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?
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.”
Such an allegation, of course, would have been made by Tynan himself fifteen years previously. By using the passive voice, Tynan was distancing himself from his own previous incarnation as Osborne’s champion. Yet three years later, Tynan had again decided that Osborne was too exciting to be ignored. The two were “fast friends” and Osborne and his then wife Jill Bennett were “a couple with whom one could seriously consider wife-swapping.” Tynan’s reward for this renewed friendship was to be a thinly veiled attack in Osborne’s The End of Me Old Cigar, including a reference to Tynan’s addiction to “dangerously painful spanking.”
Such shifting currents of warmth and vituperation suggest a personality so unstable as to be utterly opaque. Yet Osborne hardly scanted on self-revelation. His plays are almost entirely autobiographical, and he wrote two volumes of memoir so riveting that they suggest that his true métier was not drama but prose. The problem for a biographer is that Osborne is not always a reliable narrator. He himself wrote, apropos of Ingmar Bergman, that “all autobiography is fiction to a greater extent.” Gore Vidal discussed Osborne’s memoirs with their author shortly before his death and asked him if he had kept diaries:
“Good God no!… Actually I think I made it all up.” Plainly, he starts with an emotion, usually vivid in its dislike of, let us say, a less than satisfactory wife; then he taps into the emotion, makes sentences, scenes, a work.7
Yet with typical perversity, Osborne may in part have made up the idea that he made it all up. He did keep extensive notebooks for most of his adult life, and John Heilpern makes considerable use of them. On the other hand, however, Osborne’s memoirs are shaped by a desire to present himself as a lone wolf, an outsider in the essentially collaborative field of theater.
Take, for example, the important matter of Sir Laurence Olivier’s decision to play Archie Rice in The Entertainer. It is a crucial moment in the Osborne story. By taking the role, Olivier, who stood at the pinnacle of the theatrical establishment, declared Osborne to be the new ruler to whom even the old king must accommodate himself. How did this happen? In their memoirs, both Arthur Miller and Olivier give a straightforward account. Olivier disliked Look Back in Anger (he called it “just a travesty on England, a lot of bitter rattling on about conditions”) but graciously accompanied Miller to a performance in July 1956.8 Miller loved it and explained its significance to Olivier. Meeting Osborne backstage after the performance, Olivier then asked him, “Do you suppose you could write something for me?” According to Time magazine in 1957, Osborne “superciliously replied ‘I don’t know—possibly.’ Then he began remixing a batch of anger in process called The Entertainer so that its lead would fit Sir Laurence.”9
Osborne, however, tells a very different story in his memoirs. He strongly denies that he wrote the play with Olivier in mind. In his narrative, George Devine of the Royal Court calls him up in February 1957, asks him how the new play is going, and adds that “something’s just come up. I don’t suppose you can tell me if there’s a part in it for Laurence?’ ‘Laurence who?’ ‘Olivier.'”10 Instead of deciding between these fundamentally incompatible stories, John Heilpern essentially elides them, so that Olivier, the most famous English actor of his generation, both asks Osborne to write the play and becomes “Laurence who?” while it is being written. It is not a coherent account. Yet given the contrary nature of Osborne’s persona, a certain incoherence may be appropriate. The messiness of Osborne’s life is essential to the messiness of his work and to iron out the one would be to misplace the other.
Osborne was cursed and blessed with the childhood miseries most conducive to a literary vocation: an absent father, who was perpetually ill and died when Osborne was ten, a domineering mother, a hatred of school, a solitary disposition, and a long period of illness. His father was a commercial artist whose career was destroyed by tuberculosis, and who drank to keep the pain at bay. But he was also kindly and cultured, with unfulfilled ambitions to be a writer. His death at the age of thirty-nine was a loss from which Osborne never recovered. Heilpern found in his notebooks the repeated entry, year after year, on the anniversary of his father’s death: “My father died today.” The anniversaries were usually marked by the onset of debilitating depression. In the speech in Look Back in Anger that rings most true Jimmy tells Helena:
For twelve months I watched my father dying—when I was ten years old…. I was the only one who cared…. My mother looked after him without complaining, and that was about all. Perhaps she pitied him. I suppose she was capable of that. But I was the only one who cared!
It is clear that Osborne blamed his mother, Nellie Beatrice, a breezy Londoner who worked as a bartender, for his father’s death, and this anger may be at the root of the rage against womankind that both fuels and disfigures his work. Kenneth Tynan noted astutely in his end-of-year review for 1956 that “Jimmy Porter is politically a liberal and sexually a despot.” Jimmy reeks of a misogyny that gives women the loathsome aspect of foreigners and the destructive power of wild animals. His wife Alison is “like some dirty old Arab” and is also compared to a python whose love-making devours him as if he were “some over-large rabbit.” He wants her to feel the ultimate loss: “If you could have a child, and it would die.” He accepts her back when she has lost the baby she was carrying and come to understand her proper relationship to her husband: “I’m in the mud at last! I’m crawling! I’m grovelling!”
Osborne’s anger was rooted above all in a conservative male reaction to feminism. He came to manhood in an era when, as he put it in A Better Class of Person, “Women’s Lib was a far-off aberration like Concorde, the Common Market or the National Theatre.” When his first wife, Pamela Lane, remarked “uncomplainingly that she found marriage and a career difficult,” he felt that “the absurdity was patent.” As early as November 1957, “Britain’s Most Provocative Playwright” was writing for the right-wing Daily Mail under the headline “What’s Gone Wrong with Women?” In a piece that Heilpern neglects to mention, he disclosed the root of England’s sickness: “Never before have women had so much freedom, so much power, or so much influence.” What he was really angry about, he wrote, was “the refusal of nearly everyone to recognize” that “we are becoming dominated by female values, by the characteristic female indifference to anything but immediate, personal suffering.” These female values were those of “a rather oafish sort of man”:
What distinguishes a woman is her lack of imaginative vitality. She will hardly ever do anything for its own sake. Her roots are so deep in sexuality that she is the natural enemy of the visionary, the idealist.
There is, in the first volume of his memoirs, a terrifying vision of a “tall and muscular” girl called Daphne who was the dominant figure at one of his schools and whose all-girl gang would seize random male victims for ritual sexual humiliation:
The victim, almost always a boy, was dragged to a suitably public place like the middle of the playground or playing field and, spread-eagled, he would have to endure the humiliation of Daphne lifting up her skirt and placing her navy blue gusset firmly on his head. She would sit like a conquering hunter for as long as it suited her, with the cold frenzy of a goddess on heat for sacrifice. She might even urge her slaves to remove the victim’s shorts. It came close to more than ritual castration, averted only by the bell for class.
The seam of Osborne’s anger at the emergence, as he saw it, of a world of Daphnes ran deep. His hatred for his mother was such that when Eileen Atkins injected some sympathy into her portrayal of Nellie Beatrice in a television adaptation of Osborne’s memoir, he never spoke to her again. Heilpern tells us that he hit his first wife, Pamela Lane, and deliberately exacerbated her asthma by holding her down and blowing cigarette smoke into her mouth. He dismissed Nolan, his adolescent daughter by his third wife, the film critic Penelope Gilliatt, as “an ugly duckling who will turn into an ugly petulant duck,” threw her out when she was seventeen, and cut off all contact with her. When his fourth wife, Jill Bennett, committed suicide in 1990, the second volume of his memoir was about to go to press. He inserted into the proofs a savage attack on her:
Nora Noel Jill Bennett committed suicide yesterday. Except, of course, that she didn’t, merely perpetrating a final common little deceit under the delusion that it was an expression of “style,” rather than the coarse posturing of an overheated housemaid.
The snobbery that contends in repulsiveness with the misogyny of this passage hints at the way Osborne’s anger with women infected his drama. He carried in the pocket of his smoking jacket a copy of Hamlet with all the parts crossed out except that of the prince. It might be taken as a token of his own plays: huge hulking parts for a leading man, with nothing much around them. In this respect, he actually brought English theater back to the era of the nineteenth-century actor-manager, when a play was a star vehicle with a handful of insignificant satellites orbiting distantly around the star. His early plays were testing grounds for titanic leading men: Olivier in The Entertainer, Albert Finney in Luther, Richard Burton in the film version of Look Back, Nicol Williamson in the strange, fragmented self-lacerating psychodrama Inadmissible Evidence, in which Osborne comes closest to translating his own neuroses into a great play. These huge performances disguised the thinness of what surrounded them, especially the female roles that have so little life.
In The End of Me Old Cigar, the man-hating Regine says, “I am something of a cliché myself,” and the term is repeated throughout the first act as if Osborne hopes, by acknowledging the tiredness of his stereotypes, to reawaken them. The aesthetic cost of Osborne’s inability to transcend the pat formulae of gender is perhaps most obvious in his 1974 television play Jill and Jack. Its governing conceit is sexual role-reversal: it takes place in a world exactly like contemporary England except that women are dominant and men subservient. It ought to be funny and thought-provoking but is in fact neither. For all that Osborne actually manages is to swap truisms. Jill is a bluff, self-satisfied businesswoman interested in horse-racing and dining at her club. Jack fusses over clothes and flutters with emotional insecurity. Osborne is so anxious to insist that Jack is “not remotely ‘Gay’ to use fashionable cant word” that he seems devoid of any sexuality at all. Instead of using his device to subvert stultified sex roles, Osborne uses it to reinforce them. The result is dramatic stasis: once the conceit has been established, there is nowhere for the story to go.
The larger problem is not just that the women in Osborne’s plays are clichés, but that one stereotype breeds others. In his best early work, the tendency of Osborne’s characters to give vent to ethnic slurs can reasonably be seen as a way of describing a mentality. At the start of The Entertainer, for example, Billy Rice is complaining about “Bloody Poles and Irish! I hate the bastards…. Dirty filthy lot…. Like animals. Wild animals” and his words help to define him dramatically. But over time, this device became a kind of tic. At the start of The Hotel in Amsterdam, Laurie remarks that “they’re so foul, the French I mean.” In the next few minutes, there are references to ugly, bullying mothers, and a silly joke about El Fag Airlines. In the opening moments of The End of Me Old Cigar, the German language is referred to as “Kraut” and Stan wonders whether Strauss and Hofmannsthal were “pouves” (abusive slang for gay men). The point of this abuse is no longer to delineate character but to remind the audience that Osborne is a theatrical tough guy, an angry middle-aged man with a verbal machine gun.
John Heilpern tends to award Osborne high marks for his lack of political correctness, but the truth is that in art prejudice translates as cliché. In what is admittedly his worst play, A Sense of Detachment, performed at the Royal Court in 1972, Osborne had actors sit in the auditorium and shout abuse at the stage. He hoped to encourage real audience members to join in the abuse and in his stage directions he urged the cast to be ready with rejoinders. His advice is telling. The actors were to judge the “appearance or apparent background” of the enraged audience member. If the heckler looked Jewish, Osborne recommended the riposte “Get back to Golders Green, you hairy git,” Golders Green being a largely Jewish part of London. If the heckler looked Irish, he suggested “If you’re Irish, get out of the parlour” or “And I hope the ship goes down in Galway Bay.” Apart from the juvenile witlessness of the repartee, the directions reveal Osborne’s unthinking belief that a person’s “apparent background” would be so obvious from his or her appearance that an actor could instantly produce the appropriate insult.
When he tried to write a black character, Leroi in West of Suez, he is described in the stage directions as “a brownish-colored servant.” The color and the servant go together: as Leroi exits in the opening moments of the play, having brought the drinks, a white character, Edward, describes waiters as “a sort of ethnic group.” His wife then riffs on the natives of the small subtropical island where the play is set: “Lethargy and hysteria…. Brutality and sentimentality…. Craven but pleased with themselves.” Lest we imagine that these views are expressed, as such views often are in good drama, merely to illuminate the character of the speaker, they are repeated, almost word for word, by another character in the second act. Leroi is spoken about—once as a “sullen, charmless, unbeautiful black bastard”—but doesn’t get to speak, except to announce guests. His silence is what makes the ending of the play so ludicrous. Without warning, “several armed islanders appear out of the darkness” and shoot the central character. What else could one expect from the sullen, charmless, unbeautifully black natives?
Osborne’s tragedy was that he became rich and famous for indulging a rage that made him, as time went on, an ever more marginal figure, howling from the sidelines at a world he couldn’t be bothered to understand. As the world changed and Osborne stayed the same, he could interpret its indifference to his rage only as betrayal. In 1989, he listed in his notebook those who had most consistently betrayed him. The list included his ex-wives, Faber and Faber, the National Theatre, the Royal Court, the press, lawyers, accountants, his mother, and Albert Finney. Such targets make good magazine columns—he wrote a highly entertaining one for The Spectator—and the paranoid grudges that powered his hatreds gave his autobiographies their manic energy. His caustically unsentimental self-obsession is potent enough, in Heilpern’s skillful telling, to give his rise and fall a kind of sad grandeur. But the shadow of his colossal ego always loomed too large to allow him the clear vision that a great playwright needs.
May 10, 2007
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. ↩
See Anthony Aldgate, Censorship and the Permissive Society: British Cinema and Theatre, 1955–1965 (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 64. ↩
Quoted in British Theatre in the 1950s, edited by Dominic Shellard (Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 28–29. ↩
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. ↩
Damn You, England: Collected Prose (Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 194. ↩
The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, edited by John Lahr (Bloomsbury, 2001), p. 59. ↩
Gore Vidal, Palimpsest: A Memoir (Abacus, 1996), p. 99. ↩
Arthur Miller, Timebends (Grove, 1987), p. 416. ↩
“The Most Angry Fella,” Time, April 22, 1957. ↩
Looking Back (Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 316. This edition combines Osborne’s two volumes, A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991). ↩