John James Osborne (December 12, 1929 - December 24, 1994) was an English playwright, screenwriter, and critic of The Establishment. The stunning success of his 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, transformed English theater. In a productive life of more than 40 years, Osborne explored many themes and genres, writing for stage, film, and television. His personal life was extravagant and iconoclastic. He was notorious for the ornate violence of his language, not only on behalf of the political causes he supported but also against his own family, including his wives and children though they often gave as good as they got.
He came onto the theatrical scene at a time when British acting was enjoying a golden age, but most great plays came from the United States and France. British plays remained blind to the complexities of the postwar period. Osborne was one of the first writers to address Britain's purpose in the post-imperial age. He was the first to question the point of the monarchy on a prominent public stage. During his peak (1956-1966), he helped make contempt an acceptable and now even cliched on stage emotion, argued for the cleansing wisdom of bad behavior and bad taste, and combined unsparing truthfulness with devastating wit.
He was born in December 1929, in London, the son of Thomas Godfrey Osborne, a commercial artist and advertising copywriter of South Welsh extraction, and Nellie Beatrice, a Cockney barmaid. He adored his father and hated his mother, whom he later wrote taught him "The fatality of hatred… She is my disease, an invitation to my sick room," and described her as "hypocritical, self-absorbed, calculating, and indifferent." Thomas died in 1941, leaving the young boy an insurance settlement which he used to finance a private education at Belmont College, a minor public school in Devon. He entered the school in 1943, but was expelled in the summer term of 1945, after whacking the headmaster, who had struck him for listening to a forbidden broadcast by Frank Sinatra. School certificate was the only formal qualification he acquired, but he possessed a native intelligence.
After school, Osborne went home to his mother in London and briefly tried trade journalism. A job tutoring a touring company of junior actors introduced him to the theater. He soon became involved as a stage manager and acting, joining Anthony Creighton's provincial touring company. Osborne tried his hand at writing plays, co-writing his first, The Devil Inside Him, with his mentor, Stella Linden, who then directed it at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield in 1950. Around this time he also married Pamela Lane. His second play, Personal Enemy, was written with Anthony Creighton (with whom he also wrote Epitaph for George Dillon staged at the Royal Court in 1958) and staged in regional theaters before he submitted Look Back in Anger.
Look Back in Anger
Written in seventeen days in a deckchair on Morecambe pier where he was performing in a creaky rep show called Seagulls over Sorrento, Look Back in Anger was largely autobiographical, based on his time living, and arguing, with Pamela Lane in cramped accommodation in Derby while she cheated on him with a local dentist. It was submitted to agents all over London and returned with great rapidity. In his autobiography, Osborne writes: "The speed with which it had been returned was not surprising, but its aggressive dispatch did give me a kind of relief. It was like being grasped at the upper arm by a testy policeman and told to move on." Finally, it was sent to the newly-formed English Stage Company at London's Royal Court Theatre. Formed by actor-manager and artistic director George Devine, the company's first three productions had been flops and it urgently needed a success just to survive. Devine was prepared to gamble on this play because he saw in it a ferocious and scowling articulation of a new post-war spirit. Osborne was living on a leaky houseboat on the River Thames at the time with Creighton, stewing up nettles from the riverbank to eat. So keen was Devine to contact Osborne that he rowed out to the boat to tell him he would like to make the play the fourth production to enter the repertory. The play was directed by Tony Richardson and starred Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure, and Alan Bates. It was George Fearon, a part-time press officer at the theater, who invented the phrase, "angry young man." Fearon told Osborne that he disliked the play and feared it would be impossible to market.1
In 1993, a year before his death, Osborne wrote that the opening night was "an occasion I only partly remember, but certainly with more accuracy than those who subsequently claimed to have been present and, if they are to be believed, would have filled the theatre several times over." Reviews were mixed. Most of the critics who attended the first night felt it was a failure, and it looked as if the English Stage Company was going to go into liquidation.2 The Evening Standard, for example, called the play "a failure" and "a self-pitying snivel." But the following Sunday, Kenneth Tynan of The Observer-the most influential critic of the age-praised it to the skies: "I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger," he wrote, "It is the best young play of its decade." Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times called Osborne "a writer of outstanding promise." During production, the married Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure, and would divorce his wife, Pamela Lane, to marry her in 1957. The play went on to be an enormous commercial success, transferring to the West End and to Broadway, touring to Moscow, and, in 1958, a film version was released with Richard Burton and Mary Ure in the leading roles. The play turned Osborne from a struggling playwright into a wealthy and famous angry young man and won him the Evening Standard Drama Award as the most promising playwright of the year.
The Entertainer and into the 1960s
When he first saw Look Back in Anger, Laurence Olivier was dismissive, viewing the play as unpatriotic and bad theater, "a travesty on England."3 At the time, Olivier was making a film of Rattigan's The Prince and the Showgirl, co-starring Marilyn Monroe, and she was accompanied to London by her then-husband Arthur Miller. Olivier asked the American dramatist what plays he might want to see in London. Based on its title, Miller suggested Osborne's work; Olivier tried to dissuade him, but the playwright was insistent and the two of them saw it together.
Miller found the play revelatory, and they went backstage to meet Osborne. Olivier was impressed by the American's reaction, and asked John Osborne to write him a play; John Heilpern suggests the great actor's about-face was due to a midlife crisis, Olivier seeking a new challenge after decades of success in Shakespeare and other classics, and fearful of losing his preeminence to this new kind of theater. George Devine, artistic director of the Royal Court, sent Olivier the incomplete script of The Entertainer (1957, filmed in 1959) and Olivier initially wanted to play Billy Rice, the lead character's decent elderly father. On seeing the finished script, he changed his mind and took the central role as failing music-hall performer Archie Rice, playing to great acclaim both at the Royal Court and then in the West End.4
The Entertainer uses the metaphor of the dying music hall tradition to comment on the moribund state of the British Empire, something flagrantly revealed during the Suez Crisis of November 1956, which elliptically forms the backdrop to the play. An experimental piece, The Entertainer was interspersed with vaudeville performances. Most critics praised the development of an exciting writing talent:
A real pro is a real man, all he needs is an old backcloth behind him and he can hold them on his own for half an hour. He's like the general run of people, only he's a lot more like them than they are themselves, if you understand me.
The words are Archie Rice's, though as with much of Osborne's work they could be said to represent his own sentiments, as with this quote from Look Back in Anger:
Oh, heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm-that's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out "Hallelujah! Hallelujah. I'm alive!"
Following The Entertainer were The World of Paul Slickey (1959), a musical which satirizes the tabloid press, the unusual television documentary play A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960) and the 1962 double bill, Plays for England, comprising "The Blood of the Bambergs" and "Under Plain Covers."
Luther, depicting the life of Martin Luther, the archetypal rebel of an earlier century, was first performed in 1961; it transferred to Broadway and won Osborne a Tony Award. Inadmissible Evidence was first performed in 1964. In between these plays, Osborne won an Oscar for his 1963 adaptation of Tom Jones. A Patriot for Me (1965) was a tale of turn-of-the-century homosexuality and was instrumental in putting the boot in to the eighteenth century system of theatrical censorship under the Lord Chamberlain. Both A Patriot For Me and The Hotel in Amsterdam won Evening Standard Best Play of the Year awards.
1970s and later life
John Osborne's plays in the 1970s included A Sense of Detachment, first produced at the Royal Court in 1972, and Watch It Come Down, first produced at the National Theatre at the Old Vic starring Ralph Richardson.
In 1971, Osborne turned in his most famous acting appearance, lending Cyril Kinnear a sense of civil menace in Get Carter. In 1978, he appeared as an actor in Tomorrow Never Comes and in 1980, in Flash Gordon.
Through the 1980s, Osborne played the role of Shropshire squire with great pleasure and a heavy dose of irony. He wrote a diary for The Spectator. He opened his garden to raise money for the church roof, from which he threatened to withdraw covenant-funding unless the vicar restored the Book of Common Prayer. (He had returned to the Church of England about 1974.)
In the last decade of his life, he published two volumes of autobiography, A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991). A Better Class of Person was filmed by Thames TV in 1985, and was nominated for the Prix Italia with Eileen Atkins and Alan Howard as his parents and Gary Capelin and Neil McPherson as Osborne.
He also collected various newspaper and magazine writings together, in 1994, under the title, Damn You, England. At his memorial service in 1995, playwright David Hare said:
It is, if you like, the final irony that John's governing love was for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get labeled cold. If they are emotional, they get labeled stupid. Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John's case, a person is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing and bolt the back door.
His last play was Déjà Vu (1991), a sequel to Look Back in Anger.
|The Devil Inside||Theatre||1950||with Stella Linden|
|The Great Bear||Theatre||1951||blank verse, never produced|
|Personal Enemy||Theatre||1955||with Anthony Creighton|
|Look Back in Anger||Theatre||1956|
|Epitaph for George Dillon||Theatre||19585||with Anthony Creighton|
|The World Of Paul Slickey||Theatre||1959|
|A Subject Of Scandal And Concern||TV||1960|
|Plays for England||Theatre||1962|
|The Blood of the Bambergs|
|Under Plain Cover|
|A Patriot For Me||Theatre||1965|
|A Bond Honored||Theatre||1966||One-act adaptation of Lope de Vega's La fianza satisfecha|
|The Hotel In Amsterdam||Theatre||1968|
|The Charge of the Light Brigade||Screenplay6||1968|
|The Right Prospectus||TV||1970|
|West Of Suez||Theatre||1971|
|A Sense Of Detachment||Theatre||1972|
|The Gift Of Friendship||TV||1972|
|Hedda Gabler||Theatre||1972||Ibsen adaptation|
|A Place Calling Itself Rome||Theatre||(1973)||Coriolanus adaptation, unproduced|
|Ms, Or Jill And Jack||TV||1974|
|The End Of Me Old Cigar||Theatre||1975|
|The Picture Of Dorian Gray||Theatre||1975||Wilde adaptation|
|Almost A Vision||TV||1976|
|Watch It Come Down||Theatre||1976|
|Try A Little Tenderness||Theatre||(1978)||unproduced|
|Very Like A Whale||TV||1980|
|You're Not Watching Me, Mummy||TV||1980|
|A Better Class of Person||Book||1981||autobiography volume I|
|A Better Class of Person 7||TV||1985|
|God Rot Tunbridge Wells||TV||1985|
|The Father||Theatre||1989||Strindberg adaptation|
|Almost a Gentleman||Book||1991||autobiography volume II|
Osborne remained angry until the end of his life. Many women seem to have found his anger attractive; he had more than his fair share of lovers in addition to wives, and he was not kind to them. Plenty of evidence showed that, in relationships, he was an out-and-out cad. In his own autobiography, he details some of the brazen subterfuges he created in order to commit adultery with Penelope Gilliatt before they were married.8 Jill Bennett's suicide is generally believed to have been a result of Osborne's rejection of her. He said of Bennett: "She was the most evil woman I have come across," and showed open contempt for her suicide.9
In his 2006 biography,10 John Heilpern describes at length a vacation in Valbonne, France, in 1961, that Osborne shared with Tony Richardson, a distraught George Devine, and others. Feigning bafflement over the romantic entanglements of the time, Heilpern writes:
Let's see: Osborne is on a besieged holiday with his aggrieved mistress while having a passionate affair with his future third wife as the founding artistic director of the Royal Court has a nervous breakdown and his current wife gives birth to a son that isn't his.
Osborne's vexations with women extended to an extremely cruel relationship with his daughter, Nolan, born from his marriage with Penelope Gilliatt. His vicious abuse of his teenage daughter culminated with him casting her out of his house when she was aged seventeen. They never spoke again.11 Only his last marriage was comparatively devoted and private, as his wife was intelligent but held no competing ambitions.
He was married five times; the first four ended in divorce, the last in his death:
- 1) Pamela Lane (1951-1957; inspired Alison Porter from Look Back in Anger)
- 2) Mary Ure (1957-1963)
- 3) Penelope Gilliatt (1963-1968)
- 4) Jill Bennett (1968-1977)
- 5) Helen Dawson (former arts journalist and critic for The Observer, 1978-1994)
After a serious liver crisis in 1987, Osborne became a diabetic, injecting twice a day. He died from complications from his diabetes at the age of 65 at his home in Clunton, near Craven Arms, Shropshire. He is buried in St George's churchyard, Clun, Shropshire alongside his last wife, the critic Helen Dawson, who died in 2004.
Osborne was a great fan of Max Miller and saw parallels between them. "I love him, (Max Miller) because he embodied a kind of theatre I admire most. Mary from the Dairy was an overture to the danger that (Max) might go too far. Whenever anyone tells me that a scene or a line in a play of mine goes too far in some way then I know my instinct has been functioning as it should. When such people tell you that a particular passage makes the audience uneasy or restless, then they seem (to me) as cautious and absurd as landladies and girls-who-won't."
Osborne's work transformed British theater. He helped to make it artistically respected again, throwing off the formal constraints of the former generation, and turning its attention once more to language, theatrical rhetoric, and emotional intensity. He saw theater as a weapon with which ordinary people could break down the class barriers and that he had a "beholden duty to kick against the pricks." He wanted his plays to be a reminder of real pleasures and real pains. David Hare said in his memorial address:
John Osborne devoted his life to trying to forge some sort of connection between the acuteness of his mind and the extraordinary power of his heart.
Osborne did change the world of theater, influencing playwrights such as Edward Albee and Mike Leigh. However, work of his authenticity and originality would remain the exception rather than the rule. This did not surprise Osborne; nobody understood the tackiness of the theater better than the man who had played Hamlet on Hayling Island. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writer's Guild of Great Britain.
Osborne joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1959. However, like Philip Larkin, he drifted to the libertarian, unorganized right, considering himself "a radical who hates change."
- ↑ Little & McLaughlin, p. 25.
- ↑ Little & McLaughlin, p. 326.
- ↑ The Guardian, "It's me, isn't it?" Retrieved July 7, 2008.
- ↑ The Guardian, "It's me, isn't it?" Retrieved July 7, 2008.
- ↑ Written before LBIA but not staged at the Royal Court Theatre until 2 years later.
- ↑ Uncredited, due to a script war with director Tony Richardson.
- ↑ This was a TV adaptation of the first volume of Osborne's autobiography
- ↑ Osborne, p 181-3.
- ↑ Heilpern, p. 443.
- ↑ Heilpern, p. 267
- ↑ Heilpern, p 421-2.
- doollee.com. John Osborne. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
- Heilpern, John. John Osborne: A Patriot for Us. Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 978-0-70116-780-7.
- Little, Ruth, and Emily McLaughlin. The Royal Court Theatre Inside Out. Oberon Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84002-763-1.
- Osborne, John. Almost a Gentleman. Faber & Faber, 1991. ISBN 0-571-16635-0.