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.
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.
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.
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.