We have New York critics as librettists and playwrights these days, a laudable crossover to be sure. But what if critics and reviewers were actually to run a theatre? To be responsible for the artistic and administrative decisions necessary for a vibrant theatrical institution, be it devoted to a repertory of classic plays or the presentation of new ones? Harold Clurman ran the Group Theatre before he started reviewing plays for The New Republic and The Nation, but what examples are there of an opposite journey? If, instead of Oskar Eustis, it was Ben Brantley running the Public Theater, or David Cote in Jim Nicola’s shoes at the New York Theatre Workshop, or Hilton Als in the corner office of the Lincoln Center Theatre instead of André Bishop?
I imagine the answer would ultimately lie in the woman or the man rather than the title. What’s surprising is that, once in a while, it’s been tried and it’s worked. Early in his career, Kenneth Tynan worked as a critic for the Evening Standard, the Observer, and the New Yorker — that is, until he gamely offered his services as literary manager to Laurence Olivier early in the planning of the Royal National Theatre, and Olivier gamely accepted (perhaps, some gossip has it, Olivier just wanted to keep his enemies close). A short essay at the National Theatre Web site describes Tynan’s responsibilities:
His role included recommending plays for the repertoire, commissioning translations and selecting adapters for non-English plays. … The variety of the repertoire and the experimentation in its playing in these early years at the National owed a great deal to Tynan’s catholic tastes and his influence on Olivier: amongst many other achievements Tynan commissioned Robert Graves’ brilliant adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing for Franco Zeffirelli’s 1965 production and brought Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead from the fringe of the 1966 Edinburgh Festival to the stage of the National Theatre. A controversial figure throughout his career, several of Tynan’s repertoire proposals were rejected by the Board of the National Theatre or fell afoul of the Lord Chamberlain (who issued licenses for plays); notably Rolf Hochhuth’s Soldiers which accused Churchill of war crimes, and Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, about the effects of sexual repression on young people.
Tynan served as Literary Manager for the National Theatre from 1963 to 1974 — a long run for the job, even today. And his track record, as it happened, was not too bad. In 1968 Tynan looked back on his first five years in the position during a speech delivered to the Royal Society of Arts:
A few years ago, I noticed that out of more than two dozen plays running in the West End of London, only three had been written earlier than 1950. The National Theatre can help to correct that imbalance; and to new playwrights it can offer not only longer rehearsal periods than the commercial theatre, but a chance of subsequent revival if their work fails on first showing to find an audience. Our present total of thirty-six productions has covered a broad spectrum from Sophocles to Samuel Beckett, taking in Shakespeare, Congreve, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, Brecht, and other mainstream playwrights on the way. Minor classics such as [Hobson's Choice and Hay Fever] have been given an exhilarating second wind. Peter Shaffer, John Arden and John Osborne are among the younger dramatists who have contributed new work to our repertoire; and in 1967, the instant success of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead gave the English theatre another new name to conjure with.
Our programme for 1967/68 season has included an all-male version of As You Like It, two productions by Sir Tyrone Guthrie (Moliere’s Tartuffe and Ben Jonson’s Volpone), and two guest appearances by Sir John Gielgud, who played Orgon in Tartuffe and the title role in Seneca’s Oedipus, directed by Peter Brook. We have also presented Brecht’s version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, and the world premiere of In His Own Write, a stage adaptation of two books by John Lennon of The Beatles.
I am ambivalent about Tynan’s ultimate value as a critic, but it’s hard to differ with his accomplishments as dramaturg. (Tynan’s speech features a ringing defense of state subsidy for theatre as well.) A catholicity of taste, a willingness to risk, a knowledgable background … well, perhaps these things are rarer in critics than we think.
I must admit I am somewhat reluctant to release this post into the public air — who knows who reads these things, and what non-profit theatre Boards of Directors, responsible for hiring the heads of those theatres, might do with the concept. But caution to the winds, I say. Though I also must admit trepidation that one day I may find in my mailbox a press release featuring the lineup of shows for a future Soho Rep season — Charles Isherwood, artistic director.