Osborne, John James
- Michael Ratcliffe
John James Osborne (1929–1994)
Osborne, John James (1929–1994), playwright and autobiographer, was born on 12 December 1929 at 2 Cookham Road, Fulham, west London, the only son of Thomas Godfrey Osborne (d. 1942), a commercial artist and advertising copywriter, and Nellie Beatrice Grove.
Early years and education
The Osbornes were from south Wales, gentle and genteel poor, with a sense, according to Osborne, that they had been done some social injustice. Osborne adored his father, who died of tuberculosis when Osborne was twelve. The Groves were tough, noisy, and indestructible cockneys who ran a string of pubs across London. Osborne's mother was a barmaid all her life. He hated her. A family diet of virulence and Schadenfreude nourished a dramatist and commentator who combined, to a degree rare in modern England, unsparing truthfulness with devastating wit.
Thomas Osborne left an insurance policy which paid for John to go to St Michael's, Barnstaple, a minor Devon public school, in 1943. He was expelled in the summer term of 1945 after thumping the headmaster, who had struck him for listening to a proscribed broadcast by Frank Sinatra. School certificate was the only formal qualification he acquired, but his intelligence was sharp and streetwise from the start, and he was stage-struck. As an actor in local amateur theatre, he took dancing lessons at the Gaycroft School of Dancing and Drama and Speech in North Cheam, Surrey, whose director recommended him as an assistant stage manager and children's teacher to a company setting up a ‘number two’ tour of England with a popular melodrama of the day, No Room at the Inn.
Acting on the road, c.1947–1955
A number two tour went to the smaller towns where live drama was hanging by a thread. It was the toughest practical training for a life in the theatre, with no time for fine-tuning or second thoughts. (Some of Osborne's greatest successes were later written at high speed—Look Back in Anger in nine days, The Entertainer in eleven—and he rarely rewrote.) He remained a touring jobbing actor for seven years. For a playwright whose chief subject would be England and the English, he acquired a priceless experience of English attitudes on the ground. He wrote his first play in 1949.
Far from Huddersfield, Ilfracombe, Kidderminster, or Frinton, British theatre was enjoying a golden age of great acting. British playwrights came a poor second, and all new work was read for perceived improprieties and sedition by the lord chamberlain's office. Shaftesbury Avenue took its passion from Broadway (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller), and its cleverness from France (Anouilh, Cocteau, Giraudoux, Sartre). It remained blissfully blind to the complexities of the Britain in which Osborne had served his apprenticeship. The country was recovering from a war for survival with a mixture of relief, hardship, exhaustion, and complacency. The empire was being broken up. Osborne was one of the first writers in any medium to address Britain's purpose in the post-imperial age.
To attract the best new writers into the theatre was a prime aim of the English Stage Company, founded in 1955 at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. George Devine, the artistic director, and Tony Richardson, his deputy, invited scripts, and Osborne sent Look Back in Anger. It was his seventh play: written in May–June 1955, partly on the pier at Morecambe, where he was appearing in Seagulls over Sorrento, and partly on the Chiswick barge he shared in near poverty with a fellow actor and writer, Anthony Creighton. Richardson told him that it was the best play since the war. Devine scheduled it for the first season, and gave him work as a script reader and actor in the new company. For the first time in his life Osborne felt valued and secure.
Look Back in Anger: transforming British theatre, 1956–1966
One of many myths which gathered around the first night of Look Back in Anger on 8 May 1956 was that it was savaged by all the theatre critics except Kenneth Tynan in The Observer. The truth is that most influential reviewers acknowledged its stunning vitality and emotional power.
Osborne's cruel comedy of Jimmy Porter, under siege in an attic flat with wife Alison, mistress Helena, and chum Cliff, on a series of provincial Sundays, offered the very un-English spectacle of private grief in a public place. It restored rhetoric to the English stage for the first time since Shaw. It rescued language from its fashionably high-minded role in the verse plays of the day and allowed it back at the heart of the drama where it could drive both character and action. Osborne's ear for the evasiveness behind the clichés, banalities, and non sequiturs of contemporary English was exceptionally keen, and he gave judgment without quarter. English inertia and what he saw as cunning reluctance to give fight never ceased to exasperate him. 'Peace!' explodes Jimmy at one point. 'God! She wants peace! My heart is so full, I feel ill—and she wants peace!' (Look Back in Anger, II.1).
Osborne reached his peak in the decade between 1956 and 1966, when he followed Look Back with The Entertainer (1957), Luther (1961), Inadmissible Evidence (1965), and A Patriot for Me (1965). He was the first to question the point of the monarchy on a prominent public stage and to treat male homosexuality—a criminal condition at the time—as a subject about which it was possible to be at once sympathetic, bracing, and lewd. He ran up the black flag for contempt as an honest and healthy emotion, and for the purgative wisdom of bad behaviour and bad taste. 'The real revelation', wrote Devine's biographer Irving Wardle 'was that a character could behave like a rat and still speak the truth' (Wardle, Tragedy). Audiences relished the chastisement of the plays like hell-fire sermons packed with firecracker jokes.
Look Back in Anger became a best-seller in the bookshops, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and reviving the entire business of play publishing and buying in Britain. It was the single stone that started an avalanche of new writing in the British theatre. Events soon confirmed that the English Stage Company had indeed found the writer for the hour. Autumn 1956 saw the Suez and Hungarian crises, which both entered the bloodstream of The Entertainer, Osborne's next play. Laurence Olivier was the first of the established guard to ‘cross over’ to the Court: he fastened on the role of the vicious comedian Archie Rice with a feral snap, and enjoyed one of the juiciest triumphs of his career.
Since childhood Osborne had loved the danger and rudeness of music-hall—'abiding and cruel, like the English spirit itself'—and set his state-of-the-nation play in this tacky deteriorating world. Archie's dreadful gags and songs are interspersed with Archie failing at home with wife, father, daughter, son. The theatre becomes Britain itself, coming out of ‘Suez’ and empire with nothing but shame—'Don't clap too hard', cries Archie on cue, for the 5000th time, 'It's a very old building'. Britannia appeared stark naked, but forbidden, by law, to move.
The phrase 'angry young man' was quickly slapped on Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Jimmy Porter, and any other male under thirty who was perceived to question the status quo. Like all such labels, it was used by grateful news editors to arouse the reader, defuse a perceived threat to society, and detox its fumes. Osborne became a celebrity, and appeared in a high-profile anthology of work by young writers, Declarations (1957), where he wrote, 'I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards'.
Fleet Street sniffed hubris. Despite the Court success of Epitaph for George Dillon (1958), a play written earlier with Creighton, Osborne was due for his first fall. As he changed wives for the first time, his private life became an open book in the pseudonymous gossip columns of the day, 'Paul Tanfield' of the Daily Mail and 'William Hickey' of the Daily Express. He hit back with a state-of-the-nation musical in a big West End theatre, bypassing Devine. Though often rudely funny, The World of Paul Slickey offered so self-gnawing and relentlessly bitter a view of British corruptibility that it commended itself to almost nobody: it ended the first act of Osborne's career.
Osborne took up with a pugilist German monk. 'I am alone', cries Martin Luther, 'I am alone and against myself'. Here was a kindred spirit, 'sucking up cares like a leech'. Osborne took from Wittenberg the lessons that revolution brings disorder, that men make a mob in no time, and that faith is more important than works. For 'faith', read also 'passion', of which Osborne suffered a lifelong, corrosive excess. Luther (1961) restored his critical reputation overnight. His absorption and understanding of the material is impressive, even if some of the writing sounds hard won by homework; the hero's sermons and tormented prayers to a perhaps unlistening God are as grand and moving as Verdi arias. Luther was played by Albert Finney, the first genuine working-class star of the new British theatre and cinema, and the play was a hit.
The matter of Britain had not disappeared. The emotional and political unrest of 1956 had been smoothed away by Harold Macmillan. The Berlin Wall went up in August 1961; the West did little, the arms race gathered speed. On holiday in the south of France, Osborne fired off to Tribune a 'Letter to my fellow countrymen' (18 August) which machine-gunned the entire British electorate and those they had elected to lead them into what seemed like an imminent Armageddon. At times barely coherent with distress, it climaxes in the memorable, if Byronically melodramatic 'Damn you, England'. He would not be allowed to forget that he had flung his curse from that most un-Osborne of countries, Abroad.
A member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament since 1959, Osborne returned home and on 17 September joined Doris Lessing, Herbert Read, and hundreds more in an illegal, sit-down protest in Trafalgar Square. Expecting at least a month in prison, he was fined £1 after a night in the cells. He was already disillusioned with the campaign, and it was his last gesture of this kind. Like Philip Larkin, he drifted to the libertarian, unorganized right, considering himself 'a radical who hates change'. With hindsight, it is clear to see that, as he tore up the polite fictions of a century and a half, John Osborne was a patriot reconnecting England with its earlier, more violent, and emotional self.
Posterity will probably decide that Inadmissible Evidence (1965) is Osborne's best play—it is the most intensely sustained in feeling, and technically the boldest, often proceeding simultaneously on two levels of both place and time. A solicitor spiralling into breakdown, Bill Maitland has all the strikes against him—lecher, insomniac, mean boss, failed father, terrified husband, and lover—yet his displacement by nothing more or less than his own nature is truly tragic. It is also horribly funny. As he lays about his staff and office in the descent to limbo, Bill glories in the Osborne version of the third beatitude. Blessed the meek most certainly are not. Bad enough that they show the rest of humanity up so badly; why should they also inherit the earth?
After the meek, the hypocrites of censorship. The lord chamberlain's office treated the script of A Patriot for Me (1965) like a whore-house in need of fumigation by nuns, snipping words and phrases ('clap', 'crabs', 'Tears of Christ!'), pulling men out of beds, removing three scenes crucial to the emotional credibility of the play, including the dazzling and dangerous drag ball. Osborne resisted all the changes, and Devine turned the Court into a ‘club’ theatre for the run of the show. The playwright paid half of the production costs himself. The play is long and uneven, but contains some of Osborne's best writing, including scenes of tenderness rare in the rest of his work. From the true story of the homosexual Austrian Colonel Redl, blackmailed into spying for Russia and forced to shoot himself, Osborne created a brilliant panorama of sexual, racial, and class themes. A Patriot for Me enjoyed, naturally, a tremendous succès de scandale. At the end of 1966 Osborne gave detailed, sobering evidence to the joint parliamentary committee on censorship of the theatre. Censorship was abolished in 1968.
Film, television, and later plays
The much loved Devine died of overwork in 1965. Under William Gaskill the Royal Court moved on, although all Osborne's plays were premièred there up to A Sense of Detachment (1972). In The Hotel in Amsterdam (1968) and West of Suez (1971) he wrote marvellous concerto roles for, respectively, Paul Scofield and Ralph Richardson. But these fluent, well-crafted plays are more narrowly metropolitan and less adventurous than their predecessors, and in A Sense of Detachment he appeared coldly to deconstruct himself and his actors, critics, and audience entirely.
The cumbersome Watch it Come Down (1975) was the National Theatre's last new play at the Old Vic and its first in the new Lasdun building on the South Bank—fondly described by Osborne as ‘Colditz-on-Thames’. Déjavu (1989) was a peppery, genial retake of Look Back in Anger, thirty-seven years on. Some of the sparring was laboured, but there was much unchanging wisdom and force.
With Tony Richardson and the American producer Harry Saltzman, Osborne founded Woodfall Films in 1958, to put Look Back in Anger on screen, with Richard Burton as Jimmy, followed by The Entertainer (1959), with Olivier. Woodfall produced many of the best British movies of the 1960s, above all the glorious Tom Jones (1962), for which Osborne won an Oscar for best screenplay. (Richardson took Oscars for best picture and best director.) His television plays—among them A Matter of Scandal and Concern, Ms, and God Rot Tunbridge Wells, a play about Handel with Trevor Howard—were sharply scaled to an intimate medium.
Marriages and friendships
In appearance Osborne was tall and lean, with a bony elegance, high cheekbones, and delicate, feminine lips. It was a witty face which on camera could accommodate pipes, cigarettes, or cigars, sulk moodily, burst into wicked laughter or a sparkling smile. A complex and byzantine personal life—countless friendships, loyal and betrayed, five marriages, four broken, one lasting—informed his work. The Hotel in Amsterdam, best and most Chekhovian of his later plays, resembles Noel Coward's Present Laughter in being entirely about the friendship of kindred souls in the long shadow cast by a single, absent, monster ego. If Osborne seemed to feel a real regret that women could not be friends with chaps as chaps can—the designer Jocelyn Rickards being an exception—there is also a near obsession with homosexuality in men.
'Where does friendship end and where do people become queer?' Osborne asked in 1968. He describes his quarrelsome friendship with the bisexual Richardson as a 'mariage blanc', and in the memoirs and journalism loses few opportunities to show that he could attract homosexuals, but was never a ‘poof’. 'How queer are you?' asked Coward, precisely to the point at their first meeting. 'About 20 per cent', replied the young dandy. On other occasions, the figure varied considerably, but in 1992 he told Lynn Barber of the Independent on Sunday (2 February 1992) that he had never had sex with another man. Attempts to prove otherwise after his death, drawing on the evidence of the openly gay Creighton, were inconclusive, and by then the world cared a lot less.
More interesting is the theatrical use he made of his obsession. In one interview he described homosexuality as 'a metaphor of ambiguity and pain'. Homosexuals lived in an alternative society, 'like sinners in church'. Before the decriminalizing of male homosexual acts in 1967, Osborne could see being queer in England as a heroic, subversive condition; as soon as they began to join the visible world, gays became just another pressure group, prone to cant, and, as such, fair game.
Three of Osborne's wives were actresses, two journalists on The Observer. The first two marriages—from 1951 to 1957 to Pamela Elizabeth Lane (1930–2010), who inspired the character Alison Porter, and from 1957 to 1963 to Mary Eileen Ure (1933–1975), the first Alison on stage—both ended in divorce but apparently without much public bitterness. The third—to the writer and critic Penelope Ann Douglass Gilliatt, née Conner (1932–1993), whom he married on 25 May 1963—also ended in divorce but was lived out more publicly, since her first husband had been best man at the wedding of Princess Margaret and Tony Armstrong-Jones. Osborne and Gilliatt had a daughter, Nolan; when she grew up, Osborne rejected her as 'devotedly suburban'. In her prime, Gilliatt was a brilliant critic and gifted fiction writer, but she moved in rather posh circles and seemed to arouse the bully in Osborne. He also learned what it was like to be married to someone whose first marriage was to her newspaper. The competition was unwelcome.
In 1968 Osborne divorced Gilliatt and married the actress Jill Bennett (1929?–1990), formerly married to Willis Hall. One director friend remembered them walking down the King's Road in Chelsea: tall, stylish, competing wits, like Beatrice and Benedick. After a few years, Shakespeare soured into Strindberg, and the marriage performed a dance of death with bilious acrimony for anyone who would watch. In 1977 they divorced. 'She was the most evil woman I have come across', Osborne told Barber, and his contempt for Bennett's suicide in 1990 showed that his fury had lost none of its power to shock.
Indian summer and the art of revenge, 1989–1991
Osborne's fifth and last marriage (from 1978 to his death), to the former arts journalist and critic of The Observer, Helen Dawson (1939–2004), was devoted and comparatively private. In the redoubtable Dawson he finally met an intelligent partner with no competing ambitions. They settled in Shropshire, near Craven Arms. She organized and typed for him, and encouraged him to write his memoirs. It was the best advice he received since the death of George Devine. On these irresistible two volumes—as much as on the plays—his reputation will rest.
Osborne's A Better Class of Person (1989) and Almost a Gentleman (1991) are among the best—and funniest—memoirs of their time. (A third volume was commissioned, but never finished.) Few writers have described more brilliantly the banal hermetic smugness of lower middle-class suburban life. In the account of his career up to 1966, not many are spared, but they include Devine, Dawson, Robert Stephens, John Dexter, and Vivien Leigh. His mother emerged as the most baleful—but also the greatest—influence on his life. She taught him 'The fatality of hatred … She is my disease, an invitation to my sick room' (Osborne, A Better Class of Person, 271). She embodied all the things he most disliked about England in her 'hypocritical, self-absorbed, calculating and indifferent' self. But if her sin was indifference in his childhood, her crimes were cunning pathos and sweet reasonableness before his rage. Nellie Beatrice was indestructible. She revelled in the attention, particularly from the Daily Mail. Attempting matricide, Osborne instead made a creature of whom Dickens would have been proud.
Through the 1980s Osborne played the role of Shropshire squire with great pleasure and a heavy slosh of irony. He wrote a diary for The Spectator. He opened his garden to raise money for the church roof, from which he threatened to withdraw covenant-funding unless the vicar restored the Book of Common Prayer. Defying 'frivolously rabid, churchless wives', he had returned to the Church of England about 1974. Everything he wrote was fired by the fierce belief that 'We really do live in a very wicked world' (Intellectuals and just causes: a symposium, Encounter, vol. 29, no. 3 Sept 1967).
Osborne had a serious liver crisis in 1987 and became a diabetic, injecting twice a day. He died at his home, The Hurst, Clunton, near Craven Arms, Shropshire, of heart failure and diabetes complications on Christmas eve 1994. He was buried in St George's churchyard, Clun. He would have been unsurprised to learn that the end, when it came, was as a Daily Mail scoop. 'Angry Man of Theatre Dies', tolled the great enemy solemnly on Boxing day 1994. It had been a quiet Christmas, no one else had the story, and they gave him the front page. Next day, the Daily Express lost no time in reminding its readers what a bad boy he had been as they kicked the corpse into its grave.
- J. Osborne, A better class of person (1981)
- J. Osborne, Almost a gentleman (1991)
- J. Osborne, Damn you, England (1994)
- cuttings from many sources, 1956–2000, Guardian library
- I. Wardle, ‘The tragedy of John Osborne’, Independent on Sunday (1 Jan 1995)
- I. Wardle, The theatres of George Devine (1978)
- W. Gaskill, A sense of direction (1988)
- T. Richardson, Long distance runner (1993)
- K. Tynan, A view of the English stage (1984)
- R. Stephens, Knight errant (1995)
- J. Dexter, The honourable beast (1993)
- WWW, 1980–90
- WWW, 1991–5
- b. cert.
- d. cert.
- L. Barber, interview, Independent on Sunday (2 Feb 1992)
- Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, corresp. and literary papers
- U. Texas, diaries, letters, notebooks, literary MSS
- priv. coll.?, filmed scene of Osborne and Jill Bennett in A patriot for me at a fundraising event, 1960s
- D. Farson, bromide print, 1956, NPG [see illus.]
- photographs, 1956–77, Hult. Arch.
- J. Bown, photograph, 1959, repro. in The Observer (17 May 1959)
- D. Stock, photograph, 1963, repro. in Sunday Times (13 July 1963)
- Z. Dominic, photograph, 1965, repro. in The Times (1993)
- photograph, 1968, repro. in The Guardian (6 June 1992)
- Douglas Brothers, photograph, 1992, repro. in Independent on Sunday (2 Feb 1992)
- A. Armstrong-Jones, group portrait, photograph, repro. in Vogue (1958)
- Snowdon, photograph, repro. in Osborne, Damn you, England, cover
- F. Topolski, photograph, NPG
Wealth at Death
£585,764: probate, 9 Feb 1995, CGPLA Eng. & Wales