Drama in both the United States and Great Britain underwent a sea change in the years after World War II, with a new emphasis on the expression of passions by characters who had not been previously portrayed in the theater. In America, this transformation occurred earlier, in the works of Arthur Miller (1915-2005) and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), particularly Death of a Salesman (pr. 1949) and A Streetcar Named Desire (pr. 1947). In England, the explosion was chiefly the result of one work in 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. However, the importance of Osborne’s work in introducing passion and a new type of character in a theater ruled over by the intellectual sway of the plays of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and the pent-up emotions in the works of Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) has recently been disputed, and one purpose of John Heilpern’s authorized biography, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man, is to reestablish the significance of Osborne’s work in moving the British theater, as well as British cinema, in a new and ultimately more modern direction.
The passions expressed by Jimmy Porter, the protagonist of Look Back in Anger, as well as its title, led to Osborne’s being labeled by journalists an “angry young man,” along with novelists such as Kingsley Amis (1922-1995). (However, Amis and Osborne did not speak to each other later in life.) Heilpern maintains that the label became a “millstone” for Osborne throughout his life, although in what way is not precisely clear. Certainly his anger emerged regularly during his life with his mother, with four of his five wives, with his daughter, and with close friends and collaborators such as Tony Richardson. He even railed against the dead: When the death of his third wife, Jill Bennett, removed a gag order preventing Osborne from writing about her, he inserted, against all advice, a superfluous, vituperative chapter about her in the second volume of his autobiography, even though the work had not reached the period when he was married to her.
The whole thrust of Heilpern’s work is to show how Osborne, throughout his life, was a despairing man, full of grief and anguish, which probably fueled his recurrent rages. Heilpern traces Osborne’s grief to childhood incidents: first (and foremost) the death of Osborne’s father from tuberculosis in 1939. Thomas Godfrey Osborne was, Osborne felt, the only adult who ever showed affection toward him, and he blamed his mother for his father’s death. At the end of the biography, Heilpern traces the death date of Osborne’s older sister, the aptly named Faith, and learns that she died three months after Osborne was born, less than two years of age. Some sense of survivor’s guilt must have been inculcated in him. “I have sinned” were the last words he wrote.
In tracing Osborne’s emotional states, Heilpern is immensely aided by the access to more than twenty notebooks that Osborne’s widow, Helen, gave him. Several of the most important people in Osborne’s lifehis father, as well as his artistic father, George Devinedied in January, so that month became an annual ordeal for Osborne, leading to depressive states lasting from one to four months. Osborne’s depressions finally culminated in a full-blown breakdown, for which he was hospitalized in 1966, triggered by the death of Devine, the failure of his latest play, and the breakup of his marriage to Penelope Gilliatt. One of Heilpern’s weaknesses as a biographer is that dates are very unclear in his work: The chapter on Osborne’s breakdown, for instance, ends with a series of harrowing quotations from his notebooks at the time, and the next chapter begins with his marriage to Jill Bennett in May of 1968.
Indeed, Heilpern is an unconventional biographer in that the mechanics, the assembling of the work, are all laid bare as he tells it. The work begins with his recounting of Osborne’s widow offering him the opportunity to write the authorized biography. When he gets to a certain person in Osborne’s life, such as the editor who encouraged Osborne’s first writing efforts, or Osborne’s daughter, Heilpern describes his meeting them, how they look that day, and any unusual circumstances. In the case of...
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