The Entertainer

by John Osborne

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In The Entertainer, Osborne’s hero is Archie Rice, a pathetic music-hall performer whose domestic life is as much a failure as his comedy act. Himself an admirer of the English music hall and its vaudevillian traditions, Osborne alternates domestic scenes of the Rice family with scenes of Archie’s coarse patter in the music hall to symbolize the decline of imperial England. In its late nineteenth and early twentieth century heyday, the music hall was an important expression of urban working-class pride, an entertainment that avoided anything “highbrow,” serious, or intellectual. By the 1950’s, the music hall had been replaced by cinema and television, degenerating into an even more decadent popular art, and in this mid-1950’s music hall Archie is merely a comic setup man for a tacky striptease.

The family unit headed by Archie is equally disappointing. As a father, Archie is self-centered and insensitive, viciously ridiculing his own doddering father, Billy, who lives with the family in their dilapidated and noisy slum apartment. Archie’s wife, Phoebe, is a pathetic alcoholic who endures Archie’s sexual infidelity by retreating mindlessly to the cinema. The play’s action takes place in 1956, during the Suez conflict, when Egypt seized control of the Suez Canal. Frank, Archie and Phoebe’s elder son, is a conscientious objector, fresh from six months in prison. Frank works two menial jobs. Mick, Archie and Phoebe’s younger son, has accepted the call for army service in Cyprus but has been captured and made a prisoner of war. Jean, Archie’s daughter by his first marriage, is a more sensitive person, having thrown off the old-fashioned and sexist attention of her conservative boyfriend, Graham, but, under the influence of a little too much gin, Jean seems equally incapable of strengthening the family unit. As the family members squabble throughout the play, it is clear that they all exist in their own little worlds, seldom listening to or really communicating with one another. In many ways, The Entertainer can be seen as an English version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956); both are portraits of profound domestic failure.

The climax of the action comes with the news that Mick, thought to be released and on his way home, has been killed. Compounded with that grief is the soon-to-follow funeral for Billy; Archie had attempted to get Billy back onto the music-hall stage in order to revive Archie’s own career. In the last scene, Archie is on stage and the symbolic tax man, whom Archie has been cheating for the last twenty years, is waiting in the wings, like death, to take Archie to jail. Archie is supported in his last minutes by Phoebe, but there is no hopeful vision of an improved marriage as the lights snap out for the last time. Osborne’s vision of the domestic future of the Rice family is as bleak as his vision of England’s future as a world power.

One of the most interesting theatrical aspects of The Entertainer is that the renowned British classical actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, took the role of Archie Rice in its initial London production. In Look Back in Anger, Osborne had made himself into a literary phenomenon by belittling the British establishment. Olivier was a significant member of that establishment’s theater wing, but when he expressed an interest in Osborne’s work, Olivier was cast as Archie Rice; Olivier’s star status, along with a chillingly real performance, made The Entertainer a smash hit. It was soon transferred to London’s West End and then was made into a successful film. After his first two plays, Osborne was himself a bona fide “star,” part of a new establishment.

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