Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last
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The Independent Culture
When Kenneth Tynan was reviewing plays in the 1960s, the theatre was (as we say now) sexy, and so was theatre criticism. It was the heyday of Osborne and Pinter, Arden and Bond, Shelagh Delaney and Joan Littlewood, the Theatre of Cruelty and the Theatre of the Absurd. Creative batteries were being recharged. The French window, that emblematic prop of the West End stage, had itself been upstaged by the kitchen sink and cast into the brimming dustbins of theatrical history. Ambitious, hungry-eyed lion cubs, just down from Oxbridge, could imagine no more glittering prize than to be offered the post of theatre reviewer on a national newspaper. And their model and idol was Tynan, the last of the journalistic dandies and the first person to use the f-word on television.

How long ago it seems - theatre was invested with the glamour that has now become the exclusive preserve of film. With a verbal panache only he possessed, Tynan could evoke a production, a performance, a gesture, an arch of a painted eyebrow, a fresh delivery of a familiar line, so vividly you felt you'd been there. Yet, earlier, there had been critics just as prestigious - James Agate, for example - whose writings have proved as transient as the plays, productions and performers about which they wrote. Even Beerbohm, even Shaw, are no longer read for their drama criticism, for there's something disheartening about brio expended on ephemera.

In fact, the sole critical writings on the modern theatre which have survived - Brecht's or Jan Kott's - are those founded on a coherent theory instead of on one individual's impressions. Their analyses expose the internal mechanisms of whatever work is under examination, so much so that they often bear as little resemblance to a spectator's own experience as a technical description of how, say, a CD player works resembles the experience of listening to a record of Bernstein conducting Mahler's Fifth.

Tynan, waywardly brilliant as he was, remained an impressionistic rather than an analytic reviewer, whose attitude could be summed up as as follows: "Here is a play and this is what I, Kenneth Tynan, think of it." By contrast, the motto of a true critic, one whose concern is to oblige us to rethink the medium as a whole, might be: "Here is an idea about the theatre and this is a play which illuminates it."