When Kenneth met Lulu
He was the greatest theatre critic in the world, she was a silent movie star by then old and penniless. But Kenneth Tynan and Louise Brooks fell in love. Now the story of their doomed romance - told, amazingly, by Tynan's wife - is to be filmed. Jonathan Jones on an unlikely affair.
Martin Scorsese is best known for his films about the violently deranged and delusional, about boxing, vigilantism and the Mafia. Now he is set to tackle a story about a British theatre critic. The New York director has bought the rights to a screenplay about Kenneth Tynan, the legendary journalist, who exerted a huge influence on British theatrical culture. The script was written by his widow, the screenwriter Kathleen Tynan, who died in 1995. Under a thin fictional veil, it describes the dying critic's last love affair with one of the icons of cinema, while still married to Kathleen. Their son Matthew will co-produce the film as a memorial to both his parents.
Tynan was in his early fifties and dying of emphysema, an exile in Los Angeles, when - as he recounts in his 1979 New Yorker article The Girl In The Black Helmet - he saw one of his favourite films on day- time television. Pabst's 1925 (sic) silent classic Pandora's Box stars the raven-haired Louise Brooks, who Tynan described as "the only star actress I can imagine either being enslaved by or wanting to enslave".
Aroused by the film, he set out to find her. He recounts, in the article how he met his idol, a recluse in her seventies, in a tiny apartment in Rochester, New York. They drank, smoked and talked, and she declared she was in love with him. In the New Yorker article, Tynan leaves this declaration hanging in midair. The screenplay goes further. It depicts, says Matthew Tynan, a full-blown love affair. "I've listened to the original interview tapes," he says, and his father's account "excluded just about everything that happened between them". The film will tell the full story in all its perverse romance.
Kenneth Tynan, who died in 1980, is one of the most significant figures in postwar British culture, but his legacy is hopelessly entangled. He inspired a theatrical generation with the idea of politically engaged drama. He is also remembered as the man who said "fuck" for the first time on British TV, and for devising the erotic review Oh! Calcutta!.
Tynan was a walking contradiction, famous for advocating a theatre of social realism and even more famous for his star-studded parties. One moment he was praising Shelagh Delaney, the next, exchanging aphorisms with Noel Coward at the Cafe Royal. He made himself the voice of an emerging sixties generation, even though his sensibility was shaped in the late forties. He wanted theatre to be as exciting as cinema, as universal as pop music; he wanted Britain to be both itself and a new America. His best criticism encompassed these tensions in a vision of theatre as part of modern culture.
This was a delicate balancing act and in the end it collapsed under the weight of his enthusiasms. Tynan was driven to increasingly bizarre extremes in his pursuit of a theatre of desire. This is what makes his encounter with Louise Brooks more than an odd episode at the end of a brilliant life. Tynan's meeting with the woman he called his "dark lady" was the culmination of a systematic pursuit of erotic fantasy. Several years before he met Brooks, the critic impersonated her in a black wig and stockings at a party.
Tynan found it impossible to sublimate his sexuality into theatre criticism. He became fascinated by explicitly sexual theatre; not just the would-be high-brow erotica of Oh! Calcutta!, with its sketches by Samuel Beckett and John Lennon, but the sado-masochist role play he explored with his mistress Nicole in a semi-public way while Kathleen Tynan and their friends shuddered with embarrassment. "It was compulsive and obsessive and he was a brave man in that he wanted to con-front it," the playwright and Tynan associate Trevor Griffiths told me.
It is often said that Tynan's tragedy lay in his desire to make theatre rather than write about it, which drove him to give up being a full-time critic to become the liter-ary manager at the National Theatre under Olivier. "He wanted to be on the inside pissing out", says his friend Tony Garnett, the radical producer who collaborated with Ken Loach and is responsible for BBC2's hit series The Cops. But there was something more extreme tearing Tynan apart. He raged unconsciously against the very conception of theatre and the theatre critic he helped to create.
Tynan was the critic as moralist and politician. In a time of huge creativity in British theatre, he argued against "cool, apolitical stylists" like Harold Pinter. He defined the critic as an ethical as well as aesthetic judge, praising Brecht for his compassion and condemning Beckett for "facile pessimism". Yet he was fascinated by things that made no sense in his philosophy. His relationship with Louise Brooks was his final betrayal of kitchen sink for sexual fantasy.
The illegitimate son of a Birm-ingham businessman, Tynan was drawn to theatre as a teenager, in a hedonist attempt to escape the austerity of 1940s Britain. Tony Garnett, who grew up in Birming-ham a decade later, remembers how exciting nearby Stratford--upon-Avon seemed in the fifties. Garnett used to do his uncle's milk round to save up for first nights at Stratford, then read Tynan in the Observer the next day. "I remem-ber seeing the Olivier-Leigh Titus Andronicus, then reading Ken's review. He said this terrible thing about Vivien Leigh. He said: 'She receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband's corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.'"
At school, Tynan dressed in colourful scarves, women's coats and plus-fours. In a school debate, aged 14, he defeated the motion that "This House Thinks The Present Generation Has Lost The Ability To Entertain Itself" by extolling the value of masturbation. His lifelong obsession with Holly- wood also began as an adolescent. "He was practically in a state of sexual excitement talking about Orson Welles; recalls his prot�g� and friend Jonathan Miller. By the time he graduated from Oxford, he had invented himself as a Wildean public figure, chastising the bourgeoisie in language so witty they enjoyed the lash. But he turned out to be an aesthete who argued for authenticity and truth - an anti-Wilde. In place of country- house flummery, he insisted: "We need plays about cabmen and demigods, plays about warriors, politicians and grocers." In other words, we needed John Osborne and Arnold Wesker.
When he was appointed theatre critic of the Observer in 1954, Tynan became the spokesperson for a new generation of socially-engaged dramatists. He had a unique political style. On the first CND Aldermaston march, he turned up towards the end in a taxi, which dropped him at the head of the column. "His political and social views were completely fatuous," claims Jonathan Miller. "His Marx-ism was just radical chic." But Tony Garnett insists Tynan was sincere in his socialism. "It was more of an emotional, romantic leftwing politics. You wouldn't have a very rewarding conversation with Ken about the first volume of Das Capital. But he championed the working-class voice that was coming through at that time."
Yet Tynan's own literary style was very different from the writing he praised. It was an amoral journalistic cocktail of camp wit and toughness, catching the reader unawares by veering from sophisti-cation to brutality. Tynan wrote about theatre in an intensely sexual way. His cruelty to Vivien Leigh was a corollary of his fascination with Laurence Olivier, who he admired because he touched the audience "below the belt". He said with some regret, that he had never slept with a man, but as a writer he was bisexual, and his hedonism was irreconcilable with his public stance as responsible critic.
Tynan became obsessed with sex as theatre and theatre as sex. Oh! Calcutta! was followed by ever more obscure experiments. He wrote a screenplay about sado-masochism and spent years researching a never-published article on psychologist Wilhelm Reich, who argued that suppressed erotic energy festers and causes perversion. Far bet-ter to release it through masturba-tion and store it for future use in a battery called an Orgone Box. "Oh! Calcutta! was theatre as Orgone Box in a way," suggests .Jonathan Miller.
Trevor Griffiths, who, at one point was ready to collaborate with Tynan on a sequel to Oh! Calcutta!, found the critic's mind had become very one-track. "He wrote a film about his relationship with somebody and the S&M aspects of it. An element of his terrain was The Story Of O, elegant pornography, and I think Ken was trying to emulate that. That's a lonely furrow to plough."
But Griffiths realised another reason for Tynan's estrangement: the critic was dying. One day, when they were on the street, Tynan col-lapsed against a lamp post. He realised then that Tynan's lung disease "was not going to let him go".
By the mid seventies, Tynan was a marginal figure, mocked in Private Eye and denounced in the Times as an example of sixties decadence. He felt so isolated that he fled to Los Angeles with his family. When he married Kathleen Halton in 1967, she gave up journalism to support him socially and politically, making their home a centre of leftwing London life. In her dedication to Tynan, says their son Matthew, "a lot of her own writing had fallen by the wayside." But in Hollywood, Kathleen started to develop a screen- writing career (she wrote the film Agatha) just at the time when Tynan's ambitions were falling apart. Tynan reacted with paranoia.
Kathleen Tynan kept an extraordinary, imaginative faith with him. "It is an odd thing to turn sleuth on one's husband", she admitted in her 1987 biography The Life Of Kenneth Tynan, but it's love that lies behind her investigations, as she tries to understand every corner of his life, even the things she didn't know about him when he was alive. This is the spirit in which she wrote her screenplay about Kenneth Tynan and Louise Brooks.
Tynan's encounter with the star is a potent image of his downfall. His own New Yorker article about the episode is uncomfortably self revealing. He recounts how Brooks became, for him, the seductress Lulu in Pabst's Pandora's Box, who is killed by the one man she loves, Jack the Ripper. Tynan thrills in telling us how Louise Brooks asked him: "Are you a variation of Jack the Ripper?" The public figure who spoke for British theatre has become an expatriate eccentric speaking only for himself.
Months after his article appeared, Tynan wrote to Brooks - who remained besotted with him - asking for her co-operation with a biopic about her that he proposed setting up. She wrote back furiously rejecting the idea and accusing him of betrayal. In the end, Tynan was utterly confused about what he wanted. He was torn between integrity and glamour, theatre and film, Britain and America. He was even disloyal to his own fantasy life.
British theatre has still not answered the questions that Tynan posed. His fixation on rationally explicable and political content still dominates theatre criticism. The joke is that the man who thought we should all be watching revivals of Mother Courage liked to flirt with film stars. Theatre, meanwhile, still has no language in which to justify itself as pleasure, without claiming superior moral and political worth to the siren delights of film.
Transcription by Meredith Lawrence, Saturday November 21 1998