John Osborne Essay - Osborne, John (Vol. 1)

Osborne, John (Vol. 1)

Osborne, John 1929–

An award-winning British playwright, Osborne earned fame with his first play, Look Back in Anger. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Osborne … has but one song, and but one way of singing it. The Osborneman, who is both the singer and the song, the actor and the play, has billowed forth in a number of different disguises, his grievances modulated, and his responsibility for them reshuffled (that is how you tell one play from another); but Osborne has never bothered to devise a new rhetoric for him, or a new angle of vision.

However, what Osborne lacks in variety he can more than make up in intensity. Within the confines of his gunny sack he agitates like a religious sensitive. And he always plays it with feeling; an honest tradesman in a dirty stinking world.

What gives some slight movement to the surface doldrums of Osborne's work is the way his interpretation of the Osborneman fluctuates. Is he dirty and stinking too? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter seemed to stand outside society, a wounded saint looking down in judgment. Although Porter ran his own ménage like a concentration camp, he rattled off humanist verdicts on the outside world like a Gatling gun. In The Entertainer, the Osborneman is still victim and part-time judge, but he is closer to the world's rottenness and has contributed to it. The ambiguity is primitively handled, particularly in The Entertainer, in the bursts of little-fellow decency which seems to place him temporarily outside and above society (of course, they really are images of society's own sentimentality, but it isn't clear whether Osborne means this).

Now in Inadmissible Evidence we have a hero who is so totally merged with society's evils that you can no longer tell who has done what to which. Society is to blame for him, but he is equally to blame for it. The Osborneman is victim and executioner, debaser and debased—and either way he loses. In bullying his subordinates, he is imitating one of society's unpleasanter aspects; in crawling to them, he is imitating another. Society is ourselves, and the man who would flay the one must flay the other.

Wilfrid Sheed, "Inadmissible Evidence" (1965), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 154-56.