Politics & Policy

The Ordeal of Kenneth Tynan

Fidel Castro in 1976 (Photo: Prensa Latina/via Reuters)
Once upon a time, a famous English drama critic proselytized on behalf of Fidel Castro while a guest of the U.S. He was called for questioning by a congressional committee, and he did not go quietly.

Editor’s Note: As part of our Fall 2017 Webathon (a.k.a. “30 Days Hath Bucktember”) we’re sharing some classic pieces by Bill from the early years of National Review. The following piece was first published on October 22, 1960.

We are called upon, ladies and gentlemen, to be angry along with Kenneth Tynan, Englishman, critic, Angry Young Man, and sorrowful with him too, for he has been through an ordeal, which we are to understand is really our ordeal. None of us, I warrant, will succeed in feeling quite as sorry for him as he feels for himself: the point is we are to try, and editorial writers and columnists all over the country are doing their best.

The basic story — Mr. Tynan was called before a congressional investigating committee last spring — is uncomplicated, though the account of it by Mr. Tynan in the current Harper’s is not. This is too bad, in a man who knows how to be succinct; but we are to assume that, overcome with righteous anger, he could not write simply, or directly, or accurately. Mr. Tynan is a young man of letters well enough known among the literati in England because of his precocious effusions against the established order (for a while he played regular piccolo for John Osborne): but he left Anger, Inc., and branched out. He went to Spain and wrote bravely about, brave bulls and matadors, and turned to drama, and drama criticism. His public notoriety derives, alas, not from either his belletristic accomplishments or his dalliance with the bulls, but from an article he wrote a few years ago clamoring for the removal of the monarchy, an ancient and useless and degrading institution, unfit for a world fit for Kenneth Tynan — a point with which one should not disagree too hastily. King-baiting — especially Queen-baiting — is in England the one absolutely certain way to get all the lights in the house to focus on you, and it is just possible that Kenneth Tynan, dramatic critic, knows this — though thumbing one’s nose at the Queen is not inconsistent with his general political position, which is that no political institution that existed before he and his inti­mates turned their attention to political matters, is much worth saving.

In any event, Wolcott Gibbs of the New Yorker died, and the editors of the New Yorker invited Mr. Tynan, who was then doing criticisms for the London Observer, to take Gibbs’ place for a year or two. He agreed and in 1958 came over with his American wife and child and wrote excellent criticism which did not, unfortunately, exhaust his energies.

Some time last fall, a commercial British television company called Associated Television got in touch with Tynan and said — I am paraphrasing Mr. Tynan’s account in Harper’s — Look, old boy, let’s do something to improve British-U.S. relations. Over here we have the impression that in America everybody thinks alike, that the country is in the grip of an iron philistinism: but you and I, we know it’s not true, so let’s put on a 90-minute television show — you produce it, we’ll run it — called “We Dissent,” establishing once and for all that in America there are good, brave dissenters who don’t go along with American Babbitry.

To this enterprise Mr. Tynan energetically devoted himself, emerging with a list of twenty-odd ‘lively American mavericks” whom he invited to speak “on the state of non-conformity in general and the nature of their own nonconformity in particular.”

In the arts, he selected Norman Mailer (naturally), Jules Feiffer, Alexander King, Mort Sahl, and three Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kenneth Galbraith delivered his thesis on the Affluent Society, and C. Wright Mills his about the imminence of catastrophe unless we shake off the power elite. There were speeches by Norman Cousins, Robert Hutchins, and Norman Thomas.

“America being by definition the greatest capitalist country on earth, it followed that Socialism and dissent would frequently be allied. Accordingly, I also included one admitted member of the Communist Party (Arnold Johnson); and four speakers reputedly linked with the extreme Left — Clinton Jencks, of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union; the Reverend Stephen Fritchman of the Unitarian Church; Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood screen writer; and Alger Hiss.” “After lengthy discussions . . . we decided to exclude American dissenters of the extreme right, such as Senator Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Their participation, it was felt, might have caused British viewers to construe the program as a slanted piece of anti-American propaganda.” And that, one can see from the cast of characters selected after lengthy discussions, Mr. Tynan had no wish whatever to do.

After the program was publicized, many Americans were indignant, and Mr. Tynan couldn’t, just couldn’t, understand why, he said. What was wrong? Had he not merely presented a package of American dissenters to prove that there are dissenters in the United States, and that they are al­lowed to speak? Mr. Tynan does record that “the Messrs. Cousins, Hutchins, and Thomas wrote to me, protesting against the context in which I had placed them,” and slides quickly on to other matters. He doesn’t tell the fuller story, which I had from Norman Cousins last spring: namely, that when Cousins first heard about the release of the program in England he exploded — sanely, to be sure. Producer Tynan had never intimated to him or to Mr. Hutchins or Mr. Thomas that he was to be sandwiched in among persons reputedly linked with, the extreme Left like Dalton Trumbo and Alger Hiss. Each one was under the impression it was to be a short program presenting only himself: not a composite program made up of propaganda by Communists, howls from Ginsberg, and a little revolutionary nihilism from C. Wright Mills. The three requested that they be given equal time to do a show over the same station called “What We Like About America.”

But Mr. Tynan evidently thought there are grounds beyond which dissidence becomes intolerable, and he dismissed the complaints in a one-sentence letter. The matter is not dead; indeed, a legal suit is, one would think, in order. A public figure presumably has redress if, after the curtain is drawn, he finds that he is part of a freak show.

But that was just one, the minor of two episodes that led Mr. Tynan to Gotterdammerung. Later in the spring a full-page advertisement; appeared in several newspapers under the sponsorship of “The Fair Play for Cuba Committee.” Among the dozen or so signatures was Kenneth Tynan’s. The ad stormed against the unwarrantedly bad press Castro had received in America. Cuba is not going Communist, the statement said — such charges are smears, probably motivated by vested business interests. All Castro wants to do is “give Cuba back to the Cubans.” “Having assured myself [how easily Mr. Tynan is assured the moment the drama leaves the stage!] that the factual points made in the ad were valid, I appended my autograph to the list,” says Mr. Tynan. Now that was six months before Fidel Castro came up here to smooch with Mr. Khrushchev and discuss their “common aims,” and “common aspirations,” to be sure. And then again maybe Mr. Tynan would sign an ad tomorrow saying Khrushchev’s intention is merely to give Russia Back to the Russians.

Still, here was an ad even Eleanor Roosevelt had refused to sign. The signers were recruited from the fever swamps of the Left — Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, that kind of thing.

It was shortly after that Mr. Tynan was hit by the thunderbolt, which is the cause of the current sensation.

He, an Englishman, a freeman, a subject (albeit unwillingly) of Her Majesty the Queen, was told by a subpoena to get on down to Washington and appear before an executive session of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.

He called around, and found to his dismay that it was perfectly legal for the Senate committee to call him. He was on American soil, over which the American government continues to have jurisdiction.

Mr. Tynan describes at considerable length the terror he felt at the summons. He felt “a kind of nebulous chill.” “Economic fears welled up.” Suppose he was “publicly smeared”? “Would my American earnings be jeopardized?” Would he starve to death? And how could he even answer the committee’s questions “without fatally compromising my integrity”? (He answered the ques­tions.) He asked for a week’s postponement and got it, so he had a good long night of the soul. “They were, without question, the strongest and shakiest eight days of my life.”

He called around, and found to his dismay that it was perfectly legal for the Senate committee to call him. He was on American soil, over which the American government continues to have jurisdiction. There was nothing to do about it but go. He did, and wants us to know that not since Manolete went purposefully forward on his fateful encounter with Islero, was such an act of courage seen.

So Rubashov went to Washington, whence he smuggled out to Harper’s an account of his ordeal. He is forced to paraphrase his colloquy with his interpreters.” I should like to quote verbatim, but since I have been forbidden access to the transcript, I must resort to oratio obliqua.” The rules of the Internal Security Subcommittee are that a witness (or his lawyer) is entitled to access to the transcript of his testimony at any time. We must assume that the committee, if it forbade Mr. Tynan the transcript, did so in blatant violation of its own rules. The other possibility is that Mr. Tynan never requested access to the transcript, perhaps because it is a little easier to parody an event if you are not burdened by the verbatim account; a little easier to be obliqua.

Mr. Tynan was in Washington to answer questions about the Cuban advertisement, not the television program, but Senator Dodd, who had protested the distortions in the program in a speech in Congress, evidently took the opportunity of Mr. Tynan’s presence to ask whether it had been his intention in producing the show to hold the United States up to contempt and ridicule. Tynan’s answer was, obviously, No: far from it, he intended to do the United States a favor, as no doubt he also intended by publishing his piece in Harper’s about his inquisition. Senator Dodd asked him how he had got in touch with the Communists who appeared on his program. He wrote them, said Tynan, having got their addresses mostly from “the production staff assigned to him by Associated Television. The names of the staff, he said, appeared at the outset of the program, every one of them having received a credit line. Mr. Tynan’s explanation was duly transcribed: and Mr. Tynan now reflects that he may well have ruined many careers. “Even the cutter of the show may have some very rough questions to answer should he ever apply for an American visa.” (All this with an unflinching, humorless solemnity!)

Had he been paid for signing the Cuban advertisement? No. Was the advertisement paid for by the Cuban Government? He did not know. One assumes that the committee was trying to find out whether Castro has successfully launched a propaganda base in this country, and whether one of its techniques is to enlist the endorsements of gullible people. I myself should not in the least be surprised if in due course it is revealed that that is exactly what happened. Tynan didn’t put up the money for the ad, he says — and I believe him — and you can bet your bottom dollar Norman Mailer didn’t, nor Simone de Beauvoir. Who did? Cui bono? The point is, it is the proper business of a committee charged with the internal security to explore, and if necessary to recommend legislation designed to regulate the activities of agents of a foreign power. We do not know whether it has been established after investigation, conducted confidentially, that the Fair Play for Cuba Committee was financed by the Cuban Government. If Tynan knows that it was not, he must have been a most useful witness, for the government needed precisely to know how he knew it was not. If Tynan does not know whether or not it is financed by Castro, then he can perhaps understand the committee’s not knowing, and the committee’s wanting to find out from anyone who might be closer to the Fair Play group what he knows about it. If the Fair Play for Cuba Committee is a Castro front, then that will probably be revealed in due course, and Mr. Tynan will presumably be grateful to Senator Dodd for relieving him of the further embarrassment of acting as an innocent mouthpiece for Cuban Communist propaganda.

But Mr. Tynan is not a reasoner, and his story goes on with its poetic effulgences. “Was I — and it was here that my fear melted into a deep intestinal chuckle — was I aware that President Eisenhower had made a speech in which he stated that the Castro regime was a menace to the stability of the Western hemisphere? No, I was not. And did I think myself justified in holding opinions that openly defied those of the President of the United States? I brooded… and then replied that I was English, and that I had been forming opinions all my life without worrying for a second whether or not they coincided with those of the President of the United States.”

Now if that second question was asked exactly as Mr. Tynan quoted it, the questioner, whoever he is, is fatuous indeed; fatuous, I should go so far as to say, beyond belief; or beyond my belief, at any rate. I do not have access to the transcript, but I will bet Mr. Tynan the entire orchestra section at the next performance of The Crucible that no one said that to him. What someone might have asked him — and if no one did, I raise the point — is whether Tynan thinks it correct to come to America and Pummel its citizens with his political views on essentially domestic matters. (I know of no Americans who took out ads in the English papers instructing the British government how to cope with Cyprus.) There is no law against it, and should be none: it is a matter of taste; and though the laws of taste are uncodified, they exist, and bind lesser men — though they are not, I suppose, designed to restrain king-killers.

On this point a little more needs to be said. “As I understand it,” Mr. Tynan lectured the committee after his testimony had been taken, “the function of a congressional committee is to gather information on the basis of which new legislation may be recommended. [His understanding is incomplete.]

“I cannot help finding it anomalous that a foreign visitor should be compelled to contribute to the legislative processes of a country not his own. . . . I am modest enough to feel that the making of American law is none of my business.”

But Mr. Tynan feels the making of American foreign policy with respect to Cuba is his business, does he not? He signed an ad intended for publication in the United States, hectoring United States citizens to change their views on Cuba. He was not modest about that. He undertakes to put together a rogues gallery of Americans, plus a few shills, with the intention of painting a picture of America for his own countrymen so grotesque as to be unrecognizable — and which might well, if believed accurate, change the policy among nations. Let us not deny him the right to do these things; but let him not deny our government the right to take elementary steps designed to find out from him what he knows, if anything, that might cast light on the movements of the enemy, and perhaps to pass judgment, to the extent a congressional committee can, on whether he is himself an enemy, or merely a fool.

My own impression is that he is the latter, and I do not think it is the business of a congressional investigating committee to expose the foolishness of people just for the sake of it. On this point the Internal Security Subcommittee presumably agrees. For it did not breathe a word of its interview with Mr. Tynan. The quailing, cowering, angry young man who writes of his sleepless nights, his forfeited serenity, his sentenced virtue, his imminent poverty, blew the whole thing all by himself, and having done his best to write his experience into the annals of human courage, he turned a few hundred dollars out of a complaisant American magazine, and carried on the great and lucrative English tradition of charging the United States a handsome sum of money for telling us how ugly we are. The Imperial Wizard and I resent that.

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