John Osborne

views updated May 14 2018

John Osborne

The English playwright John Osborne (1929-1994) was the first of Britain's "Angry Young Men"—a group of social critics and writers. He scathingly attacked many of the establishment's hallowed values in his numerous plays of the 1960s.

John Osborne was born on Dec. 12, 1929, to an advertising writer and a Cockney barmaid. After his father died, when John was a young boy, he attended Belmont College in Devon, but he hated public school. Trying first journalism, then acting, Osborne joined Anthony Creighton's provincial touring company and collaborated with him on two plays.

Osborne's first important work, The Devil inside Him, written with Stella Linden, was performed in 1950. It is a melodrama about a Welsh youth who kills a girl after she falsely accuses him of fathering her child. Personal Enemy (1955), written with Creighton, concerns the effect upon family and friends of a military prisoner's decision to refuse repatriation from Korea.

A Revolution in Theater

Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) brought a revolution to English theater as its protagonist, Jimmy Porter, voiced the protests of a generation seething with dissatisfaction. The so-called "angry young men" felt there were no good causes left to die for. In his most famous play, Osborne castigated the hypocrisy of the lower middle class with his excoriating wit. In his obituary on Osborne, Richard Corliss of Time called the play "a seismic shock that seemed to signal the birth of a new urgency and the death of the reigning theatrical gentility" and a play that "forever changed the face of theater." Look Back in Anger, Corliss wrote, was "drama as rant, an explosion of bad manners, a declaration of war against an empire in twilight" and "a self-portrait of the artist as an angry young man."

That successful play was followed by The Entertainer (1957), the story of Archie Rice, a seedy, bitter, middle-aged music hall entertainer who suffers from his inability to communicate with his family or with his audiences. Look Back in Anger became a film in 1958, and The Entertainer was made into a movie in 1960, starring Laurence Olivier.

A Blooming Career

The central character in Epitaph for George Dillon (1958), written earlier with Creighton, is an unsuccessful writer-actor forced to confront his self-dramatizing illusions. The World of Paul Slickey (1959), also written earlier, introduces a hero-villain gossip columnist plagued by doubts and depressions in achieving success.

Luther (1961), a historical play, became a popular and critical success. The presentation of Luther was modeled on Bertolt Brecht's Galileo. The well-received Inadmissible Evidence (1964) portrays a philandering lawyer who fully reveals himself while undergoing a crisis of isolation. A Patriot for Me (1965) centers around the career of a homosexual Austrian army colonel as he is blackmailed by Russian intelligence agents into becoming a traitor.

A Bond Honoured (1966) is an adaptation of Lope de Vega's La fianza satisfecha. It features an amoral rebel who, after committing atrocities, defiantly refuses payment to Christ. Social and emotional interactions between gifted people of the entertainment world are the distinguishing features of Time Present and The Hotel in Amsterdam (1968).

Anger Turned Inward

Osborne's own outraged feelings and his provocative honesty charged his best plays with a strident, sometimes desperate note as he attacked the failure of the right and left, both literary and political, to improve the quality of life in modern Britain. His "acid tone, at once comic and desperate," according to Corliss of Time, remained sharp throughout his career, reflected in screenplays such as Tom Jones (1993). But Inadmissible Evidence was his last real hit, and he grew bitter as his audiences grew more scarce.

Osborne's anger was often directed at women, both on stage and in real life. At 21 he married actress Pamela Lane, the first of his five wives (the others were actress Jill Bennett and Mary Ure and writers Penelope Gilliatt and Helen Dawson). He nicknamed Bennett "Adolf," after Hitler, wrote that her voice on stage sounded "like a puppy with a mouthful of lavatory paper," and rejoiced when she committed suicide. He wrote that his only regret at her death was "that I was unable to look down upon her open coffin and, like that bird in the Book of Tobit, drop a good, large mess in her eye."

Osborne's other favorite target was homosexuals. In Time Present, he called them "uniformly bitchy, envious, self-seeking, fickle and usually without passion." A month after Osborne's death in 1994, his friend and fellow playwright Creighton made public a series of letters that documented that he and Osborne had conducted a long-running homosexual affair since the early 1950s.

In Osborne's later years, his misanthropic rage grew tiresome to critics. Reviewing his second volume of memoirs, Almost a Gentleman (1991), London's Economist magazine said it "seems to have been written at just that stage of drunkenness when a boor, flailing around with his fists, is about to collapse in tears." In his last play, Dejavu (1992), a sequel to Look Back in Anger, 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."

Further Reading

Several critical studies of Osborne's work are Ronald Hayman, ed., John Osborne (1968), and Simon Trussler, The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment (1969). Osborne figures prominently in a number of works on British drama: George E. Wellwarth, The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant Garde Drama (1964); John Russell Brown, ed., Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays (1968); and John Russell Taylor, The Angry Theatre: New British Drama (rev. ed. 1969). Frank Magill's Critical Survey of Drama (1994) has a profile of Osborne. □