John Osborne Biography


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...

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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 (1991), covers an additional decade.

At fifteen, Osborne was expelled from St. Michael’s, an undistinguished boarding school in Devon, for hitting a teacher. Three years later, while working as a journalist for trade magazines, Osborne drifted into his theater career, which began when he took a job as an assistant stage manager, actors’ understudy, and tutor of juvenile troop members. After working seven years touring English provincial theaters and writing plays in his spare time, Osborne became an overnight sensation at the age of twenty-six when his third play, Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956, pb. 1957), was accepted by the English Stage Company and performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, under the artistic direction of George Devine.

Look Back in Anger opened on May 8, 1956, and in a review in The Observer on Sunday, May 13, the legendary theater critic Kenneth Tynan...

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John Osborne’s historical importance in modern British drama is seldom questioned. His play Look Back in Anger gave a name, “the angry young men,” to a whole generation of British writers. There is also no doubting the solid theatrical quality of his first big hit, since the compelling portrait of Jimmy Porter continues to command the stage wherever Osborne’s play is revived. His prolific output includes more than forty other stage, screen, and television plays.

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