John Osborne World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2923

It is traditional to say that Osborne’s Look Back in Anger represents a turning point in the history of British theater, ending the era of the 1930’s and 1940’s and ushering in the new, more contemporary style of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In British theater, the 1930’s, 1940’s, and early...

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It is traditional to say that Osborne’s Look Back in Anger represents a turning point in the history of British theater, ending the era of the 1930’s and 1940’s and ushering in the new, more contemporary style of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In British theater, the 1930’s, 1940’s, and early 1950’s had been dominated by the esoteric verse dramas of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, the aristocratic drawing-room comedies of Noël Coward, the commercial successes of Terence Rattigan, and the revivals of time-tested classics. In Look Back in Anger and subsequent plays, Osborne offered different fare.

His subject was not genteel, upper-class life but the life of contemporary, rough, and often unsophisticated working-class people. He was critical of British culture both past and present. Detesting the British elitism that emphasized class distinctions, Osborne questioned the conventional pride in England’s Edwardian past and was equally critical of England’s post-World War II welfare state, scoffing at anything “highbrow” or “phoney.” His style was robust, even coarse, rather than elevated or dainty. These qualities of political attitude and style were the features that brought Osborne so much attention when he became a London phenomenon in the late 1950’s. Since then, the more enduring feature of Osborne’s drama has become the Osborne hero, modeled after the original “angry young man,” Jimmy Porter in Long Back in Anger. Archie Rice in The Entertainer, George Dillon in Epitaph for George Dillon, Bill Maitland in Inadmissible Evidence, Pamela in Time Present (pr., pb. 1968), and perhaps even Martin Luther in Luther are all, more or less, heroes in the Jimmy Porter mold.

Like Jimmy, these heroes are often outspoken and irreverent in their criticism of contemporary British society, frequently angry, alienated, bitter, caustic, insensitive, and critical of people and things around them. Sometimes these characters brutalize those closest to them as they strike out from their personal pain. They are often failures, but not simply because they suffer from class distinctions. Mainly, they suffer and fail because they experience the past as a terrible burden. They often look back at their lives and find them very unsatisfactory. These are not genteel characters one can analyze from a distance with a detached attitude. These characters demand an emotional, complex, and often sympathetic response. In an oft-quoted statement, Osborne had said, “I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards.” The richness and complexity of Osborne’s art in these characterizations is that in spite of their many unpleasant characteristics, these Osborne heroes are often still compelling. They are what American critic Harold Ferrar has called “the bastard we can’t help caring about.”

Yet the quality and prevalence in Osborne’s drama of this kind of character also constitute a literary deficiency. At his best, Osborne creates an unforgettable portrait that may live forever in theatrical history; such a portrait was achieved in Jimmy Porter. This sort of angry hero, however, often becomes so dominant in Osborne’s plays that other characters seem one-dimensional and cardboardlike in comparison. This charge is sometimes even made about Look Back in Anger, in which Jimmy’s friend, Cliff, is seen as a cartoon sidekick, and Helena, a friend of Jimmy’s wife, Alison, is seen as an unconvincing contrivance of plot when she suddenly accepts the abusive Jimmy as a lover at the end of act 2 and then gives him up just as suddenly in the last scene when Alison returns. Furthermore, the heroes who succeeded Jimmy Porter generally pale in comparison with their startling original counterpart, and Osborne seemed to be repeating himself without adding depth or dimension.

Some of Osborne’s most interesting, if flawed, developments as a dramatist came after his great early successes. Though his later experiments were not tremendously successful, Osborne did move on to more technically innovative work. In The World of Paul Slickey, for example, Osborne made a clumsy attempt at the musical form. In his teleplay A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960), Osborne attempted to employ historical materials for dramatic purposes, even though he did not achieve that harmonious blend of past and present that makes such materials come alive onstage.

In Luther, Osborne achieved more artistic success in shifting from a contemporary to a historical hero, though Osborne focused more on the unsophisticated and troubled personal psychology of Martin Luther than he did on the historical context of the Protestant Reformation. To many commentators, this play’s focus on Luther’s obsession with constipation seems distracting and not artistically effective, a retreat from the potential significance of such a monumental historical subject. Simon Trussler (The Plays of John Osborne, 1969) found a way to bring the two subjects together: “the evacuation of the bowels and the purification of the church are thus conceived as parallel processes in the life of the eponymous hero.” More to the point, perhaps, is that Osborne was here enlarging the portrait of his typical hero, this time working out, on a great historical stage, his hero’s difficult past relationship with his father.

In Osborne’s boldest and perhaps most successful technical experiment, Inadmissible Evidence, Bill Maitland’s mental breakdown is portrayed in a dream sequence that locates the play’s action in the courtroom of Maitland’s mind. In The Hotel in Amsterdam, Osborne seemed to be attempting to break from his focus on a single hero to create more of an ensemble approach to drama.

Osborne’s historical importance is assured because Look Back in Anger altered the style and subject matter of a whole generation of British writers. The great nineteenth century poet and critic Matthew Arnold insisted that historical importance should not be confused with artistic importance, but Look Back in Anger is both a historical watershed and a significant artistic success.

Look Back in Anger

First produced: 1956 (first published, 1957)

Type of work: Play

A pathologically unhappy and bitter young man vents his anger on all around him and is estranged from but then eventually reconciled with his wife.

Look Back in Anger opens on a lazy, mid-1950’s Sunday afternoon in a one-room attic apartment in a town in the English Midlands. As usual, Jimmy Porter and his friend and business partner, Cliff Lewis, are reading the Sunday papers while Jimmy’s wife, Alison, irons. As usual, Jimmy is verbally bashing everyone and everything around him, including Cliff and Alison—who seem to take his anger in stride.

What makes Jimmy so angry? To support a political reading of Look Back in Anger, critics cite Jimmy’s famous speech near the end of the play, “there aren’t any good, brave causes left,” suggesting that Jimmy’s anger comes from his disappointment that the faded Edwardian glory of England can no longer be real and felt with conviction and enthusiasm. This interpretation is supported by an earlier passage in the play in which Jimmy is quite nostalgic about the Edwardian world of Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern: “all home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms . . . what a romantic picture.” Jimmy admits that “if you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s.”

In his contemporary England, Jimmy sees only political decay and the pretense of continued health. As an intelligent, articulate, and educated twenty-five-year-old, Jimmy has not been able to find work that matches his skills, so he earns a meager living running a street-corner candy stand with Cliff as his partner. Part of him reaches for more success, symbolized most eloquently in his frequent, offstage riffs on his jazz trumpet, but part of him mistrusts success because he does not trust aspiration in a country where aspiration is associated with all that is false and hollow. From his demeaning social position, Jimmy lashes out at all the self-important people around him. His anger strikes at everything associated with British bureaucracy, but, unhappily, it also overflows into mistreatment of his wife and his friend Cliff.

A more psychological and domestic interpretation of the play often points to Jimmy’s pain over his father’s death. When Jimmy was ten years old, he spent a year watching his father die. To him, the rest of the family did not seem to care, and Jimmy sees a similar lack of sensitivity in Alison. He calls her “Lady Pusillanimous” (meaning cowardly), a “monument to non-attachment,” and in one of his verbal tirades even wishes that some catastrophe would shock her out of her lethargy, even something horrible such as having a child die. This is indeed what happens, and that tragedy serves, ironically, as the reconciling force in their marriage.

There are other interpretations of Jimmy’s anger, but his complexity derives from the fact that the precise cause of his discontent remains elusive. In fact, audiences and critics find Jimmy compelling because the richness of his pain defies final analysis.

Jimmy’s anger cools a little at the end of the play but only because his conflict with Alison is resolved at a very great price. When Alison discovers that she is pregnant, an old friend, Helena Charles, comes to stay with the Porters, and Jimmy’s badgering intensifies; his harassment is eventually directed toward Helena. In reaction, Helena convinces Alison that she should leave Jimmy and live again with her father, and Alison leaves. At the end of act 2, however, Helena is drawn by some strange attraction to Jimmy and offers herself to him, becoming his mistress. When act 3 begins, it is Sunday afternoon again and Jimmy and Cliff are once more reading their Sunday papers. Now, however, in a mirror image of the opening of the play, Helena has replaced Alison at the ironing board.

Both the resolution of the conflict and the end of the play come as Alison returns, having lost both the baby and her fertility. In a scene that some critics find insufficiently motivated, Helena leaves and gives Jimmy back to Alison. The play ends with Jimmy and Alison reconciling, in part because Jimmy is satisfied that Alison’s pain has brought her more in tune with his own suffering. The reconciliation is richly ambiguous. Have Jimmy and Alison repaired a marriage worth saving, or have they simply hid from problems they cannot face and handle? The enduring quality of Look Back in Anger is that either of these readings, and more, can be defended.

The Entertainer

First produced: 1957 (first published, 1957)

Type of work: Play

A third-rate music-hall comic fails as the father of a thoroughly unhappy family.

In The Entertainer, Osborne’s hero is Archie Rice, a pathetic music-hall performer whose domestic life is as much a failure as his comedy act. Himself an admirer of the English music hall and its vaudevillian traditions, Osborne alternates domestic scenes of the Rice family with scenes of Archie’s coarse patter in the music hall to symbolize the decline of imperial England. In its late nineteenth and early twentieth century heyday, the music hall was an important expression of urban working-class pride, an entertainment that avoided anything “highbrow,” serious, or intellectual. By the 1950’s, the music hall had been replaced by cinema and television, degenerating into an even more decadent popular art, and in this mid-1950’s music hall Archie is merely a comic setup man for a tacky striptease.

The family unit headed by Archie is equally disappointing. As a father, Archie is self-centered and insensitive, viciously ridiculing his own doddering father, Billy, who lives with the family in their dilapidated and noisy slum apartment. Archie’s wife, Phoebe, is a pathetic alcoholic who endures Archie’s sexual infidelity by retreating mindlessly to the cinema. The play’s action takes place in 1956, during the Suez conflict, when Egypt seized control of the Suez Canal. Frank, Archie and Phoebe’s elder son, is a conscientious objector, fresh from six months in prison. Frank works two menial jobs. Mick, Archie and Phoebe’s younger son, has accepted the call for army service in Cyprus but has been captured and made a prisoner of war. Jean, Archie’s daughter by his first marriage, is a more sensitive person, having thrown off the old-fashioned and sexist attention of her conservative boyfriend, Graham, but, under the influence of a little too much gin, Jean seems equally incapable of strengthening the family unit. As the family members squabble throughout the play, it is clear that they all exist in their own little worlds, seldom listening to or really communicating with one another. In many ways, The Entertainer can be seen as an English version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956); both are portraits of profound domestic failure.

The climax of the action comes with the news that Mick, thought to be released and on his way home, has been killed. Compounded with that grief is the soon-to-follow funeral for Billy; Archie had attempted to get Billy back onto the music-hall stage in order to revive Archie’s own career. In the last scene, Archie is on stage and the symbolic tax man, whom Archie has been cheating for the last twenty years, is waiting in the wings, like death, to take Archie to jail. Archie is supported in his last minutes by Phoebe, but there is no hopeful vision of an improved marriage as the lights snap out for the last time. Osborne’s vision of the domestic future of the Rice family is as bleak as his vision of England’s future as a world power.

One of the most interesting theatrical aspects of The Entertainer is that the renowned British classical actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, took the role of Archie Rice in its initial London production. In Look Back in Anger, Osborne had made himself into a literary phenomenon by belittling the British establishment. Olivier was a significant member of that establishment’s theater wing, but when he expressed an interest in Osborne’s work, Olivier was cast as Archie Rice; Olivier’s star status, along with a chillingly real performance, made The Entertainer a smash hit. It was soon transferred to London’s West End and then was made into a successful film. After his first two plays, Osborne was himself a bona fide “star,” part of a new establishment.

Luther

First produced: 1961 (first published, 1961)

Type of work: Play

A young man rebels against his father by becoming a monk and then rebels against the Catholic Church by leading the revolution that creates Protestantism.

In the first of its twelve episodic scenes, Luther opens in Germany in 1506 with the young Martin Luther joining an Augustinian monastery against his father’s wishes. Luther has chosen a life of austere asceticism, while his father, a miner with entrepreneurial aspirations, had wished for his son a professional life with greater social stature. In this and subsequent scenes covering much of Martin’s life, Luther displays naïveté, anger, and an almost pathological self-hatred. At one point, Martin says, “I’m like a ripe stool in the world’s straining anus.” Throughout the play, Martin is obsessed with physical health and, most specifically, with the working of his bowels.

In the second scene, a year later, Martin prepares for and performs his first Communion Mass, with his estranged father in attendance. In the crucial third scene of the play, Martin talks with his highly judgmental father after the celebration of the Communion, and an argument ensues in which Martin’s father accuses his son of running away from life. At one point, Martin says “you make me sick,” and this otherwise casual, colloquial phrase is the key to the scene. Martin’s chronic constipation is a symbolic representation of his frustrated love for his father, his failure to please his father, and his conflicted attempt to run away from his biological roots. During the play, Martin adopts a more positive father figure, a high-ranking member of the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz, but that relationship clearly never compensates for Martin’s initial loss of his father.

Martin’s revolt against the Catholic Church is an extension of his conflict with his biological father, and Martin’s friendship with Staupitz is an attempt to find peace with authority figures. In the scenes comprising the middle of the play, Martin battles several authority figures in the established Church—a seller of phony papal indulgences, a distinguished cardinal, and even the pope himself. Martin’s father had believed that humans were not saved by their works, their good deeds; Martin adopts this view, adding to it the revolutionary notion that faith alone was the spiritual alternative to Catholicism. Consistent with the play’s scatological theme, Martin reports that his inspiration for his famous and revolutionary Ninety-five Theses came to him while he was straining to empty his bowels.

In leading the Protestant Reformation, Luther liberated the common people to approach Christian salvation individually, without patriarchal intermediaries. Osborne, however, implies that this great historical revolution might have had a very prosaic foundation. In the penultimate scene of the play, the unruly Peasants’ Revolt in Germany of 1524-1525 has failed, and Martin helps to crush it. In the final scene, set in 1530, Martin is a tired, middle-aged man, now married to a former nun and the father of a child himself. In the last moment of the play, Martin tenderly and hopefully addresses his own infant son, named Hans after Martin’s father. The cycle of father and son relationships has come full circle.

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