John Osborne

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John Osborne’s considerable output includes, besides his plays, a comparatively unsuccessful musical comedy about a gossip columnist with a dual personality, The World of Paul Slickey, and a series of dramatic scripts for television: A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960, originally A Matter of Scandal and Concern); The Right Prospectus (1970); Very Like a Whale (1971); The Gift of Friendship (1972); Ms.: Or, Jill and Jack (1974, later published as Jill and Jack); The End of Me Old Cigar (1975); Try a Little Tenderness (1978); and You’re Not Watching Me, Mummy (1980). He adapted several plays and a novel for the stage and wrote the screenplays for several of his own plays. His adaptation of Tom Jones (1963) from Henry Fielding’s novel earned for him an Academy Award in 1964. He also wrote A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956 (1981), and the second volume, titled Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography, Volume Two, 1955-1966 (1991), covering his life to 1966.


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John Osborne’s most generous critics credit him with having transformed the English stage on a single night: May 8, 1956, when Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre. He is celebrated as the principal voice among England’s Angry Young Men of the 1950’s and 1960’s, who railed vindictively against Edwardian dinosaurs and the empty-headed bourgeoisie; it should be noted, however, that his antiheroes rebel against their own frustrations and futility more than they do in the service of any substantial social or political reform. Indeed, they betray their envy of the stability and the “historical legitimacy” of the very generation they condemn. Perhaps Osborne’s most profound influence has been his leadership in bringing authenticity into contemporary English theater; a member of what has loosely been defined as the kitchen-sink school, he helped institute a new receptivity to social issues, naturalistic characterization, and the vernacular, thereby revitalizing a theater scene that had been dominated by the verse elevations of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry and the commercial conventionality of Terence Rattigan.

In addition to his achievements as a playwright, Osborne was also an accomplished actor, director, and screenwriter. Testimonies to his popular and critical successes include three Evening Standard awards (1956, 1965, 1968), two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards (1958, 1965), a Tony (1963), and an Oscar (1964). In the last twenty years of his life, Osborne devoted much of his energy to television plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Although some saw this as a confirmation of dwindling artistic resources, Osborne’s reputation as a prime mover of the postwar English stage held secure. He created some of the most arresting roles in twentieth century drama, and his career-long indictment of complacency is evident in every “lesson of feeling” he delivered to his audiences.

Discussion Topics

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Make a list of at least five important qualities that help characterize the “John Osborne hero.” Then find fictional heroes from contemporary literature and film who resemble the “Osborne hero.”

Research the state of the British Empire shortly after World War I and then its disintegration after World War II. Use this research to summarize in detail what Jimmy Porter might have been aware of as he contemplated the decline of Britain as a world power in the mid-1950’s.

Male anger is a crucial part of Osborne’s plays. What role do women play in Osborne’s drama?

Some of Osborne’s plays deal with the dysfunctional relationship between fathers and sons. Characterize these dysfunctional relationships and then compare them with the relationships between fathers and sons, both fictional and real, with which you are familiar.

Discuss alienation and isolation in Osborne’s plays.

Examine Osborne’s plays for theatrical qualities, that is, those qualities that are most evident when...

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audiences see these plays performed on a stage.

Compare Luther to The Life of Galileo (pr. 1943, pb. 1955) by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht or to A Man for All Seasons (pr., pb. 1960) by British playwright Robert Bolt. How are the plays similar and/or different?


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Banham, Martin. Osborne. Edinburgh, Scotland: Oliver and Boyd, 1969. Contains discerning essays on Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, and nine other plays. Rich with material for further inquiry, especially when compared with later work. Complemented by a list of first British productions and a select bibliography.

Brien, Alan. “Snot or Not?” Review of Almost a Gentleman. New Statesman Society 4 (November 15, 1991): 47. In this review of Osborne’s second volume of his autobiography, Brien’s premise is that an “autobiography is not history. It is a form of entertainment.” He finds Osborne’s work hostile but valuable. Brien was one of the few defenders of Osborne’s aggressively straightforward second volume.

Denison, Patricia D., ed. John Osborne: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997. Several essays critically examine Osborne’s body of work, focusing on his form and technique, the construction of gender, and the relationships between his life and plays.

Ferrar, Harold. John Osborne. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973. This booklet on Osborne’s first fifteen years of output discusses Look Back in Anger, A Bond Honored, The Hotel in Amsterdam, and other more obscure works. Brief select bibliography.

Gilleman, Luc. John Osborne: Vituperative Artist. New York: Routledge, 2002. Provides criticism and analysis of Osborne’s life and works. Bibliography and index.

Hayman, Ronald. John Osborne. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972. A volume in the World Dramatists series, which specializes in a factual overview, with play-by-play chapters, copious notes on stage productions, cast lists, and a careful chronology. Index.

Heilpern, John. John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Selections from Osborne’s journals and letters pepper this fascinating, extensive biography of the playwright. Includes a bibliography and index.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. British Theatre, 1950-1970. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974. The best book for putting Osborne in the context of the total revolutionary movement, written when the movement was preparing for the second wave of playwrights. Particularly articulate on European influences, the Theater of the Absurd, and the relation of a national theater to the themes of Osborne and his contemporaries. Select bibliography.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. John Osborne. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A general introduction to Osborne, with an oddly dated discussion of his most influential works, and not much new. Chronology, index, and bibliography.


Critical Essays