John Osborne was born in London, the son of Thomas, a copywriter
and Nellie Beatrice, a Cockney barmaid. Thomas died in 1941, leaving
the devastated young boy an insurance settlement which he used
to finance a private education at Belmont College, Devon.
school, Osborne went home to his mother in London and briefly
tried trade journalism. A job tutoring a touring company of junior
actors introduced him to the theatre. He soon became involved
as a stage manager and acting, joining Anthony Creighton's provincial
touring company. Osborne tried his hand at writing plays, his
first The Devil Inside Him was co-written with his mentor, Stella
Linden, who then directed it at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield
this time he also married Pamela Lane. His second play Personal
Enemy was written with Anthony Creighton (with whom he also wrote
Epitaph for George Dillon staged at the Royal Court in 1958) and
staged in regional theatres before he submitted Look Back in Anger.
Back in Anger
Written in seventeen days in a deckchair on Morecambe pier where
he was performing in a creaky rep show called Seagulls over Sorrento,
Look Back in Anger was largely autobiograpical, based on his time
living, and rowing, with Pamela Lane in cramped accommodation
in Derby while she cuckolded him with a local dentist. It was
submitted to agents all over London and returned with cruel rapidity.
In his autobiography, Osborne writes: 'The speed with which it
had been returned was not surprising, but its aggressive dispatch
did give me a kind of relief. It was like being grasped at the
upper arm by a testy policeman and told to move on."
it was sent to the newly-formed English Stage Company at London's
Royal Court Theatre. Formed by actor-manager and artistic director
George Devine, the company's first three productions had been
flops and it urgently needed a success if it was to survive. Devine
was prepared to gamble on this play because he saw in it a ferocious
and scowling articulation of a new post-war spirit. Osborne was
living on a leaky houseboat on the River Thames at the time with
Creighton, stewing up nettles from the riverbank to eat.
keen was Devine to contact Osborne that that he rowed out to the
boat to tell him he would like to make the play the fourth production
to enter repertory. The play was directed by Tony Richardson and
starred Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure, and Alan Bates.It was a part-time
press officer at the theatre who invented the phrase angry young
man, which was to become a phenomenon with Osborne its epitome.
1993, a year before his death, Osborne wrote that the opening
night was 'an occasion I only partly remember, but certainly with
more accuracy than those who subsequently claimed to have been
present and, if they are to be believed, would have filled the
theatre several times over'. Reviews were mixed, most of the critics
who attended the first night felt it was a failure and it looked
as if the English Stage Company was going to go into liquidation.
Evening Standard, for example, called the play "a failure"
and "a self-pitying snivel". But the following Sunday,
they were granted the miracle they had been praying for, Kenneth
Tynan of the Observer - the most influential critic of the age
- praised it to the skies: 'I could not love anyone who did not
wish to see Look Back in Anger,' he wrote, 'It is the best young
play of its decade'. Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times called
Osborne "a writer of outstanding promise".
production, the married Osborne began a relationship with Mary
Ure, and would divorce his wife, Pamela Lane, to marry her in
1957. The play went on to be an enormous commercial success, transferring
to the West End and to Broadway, touring to Moscow and in 1958
a film version was released with Richard Burton and Mary Ure in
the leading roles. The play turned Osborne from a struggling playwright
into a wealthy and famous angry young man and won him the Evening
Standard Drama Award as the most promising playwright of the year.
Entertainer and into the 1960s
Initially afraid of this new revolution in theatre and (correctly)
seeing himself as a target, Laurence Olivier, then making The
Prince and the Showgirl (itself based on a Rattigan play) with
Marilyn Monroe, saw Look Back in Anger in London with her and
then husband Arthur Miller. Olivier was finally persuaded by Miller
to regard the development in a positive light, and subsequently
commissioned Osborne to write a play for himself to star in.
result was The Entertainer (1957, filmed in 1959). It was a Brecht-inspired
piece (although Osborne always denied this) that uses the metaphor
of the dying music hall tradition to comment on the moribund state
of the British Empire, something flagrantly revealed during the
Suez Crisis of November 1956 which ellipitically forms the backdrop
to the play. An experimental piece, The Entertainer was interspersed
with Vaudeville performances. Most critics praised the development
of an exciting writing talent:
real pro is a real man, all he needs is an old backcloth behind
him and he can hold them on his own for half an hour. He's like
the general run of people, only he's a lot more like them than
they are themselves, if you understand me.
The words are Archie Rice's, though as with much of Osborne's
work they could be said to represent his own sentiments, as with
this quote from Look Back in Anger:
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!'
Following The Entertainer were The World of Paul Slickey (1959)
a musical which satirizing the tabloid press, and the 1962 double
bill Plays for England, comprising "The Blood of the Bambergs"
and "Under Plain Covers".
depicting the life of Martin Luther, the archetypal rebel of an
earlier century, was first performed in 1961, it transferred to
Broadway and won Osborne a Tony Award. Inadmissible Evidence was
first performed in 1964. In between these plays, Osborne won an
Oscar for his 1963 adaptation of Tom Jones. A Patriot for Me (1965)
was a tale of turn-of-the-century homosexuality and was instrumental
in putting the boot in to the eighteenth-century system of theatrical
censorship under the Lord Chamberlain. Both A Patriot For Me and
The Hotel in Amsterdam won Evening Standard Best Play of the Year
and Later Life
In 1971, Osborne turned in his most famous acting appearance,
lending Cyril Kinnear a sense of civil menace in Get Carter. A
Sense of Detachment, appeared in 1972. In 1978 he appeared as
an actor in Tomorrow Never Comes and in 1980 in Flash Gordon.
the last decade of his life, he published two volumes of autobiography,
A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991).
also collected various newspaper and magazine writings together
in 1994 under the title Damn You, England. At his memorial service
in 1995, playwright David Hare said:
is, if you like, the final irony that John's governing love was
for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those
who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English
public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart
are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get
labelled cold. If they are emotional, they get labelled stupid.
Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great
feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John's case, a person
is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing
and bolt the back door.
last play was Déjà Vu (1991) a sequel to Look Back
Responses, Idols and Effect
Osborne was a great fan of Max Miller and saw parallels between
them. 'I love him, (Max Miller) because he embodied a kind of
theatre I admire most. 'Mary from the Dairy' was an overture to
the danger that (Max) might go too far. Whenever anyone tells
me that a scene or a line in a play of mine goes too far in some
way then I know my instinct has been functioning as it should.
When such people tell you that a particular passage makes the
audience uneasy or restless, then they seem (to me) as cautious
and absurd as landladies and girls-who-won't.'
work transformed British theatre. He helped to make it artistically
respected again, throwing off the formal constraints of the former
generation, and turning our attention once more to language, theatrical
rhetoric, and emotional intensity. He saw theatre as a weapon
with which ordinary people could break down the class barriers
and that he had a 'beholden duty to kick against the pricks'.
He wanted his plays to be a reminder of real pleasures and real
pains. David Hare said in his memorial address:
Osborne devoted his life to trying to forge some sort of connection
between the acuteness of his mind and the extraordinary power
of his heart.
Osborne did change the world of theatre, influencing playwrights
such as Edward Albee and Mike Leigh, however work of his authenticity
and originality would remain the exception rather than the rule.
However this did not surprise Osborne, nobody understood the tackiness
of the theatre better than the man who had played Hamlet on Hayling
Island. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writer's
Guild of Great Britain.
Osborne remained angry until the end of his life. Women evidently
found his anger attractive - he had more than his fair share of
lovers in addition to wives, and he was not kind to them. In fact,
there is plenty of evidence that in relationships he was an out-and-out
cad. In his own autobiography he details some of the brazen subterfuges
he created in order to commit adultery with Penelope Gilliatt
before they were married. Jill Bennett's suicide is generally
believed to have been a result of Osborne's rejection of her.
his 2006 biography, John Heilpern describes at length a vacation
in Valbonne, France, in 1961, that Osborne shared with Tony Richardson,
a distraught George Devine, and others. Feigning bafflement over
the romantic entanglements of the time, Heilpern writes:
see: Osborne is on a besieged holiday with his aggrieved mistress
while having a passionate affair with his future third wife as
the founding artistic director of the Royal Court has a nervous
breakdown and his current wife gives birth to a son that isn't
vexations with women extended to an extremely cruel relationship
with his daughter Nolan; born from his marriage with Penelope
Gilliatt. His vicious abuse of his teenaged daughter culminated
with him casting her out of his house when she was aged seventeen.
They never spoke again.
was married five times:
2) Mary Ure
3) Penelope Gilliatt
4) Jill Bennett
5) Helen Dawson
He died from complications from his diabetes at the age of 65
in the UK. He is buried at Clun in Shropshire alongside his last
wife, Helen, who died in 2004.