John Osborne

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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.)

John Simon

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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 does not make for strong drama or a convex, alive hero. The very father-son conflict in Luther is not commandingly developed, yet that is the farthest Osborne sticks his nose into Lutherian nosography.

As for the shallowness, it stems from Osborne's inability to make the people, places, and issues come to life. Since Brecht is the model, where is the portrait of an age (real or imaginary, it matters not) that we get in Mother Courage; where is the dramatic pot running over with hot, bubbling incidents, minor characters, curious inventions? What could be more schematic and stolidly conceived than Osborne's Knight who is supposed to convey Luther's betrayal of the peasants; what could be more perfunctory and unintegrated than the sudden emergence and disappearance of a Mrs. Luther?

But, of course, this is Osborne's weakness: he writes dazzlingly about single characters who fulminate in deprecation and imprecation, who can scorch and blast a whole human landscape with their tirades; but when it comes to interrelating characters, presenting complementary or conflicting views with equal vivacity and conviction, Osborne's powers flag. (pp. 21-2)

John Simon, "'Luther'" (1963–64), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 21-2.

John Simon

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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...

(This entire section contains 608 words.)

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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 do except inveigh against the middle class (Inadmissible Evidence) or the lower class (The Hotel in Amsterdam).

In the latter play and in Time Present, Osborne goes to absurd lengths to find something to assail, even as his development into a reactionary proceeds apace: in A Bond Honoured even God comes off scot-free. In A Patriot for Me, the only thing Redl, on the verge of suicide, can harangue against is—the Spaniards! His psychologically and dramatically unwarranted attack on them is surely the most gratuitous farewell speech ever written. In future Osborne plays the characters may be reduced to denouncing cigarettes or the London telephone directory; the objects of invective have become so remote or stale that a late Osborne play is just a bunch of sour gripes.

A Patriot for Me seems to deal with ambition and self-in-dulgence fighting it out against the background of a similarly schizoid but also narrow-minded and corrupt society. It is some kind of dance on top of the volcano, some sort of Walpurgisnacht hurtling into Götterdämmerung, in which social orders, races, sexes, even fellow homosexuals oppose, torment and persecute one another—but of all these things Osborne tells you no more than a high-school sex orientation lecture tells about human relations. (pp. 218-19)

What Osborne cannot do is write about tenderness and love, hetero- or homosexual. (p. 219)

Feeble vignettes succeed one another: A Patriot for Me is as superficial a passing parade as Luther…. The wit is pathetic ("You were born with a silver saber up your what-not") and only the pathos is good for a laugh ("It's the time of night when people die. People give up"). Loosely and flaccidly, the play follows a fascinating career, and ends with a bang from a Browning and a whimper from Osborne. (pp. 219-20)

You might expect a play whose high point is a drag ball to be a bore; what you would not expect is that even the drag ball is a drag. (p. 220)

John Simon, "'A Patriot for Me'" (1969), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 218-20.

John Lahr

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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.

Andrew K. Kennedy

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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 countertenor, finds that he is limited to parts of experience, as it were, already written for his voice's strange timbre'. In other words, Osborne cannot extend the range of his dramatic language—though he keeps straining to do so—through a personal creative limitation. Yet, is it not possible that such a limitation is intensified by the difficulty, in our time, of creating a language that has dramatic life both on the personal and on the communal plane? (p. 196)

Osborne's drama, which keeps striving towards some balance of the personal and social in the dialogue itself, repeatedly makes one conscious of an acute imbalance. Frequently, the imbalance is exactly what is being dramatised. In the early and contemporary plays the hyperarticulate character (George Dillon, Jimmy Porter) defines himself by rejecting, with ribald contempt, the language as much as the values of a group (the clichés of the Elliot family, the genteelisms of Alison and her sort). In a later play like Inadmissible Evidence Osborne goes much further—towards a curiously externalised form of solipsism: the self-alienated monologue of Bill Maitland absorbs solid clusters of vocabulary from the social world—technology, legal jargon and so on—only to spit them out again as alien stuff. (p. 198)

There is much in Osborne's dramatic language that seems to connect with the desire to 'hear the words out loud', in order to reach some certainty (if only the reassurance of 'I talk, therefore I am'—as Mary McCarthy suggests). Histrionic rhetoric in particular is inseparable from the feeling that words are self-authenticating. Further, Osborne is essentially a verbal dramatist…. Perhaps it is no accident that the term 'old-fashioned'—also used by Osborne about the form of his first play—is now applied to his 'allegiance to words', in a context that makes it clear that Osborne is aware of the shrinking area of meaning through words. The power of language is asserted against its felt decline. The texture of Osborne's rhetoric itself embodies this tension—the attempt to gain new theatrical vitality for what is, after all, an 'old-fashioned' language. (p. 204)

[There] is considerable stylistic variation in feeling in Osborne's rhetoric of self-dramatisation, both in particular speeches and from one play to another. It may not be what Eliot called 'an improvement in language', but it does amount to a revitalisation of rhetoric.

The limitations of Osborne's rhetoric seem to be these: it is an over-externalised rhetoric, which cannot accommodate 'thinking aloud' or genuine inwardness: it has 'no time for' pauses and silences, reflection and implicit self-seeing…. It is a rhetoric which amplifies a mediocre speaker, or intensifies a naturalistically based idiom; it does not create a new dramatic language capable of expressing unexpected states of mind and experience—though that might be too much to expect. At the same time the energies of this rhetoric seem to be too much at the mercy of moments of empathy releasing the right kind of verbal paroxysm—with the risk of sheer exhaustion. By now Osborne himself seems to have got tired of rhetoric. Inadmissible Evidence was the last play where rhetoric was consistently expressive; the later plays either avoid, or (as in Time Present) look back on that style fitfully.

It is probable that Osborne would be more at home in a theatre which still had a central rhetorical convention—somewhere between Elizabethan drama and Victorian melodrama. As it is, his persistent naturalism has tended to inhibit; and his 'restless search for a style' has only rarely—in The Entertainer and in Inadmissible Evidence—led to a roughly satisfying fusion between the structure of the play and texture of the dialogue—releasing and controlling a 'full-blooded' theatrical language. (pp. 211-12)

Andrew K. Kennedy, in his Six Dramatists in Search of a Language: Studies in Dramatic Language (© Cambridge University Press 1975), Cambridge University Press, 1975.

E. G. Bierhaus, Jr.

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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 drama (though not its substance) ever since.

I want to discuss this new element (actually, it is an old element that Osborne rediscovered), but before doing so I want to explain why the modern response to Look Back in Anger is more respectful than enthusiastic. We must first see how predictably the play rolls along without extending itself beyond the perimeters of a thousand prior well-made plays before we can truly appreciate the new element it introduces.

For our response to a play to be enthusiastic, our minds and our emotions must be engaged by what we are seeing or reading…. Although Look Back in Anger continues to engage our emotions, it fails to engage our minds. After watching or reading it, we feel dissatisfied and disappointed. There are, I think, three reasons for this intellectual failure: the play's transparent structure, its arbitrary motivations, and its bogus characterizations. (pp. 47-8)

In Look Back in Anger the transparency of its disguises is so obtrusive that we become intellectually isolated from it before it is half over. For example, a telephone call from Helena prepares us for the Act I curtain, and a telephone call from the hospital where Hugh's mother is dying prepares us for the Act II, scene 1, curtain. Moreover, Cliff's exit in Act I to buy cigarettes is unconvincing: its dramatic convenience undercuts any believability it might possess. And Cliff's exit before Jimmy's return in Act II, scene 2, is such a reversal that even Osborne feels compelled to rationalize it in a stage direction…. These disguises are so blatant that we aren't even permitted the mental satisfaction of penetrating them. (p. 48)

Seeing through a play to its structure as we do in Look Back in Anger is as disturbing as seeing a stage hand pass by an open window during performance. When the magic tricks are obvious, one feels embarrassed for and contemptuous of and bored by the magician.

Equally as unreliable in this play are the motivations of its characters. They are often as arbitrary as the French scenes are capricious. At some point, a motivation of every character is suspect. Characters have a habit of adopting one stance then another without a convincing reason, sometimes without any reason at all. (p. 49)

[Predictability] is ubiquitous in this play. Its characters don't grow: they regress, although I suppose it can be argued that regression is at least a change. (p. 51)

The major problem with Look Back in Anger is that it wants stature. Its present and passing worlds are the same, with one exception: Jimmy, Alison, Cliff, and Helena have all the Edwardian aspirations, but none of the graces. The world of this play is not so much angry as barren…. In lamenting the passage of the Edwardian world, Jimmy laments indeed the passing of his own. The Edwardian world, however, was real; even as a referent in dramatic dialogue it stands for something. But the world of Look Back in Anger stands for nothing. It is sterile. Its characters talk a lot, but they don't say anything. What this play needs is silence.

We can, I think, attribute these arbitrary motivations and opposing stances (and quite possibly the transparent structure) to the play's faulty characters. Look Back in Anger is a love story that is untrue to itself. The actual lovers in this play are Jimmy and Cliff. Alison and Helen—and Madeline—are included to make its world more universal and respectable (plays in 1956 were still censored by the Lord Chamberlain), and to give Jimmy an opportunity to show off his masculine superiority. Despite these subterfuges, however, the real love affair in this play is homosexual. When Jimmy and Cliff interact, the stage lights up with "revolutionary fire."…

This, of course, throws the play completely out of focus because the action that isn't there is really the action that's taking place, while the action that's taking place is really only a substitute for the action that isn't there. (p. 52)

Jimmy wants to create his own world, to re-order relationships: he wants Alison to be his mother and he wants Cliff to have his babies. Since this is impossible, he makes everyone suffer. The character of Jimmy Porter is so unremittingly selfish, savage, and, at last, destructive that not a shred of humanity adheres to it. Goethe remarks somewhere that "One cannot always be a hero, but one can always be a man." Poor Jimmy can't even be a man. For dramatic characters in realistic drama, this is fatal.

Because a genre throws its own details into relief, any failure of these details is inevitably amplified. If Jimmy Porter is to be successful, one has to care about him. And we don't. We don't care about him because his constant solipsistic rhetoric cuts off our response. When you get as much affection as Jimmy gets from his world, you have to give something in return. But he never does. He shows us no contrasts and no costs, concomitant components in a changing character. But Jimmy doesn't change. Ultimately, therefore, we don't care about him because he can't risk himself: he has no self to risk.

Why then is Look Back in Anger an important play? What makes it a landmark? The answer is paradoxical: anger. That which prevents our intellectual response to Jimmy is also the very characteristic which engages our emotions. If Look Back in Anger's link with the past is the well-made play, its link with the future is anger: vituperative, vicious, and direct. There are no contrasts within Jimmy Porter because his whole character is a contrast with the surface courtesies of his Edwardian predecessors. In that world where animosity was always dignified, "a vulgar wrangle was unknown."

Jimmy may be indirect about love, but he's eloquently explicit when angry. That much of his anger is misplaced does not diminish the impact of its being expressed. When cornered—as he is throughout the play because his sexual preference is denied expression—Jimmy sucks in his breath, relaxes that stiff upper lip that hasn't spoken a coarse word on stage since the Elizabethans, and lashes out. He takes on everyone and exhausts them all. Indeed, it is precisely because Jimmy's anger is so open that audiences and readers respond to him in spite of themselves. (pp. 53-4)

Look Back in Anger is already an anachronism. But it is also a landmark. And what it marks, namely that anger is a viable dramatic alternative to repression, is worth celebrating. Look Back in Anger's greatest achievement is its emancipation of drama from the restrictions of past generations. Just when we expected emotional outbursts in the theatre to be forever off stage or in impeccably good taste, this play crept upon us, leaving us stunned, drained, almost disbelieving. Jimmy Porter is not an "Eminent Victorian," nor was he "born out of his time". One honors him more, and the play he dominates, by calling him an angry young man. (p. 55)

E. G. Bierhaus, Jr., "No World of Its Own: 'Look Back in Anger' Twenty Years Later," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1976, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), March, 1976, pp. 47-55.

Lawrence R. Ries

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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 essentially nihilistic…. Archie has given in to the malaise of the age, and is beyond the point of reasserting himself…. Archie's daughter Jean is the voice of the present who offers hope through social and moral commitment. She has taken part in a demonstration against the prime minister in Trafalgar Square, and thinks the answers to the world's problems lie in the personal sense of commitment. Osborne presents a sympathetic picture of Jean at the beginning of the play, but the strength of the "social salvage unit" comes to appear quite shoddy in contrast to Archie's open pessimism as the drama develops. (p. 27)

Lawrence R. Ries, in his Wolf Masks: Violence in Contemporary Poetry (copyright © 1977 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1977.


Osborne, John (Vol. 1)


Osborne, John (Vol. 2)