John Osborne grew up in Fulham, Ventnor, and Surrey, leading a suburban childhood in somewhat less dire circumstances than one’s preconception of Jimmy Porter’s alter ego would lead one to expect. In fact, every class subtlety between “upper-lower” and “lower-middle” was represented in his own extended family; Osborne’s autobiography traces, with a gusto bordering on the vengeful, the Welsh and Cockney sides of his family, and characterizes, in the spirit of English low comedy, their attempts to sustain outworn Edwardian amenities after having “come down in the world.” His father was an advertising copywriter who suffered long spells of illness, and his mother was a barmaid, but the family tree included many connections to the music hall and the theater. (Grandfather Grove, for example, would be revived in the form of Billy Rice in The Entertainer.)
Osborne was an only child, rather sickly and bookish. His most vivid memories of adolescence include listening in the air-raid shelter to German bombers and suffering the abuse of bullies at school. Eventually, he went to a boarding school, St. Michael’s, and after being expelled for striking back at the headmaster, turned toward journalism as a reporter for a trade journal, Gas World. After a failed engagement, he joined a struggling touring company, with which he gained his first experience in acting and playwriting, including an artistic and sexual collaboration with an older actress. The most important result of this picaresque period for the young Osborne was that he realized his ear for speech and developed his ambition to write for the stage. The early 1950’s led him into the vital world of provincial repertory—the background for Epitaph for George Dillon—and ultimately, to the acceptance of Look Back in Anger by George Devine and the English Stage Company. Thus began a prolific career that established Osborne as an influence on the style and subject of contemporary English theater, rivaled only by Harold Pinter. He was married four times, to Pamela Lane (1951-1957), actress Mary Ure (1957-1963), writer Penelope Gilliatt (1963-1968), and actress Jill Bennett, whom he married in 1968. He had one child. Osborne was a member of the Royal Society of Arts, and in 1970, he received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London.
In the mid-1970’s, after two decades of steady production for the stage, Osborne substantially reduced his playwriting, though he continued to turn out television dramas. Other than occasional adaptations, such as the 1991 televised revision (produced as a stage work in 1975) of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and an hour-long profile on British television’s South Bank Show, Osborne was not highly visible on the theater scene in these later decades of his life. His 1991 play, Déjàvu, which opened at the Comedy Theater in London to mixed reviews, was his first major new work to appear on the London stage in more than fifteen years. The 1991 publication of the second volume of Osborne’s autobiography, Almost a Gentleman, brought his memoirs up to the mid-1960’s and kept his name in the news for a short time. He died in 1994 at the age of sixty-five.
John James Osborne was born in Fulham, a grimy district of south London, England, on December 12, 1929, the only son of Thomas Godfrey Osborne, who worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency, and Nellie Beatrice Osborne, who worked as a barmaid. Osborne’s father died when Osborne was ten, and at least partially sentimental portraits of fathers and grandfathers figure prominently in Osborne’s plays, as do unflattering portraits of mother figures, as Osborne’s relationship with his mother was not very satisfactory. His unhappy middle-class childhood and adolescence are vividly portrayed in the first volume of his autobiography, A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956 (1981). The second and last volume of his autobiography, Almost a Gentleman
(The entire section is 2,732 words.)