(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 By the 1950’s, the music hall had been replaced by cinema and television, degenerating into an even more decadent popular art, and in this mid-1950’s music hall Archie is merely a comic setup man for a tacky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...

(The entire section is 626 words.)