John Osborne Osborne, John - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Osborne 1929-1994

(Full name John James Osborne) English playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and autobiographer.

Osborne's landmark play, Look Back in Anger (1956), established him as a leading English dramatist and helped initiate a new era in British theater emphasizing aggressive social criticism, authentic portrayals of working-class life, and anti-heroic characters. Osborne often is associated with a loosely categorized group of English writers called the “Angry Young Men,” whose literature contributed to the heightened social and political awareness developing in England during the 1950s and 1960s. Osborne's plays are often dominated by strong, articulate protagonists who express disgust with bourgeois complacency and materialistic social values through outbursts of abusive language.

Biographical Information

Osborne was born December 12, 1929, in London, England. Osborne’s father died before he was in his teens; he and his mother, Nellie Beatrice Grove Osborne, lived through the Second World War in Fulham. Osborne attended a number of day schools and then, when he was sixteen, attended (through the financial assistance of a charitable institution) St. Michael's College, which Osborne has dismissed as an obscure and “rather cheap boarding school” in North Devon. Osborne remained at St. Michael's for slightly less than two years to receive his General School Certificate. After leaving St. Michael's, he received no other formal education. He took jobs on several trade journals, but soon became disillusioned with journalism and drifted, obliquely, into theater by accepting a job as a tutor for child actors in a provincial touring company. Shortly thereafter, Osborne was found to be unqualified as a teacher, and, relieved of his tutorial responsibilities, was invited instead to stay on as assistant stage manager and eventually as an actor in the company. Osborne made his acting debut at the Empire Theatre, Sheffield, in March 1948, in Joan Temple's No Room at the Inn. For the next seven years he made the rounds of the provincial repertory theaters as a competent actor specializing in characterizations of old men. While a repertory actor, Osborne began writing plays—many of them collaborative efforts with other actors—on the side. After the failure of one of his first plays, Personal Enemy in 1955, Osborne returned to acting. He went to London, where he encountered long periods of unemployment and “lived” in a public library because it was warmer than his “digs.” During one of these periods, Osborne wrote his first solo play, Look Back in Anger. He submitted copies of the script to every theatrical agent in London but it was rejected by all. In responding to the English Stage Company's advertisement soliciting plays by new British playwrights, Osborne sent a copy of Look Back in Anger to the artistic director of the company. The English Stage Company had just been founded to provide a theater and proper conditions in London where contemporary playwrights could express themselves without having to submit to the increasing restrictions of the commercial theater. Look Back in Anger received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best foreign play of the 1957 Broadway season. Osborne received several awards for his work, including the Macallan Award for lifetime achievement, and an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for Tom Jones in 1964. He died of heart failure December 24, 1994.

Major Works

Look Back in Anger focuses on Jimmy Porter, a twenty-five-year-old university-educated sweetshop owner who shares a cramped attic apartment with his wife, Alison, and his co-worker and friend, Cliff. Embittered and alienated by his inability to advance socially and angered by the apathy he encounters in others, Jimmy strikes back at the world with explosive intensity. His diatribes range in subject from the failings of his marriage to the inequalities of English society. The Entertainer (1957) firmly established Osborne’s importance in postwar British drama. Essentially an in-depth portrait of three generations of the Rice family (who comprise almost the entire cast of the play), The Entertainer demonstrates once again Osborne's gift for invective and his deep compassion for failures. In addition to being a portrait of three generations of an English middle-class theatrical family, The Entertainer can also be seen as a depiction of the past, present, and future of contemporary England. Principally, however, this play is Osborne's requiem for the dying music hall and the vital part of English life that it represents. The Entertainer enjoys the distinction in Osborne's canon of being his first play commissioned by an actor: Laurence Olivier, who eventually played the part of Archie Rice, a seedy, fifth-rate music-hall comedian. Upon reading a portion of the script, Olivier felt an immediate interest in the character. Almost ten years later in an interview with Kenneth Tynan, Olivier described the role of Archie Rice as “the most wonderful part that I've ever played” in a modern play.

Often considered to be Osborne's angriest and most uncompromising work, The World of Paul Slickey (1959) is a biting musical satire of the London press and an attack on individuals who allow themselves to be influenced and manipulated by the mass media. Luther (1961) is a historical and psychological portrait of the leader of the Protestant Reformation. The play chronicles Martin Luther's years as an Augustinian monk, his confrontations with royal and papal authority, and his later role as husband and father. Luther won both a New York Drama Critics Circle Award and an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award. Inadmissible Evidence (1964) is regarded by many critics as a culmination of the themes developed in his earlier plays and his finest dramatic achievement. The play concentrates on Bill Maitland, an unscrupulous London lawyer who is haunted by feelings of guilt and self-doubt that eventually lead to his disengagement from society and his nervous breakdown.

Critical Reception

Look Back in Anger established Osborne as a leading writer for the British theater. Moreover, the play is credited with having a great influence on British theater and culture; commentators have investigated the play's influence on such prominent playwrights as Joe Orton and Edward Albee. Many critics regard Look Back in Anger, as well as a few of his other plays, as insightful commentary on England's social and political situation during the 1950s. However, later critics consider Look Back in Anger to be a conventional and disappointing play, more a cultural achievement than a literary one. Although some commentators have asserted that Osborne's later plays contain some of his best writing, they have been less popular than his earlier works. Critics have noted an unevenness in his works, but have declared Osborne's canon as impressive, rich, and vital. In his artistic maturation, he grew beyond the somewhat narrowly personal tone of Look Back in Anger without losing much of his original fire and vitality. Osborne is recognized for his prominent role in the revival of British theater during the 1950s and 1960s.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Devil Inside Him [with Stella Linden] (play) 1950

Personal Enemy [with Anthony Creighton] (play) 1955

Look Back in Anger (play) 1956

The Entertainer (play) 1957

Epitaph for George Dillon (play) 1957

The World of Paul Slickey (play) 1959

Luther (play) 1961

Plays for England: The Blood of the Bambergs and Under Plain Cover (plays) 1963

Inadmissible Evidence (play) 1964

Tom Jones [adapted from the novel by Henry Fielding] (screenplay) 1964

A Patriot for Me (play) 1965

The Hotel in Amsterdam (play) 1968

Time Present (play) 1968

West of Suez (play) 1971

Hedda Gabler [adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen] (play) 1972

A Sense of Detachment (play) 1972

The End of Me Old Cigar (play) 1975

Watch It Come Down (play) 1975

A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956 (autobiography) 1981

Déjàvu (play) 1990

Almost a Gentleman, Volume II: An Autobiography, 1955-1966 (autobiography) 1991

Damn You, England: Collected Prose (prose) 1994

Herbert Goldstone (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldstone, Herbert. Introduction to Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne, pp. 1-26. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

[In the following essay, Goldstone addresses misconceptions about Osborne's life and work.]


I am writing about John Osborne, over twenty-five years after his first success Look Back in Anger, because, more than any other single playwright, he is most responsible for the great reinvigoration of British drama that has occurred since the 1950's—possibly the most important development in British literature since the end of World War II. Beginning with that play, the...

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Arnold P. Hinchliffe (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hinchliffe, Arnold P. “Look Back in Anger.” In John Osborne, pp. 1-25. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following essay, Hinchliffe surveys the critical reaction to Look Back in Anger.]

John James Osborne was born on 12 December 1929 in Fulham, a suburb of London. His father, Thomas Godfrey Osborne, was a commercial artist whose family came from South Wales, and his mother was Nellie Beatrice Grove. Details of his childhood and adolescence are now brilliantly recorded in the first volume of Osborne's autobiography, A Better Class of Person (1981). His childhood in London was dominated by a remarkable galaxy of larger-than-life...

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David Cairns and Shaun Richards (essay date autumn 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cairns, David, and Shaun Richards. “No Good Brave Causes? The Alienated Intellectual and the End of Empire.” Literature & History 14, no. 2 (autumn 1988): 194-206.

[In the following essay, Cairns and Richards explore the issue of colonialism in Look Back in Anger.]

‘Then, on 8 May 1956 came the revolution …’1 With these words, John Russell Taylor, in his 1962 study of Look Back In Anger, confirmed the reception given to the play by, most notably, Kenneth Tynan which set the critical parameters within which much of the subsequent exegesis was to take place. While Osborne's own career has generated a response whose general tendency...

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Niloufer Harben (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harben, Niloufer. “Three Plays of the 1960s.” In Twentieth-Century English History Plays: From Shaw to Bond, pp. 156-212. Houndmills, England: Macmillan Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Harben identifies sources for Osborne's Luther and describes the critical reaction to the play.]

John Osborne's Luther presents another instance of a playwright being drawn to a historical subject for its religious interest. Yet Osborne's approach and achievement vary significantly from Bolt's and Shaffer's. His play, an arresting psychological study of a turbulent individual, at odds with himself and the social and religious institutions of his time, is...

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Robert G. Egan (essay date September 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Egan, Robert G. “Anger and the Actor: Another Look Back.” Modern Drama 32, no. 3 (September 1989): 413-24.

[In the following essay, Egan considers the enduring appeal of Look Back in Anger, focusing on the character of Jimmy Porter.]


If we are reluctant to let go of 1956 as a convenient watershed point in the history of British theatre, we no longer tend to regard Look Back in Anger as a one-play revolution. John Osborne himself long ago pronounced it “a formal, rather old-fashioned play,”1 and with the virtue of hindsight we can identify its technical affinities with the earlier dramatists...

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George Watson (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Watson, George. “Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard.” In British Literature since 1945, pp. 145-74. Houndmills, England: Macmillan Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Watson asserts that Look Back in Anger played a seminal role in the revival of British theater in the mid-1950s.]

The story of London theatre, by common consent, divides at 1956, when John Osborne's Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre.

May 1956 was a moment of change, even revolutionary change; and like many revolutions, it was also a reaction. Before it, a more formal theoretical tradition had tried to restore an Elizabethan sense of poetry to...

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Graham A. Dixon (essay date fall 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dixon, Graham A. “Still Looking Back: The Deconstruction of the Angry Young Man in Look Back in Anger and Déjàvu.Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (fall 1994): 521-29.

[In the following essay, Dixon maintains that Osborne's later play Déjàvu provides insight into Jimmy Porter's powerlessness in Look Back in Anger.]

To “deconstruct” would be to think—in the most faithful interior way—in the concepts of a discipline, but at the same time to determine—from a certain exterior that is unqualifiable or unnameable by (that discipline)—what … it has been able to dissimulate or forbid.1


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Aleks Sierz (essay date May 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sierz, Aleks. “John Osborne and the Myth of Anger.” New Theatre Quarterly 12, no. 46 (May 1996): 136-46.

[In the following essay, Sierz investigates how Look Back in Anger became an iconic work.]

The people I should like to contact—if I knew how—aren't likely to be reading this book anyway. If they have ever heard of me, it is only as a rather odd-looking ‘angry young man’.

—John Osborne, “They Call It Cricket”

When John Osborne died on Christmas Eve 1994, The Guardian, along with other newspapers, reported the event on its front page. Under the headline...

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Larry L. Langford (essay date May 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Langford, Larry L. “The Unsocial Socialism of John Osborne.” English Studies 78, no. 3 (May 1997): 237-57.

[In the following essay, Langford contends that critical opinions of Osborne’s plays were often intertwined with opinions of his political intentions and integrity.]

‘Socialism is an intellectual Proteus’.

(H. G. Wells, The New Machiavelli)

For a playwright so often recognized as important, and perhaps great, John Osborne suffered particularly harsh criticism concerning his dramatic competency and his political integrity. To be sure, he has his defenders who see in...

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David Galef (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Galef, David. “Beyond Anger: Osborne's Wrestle with Language and Meaning.” In John Osborne: A Casebook, edited by Patricia D. Denison, pp. 21-33. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Galef analyzes the role of language and communication in Osborne's plays.]

When a character in an Osborne play tries to communicate to the audience that he cannot communicate—and this happens fairly regularly—it is generally assumed that he is on the wrong side of the cultural divide. The British Mass Education Act of 1944 produced an entire generation of graduates too educated for the working classes, yet not aristocratic enough for the upper...

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Austin E. Quigley (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Quigley, Austin E. “The Personal, the Political, and the Postmodern in Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Déjàvu.” In John Osborne: A Casebook, edited by Patricia D. Denison, pp. 35-59. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Quigley contends that Déjàvu offers some insight into why Look Back in Anger is “widely regarded as a very important but not very good play.”]

Forty years after it made its historic appearance on the London stage, Look Back in Anger is widely regarded as a very important but not very good play. A generation of British playwrights, including Brenton, Stoppard, and Hare,...

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Richard Allen (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Allen, Richard. “A Post-Colonial World: Look Back in Anger and The Enigma of Arrival.” In Literature and Nation: Britain and India 1800-1990, edited by Richard Allen and Harish Trivedi, pp. 138-53. London: Routledge, 2000.

[In the following essay, Allen compares the treatment of British colonial culture in Look Back in Anger to V. S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival.]


In a famous speech delivered in Africa in 1958 the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared that a ‘wind of change’ was sweeping through the continent. Nationalism in the colonies was no longer something to be contested or...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Denison, Patricia D., editor. John Osborne: A Casebook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997, 231 p.

Collection of critical essays focusing on Osborne’s work.

Goldstone, Herbert. Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982, 265 p.

Critical analysis of Osborne's plays.

Hincliffe, Arnold P. John Osborne. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984, 152 p.

Biographical and critical study of Osborne’s life and work.

Additional coverage of Osborne’s life and career is contained in...

(The entire section is 163 words.)