Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911
The Entertainer is set in an English coastal town. Its action centers on the Rice family, and specifically on Archie Rice, the “entertainer” of the title. In scene 1, though, the audience is introduced to the family through Billy Rice, Archie’s father, and Jean, Archie’s daughter. In a sense these two characters represent a saner past and a more hopeful future: The present, for the Rices, is a run-down, noisy, postwar slum.
Scene 2 (like scenes 4, 7, and 13) consists of a short monologue by Archie, delivered onstage just as it would be in one of his performances: He is a comedian in a music hall, or what Americans might call a burlesque theater, and these scenes represent samples of his professional humor. They are deliberately coarse, cheap, and unattractive; they represent the poor, defiant, and selfish attitudes John Osborne thinks typical of the England of his time.
In scene 3, further characters assemble. Phoebe Rice returns from the cinema, where she spends her spare time watching films that make no impression on her. Jean reveals that she has been to a rally in Trafalgar Square which sparked off a row with her conservative-minded boyfriend, Graham. He shares Billy’s view—that women should be kept on a tight rein—and wants Jean to marry him; she, however, is budding into something other than the perfect wife. The talk turns to Frank and Mick (Frank’s brother), the former having been imprisoned for refusing the draft, the latter having willingly joined up. Jean, representative of the new generation, admires Frank for saying no and going to jail. Billy and Phoebe seem to think Mick has made the better choice.
This issue is not as casual as it might at first appear. All through scene 5 (after another music-hall monologue by Archie) a telegram waits for Archie to open it. It is bound to be bad news, and in the end the audience discovers that it says Mick has been taken prisoner. Archie avoids this knowledge until the very end, in the same way that he has avoided any commitments or intellectual honesty throughout his life. He is a womanizer; he despises and maltreats his family; he makes a joke of everything—including his father’s pride and his daughter’s passion. He tries to laugh off even the news of his son’s capture, but as the curtain comes down his banter ceases—for the first time—and his chronic insecurity is revealed.
In act 2, the family has heard that Mick is to be repatriated, and the mood is lighter; still, tensions are present. Phoebe, maudlin drunk, brings up many memories of Archie which show him in a worse and worse light. Archie eventually launches into a diatribe, justifying himself by attacking his wife’s laziness and lack of passion. As the scene develops, order completely breaks down, with all the characters attacking each other and justifying themselves. The feuding is checked only when Billy is found helping himself to a cake set aside for Mick’s homecoming. The Rice family, it is clear, is hopelessly contaminated by selfishness, the same selfishness revealed in Archie’s monologues.
Is there any hope for this family? Archie, harassed by the Inland Revenue—he has not paid any tax for twenty years—has various plans: leave the country and go to Canada; leave Phoebe and marry a barmaid; bring his father out of retirement in an attempt to save his own career. None of these, except perhaps the first, seems very plausible, and Archie’s advice to Jean—to be more selfish in order to survive—rings hollow. However, it may have some validity after all: At the end of the second act comes the news that Mick, the dutiful child of family and country, has been killed by his captors. Only the antiheroes, it seems, are left alive.
At the start of act 3, Frank sings a protest song about the emptiness of a hero’s homecoming once he is dead. Jean emerges from her shell more cynical and disillusioned than anyone. She attacks Archie mercilessly for his ineptitude and his inability to change. She demands to know the purpose of their existence—is it just to please an audience? Her comments, however, make no impression whatsoever. The chatter springs off in all directions, even when Jean tells the family about Archie’s plans to remarry. Billy is in fact preoccupied by his imminent return to the stage, engineered by Archie, even though Jean predicts that the strain will kill him—which it does. He dies offstage.
In death, Billy at last gains Archie’s respect, but Archie’s hypocrisy makes Jean even more determined to remain with Phoebe, reject her father, and leave her fiancé, Graham, from whom she has now grown away. As she and Graham argue, Old Bill, Archie’s successful brother, is busy convincing Archie that he must go off to Canada—at Bill’s expense. As the alternative is jail, Archie gives in and agrees to go. Jean, meanwhile, states that she has lost any spiritual faith she may have had and must rely only on herself.
The final scene shows Archie, onstage for the last time. He tells a vulgar joke about an ordinary man who finds himself in heaven, which says something about Archie’s philosophy. Phoebe is there to help him offstage, the light snaps out, and Archie is gone. The music hall, the audience perceives, has gone with him.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364
John Osborne, in The Entertainer, gives precise directions on staging, scenery, and characterization. He carefully describes the town in which the Rice family lives, the lighting, music, particular types of “swaggering” onstage, clothing, and even hairstyles—all of which make the play come alive. There is a determined bid for exact realism. However, at the same time the play is interrupted by continued scenes from the burlesque tradition, which could make an audience feel they were not in the 1950’s, but back in the 1930’s, the 1910’s, or even earlier. The implication is that in the play, as in Archie Rice’s life, performance and staging, deliberate acting and real feeling, are all inseparably fused.
Further, Archie’s burlesque is juxtaposed to his life at home. He is seen acting professionally, then talking more freely, but his real conversation too often slides toward a kind of patter, as at the end of act 1, where the telegram about his son, finally opened, leads only to an obscene joke—of which, however, the audience never hears the end, as Archie belatedly realizes its inappropriateness and inadequacy.
Conversation is important to the play, when Archie can be elbowed out of the limelight. Its orderly or chaotic nature serves as a barometer of family feelings. It also illustrates how seldom people actually listen to each other. Further points are made by the characters’ accents, with Billy’s in particular being described by Osborne with some care: It is to be old-fashioned, to use pronunciations now the preserve of the English upper classes only (like rhyming “God” with “Lord”), but at the same time not to sound upper class. Such directions give the play its dimension of history and age.
Finally, note should be taken of the play’s use of suspense and of action that occurs offstage. The critical event of the play is the death of Mick, with a clear parallel being the death of Billy. Both are sacrifices, the one to Empire, the other to Archie, and both take place offstage. A related onstage event is Archie’s refusal to open his telegram. The implications—regarding Archie’s evasive character and essentially futile life—are strong.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 109
Sources for Further Study
Anderson, Michael. Anger and Detachment: A Study of Arden, Osborne, and Pinter. London: Pitman, 1976.
Banham, Martin. Osborne. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1969.
Brown, John Russell. Theatre Language: A Study of Arden, Osborne, Pinter, and Wesker. New York: Taplinger, 1972.
Carter, Alan. John Osborne. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1973.
Denison, Patricia D., ed. John Osborne: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Ferrar, Harold. John Osborne. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.
Gilleman, Lu. The Hideous Honesty of John Osborne: The Politics of Vituperation. New York: Garland, 2000.
Kennedy, Andrew W. Six Dramatists in Search of a Language. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Trussler, Simon. The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment. London: Gollancz, 1969.