The first performance of Inadmissible Evidence at the Royal Court Theatre in London on September 9, 1964, by the English Stage Company, was a resounding critical and popular success. It also reinforced John Osborne's status as England's most important post-World War II dramatist. The play chronicles the mental disintegration of middle-aged, London solicitor Bill Maitland over the course of two days as he experiences the breakdown of his professional and personal life. Osborne combines elements of realism and theater of the absurd as he illustrates Bill's nightmarish world that ironically Bill has constructed himself. It results from his inability to face up to his own failures as well as to the pain he has caused those who have tried to save him. In this poignant study of one man's struggle to avoid harsh truths about himself and his relationships with those closest to him, Osborne presents a compelling portrait of the devastating causes for spiritual and emotional bankruptcy.
John James Osborne was born December 12, 1929, in London, England, to Thomas Godfrey Osborne, a commercial artist and copywriter, and Nellie Grove Osborne, a barmaid. Much of his childhood was spent in ill health and in poverty, especially after his father died of tuberculosis in 1941. Osborne earned a General School Certificate from
St. Michael's, a boarding school in Devon, but never went further with his education, which made him feel like an outsider among the intellectual group of playwrights with whom he was grouped in the 1950s.
After graduating, he wrote for trade journals for a few years but left to take a position as a tutor for child actors in a touring company. He worked his way up in the troupe to assistant stage manager, and in 1948, he began acting in their productions. Osborne toured the country with the troupe for the next seven years, during which time he began writing plays, including The Devil Inside Him, with Stella Linden, first performed in 1950, and Personal Enemy, with Anthony Creighton, produced in 1955. Osborne, however, could get neither play published and ran into trouble with the Lord Chamberlain's Office concerning the latter play, which deals with homosexuality, forcing Osborne to delete key scenes.
While his Look Back in Anger, which premiered on May 8, 1956, earned mixed reviews, the impact the play had on the theater became legendary due to its biting commentary on postwar England and the status of the British working class, as well as to its influence on an entire generation of playwrights. Osborne, who like Anger's Jimmy Porter came to be known as an angry young man, gained a reputation as a result of this and other plays, as well as in the press, as a controversial figure who spoke his mind about political and social issues of the age, including the Lord Chamberlain's Office's censorship power over the theater. His personal life became as tumultuous as that of his characters: he married five times and was estranged from his daughter for a long time.
Osborne enjoyed a long, successful career in the theater, penning over twenty plays, as well as several television dramas and screenplays, including one for the celebrated film Tom Jones. He received several awards during his career, including the Evening Standard Drama Award for the most promising playwright of the year for A Patriot for Me in 1965 and for The Hotel in Amsterdam in 1968; the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Look Back in Anger, and for Luther (1961); a Tony Award in 1964 for Luther; an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay in 1963 for Tom Jones; the Plays and Players Best New Play Award in 1964 for Inadmissible Evidence, and in 1968 for The Hotel in Amsterdam; and the Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, 1992, the same year his final play, Dèjávu, was staged. Inadmissible Evidence was published by Faber and Faber in 1965.
Osborne wrote two autobiographies, A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991). Osborne, a diabetic, died of heart failure on December 24, 1994.
Inadmissible Evidence opens with a dream sequence in a solicitor's office, involving the main character, Bill Maitland, and his trial for "having unlawfully and wickedly published … a wicked, bawdy and scandalous object…. Intending to vitiate and corrupt the morals of the liege subjects of our Lady the Queen." The object is Bill Maitland himself. Bill pleads not guilty and insists that since he is a lawyer, he will defend himself. He tries to begin his defense, but random thoughts keep breaking in, and he ultimately admits, "I'm incapable of making decisions." The session is interrupted by Bill searching for his tranquilizers, noting that he has a headache brought on by too much drinking the night before.
Bill then begins a brief summary of his personal history, ending with his admission that he is "irredeemably mediocre." After losing his train of thought, he thinks he sees his ex-wife, his father, and daughter, all there in the room. He then offers a character analysis of himself, ending with his assertion that he has never wanted anything more than good friendship and the love of women but has failed at both. The light then fades, and the judge becomes Hudson, Bill's managing clerk, and the court clerk becomes Jones, Bill's clerk as Bill emerges from the dream into reality.
In the next scene in Bill's law office, Hudson and Jones chat about the latter's upcoming marriage as Bill arrives. Bill criticizes Shirley, his secretary, for not wearing any makeup and makes lewd comments to her about her fiancé, which she throws right back at him. Jones announces that Shirley is going to quit her job because "she's fed up with the place" and especially with Bill, who insists, "I haven't touched that girl for months."
Bill then begins another series of lewd comments directed toward Jones, concerning his fiancée and Shirley, which embarrasses the clerk. Later, he criticizes Shirley's fiancé and Jones, insisting that they are too cautious and boring. Another secretary, Joy, brings Bill a glass of water after Shirley ignores his request, and he flirts with her as Hudson tries to focus Bill's attention on a client's divorce case. Bill admits that something seems a bit odd this morning: he was not able to get a taxi and now he cannot concentrate on his cases.
Bill complains of his headache, brought on by too much drinking the previous night, and searches for his pills. He tells Hudson that he needs to get out of a weekend planned by his wife, Anna, to celebrate their daughter's birthday so that he can spend the time instead with Liz, his current mistress. Bill believes that Anna planned the weekend because she discovered his arrangement with Liz.
As he discusses with Hudson the juggling he must accomplish with his wife and mistress, he wonders whether his sexual escapades are worth the trouble and admits that he has never found anything that gives him a sense of meaning. Hudson tells him that the key is to not expect too much out of life. The two talk about Mrs. Garnsey's divorce case, Bill's recent inability to remember anything, and his marital situation until they are interrupted by a phone call from Anna. Bill tries to get out of the weekend, but the situation is left unresolved.
Later, Shirley tells Bill that she is leaving because she is pregnant and is getting married soon. When Bill tries to show concern for her situation, assuming that the baby is his, and asks her to stay, noting their past relationship, Shirley gets angry and declares that she is leaving immediately. Bill, visibly shaken, asks Joy to ask Mrs. Garnsey, who has just arrived, to wait. He then calls in Hudson and asks him to become a partner in the firm. Hudson does not give him an answer, admitting that he has received several other offers, but he agrees to think about it. Bill phones Liz about Anna's plans for the weekend and complains about his lack of connection with his family. He ends the call by exacting a promise from her that she will see him that evening.
As Bill interviews Mrs. Garnsey about her husband's infidelities, she begins to feel sorry for her husband who has been rejected by her and their children. When Bill tries to comfort her, he cannot move and so calls Joy to bring her a drink. After Mrs. Garnsey leaves, Joy tells Bill that he does not look well. Bill asks her to stay late that evening and to call Liz and tell her "to expect [him] when she sees [him]."
- A film version of Inadmissible Evidence was produced by Woodfall Films (United Kingdom) in 1968. The screenplay was written by Osborne and starred Nicol Williamson, who had played Bill to rave reviews on the British and U.S. stage. As of 2006, this film was not available.
The next morning, as Bill is lying on the sofa in his office having slept there through the night, Liz calls, angry about his not coming over. After excusing himself to throw up, he returns to the phone and tells her that he loves her and that yesterday was a bad day for him. He begins to ramble, which he does during every conversation that he has during the day, to the point that the audience does not know whether he is really speaking to someone or is only dreaming.
Bill continues his ramblings about his wife and her boring friends and about his daughter, Jane, whom he criticizes as well. He pauses periodically to ask if Liz is still there. At the end of the conversation, he gets her to promise that she will wait at home for his call. He then speaks with Anna on the phone, telling her that he will be spending the weekend with Liz and that Jane would not care whether he attended her birthday. When Jane gets on the phone, he asks her to come see him that afternoon so he can explain about the weekend. After speaking briefly again with Anna, he tells her that he loves her and ends the conversation.
Hudson arrives and tells Bill that he still has not made up his mind about the partnership offer. Joy calls Mrs. Garnsey to set up another appointment and learns that Mrs. Garnsey has decided to call off the divorce. Joy and Bill discuss the previous evening, which apparently included sexual activity between the two in the office. He gets her to promise that she will not leave as Shirley has done.
Bill asks Jones whether he would take Hudson's place as managing clerk if Hudson leaves, but Jones will not commit. Bill accuses Jones of thinking that Bill will soon have to defend himself against charges of unprofessional conduct brought on by the Law Society. He then admits that he lost Mrs. Garnsey as a client and that he is "the wrong man for these things." Bill reads the divorce papers for Maureen Sheila Tonks, whom he claims he used to date.
Mrs. Tonks, who is played by the same actress as Mrs. Garnsey, arrives and begins to discuss her petition against her husband, who, she insists, made inordinate sexual demands upon her. As she presents the details of her case, Bill counters with her husband's written claims, but eventually, he begins responding to her charges with accounts of his own marital behavior. He has trouble defending that behavior and often admits to his shortcomings. When Joy interrupts, announcing the arrival of Mrs. Anderson, Bill passes Mrs. Tonks off to Jones.
As he waits for Mrs. Anderson, Bill remembers having an affair with her as well, and when she enters, the audience sees that she is played by the same actress as Mrs. Tonks and Mrs. Garnsey. As Mrs. Anderson begins to describe the details of her divorce case, Bill struggles to keep focused but again adopts the role of the client's husband, providing details of his own personal life. Since Mrs. Anderson does not directly respond to Bill's comments, he may be voicing them only in his head, or Mrs. Anderson could be a part of a dream. Bill rambles about the details of his funeral and speculates about what it would be like if Anna died. Mrs. Anderson ends her statement with painful account of her husband's lack of feeling for her, but Bill shows no compassion, not having paid any attention to what she has said.
When Bill sends Mrs. Anderson out, Joy tells him that Mr. Hudson has left. He tries to get his colleagues on the phone, but they refuse to talk to him. He then phones Liz and admits that no one will speak to him and that he fears that they are all laughing at him. He pleads with her not to go out so he can call her later and insists that they will spend the weekend together.
The next client, Mr. Maples, who is played by the same actor as Jones, arrives to give his statement to Bill concerning his arrest for indecency but also includes personal information about his homosexuality and the effect that had on his marriage. Bill actually appears to be listening to this client as he asks Maple questions about his relationships with his wife and his lovers, but he does not take any notes. When Maple realizes this, he leaves.
When his daughter comes into his office, Bill begins a long rambling monologue outlining all of his troubles: "there isn't any place for me … in the law, in the country, or indeed, in any place in this city." He grows increasingly agitated until he demands, "Do you want to get rid of me? … Because I want to get rid of you." Bill tells Jane that he feels only "distaste" for her as he does for all of her generation whom he considers unfeeling and apathetic. During the monologue, Jane does not respond but gets increasingly distressed. Finally, Bill tells her to leave, and she does without a word.
Joy tells Bill that the Law Society is investigating him and admits that she does not like him either. After Bill insists that he is "packed with spite and twitching with revenge" and that he would like "to see people die for their errors," Liz arrives, and Joy leaves. Angry that Bill never came to see her, Liz tells him that he is "a dishonest little creep" but that she still loves him. Liz shows real concern for Bill's deteriorating condition, but he refuses to allow her to comfort him and so she leaves him. At the end of the play, Bill calls Anna, noting that his vision is fading and telling her that he has decided to stay in his office. Bill hangs up and waits for something that is not identified.
Liz Eaves is having an affair with Bill Maitland. She appears at the end of the play, worried about Bill's mental state but willing to confront him about his repeated broken promises to her. Although she tries to get him to face up to his bad behavior, she shows patience and concern, repeatedly telling him that she loves him. When she cannot get Bill to commit to their relationship, she decides to leave him.
Wally Hudson, Bill's patient office manager, tries to offer sound advice to Bill but it is ignored. His sense of responsibility and loyalty emerges as he continually takes cases that Bill cannot handle. His loyalty, however, has its limits. Realizing that Bill is being investigated for misconduct and that he is losing his grip on reality, Hudson decides to think of his own future and accepts another position.
Joy, a young, attractive office worker, appears rather shallow when she is flattered by Bill's attention that has shifted from Shirley to her. She initially plays along with his flirtatious games and has sex with him, but she soon grows tired of his self-involvement and determines that she will quit as well.
Bill Maitland is an egotistical, self-centered lawyer who eventually alienates all those close to him. He tries to manipulate others into feeling sorry for him by providing them with a long list of perceived injustices that he has endured as well as his mental and physical ailments, which makes him appear pathetic. In an effort to retain his wife's and mistress's loyalty, he insists that he loves them, but his lack of consideration for them proves that he is incapable of that emotion. Unable to face his shortcomings, he blames others for his failures in order to deflect attention from them.
As Bill refuses to recognize the needs of others, he withdraws further into his world until he becomes unable to separate illusion from reality. The only perspective he acknowledges is his own, but his judgment becomes clouded by self-centeredness and by his alcohol and drug consumption. His inability to form satisfying relationships with others results in his complete isolation and mental breakdown.
Shirley, Bill's young, attractive secretary, is pregnant with his child. Her coldness toward Bill is a result of her anger with him for not taking responsibility for her pregnancy. She tries to deflect his attacks by ignoring him or by firing back with flip responses, but she cannot endure his ill treatment of her, and she quits by the end of the day.
Objectification as a Defense Mechanism
The play explores how objectification, which occurs when someone is regarded as a type or object rather than a distinct person, can be used as a defense mechanism. Bill objectifies his secretary and daughter in order to dismiss them as individuals so he will not need to feel any responsibility toward them. He places Shirley initially in the category of "sexy" and then when she does not speak to him, he lumps her together with all modern "girls" who no longer wear makeup. When he orders her to put on some lipstick, he is trying to push her back into the "sexy" category, a type that he knows how to deal with. He keeps her in this category by making lewd comments about her having sex with her boyfriend so that he will not have to see her as a woman who is pregnant with his child.
Bill regards his daughter only as a part of a generation that he feels has dismissed him. Since he insists that he knows what her responses will be, he never allows her to voice her own opinions. He claims that she is not upset but merely bored by his relationship with his mistress as "any of those who are more and more like you" feel about any personal attachments. He groups her with all of those he sees "in the streets," inflicting "wounds," without shame and "unimpressed, contemptuous of ambition but good and pushy all the same." Since women are only types, not flesh and blood humans who can be damaged by his actions, Bill absolves himself from any sense of blame in an effort to protect his fragile psyche. Ironically his objectification of others pushes them further away, which eventually leads to his mental collapse.
Search for Meaning
Another factor that leads to Bill's mental collapse is his inability to find meaning in his life. Bill no longer has any respect for the law that he feels has exploited him, and he has in essence abandoned his family because he feels useless to them. He claims that he tries to "take an interest in all kinds of things," but "the circle just seems to get smaller." Left in the circle at this point are his affairs with other women, but he recognizes that his attractiveness is waning along with his interest in them. In his self-absorbed universe, Bill ascribes meaning only to experiences that buoy his ego. When others refuse to excuse his selfishness, he turns on them and searches elsewhere for a sense of contentment. By the end of the play there is no where else for him to look. Osborne here suggests that the absence of a clear sense of meaning can cause spiritual and psychological bankruptcy.
Theater of the Absurd
Theater of the absurd is drama that communicates a sense of the fundamental meaninglessness of the human condition by employing surreal or unrealistic techniques. Playwrights in this genre abandon the clear sequential scenes that are logically connected for disjointed and illogical scenes and moments. Osborne uses elements of the absurd throughout the play to suggest Bill's disconnection from his world and his growing confusion about his relation to it. This focus emerges in the opening dream sequence when Bill struggles to defend himself and his actions in front of an imaginary court. Osborne combines realism with absurdism in the rest of the play as he depicts Bill's interactions with his family, his mistress, and his colleagues. Some scenes, especially the early ones, contain actual dialogue between two people, as the conversations between Bill and Hudson and Bill and his secretaries. But at other points, it becomes unclear whether Bill is talking to an actual person or addressing a figment of his imagination, as when he speaks on the phone to his wife and mistress and continually asks whether anyone is there. Reality is further confused when one actor takes on different roles as in the case with the woman who plays all of Bill's female clients. Osborne's use of absurdist elements reflects Bill's unhealthy mental state as the lawyer descends deeper into a world of his own making.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Osborne's Look Back in Anger and compare its "angry young man" to that of Inadmissible Evidence. Determine what has caused each man to be angry and compare how each vents that anger and the consequences of that venting. Prepare a PowerPoint presentation comparing and contrasting the two men and be prepared to discuss what point you think Osborne makes about the nature and/or the consequences of anger in these two plays.
- If you can get a copy of the film version of the play, be prepared to lead a discussion on how the filmmaker depicts Bill's mental collapse. If you cannot get a copy of the film, write a section of a screenplay that reflects the audience's inability to determine whether Bill is speaking to real people. How would you cast doubts in a film version on the reality of certain characters?
- Research the tensions that were emerging in the 1960s between British parents and teenagers and prepare to lead a discussion on whether these tensions were similar to the ones that arose in the United States during this period.
- Write a poem or short story that traces someone's descent into madness.
British Theater in the 1950s and 1960s
In the early 1950s, British audiences watched imported American musicals; sentimental plots involving the middle class and their traditional, moral standards of behavior; and drawing-room comedies. The British theater offered nothing, in short, that was connected to the social and political realities of the age. Then on May 8, 1956, John Osborne brought new life to the London stage with his play Look Back in Anger, a work that focuses on the British working class and its sense of being betrayed by political and social institutions. This new type of realism urged a generation of British playwrights such as Arnold Wesker (Chicken Soup with Barley, 1958, and The Kitchen, 1959) and Edward Bond (Saved, 1965)) to recreate on stage cottages in dirty industrial towns in the north of England as well as rented one-room flats in London. In these plays that came to be known as kitchen sink dramas, angry young men like Osborne's Jimmy Porter offered caustic attacks on society as they struggled to survive economically as well as emotionally in a world that offered them no real purpose.
In the late 1950s, Harold Pinter, in plays such as The Room and The Dumb Waiter, both produced in 1957, combined the realism of the kitchen sink dramas with the absurdism of Samuel Becket, creating often claustrophobic works that focus on the difficulties of communication in an incomprehensible world. In 1964, Osborne experimented with structural and stylistic combinations in Inadmissible Evidence, retaining the same gritty realism of Look Back in Anger but adding absurdist elements, such as the play's opening dream sequence, which externalizes his conscience. His angry, middle-aged hero, while firmly in the middle class, struggles, like Jimmy and the other heroes of this generation of playwrights, to find meaning in his life.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
Mid 1960s: The Feminine Mystique (1963), by Betty Friedan, chronicles the growing sense of dissatisfaction women feel about the unequal treatment they are receiving in the home, the workplace, and in other institutions.
Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality. Discrimination against women is against the law in England and in the United States. Yet while women hold prominent positions in Parliament (20 percent) and in Congress (15 percent), as a population, they are underrepresented as is the case with corporate CEOs in both countries.
Mid 1960s: A group of playwrights come into prominence as creators of a new school of drama, the theater of the absurd, which has a great impact on theatrical conventions. These playwrights adapt existentialist theories from philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, creating individual views on the essential meaninglessness of life and the absurdity of the human condition. Playwrights included in this group are Edward Albee and Arthur Kopit (American), Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett (French), and Harold Pinter (British).
Today: Musicals, such as The Producers and Phantom of the Opera, and reality-based plays, such as Proof, dominate Broadway and the London stage.
Mid 1960s: Fed up with social mores and government policies that reinforce the status quo, the youth in Britain and the United States hold protest rallies for civil rights, especially for minorities, and against the Vietnam War.
Today: Young people are often accused of being politically and socially apathetic as their main pursuits become materialistic.
Inadmissible Evidence was a commercial and critical success in London, especially with Nicol Williamson in the lead, but it did not fair as well with U.S. audiences. Many critics conclude that the play
is appreciated more by British audiences because of its essentially British character. Harold Clurman, in his review of the play, explains: "The English see in Maitland a ‘hero’ of their day, the present archetype of the educated middle-class Britisher," who has withdrawn from the world due to a sense of personal despair. He notes that several English critics found the play to be more "profound" than Osborne's famous Look Back in Anger because it is "the more universal play—a modern tragedy." Clurman finds that British audiences see themselves in Maitland, and in this, along with the author's "extraordinary faculty for derision in passages of coruscating rhetoric, lies the strength of Osborne's play." Clurman determines that American audiences want a sense of hope in the theater and so tend not to identify with Maitland as readily as those in England.
Many critics praised the structure and themes of the play, including Simon Trussler, in his article on British neo-naturalism, who writes that "Osborne has found his happiest medium so far in the solipsistic" play, and Benedict Nightingale, who declares it is "maybe his finest play."
Others, however, have found fault with its structure and bleakness. Robert Brustein, in his article on the English stage, determines that if Osborne does not "put his wonderful eloquence at the service of consistently worked-out themes, he will remain a playwright of the second rank." Brustein concludes that "after a brilliant first act, [the play] collapses completely into structural chaos as the author introduces rhetorical essays on subjects only remotely related to his theme." In his review of the play, John Gassner wonders "whether, so to speak, Osborne's ingenious game is worth the candle," as he criticizes the play's "essential lack of conflict." While he praises the characterization of Mr. Maple, Gassner insists "that it gives us not much else," which becomes "the mark of its intrinsic failure." Clurman notes that "it crackles with sharp phrases which startle us to a guffaw" but criticizes its negativity and lack of compassion.
Frank Rich, in his review for the New York Times, finds its themes compelling, however, concluding that if the play presents "an evening of almost pure pain, it is honest pain, truthful pain." While he finds the play "by no means flawless" with its "overlong Act II," Rich argues that "one cannot take away the tough-mindedness that Mr. Osborne has brought to the creation of Bill Maitland" and for finding "a common ground where the audience and his hero can meet." Rich insists that "it is Mr. Osborne's achievement that Inadmissible Evidence takes us right up to the edge of that darkest of voids … the sweaty fear that we may, in the end, be completely alone in the world."
Perkins is a professor of twentieth-century American and British literature and film. In the following essay, she traces the causes and consequences of the main character's mental breakdown.
John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence opens with a dream or rather a nightmare in which Bill Maitland struggles to defend himself in court against charges that he has "unlawfully and wickedly published … a wicked, bawdy and scandalous object": himself. When Bill claims in this opening scene that he is innocent of these charges, the audience assumes that during the rest of the play, he will try to defend that innocence. Yet after Bill emerges from his dream, he spends the next two days proving the opposite as he alienates his family, colleagues, clients, office workers, and mistress. The growing sense of his inability to establish strong connections with anyone and thus to find some kind of moral stability throws him into a state of confusion and despair that ultimately leads to a complete mental breakdown.
In his defense during the dream sequence, Bill insists upon "the ever increasing need … for, the stable ties of modern family life," and his desire to face "up realistically [to] the issues that are important." Yet in the next two days, he severs those ties as he alienates his wife and daughter by ignoring, betraying, exploiting, and belittling them as he does others. Bill has created a solipsistic world, aided and enhanced by tranquilizers and alcohol, in which all his failures are perceived by him to result from others letting him down. Since he is the center of that world, he is unable to respond to the needs of others, lashing out instead at them for their "errors" against him, which ultimately compound his isolation.
Bill admits truths in his dream that he refuses to recognize in his conscious state. He realizes that he is "only tolerably bright … and irredeemably mediocre." He declares, "I have never made a decision which I didn't either regret, or suspect was just plain commonplace or shifty or scamped and indulgent or mildly stupid or undistinguished." Only in the dream does he acknowledge that in his relationships with women, he "succeeded in inflicting … more pain than pleasure." He insists that he cannot escape the truth of his actions. Ironically, in this dream state, he is more aware of the reality of his relationships with others and the damaging effects he has had on them. When he emerges from his dream, this evidence becomes "inadmissible" because of his inability to face it, and so he begins to create his own world, one he refuses to allow others to penetrate.
Bill's solipsism is illustrated by his repeated insistence that he cannot see or hear clearly. This becomes evident when he is unwilling to recognize his abhorrent behavior toward his wife, Anna, and the effect that it has on her. Bill does not try to hide the fact that he has a mistress or that he will not be attending his daughter's birthday weekend so that he can spend the time with his lover. Although he calls Anna "darling" and often professes his love for her, his conversations with her center exclusively on his own difficulties, and when Anna brings up the birthday weekend, he refuses to acknowledge the pain he is causing her except for muttering a quick and feeble "sorry," before he hangs up. Later he tries to blame his wife for his predicament when he tells his mistress that Anna cooked up the weekend just to thwart their plans.
Bill employs similar tactics with his daughter, Jane, in an effort to justify his bad behavior toward her. In explaining why he will not be attending her birthday celebration, he attempts to gain Jane's sympathy by insisting that his colleagues and family are ignoring him and that there no longer is a place for him in the world. When that comment does not elicit a sympathetic response from her, he switches to an attack on her character in an effort to justify and deflect attention from his actions. Bill suggests that she is not worthy of his love and support, and he objectifies her as part of a generation of "unfeeling things" who regard their elders with "distaste." Then he abruptly tells her to leave without having listened to her concerns or asked her to respond to any of his charges.
Bill also treats the women in the office as sexual objects that are there solely for his pleasure. For example, when Shirley, his secretary, snubs him, he retaliates, criticizing her for not wearing makeup and insisting that she must not be getting enough sex. After Jones tells him that she is quitting because of him, he declares, "I've done no harm to her. If she's unhappy it's not my fault," refusing to recognize that she is angry because he is the father of her unborn child and has taken no responsibility for it.
Ironically, Bill's effort to construct a protective world in which he does not have to face reality inevitably compounds his isolation and threatens his sanity. The subconscious recognition in his dream of his responsibility for alienating his family causes him to take more pills and drink more alcohol to the point that he becomes incapable of making decisions and of remembering important details about his work. This pattern in turn negatively affects his relationship with his colleagues as he insists that they handle his workload and as he loses clients because of his inability to focus on their cases. His inability, along with that of the audience, to determine whether he is speaking to real people on the other end of the phone or real clients in his office or just to himself as his state of confusion and resulting agitation increases signals his impending breakdown.
By the end of the play, after his office manager and secretary have quit their jobs and his last client has been lost, Bill's only connection to reality and possible salvation is his mistress, Liz, who appears at his office, trying to find out why he has been avoiding her. She offers him a last chance to forge a connection with another human being and so save himself from moral and psychic collapse. When she begs Bill to trust her, he insists, "it isn't easy to trust someone you're busily betraying." This moment of clarity is short lived, however, as he begins to attack her for scrutinizing and assessing him.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Osborne's The Entertainer (1957) chronicles the downfall of music hall performer Archie Rice in a period when that venue had become practically obsolete. Osborne parallels Rice's decline with that of Britain in a scathing attack on what he considered to be his country's moral bankruptcy.
- Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) is often said to have inspired a revolution in the theater due to its reaction against the sentimental, middle-class plays of the previous decade. The play focuses on Jimmy Porter, an "angry young man" who has turned his back on his middle-class roots and on the society that he feels has failed him.
- Doris Lessing's "To Room Nineteen," one of the collected stories in her A Man and Two Women (1963), centers on a middle-aged English woman who embarks on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately becomes a descent into madness. The story is set against the backdrop of early 1960s London, when women were caught in the social conservatism of the past and unable to see the promise of a future that would encourage choice, fulfillment, and personal freedom.
- Samuel Beckett's Endgame (1957) is set on a bare stage that represents a partially underground room where Hamm the master, Clov his servant, and Hamm's parents, who live in trash cans, alternatively try to humiliate each other as they wait for something to occur.
Liz tries to compel him to face reality when she declares: "You pretend to be ill and ignorant just so you can escape reproach. You beggar and belittle yourself just to get out of the game." Ironically, though, at this point, Bill is not pretending. After Liz gives up trying to force him to establish a real connection with her and leaves, Bill's vision fades as he suffers a complete breakdown, determining that he will stay in the office until something happens, although he has no idea what that might be.
Bill's inability to find meaning and significance in relationships with others causes him to repeatedly betray people until he is left morally and psychologically bankrupt. Osborne offers no hope for Bill, which has prompted some critics to determine that the play is too bleak. When Osborne refuses to rescue Bill from the solipsistic world of his own creation, he forces his audience to acknowledge through his poignant and harrowing portrait of this man that the recognition of complete and utter isolation is too much for the human mind and heart to bear.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Inadmissible Evidence, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Dyer holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has published extensively on literature, film, and television. He is also a freelance university teacher, writer, and educational consultant. In the following essay, he discusses Osborne's use of the metaphor of marriage to represent the breakdown of civility and reason in the world of the play.
The opening stage directions to John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence establish this play as "A site of helplessness, of oppression and polemic." It is a site that Osborne mines with virtuosity, as he had in the groundbreaking, autobiographical Look Back in Anger (1956), a play that explores the emotions of the prototypical angry young man. In both plays, angry men are forced to confront the failings of their marriages and their respective will to live a life guided by intellect and honesty, what Bill Maitland calls "an ethic of frankness." Over his career, Osborne repeatedly focused on these themes, on the unforgiving retrospection that focuses on the disintegration of marriages and decay of family and other personal relationships.
Whereas Osborne's earlier plays feel at times almost claustrophobic in their compressions of language and emotions, in Inadmissible Evidence the metaphors of decay expand ruthlessly to map Bill Maitland's spiral away from civility into a chaotic nightmare world of vicious mutterings. At once a tragic figure in a world that increasingly presses its citizens to adapt to "different conditions … and … rapid change," Maitland barely contains his anger. On trial in the courtroom of his own mind, Maitland is forced to acknowledge his own metaphoric divorce from the world in which he lives. He is, as he admits, a man "more packed with spite and twitching with revenge" than anyone he knows.
Despite the thick veneer of misanthropy, Maitland is forced to confront the irredeemable mediocrity of his life and his pathological inability to change the trajectory of his decline. As he admits in his opening statement, Maitland is naturally "indecisive," has never made a move in his life that he did not regret, and has lived in fear of "being found out" and exposed.
Indeed, Maitland's day on stage is a monotonous litany of divorce cases, musings on the monotony of his own extramarital affairs, and misogynistic ranting about sex and women. When the telephonist Joy enters his office, for instance, Maitland comments casually about opportunities for group sex. Full of such comments and more tellingly with discussions of couples in various stages of dissolution, the play emphasizes marriage as a metaphor, as a figurative strategy for making meanings or, alternatively, for creating a framework of connotations through which new connections between ideas might be explored. In this sense, Osborne's marriage metaphor creates for the audience an uncomfortable sense of familiarity with Maitland's world.
If members of the audience do not know this world personally, they have seen it before in the plays of Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams. But in this play, Osborne's marriage breakdown radiates outwards, extending beyond the intimacy of coupled lives into a cloud of ambiguities and multiple meanings that accumulate during the play. Marriage as a kind of sustained balancing act, a negotiation of mutual respect and compassion, becomes reconfigured through the language of this play into an illogical game in which no one wins and the measure of success ultimately seems to be based on a prowess for inflicting pain both verbally and physically. The metaphoric implications of marriage, then, becomes martial rather than marital, grounded more in the language of divisiveness (separation) and battle than in the vocabulary of honeymoons and happy endings.
The broader problem is that over time, even the most powerful of cultural metaphors become stagnant, less meaningful, even unsupported assumptions. In the world of Inadmissible Evidence, the metaphor of marriage has lost its value, in the same way that guilt has been reduced to "a real peasant's pleasure…. For people without a sliver of self-knowledge or courage." As Maitland argues frequently in addressing his clients, one way or another misfortune looms over marital relationships, which inevitably end badly or approach the impasse of reticence and resentment. Maitland's business day is telling in its routine: the termination of union is negotiated, divorce papers are signed, and new hopes are born. But as the stagnation of the office and the world weariness of his colleagues attest, failure of even this burgeoning hopefulness is soon to follow, and the routine will go on.
Yet, as Maitland illustrates, marriage is a metaphor that the audience cannot escape, either as a social contract into which he and his clients seem destined to enter or as a set of memories (the failed, the failing) that inevitably crash into the present tense of the play. As Maitland observes during his conversation with his client Audrey Jane Anderson: "Our marriage. What a phrase." It is a phrase and an idea that cannot be avoided when discussing Osborne's play or when considering Maitland's defense of his own life, in which repeated failed unions are inevitably unmasked.
Glimpses into his past show Maitland to be a character drawn more in the tradition of Albee's venomous husband George (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1962) than of Eliot's tragically passive Prufrock ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," 1915). Maitland has "succeeded," as he admits, in "quite certainly inflicting, more pain than pleasure" in those marriages, both literal and metaphoric, that have come to define his life. At the point in this internalized trial that frames the play, he lives on pills and alcohol, totally dependent on what Tennessee Williams would call the kindness of strangers, or as Maitland knows it, on "the goodwill of others." But in Maitland's world kindness and goodwill are anathema, and the middle-aged solicitor is forced to watch as his much-abused ex-wife Sheila and daughter Jane desert him, setting a path that will be followed by law associates, mistresses, and a variety of other women.
His daughter's ghostly figure, hovering in memory and at the edge of the stage, reminds Maitland poignantly of his failed marriages. "But, and this is the but," he admits to her, "I still don't think what you're doing will ever, even, even, even, approach the fibbing, mumping, pinched little worm of energy eating away in this me, of mine, I mean." Fumbling for the language that will bring his thought to expression, Maitland steps into the fullest light of his own drama, acknowledging that he has sunk "slowly into an unremarkable, gummy little hole" of a world, "outside the care or consciousness of anyone."
The play illuminates the vitriol and wastefulness of a life lived in anger. Relationships dissolve and language unravels, neither able to provide the meaning to which Maitland might cling in one final desperate attempt to make sense of his world. He is forced to admit that when "you feel you are gradually being deserted, and isolated, it becomes elusive, more than ever, one can grasp so little, trust nothing." Trapped in self-pity and divorced from any reassuring sense of who he is and what he believes in, he declares late in the play: "[I]t's inhuman to be expected to be capable of giving a decent account of oneself." It is inhuman, Maitland concludes, to be able to articulate clearly the depth and breadth of one's own humanity. As the stage lights fade and Maitland dissolves into shadows, he struggles towards the final separation, divorcing himself from his own life, stepping aside to view himself as a man guilty of a life energized only with a "spluttering and spilling and hardening" spirit.
Source: Klay Dyer, Critical Essay on Inadmissible Evidence, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of John (James) Osborne's work.
Prior to John Osborne's arrival on the scene, the British theater consisted mainly of classics, melodramas, and drawing-room comedies. But in 1956, Osborne's third play and first London-produced drama, Look Back in Anger, shocked audiences and "wiped the smugness off the frivolous face of English theatre," as John Lahr put it in a New York Times Book Review article. "Strangely enough," commented John Mortimer in the New York Times, "Look Back in Anger was, in shape, a conventional well-made play of the sort that might have been constructed by Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan." Yet, as Mortimer explained, "What made it different was that Jimmy Porter, the play's antihero, was the first young voice to cry out for a new generation that had forgotten the war, mistrusted the welfare state and mocked its established rulers with boredom, anger and disgust." As a result, Mortimer observed, "The age of revivals was over. A new and memorable period in the British theater began."
Look Back in Anger established the struggling actor and playwright as a leading writer for theater, television, and film. And, while his later works may not have created as great a stir as his London debut, as Richard Corliss wrote in Time, "The acid tone, at once comic and desperate, sustained Osborne throughout a volatile career." Perhaps more important than its effect on Osborne's personal career, however, was the impact that Look Back in Anger had on British culture. In Corliss's opinion, the play not only changed British theater, directly influencing playwrights such as Joe Orton and Edward Albee, but it also "stoked a ferment in a then sleepy popular culture." All manner of writers, actors, artists, and musicians (including the Beatles) soon reflected the influence of Osborne's "angry young man."
As Look Back in Anger begins, Jimmy Porter is a twenty-five-year-old working-class youth with a provincial university education and bleak hopes for the future. He frequently clashes with his wife, Alison, who comes from a more privileged background. The couple share their tiny flat with Cliff, Jimmy's partner in the sweet-shop business. A triangle forms—Jimmy, Alison, and Alison's friend Helena, who alerts Alison's parents to the squalor their now-pregnant daughter is living in and helps convince Alison to leave Jimmy. Helena, however, stays on and becomes Jimmy's mistress. As time goes on, Alison miscarries and, realizing her love for Jimmy, returns to the flat. Helena decides that she cannot come between Jimmy and his wife any longer and withdraws. Meanwhile, Cliff also leaves the flat in an attempt to better his lot. "And Alison's baby which could have taken Cliff's place in their triangular relationship will never be," Arthur Nicholas Athanason explained in a Dictionary of Literary Biography article. "Jimmy and Alison must depend more than ever now on fantasy games to fill this void and to achieve what moments of intimacy and peaceful coexistence they can in their precarious marriage."
With the immediate and controversial success of Look Back in Anger, continued Athanason, the author "found himself, overnight, regarded as a critic of society or, more precisely, a reflector of his generation's attitudes toward society. Needless to say, the concern and feeling for intimate personal relationships that are displayed in Look Back in Anger may indeed have social and moral implications. But what really moves Osborne in this play seems to be the inability of people to understand and express care for each other better—particularly in their language and their emotional responsiveness. What is new and experimental in British drama about [the play] is the explosive character of Jimmy Porter and his brilliant and dazzling vituperative tirades, in which a renewed delight in a Shavian vigor and vitality of language and ideas is displayed with virtuoso command." Noting a resemblance to Tennessee Williams's play A Streetcar Named Desire, Athanason labeled Look Back in Anger "an intimate portrait of an extremely troubled working-class marriage (riddled with psychological problems and sexual frustrations), which was, in its way, a theatrical first for British drama."
When Look Back in Anger opened in London in 1956, few critics showed enthusiasm for the play. Kenneth Tynan, in a review for the Observer, was the most notable exception. He found that Osborne had skillfully captured the character of British youth, "the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of ‘official’ attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour." Tynan conceded that because disillusioned youth was at the play's center, it might have been narrowly cast at a youthful audience. "I agree that Look Back in Anger is a minority taste," he wrote. "What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between twenty and thirty."
Most other critics could not see beyond Jimmy's explosive character to examine the themes underlying the fury he directed against the social mores of the day. More recent critics have been able to look back with greater objectivity on the merits and impact of the play. "Osborne, through Jimmy Porter, was voicing the natural uncertainties of the young, their frustrations at being denied power, their eventual expectations of power and their fears of abusing it, either in running a country or a family," noted John Elsom in his book Post-War British Theatre. For this reason, Elsom suggested, Osborne was not guilty, as some critics maintained, of simply using Jimmy's anger as a ploy to create shock and sensationalism. Nor was he guilty of portraying the angry young man as cool. "Osborne made no attempt to glamorise the anger," Elsom wrote. "Jimmy was not just the critic of his society, he was also the object for criticism. He was the chief example of the social malaise which he was attacking. Through Jimmy Porter, Osborne had opened up a much wider subject than rebelliousness or youthful anger, that of social alienation, the feeling of being trapped in a world of meaningless codes and customs."
So impressed was Laurence Olivier with Look Back in Anger that the actor commissioned Osborne to write a play for him. The result was a drama—The Entertainer—which featured a leading role that is considered one of the greatest and most challenging parts in late twentieth-century drama. In chronicling the life of wilting, third-rate music- hall comedian Archie Rice, Osborne was acknowledged to be reflecting in The Entertainer the fate of post-war Britain, an island suffering recession and unemployment, losing its status as an empire. "Archie is of a piece with the angry Osborne antiheroes of Look Back in Anger and [the author's later play] Inadmissible Evidence," noted Frank Rich in a New York Times review of a revival of The Entertainer. "He's a repulsive, unscrupulous skunk, baiting everyone around him (the audience included); he's also a somewhat tragic victim of both his own self-contempt and of a declining England. If it's impossible to love Archie, we should be electrified or at least antagonized by his pure hostility and his raw instinct for survival. Mr. Osborne has a way of making us give his devils their pitiful due."
The drama's allegory of fading Britain and Olivier's compelling portrayal of Archie made The Entertainer a remarkable success in its first production. However, when it was revived on Broadway in 1983 with Nicol Williamson as Archie, New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr observed that in the play Osborne "has first shown us, at tedious, now cliche-ridden lengths how dreary the real world has become—what with blacks moving in upstairs, sons being sent off to Suez, and everyone else sitting limply about complaining of it all." Kerr added, "He has then had the drummer hit the rim of the snare as a signal that we're leaping over into music-hall make-believe—only to show us that it is exactly as dreary, exactly as deflated, exactly as dead as the onetime promise in the parlor. There is limpness in the living room and there is limpness before the footlights…. There is no transfusion of ‘vitality,’ no theatrical contrasts."
As Athanason explained, the author "owes a particular indebtedness to the turns and stock-character types of the English music-hall tradition, and, in The Entertainer particularly, he set out to capitalize on the dramatic as well as the comic potential of these values. For example, by conceiving each scene of this play as a music-hall turn, Osborne enables the audience to see both the ‘public’ Archie performing his trite patter before his ‘dead behind the eyes’ audience and the ‘private’ Archie performing a different comic role of seeming nonchalance before his own family."
Inadmissible Evidence presents another Osborne type in Bill Maitland, a contemporary London attorney who finds that his lusts for power, money, and women do little to fill the emotional voids in his life. Athanason described the play as opening in a "Kafkaesque dream sequence set in a courtroom that foreshadows the fate of [Maitland,] on trial before his own conscience for ‘having unlawfully and wickedly published and made known a wicked, bawdy and scandalous object’—himself." Although he pleads not guilty to the court's indictment of him, his life is presumably the inadmissible evidence that he dares not produce in mitigation.
"Essentially a journey through the static spiritual hell of Maitland's mind, Inadmissible Evidence dramatizes a living, mental nightmare that culminates, as Maitland's alienation is pushed to its inevitable end, in a complete nervous breakdown," continued Athanason. "The play is principally a tour de force monologue for one actor, for its secondary characters are mere dream figures and metaphors that externalize the intense conflict going on within Maitland's disintegrating mind." The critic also felt that in this drama Osborne demonstrated his finest writing to date.
Osborne wrote other notable plays, including A Patriot for Me, a fictional telling of the trial and last days of Hungary's infamous Captain Redl, who was framed for his homosexuality and pronounced an enemy of the state; and Luther, a biography of religious reformist Martin Luther, an antihero in his time. But the works that garnered Osborne perhaps the widest notice after the mid-1960s were not plays but autobiographies: A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956, and Almost a Gentleman, Volume II: An Autobiography, 1955-1966.
In relating his life story through the age of twenty- six in A Better Class of Person, Osborne caught the attention of critics for his caustic, even bitter, descriptions of his home life, especially his relationship with his parents. Osborne's father, who worked intermittently in advertising, was a sickly figure who spent his last years in a sanitarium. His mother, a bartender, seems to be the focal point of the author's harshest remarks. Osborne "looks back, of course, in anger," remarked John Leonard in a New York Times article. "In general, he is angry at England's lower middle class, of which he is the vengeful child. In particular, he reviles his mother, who is still alive. Class and mother, in this fascinating yet unpleasant book, sometimes seem to be the same mean thing, a blacking factory." Through his harsh view of family and society, Osborne captured the essence of his time and place. David Hare maintained in the New Statesman, "He understands better than any modern writer that emotion repressed in the bricked-up lives of the suburb-dweller does not disappear, but that instead it leaks, distorted, through every pore of the life: in whining, in meanness, in stubbornness, in secrecy."
If Osborne's memories were more bitter than sweet, a number of critics found that the author's hard-bitten style made for an interesting set of memoirs. Washington Post Book World reviewer David Richards did not, indicating that "like the male characters in his plays, who fulminate against the sordidness of life, Osborne is probably a romantic manque. But it is often difficult to feel the real anguish under the relentless invective of his writing. A Better Class of Person is the least likeable of autobiographies, although it should, no doubt, be pointed out that affability has never been one of Osborne's goals." More often, however, critics had praise for the book. Hilary Mantel commented in the London Review of Books, "A Better Class of Person is written with the tautness and power of a well-organized novel. It is a ferociously sulky, rancorous book." Hare was impressed by Osborne's style: "His prose is so supple, so enviably clear that you realise how many choices he has always had as a writer."
Other reviewers were taken, as John Russell Taylor put it in Plays and Players, by "not the sense of what he is saying, but the sheer force with which he says it." In the words of Newsweek's Ray Sawhill, Osborne "has an explosive gift for denunciation and invective, and what he's written is—deliberately, nakedly—a tantrum…. He can blow meanness and pettiness up so large that they acquire a looming sensuality, like a slow-motion movie scene. His savage relish can be so palpable that you share his enjoyment of the dynamics of rage." Osborne's memoirs constitute "the best piece of writing [the author] has done since Inadmissible Evidence," according to John Lahr in his New York Times Book Review piece. "After [that play,] his verbal barrages became grapeshot instead of sharpshooting. He neither revised his scripts nor moderated his cranky outbursts. His plays, like his pronouncements about an England he could no longer fathom, became second-rate and self-indulgent. But A Better Class of Person takes its energy from looking backward to the source of his pain before fame softened him. [The work proves that] John Osborne once again is making a gorgeous fuss."
Some readers of A Better Class of Person expected more insights into the playwright's writing process; instead, Osborne offered only insights into the playwright. As Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin pointed out, "There is nothing about stagecraft in A Better Class of Person, but everything about the making of the playwright. The [author's Look Back in Anger] was abrasive and so is the autobiography. It is also, like the play, savagely well- written, vividly detailed, and corrosively honest, unique as autobiography in its refusal to touch up the author's image. He encourages us to find him impossible and absolutely authentic." The self-portrait that Osborne paints, observed Benedict Nightingale in Encounter, "is of a young man of strong likes and (and more often) dislikes, capable of passion but also, as he himself wryly recognizes, of a disconcerting pettiness; a dedicated rebel, though mainly in the sense of not hesitating to make himself objectionable to the dull, drab or conventional. Interestingly, he seems to be without social or political convictions."
Osborne continued his autobiography—his exploration into the people, places, and events that made him the caustic king of the British theater—in Almost a Gentleman. In Hilary Mantel's view, Osborne's first volume of autobiography "bears witness to the grown man's failure to separate himself emotionally from a woman he despises [his mother]…. The consequences of this failure are played out in the second volume: they are a disabling misogyny, a series of failed and painful relationships, a grim determination to spit in the world's eye. He is not lovable, he knows; very well, he'll be hateful then." By the second volume, critics were not surprised by the force of Osborne's hatefulness, so they were able to look beyond it to the writing, its stories and style. As Alan Brien wrote in the New Statesman, "Few practitioners provide twin barrels fired at once so often as John Osborne. However, after the initial splutter, there are still a few anecdotes that leave this reader dissatisfied." Brien also found Osborne's writing uneven. "His language comes in two modes. Rather too often his use is slapdash and approximate, at once confusing and surreal." Times Literary Supplement contributor Jeremy Treglown faulted the book for disintegrating "into a sad jumble of diary entries, fan-letters, bits of Osborne's journalism and occasional drenching of sentimentality or bile." Yet, Brien admitted, "Almost equally often, he wields his pen like a blow-torch, melting down banalities and cliches into new-minted inventions of his own that sting and sizzle."
In the early 1990s, Osborne looked back on Look Back in Anger, writing a sequel entitled Dejavu. This episode in the life of Jimmy Porter, the angry young man, finds a twice-divorced Jimmy living with his grown daughter Alison in a large country home. His buddy Cliff still spends a lot of time and shares a lot of drinks with Jimmy. The fourth character is a friend of Alison's and Jimmy's soon-to-be lover. "Some of the targets inevitably have changed, and the bile is now more elegantly expressed," observed Jack Pitman in Variety, "but otherwise hardly a beat has been missed in the 36 years since ‘Anger’ rocked the Brits." The biggest change is that Osborne's angry young man has become an angry old man. A reviewer in the Economist characterized the result: "For much of the first act Jimmy Porter sounds like an educated Alf Garnett—or, for Americans, an educated Archie Bunker." He rails against his past and how it has brought him to his current station. He failed before and he continues to fail. Suggested the Economist review, "He fails in life because he is not willing to make the compromises to his social superiors that are necessary for success in England."
Osborne had a great deal of difficulty having his final play staged, and it was not widely reviewed. The playwright's difficulties at finding success at the end of his career seemed to parallel the difficulties portrayed in this episode of Jimmy Porter's life. Time reviewer Richard Corliss called Dejavu "a glum sequel to Anger. In it [Osborne] described himself as ‘a churling, grating note, a spokesman for no one but myself; with deadening effect, cruelly abusive, unable to be coherent about my despair.’" Still, critics found merit in Osborne's ability to turn his critical, mocking eye on himself. Wrote Matt Wolf in the Chicago Tribune, "Unendurable as Dejavu seems as if it's going to be, it is that rare play which really does improve, and by the last half hour or so, both it—and its superb star, Peter Egan—have long since exerted a rather macabre fascination." Pitman admitted that the play is long and without a coherent plot but acknowledged that "the show takes on an emotional depth as the raging misfit Porter gradually concedes the failure of his life."
John Osborne's anger may not have inspired the same following later in his career as it did with the debut of Look Back in Anger in 1956. Yet, his impact on the theater remains indisputable. "Few dramatists tried to mimic the Osborne style in the way in which [Harold] Pinter was imitated," Elsom commented. "The success of Look Back in Anger, however, destroyed several inhibiting myths about plays: that the theatre had to be genteel, that heroes were stoical and lofty creatures, that audiences needed nice people with whom to identify." John Mortimer maintained that the positive power of Osborne's anger was also beyond dispute. "Osborne's anger was in defense of old values of courage and honor. It was often unreasonable, wonderfully ill considered and always, as he wrote of Tennessee Williams's plays, ‘full of private fires and personal visions worth a thousand statements of a thousand politicians.’"
Source: Thomson Gale, "John (James) Osborne," in Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following review, Kemp comments on the "self-testimony" and "special pleading for a character who seems his author's alter ego." He praises several of the cast but finds that Inadmissible Evidence is a "solo turn."
Di Trevis's production of Inadmissible Evidence makes one notable addition to the play; a closing tableau in which most of the cast are seen sitting in a jury-box and staring accusingly at the protagonist, Bill Maitland. While in keeping with the judicial atmosphere of the work—which opens with a fantasy courtroom sequence and spotlights the personal and professional trials of a solicitor—it's an incorporation that is not altogether judicious. For, as the rest of the evening has exhibited, Inadmissible Evidence is a play that puts a man in the dock, only to let him slip out of it and don the robes of prosecuting counsel, stabbing the finger of indictment at everyone and everything around him.
Almost three decades on from its first production in 1964, Inadmissible Evidence—its scabrous directness no longer a novelty—shows itself more clearly as an exercise in special pleading for a character who seems his author's alter ego. Though it shifts from opening phantasmagoria into something closer to naturalism, the drama stays intensely solipsistic—as the set at the Lyttelton, with its see-through walls and weird fades, suggests. True to the seething, drink-muzzed consciousness the play dramatizes, scenes elliptically blur, people swim into sharp, momentary prominence, then float away.
Around the sneering, snarling figure at the heart of the drama, occurrences are far from varied. Such plot as the play possesses consists of clients, colleagues, secretary, switchboard-girl, daughter, mistress and wife parting company with Maitland. Emphasizing this escalating breaking-off of communication, there's repeated trouble with telephones: missed or cut-off calls, engaged lines. But the only connection Maitland really seems interested in establishing is with his inner self.
As always in Osborne, monologue is the preferred mode. Significantly, the first utterance of any length not made by Maitland—a woman's deposition for divorce—describes a man whose predicament replicates his. Other tales of woe recited by visitors to Maitland's office are likewise transformed into projections and reflections of his own malaise.
As the embodiment of the septic sensibility taking up most of the play, Trevor Eve puts in a portrayal that is younger and more vigorous than the legendarily fetid figure Nicol Williamson made of the role in 1964 and again in 1978. Vitality vibrates through Eve's fleshing-out of Maitland's rebarbative lineaments: the frantic fumblings for pills and whisky, the flickerings of the sour tongue round the stale mouth, the swivellings of the jaundiced eyes in search of some fresh target to abuse, the spitting tirades of derision.
A result of this more youthful-seeming playing of the part is to highlight the arrested immaturity of Maitland, shown especially in his callow assumption that strident truculence is the only alternative to mealy-mouthed hypocrisy. Mixed up with this is the notion that vehemence of feeling somehow excuses vileness of behaviour. Through Maitland's diatribes of disgust, Osborne strives to convince you that he is a man tortured by a craving for the "good fortune of friendship" and the "comfort of love", tormented by thwarted "energy".
This is most clamorously expressed in an encapsulating scene where Maitland's daughter—here emblematically got up in Carnaby Street plastic mac, suede knee-boots, mini-shift and beads—is required to stand totally mute while he berates her and her generation for their affectless poise and cool hedonism. As against her "swinging indifference", you gather, he represents swingeing concern. His rage, it is intimated as a plea of mitigation, stems from outrage. Laced with the play's invective is sedulous self-advocacy. Along with the depiction of a breakdown goes a kind of build-up.
One hindrance to this effort to elevate Maitland's fulminations is that he appears most disturbed by mere aesthetic shortcomings. Decrying people's dress sense, fondness for the Christmas lights in Regent Street or liking for mascots in their car's rear window, his aggrieved outbursts carry as much moral impact as the peeves of a ratty, jeering style-journalist.
Though the subsidiary characters mainly function as grouting around the grousing, Trevis's cast work wonders with what's available. Lynn Farleigh nicely differentiates three wives, each petitioning for divorce in language that pathetically mingles the domestic and the legalistic. As a dapper homosexual who has been entrapped by the police, Jason Watkins—at once courageous and rather campily comfy—is excellent. And Matilda Zeigler is perkily effective as the sexy butt of Maitland's sexism.
Essentially, though, Inadmissible Evidence is a solo turn: a self-testimony which, despite the final tableau this production sets up, is far from designed to bring in an unequivocal verdict of guilty. Opening as if it might be an unwavering X-ray of a confused psyche, the play swivels into a flatteringly angled mirror in which inflamed narcissism can contemplate itself.
Source: Peter Kemp, "The Mirror and the Lump," in Times Literary Supplement, July 2, 1993, p. 20.
In the following review, Gassner asserts that Osborne's main character in Inadmissible Evidence is "mediocre," expresses himself minimally and with total indifference to others. He also reproaches Osborne's writing as lacking insight and feeling.
On Broadway, as has been recently the case with embarrassing frequency, the most distinguished productions were of European, mainly English, provenance—most notably Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence, and John Whiting's The Devils …
Concerning Inadmissible Evidence, much as one may be grateful for seeing another play by this gifted writer, I can only wonder whether, so to speak, Osborne's ingenious game is worth the candle. The game includes such departures from tight, realistic, and "well-made" structure as starting the action backward, deliberately making the scenes repetitive, depriving the story of a conclusion other than letting the central solicitor-character Bill Maitland drop his tired head on his desk, and requiring one actress to play three different women as if to say tell us that the desperately sated, emotionally drained debauchee and failure Maitland sees all women in the same impersonal way. A related intention reveals itself first in a long monologue that isolates the alienated middle-aged lawyer Maitland for the audience and also makes the play-structure as lopsided as the character's life and as febrile (in a somewhat expressionistic manner) as his state of mind. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the entire play is a monologue even after the bizarre prologue. The central character is morbidly involved only with his own ego, and so nobody else actually matters to him, neither his wife nor his mistresses nor his employees. He seeks to hold on to an office girl with whom he has had a pallid affair, but he has hurt her too much to be able to repair the relationship. He makes one belated effort to attach his legal associate to himself by offering him a partnership. He makes a lame attempt to win the affection or at least the attention of his long-neglected daughter in one fine scene played by her entirely in pantomime, and he gets not a syllable of response from her. He doesn't even get a good fight out of the mostly cardboard figures with whom he has such unsavory relationships or casual dealings; and this fact, this essential lack of conflict, tells heavily against the play. In the end he is left alone, a fading egotist mired in his own quicksand of unstable relationships, a morbid romanticist manqué, a mouldy Don Juan with a sharp mind that sputters apt phrases to signalize disillusion with himself and others.
That there is no genuine story after the prologue in which he gives "inadmissible evidence" against himself in the privacy of his chambers is easily apparent. There is only a swirl of rapid recollection and confrontations that occasionally constitute an episode; the visis of a hopelessly homosexual client makes an especially strong scene. That the play supplies a remarkably incisive character portrait is its main, perhaps its only virtue. That it gives us not much else is the mark of its intrinsic failure, disguised by its theatricality of the structure and the opportunity it affords the gifted young British actor Nicol Williamson for an unforgettable tour-de-force performance. It would be certainly unforgettable if it were not such a relief for some of us to forget the insufferable character he impersonates. In England, the omnipresence of this "person" on the stage must have been appreciated as an exposé, and the public and the reviewers in London (where Inadmissible Evidence ran half an hour longer) could endure even more of him than the New York management dared entrust to the mercies of American playgoers, who evinced no eagerness to storm the box-office. Here it seems to me Bill Maitland is mostly a bore. In portraying a corruptible, if supercilious weakling, John Osborne was far more successful when he collaborated with the actor Anthony Creighton on Epitaph for George Dillon; even if this role was much less theatrically striking than that of Maitland, George Dillon was involved in greater depth with other and more richly drawn characters. His failure while less spectacular was also more meaningful because the earlier written play developed a natural process of decline in the case of a character who succumbs to a commonplace marriage and a career of hack-writing after pretensions to superiority. It is, in sum, altogether possible to tire of magnified exposure, no matter how brilliantly accomplished, of a third-rate Hamlet of the professional classes like Maitland even while Osborn remains an admittedly vigorous and fortunately still "angry" man. The very magnification of the presentation of this character by Osborne's showmanship, the very theatricalization of the exposé, calls attention to the waste of effort in exposing him at a greater length than a one-act-play.
If this review, too, may seem to have exceeded a justifiable length, my justification is the fact that Inadmissible Evidence came here with the enthusiastic endorsement of London critics, one of whom acclaimed it as "Mr. Osborne's best play to date." Some New York reviewers were also greatly impressed with it. Henry Hewes of The Saturday Review wrote that the play was a theatrical statement "naked and shattering yet ultimately soaring above the desperation it so relentlessly presents." I wish I could agree with a former student and a tireless friend of the stage on two continents instead of agreeing with Robert Brustein of the New Republic that except in the George Dillon play, "Osborne's writing has always lacked a magnetic core around which particles of insight and feeling might collect"—here especially in the case of a mediocre character whose action, if one can call it such, is from the beginning an exercise in "solipsism." …
Source: John Gassner, "Broadway in Review," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1, March 1966, pp. 55, 59-60.
Brustein, Robert, "The English Stage," in Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Spring 1966, p. 132.
Clurman, Harold, Review of Inadmissible Evidence, in Nation, December 20, 1965, p. 508.
Gassner, John, "Broadway in Review," in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1, March 1966, p. 59.
Nightingale, Benedict, "Critic's Choice," in Times (London), May 6, 2006, p. 19.
Osborne, John, Inadmissible Evidence, Faber and Faber, 1965.
——, Inadmissible Evidence: Plays Three, Faber and Faber, 1998, pp. 177-264.
Rich, Frank, "The Stage: Inadmissible Evidence," in New York Times, February 24, 1981, p. C18.
Trussler, Simon, "British Neo-Naturalism," in Drama Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter 1968, p. 138.
Denison, Patricia D., ed., John Osborne: A Casebook, Garland, 1997.
Denison has collected a wide range of useful articles on Osborne, such as analyses of individual plays, including Inadmissible Evidence; an examination of the plays' reflection of their historical moments; a commentary by Osborne's contemporary in British theater, Arnold Wesker; and a comprehensive bibliography.
Gilleman, Luc, John Osborne: Vituperative Artist, Routledge, 2002.
Gilleman focuses on the themes of power and sexual politics in Osborne's plays, analyzing their destructive effects on his characters.
Heilpern, John, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man, Knopf, 2007.
Heilpern provides a fascinating account of Osborne's life and uncovers the autobiographical elements in his plays, especially those that deal with the psychology of his characters.
Shellard, Dominic, British Theater since the War, Yale University Press, 2000.
Shellard presents a comprehensive view of trends in British theater in the latter half of the twentieth century, examining political and social influences and successful exports, as well as the development of the National Theatre.