John Osborne

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Osborne, John (Vol. 5)

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Osborne, John 1929–

Osborne is a major British dramatist and writer for television. With his first play, "Look Back in Anger," Osborne gave both name and impetus to the writers known as Angry Young Men, the young "lower class" intellectuals who, like the Beats in America, were writing in protest of Establishment rules and values. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Jimmy Porter … is the angry one [of Look Back in Anger]. What is he angry about? It is a little difficult at first for an American to understand. The English understand, not because it is ever explicitly stated, but because the jitters which rack Jimmy, though out of proportion to the facts within the play, are in the very air the Englishman breathes. Jimmy, "risen" from the working class, is now provided with an intellect which only shows him that everything that might have justified pride in the old England—its opportunity, adventure, material well-being—has disappeared without being replaced by anything but a lackluster security. He has been promoted into a moral and social vacuum. He fumes, rages, nags at a world which promised much but which has led to a dreary plain where there is no fiber or substance—only fear of scientific destruction and the minor comforts of "American" mechanics. His wife comments to the effect that "my father is sad because everything has changed; Jimmy is sad because nothing has." In the meantime Jimmy seeks solace and blows defiance through the symbolic jazz of his trumpet; while his working-class pal, though he adores Jimmy and his wife, wisely leaves the emotionally messy premises.

Immanent reality plus a gift for stinging and witty rhetoric are what give the play its importance. It is not realism of the Odets or Williams kind, nor yet poetry, although it has some kinship to both. It adds up to a theatrical stylization of ideas about reality in which a perceptive journalism is made to flash on the stage by a talent for histrionic gesture and vivid elocution. While the end product possesses a certain nervous force and genuineness of feeling it is also sentimental, for it still lacks the quality of an experience digested, controlled or wholly understood. (p. 56)

Jimmy Porter … is a sign, not a character. We accept him because in the final count he is more amusing than real. We can look beyond him and the flimsy structure of the fable in which he is involved and surmise some of the living sources in the civilization from which he issues.

That John Osborne is attached and attuned to those sources is the virtue and hope of his talent. (p. 57)

Harold Clurman, "John Osborne" (1957), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 55-7.

Jimmy Porter is often a detestable character from any point of view, including—at moments—the author's. With all its monotony of structure, its false starts into domestic melodrama or screwball comedy, Look Back in Anger has the courage of [Osborne's] talent for relentless portraiture. There's nothing wrong with Jimmy Porter that a good revolution wouldn't cure, if a good revolution were conceivable by him or anyone else connected with the play. But it isn't. And so a potentially political play becomes—again, I suppose, intentionally—a private lives play of the most suffocating kind. (p. 125)

F. W. Dupee, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1958...

(This entire section contains 4319 words.)

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by Partisan Review, Inc.), Winter, 1958.

A play like Look Back in Anger creates a world which, in essence, is familiar to us (reality, rather than an imaginative dislocation of reality), and it becomes easier for the mind to sidetrack onto an element which may be more pleasing to it than the main theme of the play. Constant reference is made, even by people who liked the play, to Jimmy Porter's self-pity, his neurotic behaviour, his cruelty to his wife. This makes nonsense of the play; Jimmy Porter is devoid of any neurosis or self-pity, and the play is summed up in his cry against a negative world, "Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm—that's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! Hallelujah! I'm alive."… Would Look Back in Anger have been the success it was if people had been forced to listen to this damning indictment of themselves as dead souls, instead of being allowed to stray into less dangerous channels (guying of English Sundays, excitingly turbulent sex-life, downtrodden and maltreated wife, etc.)? (pp. 45-6)

Tom Milne, "The Hidden Face of Violence" (originally published in Encore, Vol. VII, No. 1, 1960; copyright © by Encore), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 38-46.

Whatever the merits of the writing, and they are considerable, Look Back in Anger is limited by the nihilism of its author and the crackle and sputter of fireworks in a mist. For a play characterized by admirably sustained dialogue and taut, fragmentary conflicts Look Back in Anger was curiously unsatisfying….

The realism of seedy settings, vibrant acting, forthright staging, the sordid story, and the pungent dialogue was altogether appropriate here. But in the context of the play the realistic refinements are only arid achievements. There was a time, not so very long ago, when it was possible to associate realistic art with a positive attitude rather than with the negations of a Look Back in Anger. (p. 174)

John Gassner, "John Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger'," in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1960, pp. 173-75.

If one looks closely at the crotchety, constipated, hypercritical figure of Martin Luther in John Osborne's [Luther], one is forcibly reminded of that fuming British malcontent, Jimmy Porter [protagonist of Look Back in Anger]; a protestant who bitched against the Welfare State as vehemently as the theologian wrangled with the Pope. The similarities do not end there.

Despite the jump in time, the clerical context and the change of venue, the play is not (as has been charged …) a departure for Osborne. There is a clear link-up between Luther's sixteenth-century Germany and our time. In both, the sense of cosmic imminence is very strong. "The Last Judgement isn't to come. It's here and now," says Luther, and the doomsday-mountain-squatters and the nuclear-psychotics echo his words. The church-sale of indulgences is put forward as if it were a commercial advertisement, and the suggestion here is that the Catholic Church at its lowest moral ebb is an appropriate symbol for modern ad-mass culture. And who is the cleric Tetzel but a kind of bloated Arthur Godfrey pushing piety with the same unctuousness used to boost Lipton's Tea?

The Osborne of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer gave us the temperature of social protest. And it was blisteringly hot. In The World of Paul Slickey, no longer content with the charged implication and the social inference, Osborne issued indictments. One of these was made out for the church. There was something compulsive in the way that Osborne humiliated his churchmen in Slickey. I have a stark image of an obscenely capering clergyman shedding all the moral restraints one usually associates with the cloth. Osborne seemed to be taking it out on the church because of some fundamental failing, and it was tinged with a personal bitterness—as if Osborne himself had been let down.

The religious disturbance is implicit in all the earlier plays. In his first play, Epitaph for George Dillon, there is an arbitrary scene whose only purpose is to deflate the condescending, sold-on-God visitor to the Elliot home. And if we ask ourselves (as so many have) what was bugging Jimmy Porter and George Dillon, the answer would seem to be: loss of faith. (pp. 117-18)

It is almost as if Osborne, tracing skepticism down to its roots, had to move from George Dillon to Jimmy Porter to Archie Rice to Martin Luther—almost is if they were all part of the same family. (p. 118)

Structurally, [Luther] is a series of taut interviews interspersed with sermons and smeared thick with cathedral atmosphere. Formalistically, Osborne (like practically every other modern playwright) appears to be under the sway of Bertolt Brecht. Like Brecht, he has strung together a series of short, stark tableaux. Like Brecht, he has backed them with evocative hangings (flags, banners, tapes-tries, crucifixes). Like Brecht, he employs a narrator to fill in background and make comment. Like Brecht, he has balanced the man and the social structure so that every moment of one produces a gesture from the other. But unlike Brecht, he has not endowed his play with that added intellectual dimension around which the drama may cohere. He has not, in this tart dramatization of history, furnished an underlying concept with which to interpret events.

Spectacle and rhetoric propel the play's first two acts, but by Act Three it comes to a dead stop because language which has already posited the argument, no longer has a job to perform. The only promising dramatic situation in the play concerns Luther's encouragement and subsequent betrayal of the peasants in their revolt against the lords. This is merely reported after the event in a beautifully written narrative speech which doesn't make up for the lack of action. This is the Brechtian influence at its most destructive. The dramatic climaxes are siphoned dry; characters are involved with the intellectual implications of their behavior rather than with the blood and bone of their situations. A narrative, imagistic language is giving us the "point" of the Luther story in a series of historical passages annotated with theological footnotes. The strongest character in the second half is a Knight who helped put down the peasants' rebellion, and what gives him such presence is the fact that he has just waged war and arrives at least with the residue of an involvement. The real battle has been in Luther's conscience and we have felt only its mildest repercussions. No one has come forward to oppose our protagonist. His anti-clerical father has raged only against losing a son to the monastery. The Pope has threatened but backed down. The beaten peasants have shied off with their tails between their legs. From scene to scene we find ourselves being cheated by authenticity.

The play's final moments emphasize the dearth of development…. In place of the last-act solidification of ideas (not a desirable way to write a play, but obviously the kind of play Osborne was writing), we get the scene of pregnant ambiguity which invites us to moor the play in whichever dock we like, as the writer wasn't going anywhere in particular anyway. (pp. 118-20)

If the play proves nothing about Luther it proves a great deal about John Osborne. It proves that he has the ability to grasp dramatic ideas and the language to convey them on a hard, bright poetical level. Also, he can don period costumes and still hold a twentieth century stance, and in a theatre where an historical milieu automatically produces turgid posturing, this is a real asset. His structural and intellectual shortcomings do not diminish these gifts.

Osborne, I would guess, is fishing round for a new theme—or rather a new objective correlative in which to express his old theme: personal idealism in collision with institutional dogmas. He has gravitated from anger to contemplation, and that is a healthy progress. (p. 120)

At the start of what promises to be the swinging sixties [that is, at the time of this essay], Osborne remains the most ornery dramatist in England. He still smarts, seethes and occasionally rages. He refuses to conform to other people's idea of his nonconformity. He rejects the cosy club chair and the gutless protest that crackles in the lounge and smolders on the street. He still winces at the stench in his country and refuses to pretend it is only someone burning leaves in the back yard.

He is the closest thing England has to a Norman Mailer…. He produces in me a warm sense of security, for I always feel that he is one of the few (small "c") committed playwrights who really writes out of a conviction—that it is a social and humanist conviction and not an allegiance to maintain the fashion of the irate, verbose radical—and that unlike the (capital "C") Committed writers, he is not partial to anything except his art. (pp. 120-21)

Charles Marowitz, "The Ascension of John Osborne" (first published in The Drama Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, 1962; © 1962 by The Drama Review; reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 117-21.

Osborne is unquestionably a born dramatist, and his vocabulary of invective is simply stunning, but I think he has yet to write a work that will endure. Too much of his writing remains unformulated, and too much remains unfinished: his plays have the quality of electrical particles without a nucleus to hold them in orbit. Osborne's dramatic discipline since Epitaph for George Dillon has grown increasingly loose, and more and more he has begun to indulge a weakness for dramatic ventriloquism: Inadmissible Evidence, for example, after a brilliant first act, collapses completely into structural chaos, as the author introduces rhetorical essays on subjects only remotely related to his theme. The typical Osborne scene consists of one person orating and another listening—the monologues are inspired but they do not admit of true argument. And he is capable, I think, of writing only one character fully: the cruel, blistering protagonist who evokes the spectator's pity when he reveals himself to be collapsing under the burden of his own unpleasantness. This suggests that under the hard veneer of Osborne's style there lurks considerable sentimentality, and makes it understandable why he has been successful on Broadway…. Until Osborne can put his wonderful eloquence at the service of consistently worked-out themes, he will remain a playwright of the second rank. (p. 129)

Robert Brustein, "The English Stage" (1965), in his The Third Theatre (copyright © 1969 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1969, pp. 123-30.

Osborne's first plays were structurally conventional: Look Back in Anger and Epitaph for George Dillon are three-act plays set within realistic walls like most of their immediate predecessors. Exposition, development, and conclusion, clear character presentation and progressive building of conflict and tension are all duly there. What was new was the kind of life these plays mirrored in detail: Osborne's own world—young, uneasily married and loving—and its thwarted idealistic pretensions. All the conventional discretion, polish, and good manners of the English drama had gone; and there was no condescension—indeed there was a great show of sympathy—towards what his predecessors would have called "low" characters. Also, the central character in each was a misplaced artist, reduced to anger, double-talk and, temporarily, compliance. From this center, Osborne's later plays were to develop: the best of them are largely monologues, while the others use plot and situation to present an occasion for understanding and revaluation. (p. 9)

[In Inadmissable Evidence] Osborne is no longer angry and defiant; he is asking for compassion and understanding and, more surprisingly to judge from his early work, has found a way of recreating in physically realizable language, the inner, half-conscious pressures within his hero. The nightmare of a defeated idealist is not easily admissible in the theatre; even more rarely is it presented in palpable and challenging form, rather than in soliloquy. (This is the technique of Lear over against that of Hamlet, or a means of fusing the comic and serious plots of The Changeling or 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.)

In other plays—A Patriot For Me, Plays For England, and A Bond Honoured—Osborne creates groups around his central characters that display their situation in society and, with the last play (developed from one by Lope de Vega), in the tradition of Christian thought and feeling. From his first play onwards Osborne has been moving with difficulty and energy towards a wider and truer relationship with the world around him. The plays have been fantastic and accurately realistic; large and small; historical and contemporary; monologue and babel. This variety is bred of responsibility and growing knowledge, not of ease or mere success. (p. 10)

John Russell Brown, "Introduction" to Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown (© 1968 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 1-14.

Like his apocalyptic sputtering about English society, Osborne wants language to "go down with dignity". But he is as much a rapist of the mother tongue as the institutions he criticizes. He cannot separate sound from sense, feeling from fury. Signalling the mind's retreat from the culture, his language loses the sinew that comes with struggle. It is a pose, not a probe.

Osborne's linguistic bind is also a theatrical stalemate. A large part of theatregoing pleasure is bearing witness to something, but nothing happens on Osborne's stage.

"Theatre without Adventure," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced by permission), December 29, 1972, p. 1569.

[In Inadmissable Evidence John Osborne] has created one of the towering roles of the theatre in our times. The most remarkable thing about this character [the protagonist, Bill Maitland,] is the fact that while it is impossible to like him, he nonetheless always commands our attention. It is a strange sensation: to be mesmerized by mediocrity. Bill Maitland is an inelegant lecher, an addicted personality who alternates between too much whiskey and too many pills, an insensitive and unprincipled lawyer who just barely survives on the petty wretchedness of others, and finally is a failure in every human relationship in which he has participated. (pp. 308-09)

Except to the most morbidly curious, such a character should be monstrously dull. But he isn't, and one of the chief reasons we find him so compelling is Osborne's incendiary brilliance of language. There is no one writing in the theatre today who has a surer mastery of stage rhetoric than he, and I believe the secret of his success lies in his ability to deal with disturbing themes without resorting to cheap or eccentric tricks of language. (p. 309)

Many people have seen Inadmissible Evidence as a play in which the young and angry Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger, having just reached middle age, discovers his own spiritual bankruptcy and turns his seemingly limitless capacity for bitter disgust away from the world and now directs it towards himself. Certainly, this is true…. But such a reading of the play doesn't explain why Maitland judges himself as he does. It seems to me that only when we recognize that from the beginning Osborne has been writing dramas of disengagement will the full import of this play become clear.

Jimmy Porter is angry because he has come to believe that everything about society is mean and hypocritical. In his disgust for the world he has consciously chosen to step outside it, no matter how this decision may affect his wife and friends. But Jimmy's whole angry existence is totally dependent upon the continued existence of that society which he rails at so bitterly. The judgment which Osborne makes on the life of Jimmy-Bill now that he has reached forty is not directed at his anger but at his act of disengagement. (pp. 309-10)

Bill Maitland (né Jimmy Porter) chose to detach himself from every claim which society can make on the individual. At the end of Inadmissible Evidence, as we see him broken and alone on the stage, we know he has at last succeeded in making the final cut. It has been a meaningless achievement, and John Osborne who fathered the "angry" generation in the British theatre has demonstrated most convincingly that when anger over the failures of society becomes so extreme that it leads to disengagement from that society, the anger will eventually turn into a caustic self-disgust which can produce only isolation and impotence. (p. 311)

Robert W. Corrigan, "Anger and After: A Decade of the British Theatre" (abridged versions originally published in anthologies edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 1962, 1965, 1968), in his The Theatre in Search of a Fix (copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Corrigan; used with permission of Delacorte Press), Delacorte Press, 1973, pp. 301-15.

'Seems very long at beginning,' reads one of my programme jottings for The Entertainer; and, had not the production quite sapped my juices, I could have added 'very long in middle' and 'very long at end'. A new Unity of Length, in fact. Not that the writing isn't sometimes crisp and eloquent: it is, especially when anger or distress percolates into the lackadaisical Rice household. Not that the play's impressionistic view of 1956 has no aptness in 1974…. As dramatist, [John Osborne] has rarely flinched from the painful task of boring us to tears. (p. 872)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 13, 1974.

John Osborne … ended a period of the British theatre, in Look Back in Anger, with a full stop. Since then he has carried on writing, but with increasing dependence for theatrical punctuation on the exclamation mark, wielding it indeed like a rubber truncheon in a Punch and Judy show, to belabour, or rather perhaps be-Tory, a succession of puppets, many of them wearing the masks of former friends and colleagues….

Personally, I prefer George Dillon to Look Back, a work which came first in conception though late in delivery, because it provides us with the most satisfying, and workable, objective correlative for the question I believe obsesses its author. Crudely stated, this is: have I the right to behave like a shit even if it turns out that I am not after all a genius? Luther generated a kind of operatic eloquence, a spirituous distillation which caught fire in the throat, from the same theme, though some of it was an exercise in rewriting rather than writing, with hogsheads of Erik Erikson decanted and poured out neat in the dialogue. Inadmissible Evidence was the last play I thought nearly 100 per cent proof based on this formula, largely because it appeared to proclaim that the protagonist already knew in his guts the eau de vie was being diluted, that increased doses of sex, selfishness and booze provided diminishing returns. It was a case history of the narcissist as a closet alcoholic.

Since then, Osborne has been mining an exhausted seam, every rift loaded with either-or. Time Present and Hotel in Amsterdam were vamping till ready, raising the curtain on pseudo-dramas which went nowhere, lasted no time, yet seemed to go on forever. They were developers' signs announcing that someday, perhaps, if the talent is available, a play may be erected on this spot. The End of Me Old Cigar is just such another advertisement for Himself, a paper pattern for which no material can be found in the wardrobe. No matter that the holders of warrants as suppliers of invisible garments to His Majesty provide quotes in the Sundays to fig-leaf the naked Emperor, I cannot believe any free-floating playgoer, including even John Osborne, can regard this ham-fisted, word-clogged, blood-drained charade as suitable for anything but a party-game for beleaguered guests, trapped in the huis clos of whatever is the contemporary equivalent of Lady Ottoline Morrell's….

John Osborne, once an observer and participator on the street-level with us, now gives the impression of looking down with binoculars through the double-glazed windows of some Playboy eyrie. His slang is already out-of-date. His targets are now half-forgotten in the mists of nostalgia. He has boned up on his underground magazines, but he never seems to have met the people who write them, let alone read them.

Alan Brien, "Exhausted Stuntman," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 24, 1975, p. 118.

Notices of new Osborne plays tend to fall into two camps. One seems to be at pains to prove he's not the man he once was. The other argues with equal conviction that not only is he every bit as good as in his early hey-day, but time, experience and wisdom have tempered his anger investing his work with maturity…. Such is the fate—or privilege—of institutions and domesticated rebels. The privilege is that turn out a masterpiece or a failure there'll still be a theatre for your next play.

The End of Me Old Cigar sets out as one thing and ends as another. It begins very much as a Restoration satire. A confederacy of women plot to end male domination at a stroke. Their object is to catch a sufficiently large, representative, and influential sample of them with their trousers down and reveal to the world a two-way mirror's eye-view of their corruptibility, decadence and unfitness to rule. (p. 28)

But Osborne ducks out of the problem he has set himself. He ditches the satirical frame work he's built up, axes characters who've only just stuck their noses in and replaces it all with a little bedchamber-verité love scene…. Osborne then finishes the play with a haste that suggests either loss of interest or a need to take his type-writer in for servicing….

But never let the ability of Osborne to thrill an audience be underestimated. He can always produce moments when a character soars into voice with a speed, fluency and mounted gusto that fair catches the breath….

The piece has a contemporaneity about it, a sense that much of its detail will be outmoded within a 12-month and that the jokes are once-offs. It's an extended revue, as Osborne himself almost suggests in a programme note. He says that it was written while he was working on another, one supposes, more portentous play. (p. 29)

Ivan Howlett, in Plays and Players (© copyright Ivan Howlett 1975), March, 1975.


Osborne, John (Vol. 2)