs. Tynan, who effectively chronicles her husband's triumphs. After a brief unsuccessful stint as a director, Tynan moved to the other side of the footlights, first as the coruscatingly witty theater critic of the London Standard, then of the Observer. In the U.S. he became a sometime drama critic for the New Yorker and contributor of memorable profiles to that magazine. Mrs. Tynan delves too into her late husband's wretched excesses—a verbally violent relationship with his first wife, flagrant infidelities, ungovernable narcissism, social snobbery, temper tantrums, paranoia. It's a tough role Mrs. Tynan chose for herself, serving as the chief witness and memoirist of a life so untidily led and one in which she was a major participant. But both rancor and blind loyalty are kept to a pardonable minimum in the book. The full measure of the author's achievement is that she makes one want to read more. Not necessarily more about Ken Tynan but more, anything, everything by him. (Morrow, $22.95)

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