In Austin Pendleton's factually-based comedy Orson's Shadow, the mastermind behind the 1960's pairing of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier is the noted West End theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. This brilliant and charismatic man was capable of catapulting or destroying an actor's career. He was also a champion of the controversial and, as legend has it, is often credited as being the first person to intentionally drop an F-bomb on live television. Tynan was prone to pushing boundaries.
A re-occurring theme in the play looks at individuals like Welles, Olivier, and Leigh who achieved their fame and reached the height of their greatness early in their careers. This is also true for Tynan. The son of Peter and Letitia Rose Tynan was an exceptional student while attending King Edward's School in Birmingham. At the age of six, the would-be writer began keeping a diary. Tynan was twelve at the outbreak of World War II and was nearly killed by a landmine at the age of thirteen that destroyed a portion of his neighborhood.
The event had a profound affect on the young critic and he began to form negative and oppositional opinions about the government and society. This take on the world around him led Tynan in a direction as a debater in school where he would speak eloquently on behalf of controversial topics.
His intellectual skills as a writer and debater earned him a scholarship to Oxford. Tynan quickly gained notoriety as a scholar, rebel, and stylish party host. Despite having a congenital lung disorder, the fashionable youth was already a heavy smoker. As a bit of a "rule breaker" he won friends easily and would often invite nearby celebrities to his many campus soirees. The student soon became the most talked about person on campus and used his popularity to take on leadership roles for the school publications and theatrical productions. During his time in college, Tynan also became close friends with his writing professor, C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia author became like a second father to him and was an early example of Tynan's debilitating tendencies toward hero worship.
In 1951, Tynan would marry author, Elaine Dundy after a three month romance. On May 12, of the following year the pair would have a daughter,Tracy. That same year, Tynan made a huge splash as a theatre critic for The London Evening Standard and quickly established himself as the most audacious journalist in the city. Two years later he left for The Observer and it was there that he rose to prominence. The critic became a champion for a new style of modern realism that was emerging throughout the 50's. He pushed for people to see John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and other counterculture plays being developed that were edgy and avant garde like himself.
With his passion for the controversial, the young critic became a huge force in the London theatre scene that challenged and confronted both the performers and his readership. Tynan was regarded with fear, hatred and awe because of his uncanny wit and his ability to cripple the egos of huge stars. Over his desk he pinned the mottos, "Write heresy, pure heresy" and "Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds."
By the mid 50's Tynan's penchant for stirring the pot with crippling reviews like that of Vivien Leigh's performance in two Cleopatra plays began to fade. The critic soon became distracted by his own hero worship and sexual infidelities. His marriage to Dundy crumbled. While he managed to contribute reviews to the papers in the states, he became a starstruck version of his former self. He searched for ways to regain his relevance by hitching himself to the greats he idolized like Laurence Olivier, whom he believed to be the greatest actor of the 20th century and Orson Welles who was the world's greatest film maker.
Orson's Shadow looks at this particular time in Tynan's life. His work with Olivier eventually led him to become the Literary Manager of Britain's National Theatre under the Artistic Direction of the actor. During that time he influenced his stage idol to take on projects that challenged both audiences and artists. After his years at The National, the critic continued to write "name-dropping", "tell-all" books without much of the fire he once possessed. He died in 1980 from chronic emphysema.