John Osborne

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

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 hailed Osborne’s work as “the best young play of its decade,” adding, “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger.” A Royal Court Theatre publicist described Osborne as an “angry young man,” and that phrase came to designate a whole generation of British male writers, both playwrights and novelists, who came to be known as “the angry young men.” Their work was typified by their working-class backgrounds, their irreverence for the traditional British establishment, and an intolerance for anything “highbrow” or “phoney.” In the theater, Osborne’s ruthless honesty with language and subject matter inspired a generation of vigorous British playwrights, including Arnold Wesker, John Arden, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard. Look Back in Anger ran for a year and a half, was transferred to New York, and for years enjoyed enormous success in various touring productions around the world.

Osborne’s next two plays, The Entertainer (pr., pb. 1957) and Epitaph for George Dillon (pr., pb. 1958), were also big hits. In 1959, however, The World of Paul Slickey was a critical and commercial disaster. Many more plays, television scripts, and film scripts followed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but the general impression created by Osborne’s work was that he was not fulfilling the promise he had exhibited in Look Back in Anger. Highlights in this relatively disappointing period included Luther (pr., pb. 1961), a dramatization of the life of Martin Luther; Inadmissible Evidence (pr. 1964, pb. 1965), in which a middle-aged lawyer tries to justify his disappointing life; The Hotel in Amsterdam (pr., pb. 1968), in which three couples meet in a first-class hotel and define their lives by their hatred of a tyrannical film producer; and the first volume of his autobiography, A Better Class of Person.

In 1958, Osborne joined with Tony Richardson, the original director of Look Back in Anger, to form Woodfall Films. His greatest popular success in screenwriting was winning an Academy Award for writing Tom Jones (1963), his adaptation of the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding. Among his many other projects, he successfully adapted three of his own plays for film: Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1960), and Inadmissible Evidence (1968). Osborne also received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1957, 1963) and the Tony Award (1963). In 1991, Osborne published the second volume of his autobiography, and in 1993 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.

In 1958, Osborne had bought a twenty-three-acre estate in Kent that subsequently served as a refuge for his reclusive way of life. In 1978, he married his fifth wife, Helen Dawson, a drama critic. Osborne died in Shropshire, England, on December 24, 1994, of heart failure.

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