John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man
by John Heilpern
Knopf, 527 pp., $35.00
In the last play he wrote before his death in 1994, John Osborne returned to where it all began. As the curtain comes up on Déjàvu, the audience is meant to experience the sense of uncanny familiarity alluded to in the title. Two men, Jimmy and his sidekick Cliff, are lounging about with the Sunday newspapers and a woman called Alison is behind them, doing the ironing. We are back at the start of Look Back in Anger, the play that, in 1956, transformed Osborne from obscure actor to spokesman for a generation.
Yet the self-conscious similarities serve mainly to illustrate other transformations. The dingy room in which we first encountered Jimmy Porter is now a large country house with a well-stocked cellar and champagne permanently on ice, a setting remarkably reminiscent of the smug English plays that Osborne himself drove from the stage. The hero who once raged against religion and the class system now has the Book of Common Prayer close to hand and believes that the class system is merely the just expression of the unequal distribution of intelligence. Jimmy Porter, described by Kenneth Tynan as “the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet,” is now a cut-price Lear, raging not against the tempest on the heath, but against the bugbears of disgruntled English squires: postal codes, the European Union, trendy clerics, anti-smoking campaigns.
The familiar way to sum up John Osborne would be to say that he declined from radical firebrand to Blimpish curmudgeon, while his work dwindled from public passion to mere solipsism. Yet the truth may be rather simpler. Osborne always was a reactionary, and never had any real subject but himself. In Look Back in Anger, a broadly political rage against the nuclear arms race, the ruling class, and the welfare state is inextricably intertwined with attacks on lovers, friends, and family. In the play’s most famous speech, Jimmy seems to be angry about having nothing to be angry about: “There aren’t any good, brave causes left.”
In a year when Khrushchev denounced Stalin, the first airborne H-bomb was dropped on Bikini Atoll, the US Supreme Court ruled against the segregation of public buses, Martin Luther King’s house was bombed, the French prime minister resigned over the Algerian war, Polish miners were shot down by Soviet troops, Fidel Castro launched his invasion of Cuba, General Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and the Hungarian uprising broke out, this is a peculiarly blinkered claim. But Osborne’s view of the world was always narrow. “The only life I can explore—or begin to even chart—is my own,” he wrote in his notebook in 1972. It is, as John Heilpern’s chatty, engaging, and passionately sympathetic biography shows, a fascinating, if often repellent, life. But Osborne’s inability to transcend it makes him a paradoxical figure: the most significant minor playwright in the history of English theater.
The immense importance of Look Back in Anger has little to do with …