Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Of the four most important playwrights to emerge in the 1950’s—Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, John Osborne, and John Arden—Osborne is generally noted for inspiring a postwar renaissance of the English theater; this he did with Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956, pb. 1957) and its verbally abusive hero, Jimmy Porter. Of the four, Osborne was the only one obsessed with portraying the rebellious fight of one individual against everything—his own emotional needs, his family and origins, his friends, his lovers, his country and its government, and his century.

Osborne was criticized for creating only one-man plays, insofar as his central heroes often grow too large for their plays and supporting characters are often merely foils, seldom permitted to exist as believably as the heroes. Nevertheless, in an era when such a character as Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman seems the norm rather than the exception, Osborne’s rebellious individuals garnered for him a worldwide audience. Whether it is Jimmy Porter railing against established order, or Archie Rice trying to convince himself and the audience he is immune to pain in The Entertainer (pr., pb. 1957); whether it is Martin Luther excoriating himself and the Catholic Church, or Bill Maitland stammering to defend his floundering existence in Inadmissible Evidence (pr. 1964, pb. 1965); or whether it is Alfred Redl’s verbal denunciation of the Spaniards in A Patriot for Me (pr., pb. 1966), Laurie’s contemptuous condemnation of K. L. in The Hotel in Amsterdam (pr., pb. 1968), or Jed’s vitriolic warnings of doom in West of Suez (pr., pb. 1973), Osborne’s recalcitrant heroes generally suffer loneliness as the normal condition of their lives, frequently resort to vituperative monologues, and are unable to accommodate infidelity between the actual world and their ideals.

“Am I the only one to see all this, and suffer?” Martin asks in a prayer in Luther, and with his words—as well as by his unyielding posture against the established group and order—he expresses John Osborne’s characteristic theme.