Eyewitness for Posterity
According to Kenneth Tynan, the English dramatic critic who spent last weekend as a visiting lion at Winthrop House, a critic's specific opinions are less important than the attitudes that underlie them. In Tynan's case, private conversation reinforces the impression given by his articles in the New Yorker, where he is guest critic, that his basic attitude toward the theatre is a deeply serious one. In a profession populated largely by somnambulistic hacks, his Shavian emphasis on the relation of drama to life is rare and valuable. But his seriousness never declines into solemnity; his awareness of the social significance of the stage is leavened by wit (he is a punster as well as a pundit), and by an understanding that dramatic criticism, is not merely a department of literary criticism, but something unique: an attempt "to give a permanent form to something impermanent. That," he says, "was certainly the impulse that pushed me into dramatic criticism--the impulse to be an eyewitness for posterity...the analytic thing comes afterward."
Tynan began writing criticism twelve years after his birth in 1927. As a scholarship student at Oxford he criticized and directed plays, edited a literary magazine, and served as secretary of the Oxford Union, "a sort of large-scale debating society." He had gone up to Oxford at the age of eighteen, at the close of World War II, a period when the University was largely dominated by returning veterans, many of them years older than he. "One had to in a sense work harder, because of the generation gap... And that I think was invaluable. One couldn't just get off a few flip epigrams and hope to make a reputation for oneself--one had to do some hard thinking.
After Oxford came several years of writing and directing, including "six months as director of a weekly repertory in a town in Staffordshire in the Midlands. I did twenty-four plays in twenty-four weeks, including O'Neill and Shakespeare." (Imagine a repertory company doing a play a week, including O'Neill and Shakespeare, in, say, a middle-sized city in Pennsylvania. Even a city the size of Boston seems hardly willing to bestir itself to support a repertory theatre.) He That Plays the King, his book on the drama, came out in 1951; it includes material written at Oxford and while directing in Staffordshire.
At the age of twenty-seven, Tynan became dramatic critic for The Observer of London, in which capacity he speedily made an impressive international reputation, and last fall he came to America (which he had visited every year since 1952) to write for the New Yorker. And so to Master Owen's living room at Winthrop House, where he appeared last Sunday in a maroon suit and loose knotted tie: a tall young man in his early thirties, with a battery of firmly held, well-expounded, and well-supported opinions.
As an informed Englishman, Tynan can see the American stage more steadily and wholly than nearly any American. "Due to the nature of Broadway--the blockbuster mystique, you know, it's got to be big and bangy," he detects "a tendency to look for the Great American Play all the time ... I think there's a danger that the more temperate drama might be washed out of sight in favor of a play like Niagara, that indunates you... I think the chief danger is the acceptance of excitement for excitement's sake..."
He instances J.B. by Archibald MacLeish and Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams, "in both of which a great many drums are beaten, but you're not sure what the drums are summoning you for... If the play has a big enough theme, and is well enough directed--excitingly enough directed--I think there is a tendency to equate that with a masterpiece.
"There is only one trend in the American theatre, and that trend is Eli Kazan.... I certainly don't know anyone whom actors venerate so much. But he seems to prefer plays concerned with extremes of pain, extremes of guilt, extremes of hysteria. Now there are a lot of awfully good plays on that subject"; here he instances Oedipus Rex. But "Oedipus expiates for the sake of his entirectiy," while the heroes of J.B. and Sweet Bird of Youth (the two plays most recently directed by Kazan) are concerned in their expiation only with themselves. "Somehow the connection between strong emotion and human responsibility seems to have been cut off in his mind--and other people's.
"There's no reason why realism shouldn't be poetic in its effect... But now that Kazan is beginning to impose on realistic plays like Sweet Bird and Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof] an operatic style, I think it's dangerous and forced." The mainstream of American drama ("I hate to use phrases like 'mainstream,'" says Tynan) has to do with "observable reality. I think--let's be frank--that Kazan has moved too far away from that without the moral or social realities that are necessary to sustain it. Even in a play like Our Town ... the performances are realistic, and the dialogue is, and that is its strength, not its staging tricks. Splendid as they are, it's as good a play without them. I don't think the conscious use of symbols comes naturally out of American literature. When Tennessee Williams tries to use them in Camino Real, the result is an impressive and exciting chaos, but a chaos.
On the other hand, "there's no doubt that on the whole American actors and directors take their job much more seriously and devoutly than English ones do... I admire this unreservedly.... The result when it's seen onstage is nearly always exciting, but you often get the feeling that the whole thing has been cooked up in a hermetically sealed oven. But that is the defect of a great virtue, which is work, work, work."
As to the English stage, "The only thing that can be said for our movement in England is that it's not a one-man band." Only John Osborne, Tynan thinks, can rank with Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. The centers of the English movement are the Royal Court Theatre near the West End, where Osborne was discovered, and the Theatre Workshop in East London, which produced Brendan Behan. "And the great thing about it," he says, "is that it is being supported by young people." The plays of this new group are being largely written, directed, and watched by people under thirty, while "the kind of people who go for the Kazan-Williams-MacLeish group tend to be middle-aged."
When asked about verse drama, Tynan replied with a vigorous defense of prose. He recalled a remark of his that T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, the leaders of the back-to-verse movement, reminded him of "two very energetic swimming instructors giving lessons in an empty pool.... I think, when the whole zeitgeist is toward prose, when prose has so recently been made respectable (nobody dreamed of writing a serious play in prose before 1870), when we're learning so rapidly about the possibilities of prose ... I just cannot go along with people, like Eliot, who say that there are realms of human experience not accessible to prose. I'd like to know what they are."
In the course of an hour between lunch at the Riesmans' and punch with the populace in the Winthrop House Senior Common Room, Tynan ranged, on request, all over the theatrical map. Discussing playwrights unjustly neglected on the commercial stage, he nominated Brecht first of all, added Ibsen, Pirandello and Wedekind, and commented that "Giraudoux has been not neglected, but so often misinterpreted that it's worse than neglect." Jean Genet to Tynan is "a natural, who shouldn't be imitated... He's a bad model but an interesting artist"; Eugene Ionesco is "bright as a button, but he's not a messiah of the drama."
Getting up to go to the reception in his honor (the main duty of a visiting lion is to be thrown to the people), Tynan turned and said by way of valediction: "If you write anything about me do say that all these remarks are based on the assumption that there will be any theatre or any anything a couple of years from now." If offered the choice, he said, he would prefer to see the destruction of every work of art in the world rather than a "preventative" war with Russia. "I don't think any of the arts are more important than ... the question of survival."