Keeping Ken Alive
I'm currently on vacation, which means that theoretically I have time to finish a book. Usually my excuse for not finishing a read has something to do with children, but this time it's entirely different. I'm four-fifths of the way through The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, and I just don't want to let the man die. I had the same problem with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but with that one I savored every page. Here, it's tougher. I know the ending. Tynan is ultimately drowned by emphysema made doubly deadly by an astounding self-destructive streak.
Early on in the diaries, at around 1973, when he is merely consumed by self-doubt, he does everything in his power not to fulfill his obligations for two book contracts (If someone would only offer me one!), while taking the time to record for posterity his homemade dirty couplets. An example:
As the moon wanes, the mighty Moose/Commits the act of self-abuse.
By the way, this last was written in response to his wife Kathleen's suggestion that they collaborate on a children's book. His talent for undermining himself becomes downright maudlin in the later years, as he willfully hurls himself onto a stone floor during a domestic argument--further damaging his lungs--and pulls off an oxygen mask to smoke in his hospital bed.
However, these pathetic bits are just bookends to a career that soared and dipped as vertiginously as Tynan's own attempts to balance his egotism and self-loathing. It's a really remarkable document of not just a man, but of a moment.
Imagine a time when theater criticism was sexy, smart, ferocious and scandalous. Tynan's boozy, pill-popping, louche, orgiastic orbit is dotted with a constellation of equally fascinating stars, made all the more so by the complexity of their relationships with him. Princess Margaret is a bland but consistent presence at his table. He's constantly sneaking swipes at Laurence Olivier. Warren Beatty (among others) couples with his wife. He basks in Brando's affections, then betrays him for a paycheck. Martin Landau somehow owes him thousands of pounds and refuses to pay up. Then there's all that surreptitious spanking. And, oh yeah, once in a while he attends the theater.
My God, an exciting evening for me is when there's sushi on opening night. And even then I sneak a piece and head directly home, no orgies, no scenes, no sunrise debates. So I'm planning to keep Mr. Tynan alive for just a little while longer, enjoying vicariously the glamour he brought to theater criticism, and the sheer thrill of living at a time when critics didn't just matter, they burned so brightly they occasionally incinerated everything around them. You can almost trace, in Tynan's precipitous downfall, the entire profession's nosedive.
So there the book sits, on page 353. I'm just not yet ready to let it--or him--go away.