John Osborne’s first major play (he had written but not published several before it) was Look Back in Anger, first produced in London in May, 1956. It made its twenty-six-year-old author a sensation overnight. Osborne became immediately and firmly established as one of the “Angry Young Men” of the 1950’s, and perhaps the one with the best right to be angry. Unlike other members of the school, Osborne had received little formal education and little previous theatrical experience. However, he seemed to speak for a generation that was feeling a profound disillusionment—a disillusionment prior to “the Sixties” and Vietnam, and specifically British in its disgust with a class system that refused to die, and with Imperial pretensions—1956 was the year of the British invasion of Suez—which the British ruling classes obstinately refused to give up.
Early success is often regarded as difficult to follow, and in Osborne’s case there was some truth to the observation. At times it seemed as if the playwright could only build on his earlier fame by increasing his anger and disgust, by making his picture of his own country even more sleazy. At the same time he seemed to be more and more insidiously taken over by the dramatic establishment. Had Osborne, some wondered, become a “turn,” like Archie Rice—a predictable, inconsequential burlesque performer?
The Entertainer, however, must take an honorable place in John Osborne’s career. It was Osborne’s second play, appearing less than a year after the success of Look Back in Anger. Among the major plays produced since then are The World of Paul Slickey (pr., pb. 1959), Luther (pr., pb. 1961), and Inadmissible Evidence (pr. 1964). These plays have consistently provoked English society, prodding their audiences (so Osborne claimed) to feel—the thinking can come later. They are, as has frequently been pointed out, plays of strident rhetoric and overstatement, often with naturalistic subjects, but less often capable (for all the stage directions) of a consistently convincing naturalistic style.