It would take a stunningly inept biographer to render the life of Kenneth Tynan boring and interminable. Here, after all, is a wonder-boy-gone- wrong story with enough glamour, debauchery, and underdog pathos to write its own movie option. The illegitimate son of a politician, Tynan rocketed out of nowhere to become post-war Britain’s leading drama critic by age 27. His tenure at the London Observer was legendary, but not as legendary as his personal life, which in the years since his death in 1980 has spawned three scintillating tell-alls: memoirs by his ex-wife and widow, and most recently, his own diaries that chronicle the Caligula-style decadence of his final days. Dominic Shellard’s Kenneth Tynan: A Life features little of their salaciousness, focusing instead on the enfant terrible’s parabolic career. As a restorative endeavor, it liberates Tynan from decades of tabloid soot, but as a biography, it’s frustratingly disembodied,—so intent on canonization that it often ignores the mortal behind the myth.
Such reverence would surely have inspired the book’s own protagonist to heights of creative derision. Whatever wit shines through the hagiographic overcast comes from Tynan himself, whose reviews, essays, and letters Shellard quotes in abundance—a welcome inclusion, considering all six volumes of Tynan’s collected works are currently out of print. In spotlighting Tynan the critic-artist (versus Tynan the self-promoter, the misogynist, the star fucker), Shellard’s book has the epic scope of a Künstlerroman and the humorless analysis of a dissertation: Tynan’s championing of Brecht, his battles with government censorship, and above all, his weekly lob-volley skirmishes with fellow critics all testify to a warrior spirit in perpetual motion. It’s an ethos Tynan confirms in his 1954 “West End Apathy,” proclaiming, “As a critic, I’d rather be a war correspondent than necrologist.”
Shellard’s biggest misstep is in compartmentalizing a life notorious for its emotional spillover. As James Wolcott once argued, Tynan was “a man who so sexualized everything” that his writing became an extension of his kinky proclivities. Case in point: Tynan famously described Vivien Leigh as “spankable” and would single her out for such ferocious verbal abuse that his reviews often assumed the air of a flogging. Shellard dutifully avoids drawing such racy parallels, immersing us in bureaucratic minutiae as he prudishly sprints through Tynan’s gruesome decline (short-shrifting his swan song—a triumphant series of New Yorker profiles—in the process). Meticulously researched as it is, Kenneth Tynan: A Life too often feels like it’s missing precisely that—a life.