gall and gumption

Friday, June 01, 2007

Living It Up

I've interrupted my other reading (Ben Shahn, Robert Hughes) to burn through Kenneth Tynan's diaries one more time before I pass them on to one lucky friend. It is a volume to keep and a volume to share, and I've kept it for a year and now I'm getting ready to share. As I said, I'm passing it on to L., rapidly recovering from one spectacularly awful date, a whole lifetime of awful dates compressed into one afternoon.

Tynan was an extremely easy person to judge in a shallow and bitchy way:

He smoked constantly, basically he smoked himself to death at the age of 53
He was a self-described libertarian socialist
He hung out with celebrities
He liked travel, good food, sun, good wine, the pleasures of life
He liked making puns
He suffered from writer's block or maybe loathed working
He was an anal fetishist and passionately into spanking, and since his wife didn't like it his partner was a young actress who did like it.
He went from being "the poorest of the rich" to just being poor, i.e., failure.

Get over it.

He was (and this is a much rarer thing than you might realize) a real critic. A critic with a sensibility, a temperament, and an instinct for what worked in theater and film. Sure, authoritative judgment based on this subtlety of observation and ready wit. Not a dullard with a vocabulary who has gotten himself into the papers.

Strange to think he was contemporary of so many real critics -- Harold Rosenberg, Cyril Connolly, Marvin Mudrick, B.H. Haggin. I don't doubt that there is talent out there. What do I mean by "a real critic?"

1) A piece of their criticism is an event in itself, something you eagerly look forward to reading, as in, you buy the magazine because they've got a new piece out.
2) You trust their feeling for whatever art they are discussing; you trust that they love it.
3.) They whet your intellectual curiosity by a) calling your attention to things you didn't know about; or b) giving you a fresh, challenging look at something you do know, that makes you want to run off and read it again.
4) They can write; you can't be a critic if you can't write. If your writing stays within the confines of that sort of greasy, coarse, slightly bossy "I like a good time as much as the next fellow, but..." tone of voice, you should not be writing criticism. I dunno, consider becoming a parking enforcement officer.
5) You have to be able to come at a work of art from any number of possible angles, not because you have read up on all the critical schools (though you should be aware of them I suppose just to shut the academics up, but because your experience of a work is alive, and it reaches that creative place in your imagination through your skin, so to speak. That is, not just politics, not just psychology, but the temperament, the aliveness, of a hungry mind.
6) Authority; that is, integrated knowledge, the critic has a minute knowledge of the field that develops from a long personal relationship with the art.
7) Self-awareness and intellectual honesty.
8) A feeling of certainty and assurance about what makes value in the art and an attraction to it.
9) The net result for the reader who finishes a piece by a real critic is excitement: intellectual excitement, not admiration of the critic's erudition and decorum in the use of language; appetite for more art, not admiration at learning who the critic goes out drinking with; intellectual excitement, not the complacent feeling that there is nothing to learn because you and the reviewer have the same "opinions.
10) The critic cares more about the art she loves than she does about the opinions of people who aren't as mad for the art as she is, that is, people for whom the question of status is never far from the appeal of art.
11) If he rises to any stature at all, the revelation of a personal failing or the expression of an opinion that departs from what respectability can comfortably bear will cause large numbers of his admirers to betray him. "He really went too far when he said..."
12) Actual creative people, however, as opposed to the status-seekers, will stick by him, and will thenceforth be referred to as his "cult."

There's a good chance that a great critic thinks he or she is a failed or failing writer. Connolly, for example, who wrote two whole fascinating books anatomizing and examining his own perceived literary failure. Plus year after year of marvelous book reviews that make an education in the art of literature. In this respect a great critic (like Connolly) gives you the impression sometimes of being one of those guys who hang around even after the girlfriend has dumped them and moved on to a succession of new lovers. But he somehow makes himself indispensable, that's all he can do with his love. Like Turgenev and Pauline Viardot. Disappointed in love such a critic may be, but never jaded. As Connolly makes his weary way, for years, through mountains of mediocre fiction, he's more compelling than the books he's reading if only for his unshakable belief in better: it's The Shadow Of Her Smile. A writer like this cannot corrupt your taste, by misleading you about the nature of literary value. It's too important to him, and that's one of the reasons why he thinks he's a failure.

This is what happens with Tynan also. In material and career terms, the journals open at the peak of a career that must have made him feel that he could do anything: most feared theater critic in London, co-producer of a (for its time) daring revue that was the longest-running play in the West End (it seemed that from my teens into my mid-twenties, Oh! Calcutta was just always on, every time I went to London). Able to look back at the successful establishment of a National Theater with pride in his own substantial role in it, rich, married to a stunningly beautiful, smart, and loyal woman whom he adored, and personally acquainted with every single famous writer and playwright and theater person in London, particular friend of more than one variety of royalty.

He leaves the National Theater, pushed out, more or less, in the sort of management coup that happens in all creative organizations as soon as they establish themselves: Sir Lawrence Olivier ("Larry"), ready to retire from the job of director, goes behind the back of everybody to recruit this awful, money-grubbing, plausible bureaucrat to replace him, and suddenly all the people who helped build the thing and give it its character find that they have no voice in anything any more and that the "democratic" principles on which it previously operated are now a charade for the purposes of marketing. (Unable to distinguish between creative risk-taking and bad judgment, these Mole People quickly secure any organization they seize against all dangerous creative activity, and let their own dreadful creative judgment have the run of the place. When their productions fail, it can't have been their fault because, you see, they took no risks! So the cause of the failure must lie elsewhere. And they go and ask the marketing people to solve it for them.)

Well, OK, so great things must follow, for Tynan, who is charming, funny, brilliant, and connected. He tries to raise financing for a film, and that fails -- slowly, over years. He has a contract for a book on Wilhelm Reich, but doesn't finish it. He no longer has a defined role, he doesn't know, in artistic terms, what he is. He's in an existential despair that he's too smart to get out of. The guy who manages his finances in Switzerland loses lots of his money. He sinks into depression, exacerbated by the steady advance of the emphysema, and his marvellous powers of observation and language are turned to, among other things, harrowing descriptions of whole nights of being racked by painful coughing, as he slowly and noisily drowns in his own mucus.

The critic's job is to make art more interesting, and by that means, indirectly to make life more interesting. Because in so far as he helps the public to see life through art, that is what he accomplishes, and then you have, potentially, at least, the stimulus for the production of more art. So there's a role there. But Tynan had grown out of that role into that of actually making things happen--producing shows, establishing a great national institution. He had power, but his situation wasn't secure, and inwardly he had the natural diffidence of a man who knows himself all too well. And how is a man who is born with this huge, rare, and specialized talent for making life interesting for other people -- the way jockeys are born with a talent for riding racehorses -- how was he to find a place for himself when he had it to do all over again in his mid forties? In our system of human classifications in the late 20th century, we seem to have made no provision for the existence of people like Tynan. He doesn't fit in any of our categories of existing things. (Friends came to their aid, and they had lots of rich friends. When they moved to Hollywood where his wife got work writing screenplays, they played the industry game and got an incalculable boost when, broke as they were (but bravely keeping up appearances) they held a party with Princess Margaret as the guest of honor. Of course the Great of Hollywood were falling over themselves to mingle with the majesty mojo. I know that it was fashionable to dislike Princess Margaret, but I do admire her for this. I mean, she just did this for them. It was a matey thing to do.)

And the only reason why people would do these things, given that he was, lacking power and a role, a "useless" person, was that he was a good person. And he was. He was a socialist with a totally uncomplicated attitude to pleasure: pleasure was good, it was the bounty of life, the point of all work. He was acutely sensitive to other people's claims for justice and consideration, and the diaries recount so many instances when he has failed in some small way and he doesn't spare himself. Early on, he talks about a quality that I have never really seen anyone talk about elsewhere, that I can recall, anyhow: he calls it the ability to "impose oneself."

Talent apart, what enables one to exercise talent is the ability to impose oneself (s'imposer). Roman [Polanski], Larry [Olivier], Welles, Brando, [Harold] Pinter can s'imposer. Definition of an imposer: one about whom one worries whether his response to one's next remark will be a smile or a snarl. With imposers there is always danger, even if one isn't employed by them (e.g. Hemingway).

I think he rather envied this quality and wanted to make his own use of it.

The millionaire hero of Terry Southern's The Magic Christian says that his life's ambition is to 'make things hot for people.' For my part, I enjoy testing people -- exposing them to ideas and/or experiences that will for them reassess the values by which they live, either politically, theatrically, or sexually. Hence, Oh! Calcutta! and Soldiers; hence my penchant for disrupting suave dinner parties.

The result might be something like this.

About a year ago, arriving at my office at the National Theatre, I pulled a book out of my coat pocket and there came out with it a pair of Kathleen's knickers. They fell on the floor under the eyes of Rozina [Tynan's secretary at the National Theatre]. Out of mischief and a desire to test the speed and durability of gossip, I decided to invent a story about how the knickers came to be there. (The truth was that to enliven a dull taxi ride I had asked K. to remove them to pay a forfeit. I'd then forgotten they were in my pocket.) So I told Rozina - which was true - that the previous night I'd been at a party to celebrate the wedding anniverary of Princess Margaret and Tony, given by the Rupert Nevilles. The Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mum were also there. Showbiz was represeented by Britt Ekland, John Dankworth, Cleo Laine and me.

Then began the lie. I said I'd noticed the Queen Mother drink half-pints of a clear liquid from a tankard. 'Gin of course,' I remarked to Britt. 'Surely not,' she replied. 'It must be water.' 'I'll bet you,' I said, 'your knickers to a pair of first-night seats for Oh! Calcutta! that it's gin. 'You're on,' she said. So I called over a liveried waiter, tipped him 10 shillings and asked the question. 'Gordon's gin, sir,' he said. Whereon Britt retired to the loo and returned to hand me her knickers. Three days later I was accosted by a gossip columnist at a club. 'Is it true about you and Britt Ekland's panties?' he asked. 'You'd better ask her,' I said. Next day the whole story appeared under his name in the Daily Mirror. And when, later in the year, Britt sold her own life story to the People, she devoted almosta whole issue to perpetrating my myth.

Or an evening's entertainment with some friends (special guest again the tirelessly loyal Princess) in which they set up a makeshift screen and showed outtakes from pornographic movies, the stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor. Night of wild hilarity. To impose himself would mean having just this effect on situations, liberating people into a greater capacity and range of enjoyment. Because that is a good in itself, for everybody.

Racked with coughing, bedevilled by money worries and, depressed, feeling guilty on his wife's behalf, he slips off to his spanking sessions with his partner Nicole, and records these, in loving and affectionate and graphic detail, with simple gratitude, writing to make the pleasure of it all last longer.

He dies at the end, but he really lives, he feels it all, or as much of it as anybody should have to stand, right up to the last.


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