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Howling from the Sidelines

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,”1 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 its intrinsic theatrical merits yet owes almost everything to the most theatrical of virtues: timing. It is one of those plays—like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axel, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, and even Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House— whose historic significance is out of all proportion to its quality. Osborne’s good fortune, but also perhaps his curse, was to fill a role that had, in broad outline, already been written. Postwar English culture, already hearing the echoes of Elvis Presley from across the Atlantic, needed a noisy upstart of its own, and Osborne was the man for the job. Even the mood of Osborne’s play—the generalized resentment of the young man with no epic war to fight—was already in the air. Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean was released the year before Osborne’s play opened.

Contrary to mythology, Look Back in Anger was not a sudden flash of novelty in a London theater entirely devoted, in the plays of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, to the precious problems of the upper classes. Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble played in London in 1956 and Waiting for Godot had been staged there the previous year. Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, set in a prison in which an inmate is about to be executed, was already in rehearsal at Joan Littlewood’s radical Stratford East theater when Osborne’s play opened at the Royal Court. And a far more socially explosive play, A Taste of Honey, written by a working-class teenager, Shelagh Delaney, and dealing with a young white girl who becomes pregnant by a black lover and is cared for by a homosexual friend, was already in gestation. The official who read Look Back in Anger in the office of the notoriously prissy official censor, the Lord Chamberlain, found in Jimmy Porter a recognizable, even old-fashioned social type. Charles Heriot reported to his boss:

This impressive and depressing play breaks new psychological ground, dealing with a type of man I believed had vanished twenty years ago, but which must be generally recognizable enough to write plays about. It is about the kind of intellectual that threshed about passionately looking for a cause. It [sic] usually married girls of good family, quarrelled with all their relations, and bore them off to squalor in Pimlico or Poplar where they had babies and spent all their spare time barracking Fascist meetings.2

Osborne’s overwhelming advantage, however, was that he was not German, Irish, French, American, or female. His play could be seen, in the right circumstances, as a cry from the heart of the young English male. Those circumstances were not primarily theatrical. Jack Reading, one of the few people to have attended both its opening night and that of the English-language première of Waiting for Godot the previous year, noted:

Waiting for Godot left the members of its audience who sat it out to the end completely stunned. We knew that we had seen things on the stage that could not be related to anything theatrical previously experienced…. Look Back in Anger, on the other hand, was merely stimulating….3

The play opened in May 1956. In spite of Kenneth Tynan’s famously enthusiastic review, business was slow until the Royal Court’s press officer, George Fearon, who loathed Look Back, was asked by a journalist to describe Osborne and called him “a very angry young man.”4 The phrase turned Osborne from an obscure playwright into a cultural phenomenon. By the time Osborne’s second produced play, The Entertainer, was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain in March 1957, even the censor who reported on it, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir St. Vincent Troubridge (the name is so unlikely outside the realms of crude satire that John Heilpern mangles it to “Sir Saint Troubredge of Vincent”), could describe Osborne as “the acknowledged head of the Angry Young Man school (or racket) of dramatists.”

English newspapers and TV shows were discovering that playwrights could be packaged as a daring subspecies of celebrity. Arthur Miller, whose The Crucible was part of the same Royal Court season as Look Back in Anger, was interesting because he was, as one English paper put it, “the new Mr [Marilyn] Monroe.” Brendan Behan caused a sensation by turning up drunk on the BBC’s flagship TV news analysis show, Panorama, in June. Osborne in turn was interviewed by Panorama in July, and in October, an excerpt from his play was broadcast by the BBC and watched by almost five million people. All that was required for a media fashion to become a cultural moment was a political crisis. The Conservative government duly supplied one when, in tandem with France, Britain invaded Egypt in a doomed attempt to seize back control of the Suez Canal. Jimmy Porter was now the voice of a generation’s anger at the narrow-minded incompetence of its elders. Few people seemed to notice that Osborne’s engagement with the Suez crisis in his state-of-England play The Entertainer is rather halfhearted, and that the emotional core of the drama is a nostalgia for an imagined English past.

Osborne played up the fortuitous political significance he had now acquired. A brilliant phrase in his essay in a collection called Declaration, marketed as a manifesto of the Angry Young Men, in which he called the royal family “the gold filling in a mouthful of decay,” burnished his reputation as an enemy of that great bugbear of the era, the Establishment. Osborne joined demonstrations in favor of nuclear disarmament and even became a member of a radical anti-nuclear faction, the Committee of 100. The Daily Express headline on the day after an illegal Committee of 100 protest was “1,140 Arrested Including John Osborne.”

It was an accidentally appropriate encapsulation of the essentially egocentric nature of Osborne’s radical chic. In retrospect the famous “damn you, England” open letter he wrote—from the anguished front line of a French holiday villa—to the left-wing Tribune newspaper during the Berlin crisis of 1961 reads like a hilarious parody of overheated adolescent posturing: “My favourite fantasy is four minutes or so non-commercial viewing as you fry in your democratically elected hot seats in Westminster, preferably with your condoning democratic constituents.” Its one true note is utterly personal: “I fear death. I dread it daily. I cling wretchedly to life, as I have always done.”5 Even in his most dramatically public moments, Osborne’s true subject—his fearful self—takes center stage.

That self was slippery, uncertain, and evasive. In his play West of Suez, a dyspeptic writer and Osborne alter ego is interviewed:

Do you deliberately adopt a public pose?

Yes.

Why?

Because it makes life slightly more tolerable. The same applies to private life.

Even for those who knew him, telling the pose from the man was never easy, and most descriptions are consciously ambiguous. Kenneth Tynan, writing in 1958, picked up on the contradictions in Osborne’s persona, describing him as

a disconcerting, rather impenetrable person to meet…gentle in manner, yet vocally harsh and cawing…. Sartorially he is something of a peacock, and his sideburns add a sinister touch of the Apache. A dandy, if you like: but a dandy with a machine-gun.

The writer John Mortimer described Osborne to John Heilpern as “an affable, lovely champagne-drinking man and an absolute shit.” Heilpern himself calls him “an apparent paradox: a Cavalier and a Roundhead, a traditionalist in revolt, a radical who hated change….”

Osborne’s mysterious personality made him dangerously seductive, and not just for his five wives and many lovers. His roller-coaster relationship with Tynan illustrates both the magnetic and the repulsive sides of Osborne’s complex persona. Tynan was Osborne’s first and most influential champion, but by 1971, he was so disillusioned with Osborne that he described him in his diary as “a friendless and mean-spirited man who feeds on hostility and only feels fully alive when he is hating or hated.”6 He also compared West of Suez to a boulevard hit of the early 1950s, N.C. Hunter’s A Day by the Sea, and added, “Ironically, it was from N.C. Hunter and his school that J.O. was alleged to have saved the English theatre.”

  1. 1

    From Tynan’s review of Look Back in Anger, republished in Curtains (Atheneum, 1961), pp. 130–132. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from Tynan are from this edition.

  2. 2

    See Anthony Aldgate, Censorship and the Permissive Society: British Cinema and Theatre, 1955–1965 (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 64.

  3. 3

    Quoted in British Theatre in the 1950s, edited by Dominic Shellard (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 28–29.

  4. 4

    There is a fine account of the role of publicity in the creation of the Angry Young Men in Harry Ritchie, Success Stories: Literature and the Media, 1950– 1959 (Faber and Faber, 1988). Osborne came to despise the term, but it haunts him even in death. While the subtitle of the British edition of Heilpern’s book is A Patriot for Us, his American publishers seem to have worried that Osborne would not be recognizable without the label.

  5. 5

    Damn You, England: Collected Prose (Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 194.

  6. 6

    The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, edited by John Lahr (Bloomsbury, 2001), p. 59.

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