Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1792
The major subjects of A Better Class of Person are working-class life in the London suburbs of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the perils of being an actor and would-be playwright with third-rate repertory companies touring the provinces of Great Britain in the decade following World War II. Osborne describes these facets of his life in both gruesome and loving detail, to reveal the main influences on his development as man and artist. In treating these subjects, he depicts what he considers the pettiness and meanness of the ordinary Briton.
The most controversial aspect of A Better Class of Person is Osborne’s portrayal of his relatives, especially the women in his family. The Osbornes and Groves are seen as pushy and intolerant, emotionally distant from one another. Anti-intellectual, unsophisticated, and self-satisfied, they armed themselves with a dozen or so banal expressions to explain all the complexities of human existence. Osborne considers their use of such bromides as “One door opens and another one always shuts” ironic since they never seemed to listen to one another. He presents these people not as victims of a class system but as willing slaves to boredom:Casual entertaining or informal hospitality were like tolerating a smell on the landing or a blocked-up sink. Conviviality seldom went beyond planned visits from relatives. Whim or sudden impulse was unthinkable and blasphemed against the very idea of the God Routine.
Osborne offers what have been called vindictive accounts of the Grove and Osborne women. Queenie, his mother’s middle-aged sister, was married to a younger man, a homosexual, and presented her husband’s letters from his lover to the police. Grandmother Grove found her greatest comfort in the discomfort of others. Grandmother Osborne, he claims, never once asked him anything about himself. She dominated everyone around her: “Her dismissive skill was subtle and brutal, sometimes no more than a thin smile, a watery upward look or an amused intake of breath, a scanning cauterizing instrument which rendered any endeavour puny or extravagantly indulgent.” She forced her dying son to sign over his life insurance—leaving his wife and child almost destitute—to repay the expenses of a childhood illness, a sin for which he had been tormented for thirty years.
A Better Class of Person is a graphic account of a Dickensian upbringing. While his family lived in genteel rather than abject poverty, Osborne was surrounded by indifferent adults and made few friends his own age. The older sister who might have been his ally died when he was two. Frequently separated from his wife or convalescing in tuberculosis sanatoriums, Thomas Osborne was rarely available to stand up for his son. (He died in 1940.)
Until the success of Look Back in Anger, Osborne’s life was dominated by the woman he calls Nellie Beatrice. That she was still alive when her son’s autobiography was published apparently did not make him consider softening his negative picture of her: “My mother’s family seem to achieve great age. My grandmother lived to be 103 and my own mother seems appropriately hell bent on a similar score.” Nellie Beatrice is presented as a loud, vulgar barmaid with no real feelings for anyone, not even her son: “She regarded almost everything about me as irredeemably unsightly.” When she wanted a quick laugh, she made fun of him in front of strangers. When he grew up and became a struggling, badly dressed actor, she insisted upon buying him new clothes: “‘What a pity you couldn’t have been something like a barrister or a doctor,’ she said in front of some smirking salesman, ’instead of an actor.’ There was no doubt about who was paying.” The possibility of his becoming something like a barrister was never even remotely entertained: “My mother always made it clear to me that my place in the world was unlikely to differ ever from her own.”
Nellie Beatrice was not only uncharitable toward others but also refused to accept charity or even kindness. Osborne says his mother’s philosophy was “never to be beholden to anyone for the smallest favour.” He interprets her “stillborn spontaneity and consistent calculation that affection had only to be bought or repaid in the commonest coinage” as representative of her class. She served as an ironic role model: He strived to be as different from her as he could. Another irony is that he may have absorbed some of his anger and distrust of those in authority from her. Although much of A Better Class of Person is a virtual catalog of Nellie Beatrice’s deficiencies and vulgarisms, she was clearly a positive influence on Osborne in giving him the impetus to escape this way of life.
Psychoanalysts would predict from his presentation of his mother, grandmothers, and aunts that Osborne would have lifelong problems with women. After leaving Nellie Beatrice, he callously broke off an engagement, had a loveless affair with an older actress who offered to help his career, and experienced several failed marriages. He depicts the love in his first marriage, to actress Pamela Lane, as decidedly one-sided. He was dazzled by her beauty and talent and saw her not as a companion but as a “unique prize” he did not deserve. Osborne is not afraid to present himself as foolish and naive, telling how this marriage broke up after his wife sent him to a dentist who had cuckolded him. His sense of the absurd keeps his autobiography’s misogyny and general nastiness from becoming oppressive.
Osborne does not analyze the source of his interest in the theater. He had sung Gilbert and Sullivan as a schoolboy and had always been interested in literature. He stumbled into acting by chance, as an escape from writing for boring trade magazines. His career as an actor was undistinguished, since he spent more time performing the depressing duties of an assistant stage manager than acting. Regardless of which position he held, he was invariably fired: “The sack was becoming my only feasible work satisfaction.” Despite protests to the contrary, he seems to find excitement and glamour in recollecting these experiences.
Osborne shows how Look Back in Anger evolved not only from his bitterness over his failed marriage but also from the several years of apprenticeship that he spent writing bad plays before discovering his true voice. His mistress, Stella Linden, an actress, attempted to collaborate with him to teach him how to write a proper play:Speeches were too long; wordy scenes; slack; audiences left hanging in the air; ending unresolved. Then there was the matter of characters being discussed who never appeared, leaving the audience wondering, “Who are they talking about?” This critical trip-wire was one I was to encounter many times.
Osborne eventually became a successful playwright by doing the opposite of what Stella suggested, by breaking away from the Arthur Wing Pinero/Terence Rattigan mold of the well-made play to bring passion onto the English stage. Predictably, when he showed Look Back in Anger to Stella’s husband, Patrick Desmond, who had produced his apprentice plays, the producer responded “as if I had betrayed the treasure of trust that he had put in my flimsy gifts and been almost physically faithless to Stella’s memory.” The last chapters of A Better Class of Person are the story of an artist’s struggle to find and be true to himself, creating a work of art that thumbs its nose at those who would have him conform to their philistine notions of the theater and life in general.
A final central subject of A Better Class of Person is, as its title indicates, England’s class system. Osborne says that one of his former wives “described me without humour or affection as a Welsh Fulham upstart.” His autobiography is the account of a young man’s striving to be an upstart, to be different from the world in which he grew up. Osborne best summarizes what he despises about his class when he recalls a visit to his fiancee’s family: “The front-parlour gloom was the same I had known at Tottenham and Fulham, with the odour of anaemic self-righteousness, the lifeless whine, the lack of rigour or gift of even petty decision.” Before Osborne, such a way of life had been sentimentalized in both the popular and serious arts. When he wrote one play with Stella, he resented her positive portrait of the character based upon her mother: “I favoured characterizing her as slothful, selfish, grasping, snobbish, true to her class; a shameful anachronism and traitor to her country.” Yet he realized no audience would accept such realism.
Just as he grew up despairing of his own class, he resented being shut out of any other. He explains how the dream world offered in the Hollywood films of the 1930’s and 1940’s was much more accessible than its British equivalent:The American model was unreal but attainable, the English model slightly more real but ultimately unattainable. A world of large gardens, tennis parties, housemaids, college scouts and Inns of Court might seem pleasant and comfortable enough but there was little impulse or point of dreaming yourself into it. You would watch it from without but never enter it even if you were inclined.
Rather than try to enter, Osborne chose to attack this class system through his art. Just as critics acknowledge how his plays led a revolution in the English theater, social historians admit that he helped change British society’s perception of itself. A Better Class of Person explains why he did so.
Before he became involved in drama, Osborne had had dreams of being a novelist. His autobiography offers considerable evidence that he could have written fiction equally well, for he presents vivid characters and compelling yet undidactic themes and writes beautiful, witty prose. According to Osborne, George Bernard Shaw “usually sounds like a giddy spinster or a eunuch who has slipped into something unsuitable when he strives after emotion,” and Noel Coward “could shoot a cliche between the eyes of a gnat and make it burst into flower about the potency of cheap music.” The relatives of a childhood friend “were not . . . a close-knit family. They were quite loosely knit, with dropped stitches all over the place, but as comfortable as an old pullover.”
Such love of language and humor help counterbalance the potential bitterness in Osborne’s autobiography. He tries for an objective tone by being almost as hard on himself as on Nellie Beatrice: “I was, and still am, almost spinsterish in my distaste for noise and personal disorder, although I am capable of initiating both.” A Better Class of Person reveals how life’s disorder is essential for creating the order of art.
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