Osborne, John 1929–
Osborne is an English playwright and screenwriter. His first play, Look Back in Anger, established him as an "angry young man" of British drama. In this and in subsequent work Osborne views contemporary social problems with an uncompromising eye, exposing hypocrisy and exploring subjects, such as homosexuality, considered taboo in traditional theater. Critics have complained that his verbal brilliance and thematic daring are not matched by technical control. Osborne collaborated with Anthony Creighton on the play George Dillon. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
What Osborne has tried to do [in Luther] is to write a genuine English Brechtian play, modeling himself largely on Galileo (which possibly is not one of Brecht's best works and certainly not one of the best models), but he has produced only a brazen simulacrum. It is hollow in the sense that Osborne's Martin Luther is not a complex, rousing, captivating, charismatic leader…. (p. 21)
Two factors contribute largely to the hollowness of the protagonist. One is that Osborne tried very carefully to stick to historical data and put together the preponderant part of Luther's speeches out of the reformer's actual preserved utterances. But here several difficulties arise: not enough intimate material by and about Luther is recorded, what there is does not necessarily provide suitable speeches and incidents for a play, and Osborne's selections from the available sources are not always the most judicious…. Above all, dramatic and verbal invention is mandatory even in a historical play; Brecht, for that matter, had no compunction about making up all but a few basic facts of the Galileo story.
The other reason for this hollowness is Osborne's insistence on making something negative, doubting, unsure under the arrogance, the key to Luther's revolt. Even if that were all there was to it—and I cannot help feeling that this rebellion without cause, or nearly, is more characteristic of Osborne than of Luther—it...
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John Osborne's A Patriot for Me is about as unnecessary a play as I have ever seen. (p. 218)
Altogether, Osborne is a perfect example of a playwright who voices the mood of a particular moment in history: Look Back in Anger was, to a degree, the expression of English working-class anger against the upper classes, which at last could be reviled with impunity. But it was even more the venting of a self-destructive rage such as overtakes a country that sees itself fallen from political eminence to feeding on memories. And to men too young to have lived them, such memories become a source of especial irritation. Osborne had not so much written a play as tapped a vein.
But there was something that he genuinely possessed: a gift for raillery, invective, lacerating tirades whose victims could be anyone or anything, and whose power, though rhetorical rather than dramatic, could nevertheless buffet the stage. When the time of heroes and statesmen is passed comes the time of the jeerer; Osborne became the beloved Thersites of the British theater. As the climate changed, he did his best to change with the times, and became more and more successful, wealthy, upper class and conservative. But his one true note—his fulminations—no longer fitted the new perspective. England, its upper crust somewhat reshuffled, was becoming a homogeneous place again, and with Osborne safely ensconced in his room at the top, nothing remained for him to...
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Osborne's craft has always been overrated. His ability to manage plot and invent startling stage images is marginal; his language, that brute verbal overkill which sizzled the '50's and early '60's has turned from taut, sometimes beautiful explosions of rancorous poetry to more theatrical badinage in the last decade. All his texts suffer from a literary sloppiness which mirrors his own intellectual disarray. His adaptation [of The Picture of Dorian Gray] isn't so much 'executed' as excreted. Osborne had an opportunity to bring new theatrical life to a tale whose longeurs and elusiveness put the vehicle into disrepair even as a novel. But just to red-pencil the novel as he does and then mount it on stage is to turn the theatre into a library instead of a playing area. Epigrams are dramatic events on the page; but on stage, they pall without the counterpoint of action. Reading Wilde's novel requires at least one's eyes are open. The stage adaptation can be completely comprehended with one's eyes shut—the true test of dismal theatre. (p. 24)
John Lahr, in Plays and Players (© copyright John Lahr 1975; reprinted with permission), April, 1975.
There appears to be something improvised, even haphazard, in the way Osborne moves from one play-style to another. There are no long-deliberated changes from one mode of language to another (as in Eliot), nor does there seem to be a compelling inner movement (as in the gradual compression of language in Beckett and Pinter). Yet one can see in Osborne's zig-zagging line of development two main play-forms—the room-based and the open-stage play—and two distinct stage languages—histrionic self-expression and the dialogue of characters intended to be socially, or historically, representative. The tension between these two modes of language keeps recurring in both types of play. Sometimes Osborne attempts to create an interplay between the two modes of language within a double or shifting structure: in The Entertainer through connecting Archie Rice's domestic talk with his music hall 'turns', in Luther through the shift from the private interior of Act I to the 'epic' propensities of the other two acts. The histrionic monologuist keeps re-entering the large-scale 'open' plays; and the dialogue of more or less monologue-centred plays keeps expanding (or thinning out) to catch, in almost gratuitous sketch-like scenes, the language, the up-to-date idiom, of this or that contemporary cartoon type…. In all this we find versatile inventiveness at the cost of imperfect artistic control. And we recognise Osborne's at once generous and anxious urge to embody both the inner and the outer world; to express troubled psychic states and to represent all kinds of 'interest'—voices, social movements, scenes. In brief, the urge towards wholeness.
Yet it is precisely in his language that Osborne has been least able to develop, to match his ideal conception of a drama that is at once personal and social or communal. There is a recurrent loss of 'felt life' in his dialogue of relationship, group, and large-scale public events, both in the contemporary and the historical or quasi-historical plays. (In the latter Osborne has found it particularly difficult to give life to 'the potentially fascinating dialectic' between an ideology or an institution and the principal character—the potential Brechtian direction.) By contrast, he has given a new voice to the isolated or wounded character, the play seen through a temperament, the line from Strindberg. (pp. 194-95)
In a witty simplification, Mary McCarthy wrote that Osborne 'like a coloratura or...
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Why [Look Back in Anger] no longer generates [its early] enthusiasm is the purpose of this essay, for if we respond to Look Back in Anger at all today we do so because it is an event …, not because it is a play that sucks us into its world and compels us to accept that world on its own terms. (p. 47)
Look Back in Anger deals with a social theme; it is clearly dependent upon its dramatic antecedents (most notably a conventional plot packaged in a well-made play); and its characters are conscious of class, that is to say they are traditional rather than innovative. Yet … it introduces a new element into drama, an element of such proportions that it has been changing the form of...
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Osborne's plays present characters who flail about somewhat violently but always futilely in a hopeless world. His heroes have moved beyond hope and have accepted the despair that has infected much of modern society. Archie Rice, in The Entertainer, is a characteristic Osborne hero driven towards despair by the modern spirit. He tries to keep alive an art of the past, vaudeville, but the sense of identity that was formerly necessary has been destroyed. Archie says, "We all had our own style, our own songs." But his father answers him, "They don't want real people any more." When the individual's identity and sense of purpose is gone, he is left with the incapacity to act. For this reason, Archie's spirit is...
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