The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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....

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.