THE LIFE OF KENNETH TYNAN By Kathleen Tynan

Morrow. 597 pp. $22.95

KENNETH TYNAN was a dazzling drama critic, the literary manager of Britain's National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, and a provocative writer on anything from bullfighting through travel to the defense of unorthodox sexuality. He was, above all, one of the most flamboyant figures on the literary scenes of London, New York and Los Angeles, where he died of emphysema in 1980, aged 53. Now his second wife, Kathleen Tynan -- herself a journalist, novelist and screenwriter -- has written his biography, and every effervescent page of it whets the appetite for the next, even as it leaves an odd taste in the mouth and mind.

Although spouses of famous men have written personal recollections of their late husbands, full-scale biographies by them are extremely rare. There is something awkward, even in a tell-it-all era, about a widow spilling the beans, however tactfully, about an unconventional bon vivant, regardless of how many of those beans were already spilled in the man's own writings and in the gossip about himself he was the last to discourage. Still, just as rich and famous persons talking about their fame and riches, in whatever tone, are bound to give pause, a wife chronicling her dead husband's love life -- not excluding his paeans to her beauty and excellence -- leave one uneasily wondering whether she is telling too much or too little. And wondering whether one can write with fairness and judiciousness from such proximity.

Just about everybody perceived Tynan as the most coruscating theater critic in the English language since Shaw and Beerbohm, provided only that the criticism concerned someone else. "It's wonderful when it isn't you," said John Gielgud. "Apart from his blindness towards Vivien {Leigh}, I put him up there alongside Shaw," writes Lord Olivier, who had been Miss Leigh's husband. Louise Brooks, the movie siren with whose youth Tynan fell in love when it was long gone -- and who was quite a shrewd writer herself -- noted that he put words together better than anyone she had read since Shaw, and she read plenty. Edmund Wilson, Tynan's colleague at The New Yorker, and not known for his praise of fellow critics, wrote Tynan that his was "the best writing of the kind since George {Jean} Nathan, if not since Beerbohm and Shaw."

Tynan's life divides into six phases; perhaps he was lucky to be spared the seventh age of man. In the first phase, Ken is the precocious illegitimate son of Sir Peter Peacock, a knighted draper and former small-town mayor -- married, alas -- and Rose Tynan, an Irish postal clerk with whom Sir Peter lived in Birmingham. Young Kenneth Peacock Tynan, who did not learn about his illegitimacy till much later, ignored his ignoring "father," liked but despised and bullied his doting but puritanical mother, and detested Birmingham. In school, he is a hellion, involved in theatrical activities, a dedicated theater- and moviegoer, autograph hunter, voracious reader, diary keeper. On visits to London, he sees shows endlessly, rating them critically in his journal. He is a tough and discriminating critic: Gielgud gets a 96 out of 100 for Dear Brutus, but Olivier and Vivien Leigh are "rotten" in That Hamilton Woman.

Other tastes appear early. He agrees with Noel Coward that "women should be beaten regularly, like gongs," and admires the American starlet Brenda Joyce, who "can take a spanking better than any other woman on screen." He chases after a variety of girls, mostly unsuccessfully; he persuades the eminent James Agate to give a lecture at his school, and disappoints the aging drama critic by not responding to his homosexual advances. Later, Tynan was to observe that Agate wrote like "a butcher boy hypnotised by Beerbohm," which curiously parallels his description of his own sometimes brummagem style as "that of a provincial writer who fell out of love with the mandarin class too late to forswear his early love of mandarin prose."

Phase two begins at an austerity-hit postwar Oxford, where Sir Peter provided an allowance sufficient for Tynan to indulge in modest extravagances. First the sartorial: purple doeskin and green baize suits, gold satin and creamy silk shirts, broad gold velvet bow ties, crimson-lined capes, green suede shoes. On women friends, he would bestow fancy and hard-to-come-by lingerie. Then there were the expensive restaurants, the taxis, the bothersome loose change deliberately scattered in the streets. Also debts: the engagement ring he bought for his then best girl had to be frequently hocked. Ken threw lavish parties, but if he could coax show-biz celebrities to them, charged other guests admission.

His Oxford tutor, the renowned C.S. Lewis, described Ken's style as that of a prep-school Lamb and Gibbon combined. The don's evaluation was to become higher, and Lewis proved a great consoler to Ken for unachieved academic honors, even as, later in life, Kenneth the agnostic turned to Lewis' witty yet austerely Christian books for solace. Tynan distinguished himself at debating, despite his stammer; he scored with iconoclastic directing and acting in various Oxford theatricals, and wrote splashy pieces for sundry university journals.

This leads into phase three, the young man about London, who, after some bold, bizarre, and finally unsuccessful attempts at professional acting and directing, settles into criticism. The jobs get progressively more prestigious, climaxing with the drama critic's post at The Observer. While the uncompromising and bitingly funny reviews arouse resentment for both their high standards and their cutting ironies, Tynan's life also elicits envy and resentment for its glamour, ostentation and seamless enjoyment of work and play. There are celebrity parties and sexual adventures, hobnobbing with high and low eminences, journeys professional and personal (the latter mostly to Spain, for bullfights and easy living): Tynan is probably the most dedicated literary dandy since Oscar Wilde.

But there is also hard work, devotion to the theater, discovery of new or newish talents, classical and popular, for Tynan enjoyed high and pop art with ambidextrous delight. He championed a music-hall comic as readily as a Shakespearean actor, and was particularly instrumental in ushering in the new drama of John Osborne and the Angry Young Men ("I doubt that I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger") as well as selling the British theatrical establishment on continental and American authors, especially those with radical leanings. After seeing Germaine Montero play Brecht in Paris, he proclaims: "I have seen Mother Courage and I am a Marxist." And a genteel socialist he was to remain, practicing every form of bourgeois epicureanism while promoting the plays of Sartre and championing lengthy peace marches at whose destinations he would arrive in a taxi, with bottles of champagne for his friends and himself.

There were to be two marriages. First to Elaine (Brimberg) Dundy, an American would-be actress who ended up as a writer, and who loved partying every bit as much as Ken. It was a long, fractious, violent union, fertile in spectacular fights, infidelities and reconciliations; it produced one daughter and infinite recriminations. Kathleen Tynan is scrupulously fair to her predecessor, even though some anecdotes about Elaine, as about others still living, had to be eliminated. The Tynans were hosts -- this is phase four -- to all sorts of English, American, European talent, and the stories of their social exploits are no less exhilarating and hilarious than Ken's literary advocacies and feuds. Ken's life is now full of triumphant highs and, one is tempted to say, equally uproarious lows.

After years of this, Tynan eventually marries Kathleen Halton, an ambitious, pretty young Canadian on the lower echelons of journalism. But not until he gets out of his complicated old marriage and she out of her difficult new one. The story of these two overlapping triangles provides some of the most rollicking and painfully funny pages of phase four, part two, which they inaugurate. They reveal Tynan as a physical coward, running or hiding from Kathleen's athletic husband; as a timorous rake, presenting Kathleen with his heterodox sexual appetites while settling for "chaste" lovemaking; and as a great, charming eccentric whom one always forgives, devilishly clever child that he is. He now gives up drama criticism, which included two bright years in America at The New Yorker, in order to become literary adviser to Laurence Olivier at the newly founded National Theatre (for which Ken, too, had fought). Olivier was dead set against him, but was overruled by his second wife, the actress Joan Plowright.

This first part of phase five is a period of glory, regardless of disagreements with some of the artists of the National, including Olivier himself, and of infighting with its largely philistine board of directors. Tynan is responsible for some daring programming, making the National much less conventional and insular than it might have been. Yet Ken came to much less grief with young, new, radical playrights such as Trevor Griffiths than with such relatively mild old plays as Wedekind's Spring's Awakening. He plunged into even hotter waters with Rolf Hochhuth's anti-Churchill play, Soldiers, which the National eventually refused, and by beginning, independently, to pursue the possibilities of a polymorphously (but never homosexually) perverse revue that was to result, after the discontinuance of the Lord Chamberlain's censorial office, in Oh! Calcutta; meanwhile he also collaborated with Roman Polanski on an eroticized movie Macbeth. He is still writing drama criticism in his notebooks, but publishes only other kinds of writing, from film reviews to political letters to the Times.

There were ten years at the National, but with the arrival there of Peter Hall, to whom Tynan had been critically less kind than to Olivier, Ken is dismissed. Phase five produced many flattering offers to renew his drama-critical career, but Ken had lost his taste for that. The father of a daughter and son by Kathleen, Ken was also pursuing other sexual activities, chiefly with a young woman whose appetites complemented his. Eventually Kathleen took lovers, too. Tynan created a scandal by using the f-word on BBC television, exposing him to further public opprobrium. More and more he looked to the U.S.A. for his salvation. AT LAST, he picked up his family and moved to Los Angeles, where the publicity for the climate promised relief for his worsening bronchial condition. Suffering from emphysema, Tynan still could not permanently give up smoking. The last years -- phase six -- are a fierce tragicomedy, played out in L.A., Puerto Vallarta and on a number of trips back to Europe. There were financial worries-Oh! Calcutta had made a mint, but only for others-and there was the growing difficulty with writing, though the quality never fell off, as witness the last two collections, notably Show People. Tynan was, however, having great trouble with his book on Wilhelm Reich, the radical psychologist, and the projected book on Olivier never got going. But there still were wonderful adventures -- journeys or sojourns in exotic places, and smashing journalistic coups -- despite faltering health not helped by drink, smoking, amphetamines and inordinately spicy food. The last months in Los Angeles -- involving arrays of doctors and psychiatrists, hospitalizations, fallings out with Kathleen -- would make very sad reading if it were not for Tynan's undimmable wit, spurts of inspired writing (the biography quotes him copiously and well), and the love for and from his children. And despite some partings, Kathleen was there for him at the end.

The writing in The Life of Kenneth Tynan is undistinguished but not inadequate. If the author's grammar and spelling (uncorrected by the publisher, as is generally the case nowadays) are often shocking, the many splendid passages from Tynan's published and unpublished writings more than make up for this. Kathleen Tynan interviewed everyone who could contribute reminiscences and aperc us, and she has pulled together the diverse and often contradictory material into a narrative that progresses cohesively, divertingly and often rivetingly. She reports the good and the bad, and though she may be indiscreet, she remains loyal, admiring, affectionate. She forgives Ken as readily as she does herself, and there is no rancorous settling of scores. And the story's stellar hero is surrounded by a supporting cast equally absorbing whether famous or obscure, successful or pathetic -- so good, in fact, that it would have earned high critical marks from Tynan himself.

The book is long, but one no more wishes it to stop than one wants its hero to make his final exit. He is often vulgar, but with magnificent e'clat; frequently absurd, but with great good humor; politically and morally impugnable, but exculpated by his wit and intellect, and the rigorous precision of his language. It was Tynan who made English drama criticism once again a pleasure to read, his very excesses stirring up useful debate. If the theater does not see the benefit of this, it is even more shortsighted than I take it to be. :: John Simon is film critic of National Review and drama critic of New York magazine.