Invective comes easily to critics. Finding fresh ways of praising is harder. This gathering of New Yorker profiles by Kenneth Tynan adds up to a lesson in the stylish expression of enjoyment.
"There was the unique physical presence, at once rakish and stately, as of a pirate turned prelate," Tynan writes of actor Ralph Richardson. "There was the balsawood lightness of movement, which enabled him to fall flat on his face three times in the course of a single act -- a rate feat for septuagenarians."
Sir Ralph comes alive as one knows him onstage -- and as Tynan knows him offstage, a man of droll whimsy who remembers such unwhimsical truths as this view of his colleagues in his World War II pilot days:
"They brought the best out of you by being so absolutely certain you'd got the best in you."
If Richardson brings the best out of Tynan, a great range of other "show people" elicit his responsiveness. Playwright Tom Stoppard and his high comedy. Filmmaker Mel Brooks and his low comedy. Television star Johnny Carson and "the fishpond smoothness of his professional style." Former movie star Louis Brooks and her haunted glamour.
The key may be Tynan's description of himself as a "cricket-loving radical," an obvious contradiction in terms. The radical part perhaps covers not only Tynan's politics but the propaganda for what might euphemistically be called nonpuritanical entertainment. More literally, it takes a cricket fan to cast a different light on Harold Pinter's eerie play, "No Man's Land," by noting that all of its four characters are named after turn-of-the- century cricketeers.
Part of the pleasure of Tynan's company is that he lets his nominal subjects nudge him beyond their own ideas and achievements into a bit of his own wordplay here (Irving Lazar as "doyen of agents and agent of doyens") or larger topic there (the movies and their "artistic colonization" of other forms of art that are swollen with references to them). "Never before, I believe," he writes of the movies, "has one art form exercised such hegemony over the others; and the decisive factor is not intrinsic superiority but sheer availability (not only in theaters but 24 hours a day on TV]. Typically, Tynan gets more than jokes on the subject from funnyman Mel Brooks (who has mined plenty of old movies for his own pictures):
"We are all basically antennae. If we let ourselves be bombarded by cultural events based on movies, we won't get a taste of what's happening in the world."