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Along with Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and David Hare, John Osborne is one of the most influential English playwrights of the period following World War II. With Look Back in Anger (1956), he is credited with revolutionizing the English theater. Jimmy Porter, the play’s antihero, spews out an endless torrent of venom against his wife, her family and friends, and society in general. The success of Look Back in Anger is said to have rudely awakened a somnolent British stage dominated by tepid drawing-room dramas and paved the way for a new realism and a series of working-class protagonists in English plays, novels, and films. Osborne is often described as the leader of the “angry young men” who created these works. His other major plays include The Entertainer (1957), dealing with the life of Archie Rice, a failing music-hall comedian; Luther (1961), a biographical treatment of Martin Luther, a different variety of angry young man; and Inadmissible Evidence (1964), a portrait of self-destructive attorney Bill Maitland. Osborne has also written plays for television and won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Tom Jones (1963), based on Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel. His career has been the most controversial of any playwright of his generation, primarily because of the vituperation expressed by his characters.

A Better Class of Person explains the sources of much of Osborne’s anger. He recounts growing up in several unfashionable London suburbs with an often-absent father, an advertising copywriter and frequent invalid, a barmaid mother, and assorted ignorant, repellent relatives. He describes his childhood in detail, including his enjoyment of the adventure of being bombed during World War II—much as John Boorman presents this experience in his autobiographical film Hope and Glory (1987)—and his hatred of all of his schools, especially St. Michael’s, a mediocre public school. After leaving school, Osborne became first a journalist and then an actor before beginning to write plays. He deals with his love life and a failed marriage, breaking off his memoir with the completion of Look Back in Anger, his first successful play.

Osborne discusses his emotionally deprived upbringing, romantic problems, and career travails with ironic detachment and little self-pity, almost as if this life had happened to someone else or as if his protagonist were a fictional character. He is more amused by than angry about the people and events that shaped his early life. His goal is not revenge but to illustrate the sources for much of the emotional content of his plays.

The 285 pages of A Better Class of Person are divided into nineteen chapters. The first ten deal with his life at home and school, one chronicles his brief period in journalism, and the rest treat his life in the theater and his romances. Quotations from his plays are scattered throughout to show how he transformed the raw material of his life into art. The book’s index contains a few errors.

A Better Class of Person

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2243

When John Osborne was very young, his maternal grandfather, flushed with port, used to predict that young John would become either the Prime Minister of England or the next George Bernard Shaw. Whether there could ever be a second Shaw is perhaps a question for debate at literary cocktail parties, but John Osborne has come much closer to the second possibility than the first. It must be admitted that from most of the details and incidents of this autobiography, it would be difficult to see what the grandfather based either prediction upon; though the book is entertaining and immensely fascinating, it does in fact tell little directly about the making of a playwright. Partly this is so because the book only covers Osborne’s life from his birth in 1929 to the acceptance for production of Look Back in Anger in 1955.

Only toward the end of A Better Class of Person, as the opening night of Look Back in Anger approaches, is the reader more than occasionally reminded that this is the autobiography of a “famous” person. One may initially be attracted to the book because it is by John Osborne, now a famous playwright and the leader (however unwillingly) of that group of British writers known as the Angry Young Men, but it is the main virtue of this work that it can stand on its own as a record of a portion of a human life. It would seem to be a practical test of the essential quality of any autobiography if one comes to accept it on its own terms and not simply because it deals with someone who has achieved fame or notoriety. A Better Class of Person passes this test with distinction.

The only surviving child (his sister had died when he was two) of parents forever teetering on the edge of the lower-middle class, John Osborne was born in 1929. As a child, he was sensitive and frequently ill; his attendance at a succession of state schools was sporadic. The family moved often, both before and after his father’s death at the beginning of World War II. Additionally, Osborne and his parents were surrounded by numerous relatives from both sides of the family, many of whom lived to great ages. In 1942 he contracted rheumatic fever, spent some nine months recuperating at home, and then was sent to a convalescent home for boys in Dorset, the necessary fees and arrangements being taken care of by the Benevolent Society to which his father had belonged. He was sent, again through the offices of the Society, to St. Michael’s boarding school in Devon in the summer of 1943, where he participated in amateur theatricals and compulsory boxing. His formal schooling ended in 1945 when he was sent down from St. Michael’s for responding to the Headmaster’s slap across the face with a wild right of his own to the Headmaster’s nose.

The Benevolent Society, its benevolence somewhat taxed, then arranged for three months of rudimentary shorthand and typing instruction and suggested that journalism should be his career. After a bout with a burst appendix and peritonitis, he found a job as a reporter for the technical journal Gas World. He moved on to Nursery World, then to Miller, became engaged, was rejected for national service, joined an amateur dramatic society, and broke the engagement. His dramatic career proper may be said to have begun when he somehow acquired a position in a third-rate theatrical company taking a play entitled No Room at the Inn on a six-month tour of the provinces. He was the assistant stage manager, understudy to the five men of the company, and tutor to the children in the company. The next years, until 1956, were monotonous rounds of stage-managing for various small companies, playing small parts, attempting to write plays, and filling in the periods when at leisure with table-waiting, dishwashing, working at the Post Office at Christmas time, and the dole. Over these same years he was introduced to sex and the principles of commercial play construction by an actress, Stella Linden, acquired his first wife, Pamela Lane, and saw his first play, The Devil Inside, produced for a week’s run at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield.

The first half of this work is largely devoted to Osborne’s family: his parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. There were many of these, Osbornes on his father’s side and Groves on his mother’s. His was clearly not a happy childhood; he complains that throughout it no adult ever addressed a question to him. Deprived of anything resembling affection, he made do with the popular magazines and books of the day and with the cinema. His father, a copywriter who was frequently ill and often lived apart from his wife (for reasons Osborne does not know), was a likable figure for the young Osborne, but he died while Osborne was still a child, and his portrait in these pages is pleasant but dim. Osborne’s mother, however, dominates here, and letters to her son are sprinkled throughout the book. She was a “victualler’s assistant”—her term for a barmaid—easily irritated and passionately fond of cleaning and moving house. She had little time for or interest in her son, yet they were thrown together upon each other’s resources more than was good for either. As he says, she remained largely incurious about him, and his dominant impression of her in his earliest days was of her “Black Looks.” In the jumble of quotations from his notebooks and from her letters which ends the book, he says “I am ashamed of her as part of myself that can’t be cast out, my own conflict, the disease which I suffer and have inherited, what I am and never could be whole.”

Most of the other Groves and Osbornes could fairly be called Dickensian, though if they seem so to the reader they were far from that to a young boy of eight or twelve. There were often visits to the various relations, culminating in the celebrated Family Rows of Christmas time. Most of the grandparents and aunts and uncles, however exotic they may seem, apparently spent most of their time complaining of their bad luck and trying to score off each other with small snobberies. “Comfort in the discomfort of others was an abiding family recreation,” and the Osbornes were characterized by “their bitterness and sense of having been cheated from birth,” while the Groves were notable for “stillborn spontaneity and consistent calculation that affection had only to be bought or repaid in the commonest coinage.” Perhaps coldest of all was Grandma Osborne, who ruled a small house in Stoneleigh—characterized by Osborne’s mother as “a dead-and-alive hole”—treating her husband contemptuously and her son as wantonly instable. The entire family was not allowed to forget that, as a boy, Osborne’s father had won a drawing competition which included as a prize a round trip by boat to Cape Town; outward bound he suffered a violent asthma attack and had to be hospitalized in Lisbon with a resulting hospital bill of several hundred pounds. His mother never forgave him for this and threw it up to him, in front of the whole family, for the rest of his life. She got her final revenge after his death when she claimed the whole of his estate, including some four hundred pounds from a life insurance policy, on the strength of a letter signed by him under duress, promising her the money to pay for the hospital bills of thirty years before.

For Osborne it is perhaps the final condemnation of these people that among them there was little actual exchange of feelings. The truly cold heart is what strikes Osborne with despair and disbelief, and from this it is easy to see at least part of the make-up of many of the characters in his plays. The coldheartedness results in a “view of affection or friendship as a system of rewards, blackmail, calculation, and aggrandizement in which people would only come off best or worst.” The barrenness of such attitudes leads Osborne to seek for and praise sheer vitality, openness, and spontaneity. It may be a modern cliché, but it is clear that on the simplest of levels, without engaging in anything like deep psychological reading, the young Osborne was starved for affection.

In the second half of the book, after leaving home and more or less earning his own way, Osborne shifts the mood and pace a bit. Instead of having things done to and for him, he now begins to make things happen for himself, though often with bathetic results. There is more action and movement in the second half, though the sharp eye for vivid characterization continues. Osborne’s record of his almost ten years in a succession of dreary provincial theaters, accompanied by a succession of under-talented actors and actresses, theatrical landladies, poofs, and hangers-on, would be enough to scare any young man or woman meditating a career in the Theater. Though there is much here for the reader of the book to enjoy, there are certainly few records to match this for stripping the glamour from the footlights and the Green Room. In Osborne’s theater, as in his plays, there is no room for romance.

In both parts of the book, Osborne has the true dramatist’s eye, able to see himself and his situations from the outside, detached and cool. The book gives ample evidence that Osborne had much to be angry about, yet the book is not written angrily. It is throughout a vivid evocation of lower-middle-class life before and after World War II, often ironic and occasionally even affectionate. Osborne is obsessed by class but not by the class struggle. This concern with class does not come from the oppressions of the rich and the titled but from his own family. His relations’ constant awareness of coming down in the world, their constant making among themselves of minute distinctions for purposes of getting back at or scoring off one another taught Osborne all he needed to know of the inhibiting hand of class distinctions.

As might be expected from a dramatist, the best things in the book are characters and scenes. However cold or domineering they may have been, people such as his mother, Grandma Osborne, Auntie Queenie, and Uncle Sidney come alive on the pages—as do more sympathetic characters such as Mickey Wall, his first real childhood friend, and Stella Linden, the actress who took him in hand on his first provincial tour. There are literally dozens of other characters who pass through the twenty-six years covered by this book, each sharply observed and often sharply skewered.

Memorable scenes, too, abound. His mother’s visits to the West End for a show and a meal, his cousin Jill’s middle-class birthday parties, the night during World War II when the bomb landed next to the house while his mother was seated in the lavatory, his rise to the stature of the Ace Reporter of the Gas World, the pantomime performance at Hayling Island utilizing local talent and the local dancing school, are all brilliant moments, often laced with irony and comedy. The succession of scenes in which the young Osborne arrives for his first day at a new school (and such scenes occur often) have a Grand Guignol air about them, as the young boy anticipates the worst each time and is not disappointed. What with the maulings, the disapproval and disinterest of the teachers, and the lack of companions, these scenes acquire the status of a running joke, repeated regularly for the audience’s amusement. The scenes at the boarding school of St. Michael’s are hilarious and can survive comparison with the way of life chronicled by Evelyn Waugh at Llanabba Castle. Indeed, Osborne himself suggests the parallel.

Osborne has drawn on many of these characters and scenes for his own plays. Billy Rice in The Entertainer (1957) is a part-portrait of his Grandfather Grove; letters from his Uncle Sidney find their way into a speech in The Hotel in Amsterdam (1968); his sexual initiation is drawn upon for A Sense of Detachment (1972); his problems with his first wife’s parents are transmuted into portions of Look Back in Anger; and he claims that the description of a wedding in that play is a fairly accurate description of his own. All experience is grist for the artist’s mill.

This book then is its own form of “looking back,” written from the point of view of the man of fifty and not, thank heaven, from the point of view of the child of the moment. Osborne admits his own prejudices and failures and attempts little in the way of self-justification; if he does not know or understand something, he admits it. He does not spare either his family, his acquaintances, his colleagues, or himself as he narrates his search for affection over his first twenty-six years. At least twice in A Better Class of Person, Osborne claims that he has no gift of memory. One can only take this as polite self-deprecation—and therefore uncharacteristic—for the whole book speaks to a memory that clings to and re-creates moments and people that are vivid or touching, comic or revealing, even symbolic or significant. The second volume of this autobiography should be eagerly awaited.


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Sources for Further Study

Economist. CCLXXXI, November 14, 1981, p. 114.

Ferrar, H. John Osborne, 1973.

Goldstone, Herbert. Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne, 1982.

Guardian Weekly. CXXV, October 25, 1981, p. 22.

Hare, David. “Opportunities for Blasting Off,” in New Statesman. CII (October 16, 1981), pp. 23-24.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. John Osborne, 1984.

Lahr, John. “The Dramatic Lives of Two Playwrights,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (November 8, 1981), pp. 1, 30, 32.

Library Journal. CVI, November 1, 1981, p. 2151.

Observer. October 11, 1981, p. 32.

Times Literary Supplement. October 16, 1981, p. 1190.


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