An Overview of John Osborne’s Work

Prior to John Osborne’s arrival on the scene, the British theater consisted mainly of classics, melodramas, and drawing-room comedies. But in 1956, Osborne’s third play and first London-produced drama, Look Back in Anger, shocked audiences and “wiped the smugness off the frivolous face of English theatre,” as John Lahr put it in a New York Times Book Review article. “Strangely enough,” commented John Mortimer in the New York Times, “Look Back in Anger was, in shape, a conventional well-made play of the sort that might have been constructed by Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan.” Yet, as Mortimer explained, “What made it different was that Jimmy Porter, the play’s antihero, was the first young voice to cry out for a new generation that had forgotten the war, mistrusted the welfare state and mocked its established rulers with boredom, anger and disgust.” As a result, Mortimer observed, “The age of revivals was over. A new and memorable period in the British theater began.”

Look Back in Anger established the struggling actor and playwright as a leading writer for theater, television, and film. And, while his later works may not have created as great a stir as his London debut, as Richard Corliss wrote in Time, “The acid tone, at once comic and desperate, sustained Osborne throughout a volatile career.” Perhaps more important than its effect on Osborne’s personal career, however, was the impact that Look Back in Anger had on British culture. In Corliss’s opinion, the play not only changed British theater, directly influencing playwrights such as Joe Orton and Edward Albee, but it also “stoked a ferment in a then sleepy popular culture.” All manner of writers, actors, artists, and musicians (including the Beatles) soon reflected the influence of Osborne’s “angry young man.”

As Look Back in Anger begins, Jimmy Porter is a twenty-five-year-old working-class youth with a provincial university education and bleak hopes for the future. He frequently clashes with his wife, Alison, who comes from a more privileged background. The couple share their tiny flat with Cliff, Jimmy’s partner in the sweet-shop business. A triangle forms—Jimmy, Alison, and Alison’s friend Helena, who alerts Alison’s parents to the squalor their now-pregnant daughter is living in and helps convince Alison to leave Jimmy. Helena, however, stays on and becomes Jimmy’s mistress. As time goes on, Alison miscarries and, realizing her love for Jimmy, returns to the flat. Helena decides that she cannot come between Jimmy and his wife any longer and withdraws. Meanwhile, Cliff also leaves the flat in an attempt to better his lot. “And Alison’s baby which could have taken Cliff’s place in their triangular relationship will never be,” Arthur Nicholas Athanason explained in a Dictionary of Literary Biography article. “Jimmy and Alison must depend more than ever now on fantasy games to fill this void and to achieve what moments of intimacy and peaceful coexistence they can in their precarious marriage.”

With the immediate and controversial success of Look Back in Anger, continued Athanason, the author “found himself, overnight, regarded as a critic of society or, more precisely, a reflector of his generation’s attitudes toward society. Needless to say, the concern and feeling for intimate personal relationships that are displayed in Look Back in Anger may indeed have social and moral implications. But what really moves Osborne in this play seems to be the inability of people to understand and express care for each other better—particularly in their language and their emotional responsiveness. What is new and experimental in British drama about [the play] is the explosive character of Jimmy Porter and his brilliant and dazzling vituperative tirades, in which a renewed delight in a Shavian vigor and vitality of language and ideas is displayed with virtuoso command.” Noting a resemblance to Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Athanason labeled Look Back in Anger “an intimate portrait of an extremely troubled working-class marriage (riddled with psychological problems and sexual frustrations), which was, in its way, a theatrical first for British drama.”

When Look Back in Anger opened in London in 1956, few critics showed enthusiasm for the play. Kenneth Tynan, in a review for the Observer, was the most notable exception. He found that Osborne had skillfully captured the character of British youth, “the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of ‘official’ attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour.” Tynan conceded that because disillusioned youth was at the play’s center, it might have been narrowly cast at a youthful audience. “I agree that Look Back in Anger is a minority taste,” he wrote. “What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between twenty and thirty.”

Most other critics could not see beyond Jimmy’s explosive character to examine the themes underlying the fury he directed against the social mores of the day. More recent critics have been able to look back with greater objectivity on the merits and impact of the play. “Osborne, through Jimmy Porter, was voicing the natural uncertainties of the young, their frustrations at being denied power, their eventual expectations of power and their fears of abusing it, either in running a country or a family,” noted John Elsom in his book Post- War British Theatre. For this reason, Elsom suggested, Osborne was not guilty, as some critics maintained, of simply using Jimmy’s anger as a ploy to create shock and sensationalism. Nor was he guilty of portraying the angry young man as cool. “Osborne made no attempt to glamorize the anger,” Elsom wrote. “Jimmy was not just the critic of his society, he was also the object for criticism. He was the chief example of the social malaise which he was attacking. Through Jimmy Porter, Osborne had opened up a much wider subject than rebelliousness or youthful anger, that of social alienation, the feeling of being trapped in a world of meaningless codes and customs.”

So impressed was Laurence Olivier with Look Back in Anger that the actor commissioned Osborne to write a play for him. The result was a drama— The Entertainer—which featured a leading role that is considered one of the greatest and most challenging parts in late twentieth-century drama. In chronicling the life of wilting, third-rate music- hall comedian Archie Rice, Osborne was acknowledged to be reflecting in The Entertainer the fate of postwar Britain, an island suffering recession and unemployment, losing its status as an empire. “Archie is of a piece with the angry Osborne antiheroes of Look Back in Anger and [the author’s later play] Inadmissible Evidence,” noted Frank Rich in a New York Times review of a revival of The Entertainer. “He’s a repulsive, unscrupulous skunk, baiting everyone around him (the audience included); he’s also a somewhat tragic victim of both his own self-contempt and of a declining England. If it’s impossible to love Archie, we should be electrified or at least antagonized by his pure hostility and his raw instinct for survival. Mr. Osborne has a way of making us give his devils their pitiful due.”

The drama’s allegory of fading Britain and Olivier’s compelling portrayal of Archie made The Entertainer a remarkable success in its first production. However, when it was revived on Broadway in 1983 with Nicol Williamson as Archie, New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr observed that in the play Osborne “has first shown us, at tedious, now cliche-ridden lengths how dreary the real world has become—what with blacks moving in upstairs, sons being sent off to Suez, and everyone else sitting limply about...

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The Causes and Consequences of Bill's Mental Breakdown

(Drama for Students)

John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence opens with a dream or rather a nightmare in which Bill Maitland struggles to defend himself in...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)

Osborne’s Use of the Metaphor of Marriage

(Drama for Students)

The opening stage directions to John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence establish this play as “A site of helplessness, of...

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Review by Peter Kemp

(Drama for Students)

Di Trevis’s production of Inadmissible Evidence makes one notable addition to the play; a closing tableau in which most of the cast...

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Review by John Gassner

(Drama for Students)

On Broadway, as has been recently the case with embarrassing frequency, the most distinguished productions were of European, mainly English,...

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