Robin Ashenden

‘Terrible but magnificent’: the life and times of playwright John Osborne

British playwright and actor John Osborne (Getty)

With the news the Almeida Theatre is to stage John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger this Autumn as part of their double-bill ‘Angry and Young’ (its partner play being Arnold Wesker’s Roots), one can only wonder what today’s younger generation will make of it. Osborne’s first produced play, a portrait among other things of the corrosive marriage between a young lower class intellectual and his infinitely better-born wife, perfectly caught the rising mood in 1956 – one of searing frustration with postwar inertia and a moth-eaten establishment of colonels, judges and bishops that seemed set to endure forever. So seismic was the play’s impact, it was credited with changing the British stage, even British society, for good.

Osborne had a tortuous relationship with the opposite sex

‘John Osborne didn’t contribute to the British theatre,’ said novelist Alan Sillitoe. ‘He set off a land mine called Look Back in Anger, and blew most of it up.’ Critic Kenneth Tynan, in a rave review headed ‘The Voice of the Young’, gushed he ‘could not love anyone who did not wish to see’ the play, later adding that its central character Jimmy Porter, in his tirades against post-war society, gave voice to ‘all the things one had half-articulated in the past ten years…I think the anger, the fury, the protest, the social content are what gave it its charge, its explosiveness at the time…’

It has arguably lost little of its ferocity since. Audiences are still apt to gasp at Jimmy’s brutality towards his wife, yelp with laughter at his diatribes, and leave the theatre furiously arguing one way or the other about the characters. When I played Porter myself in 1992, both at university and the Edinburgh Festival, the play and its protagonist still hadn’t lost their relevance or power to shock: ‘Nobody thinks, nobody cares, no beliefs, no convictions…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!’’

In the world of 2024, teeming with beliefs and convictions as shrilly held as they seem tenuous, such sentiments may seem passé. But in the early 1990s, in that odd, inert pause between the end of the Cold War and Al Qaeda’s attacks, I and the other actors were frequently moved, even consumed by the play – with its eloquent sense of maladjustment and frustration Look Back in Anger overwhelmingly spoke for the young.  

Osborne himself, still with us till late 1994, caught our attention too. He was a paradox, wrote his biographer John Heilpern: ‘a Cavalier and a Roundhead, a traditionalist in revolt, a radical who hated change…a born dissenter who wasn’t nice.’ Once the prototypical ‘angry young man,’ a ‘Welsh upstart from Fulham’, he was the dramatist as superstar, something unimaginable today. ‘My aim,’ said a young Osborne in one of his notebooks, ‘is not to please, but to stimulate, not to flatter and lick but to needle and insult as cheerily as I can.’ He wrote about loss, disillusionment, isolation, nostalgia, betrayal, not only creating parts that actors longed to play but characters – seedy music hall performer Archie Rice in The Entertainer or Bill Maitland, Inadmissible Evidence’s middle-aged lawyer in meltdown – which became symbols of something, part of the national landscape. ‘He left a profound impression on England, in my view,’ said his one-time chauffeur Jimmy Gardner. ‘He understood the English and it frightened them.’

Just as hair-raising was the circus of Osborne’s not-so-private private life: the all-day champagne, the Edwardian coats and jackets, the vicious, damning letters to friend and foe alike, the five wives and four divorces (from his mother onwards, Osborne had a tortuous relationship with the opposite sex and his failed marriages, he said, followed him around ‘like previous convictions’). He’d been pursued by an angry mob down Shaftesbury Avenue after a play of his had bombed; on another occasion, as the UK government embraced the atom bomb, he wrote a public ‘letter of hatred’ to his countrymen: ‘Damn You, England! You’re rotting now, and quite soon you’ll disappear.’ All of this made him juicy fodder for the tabloids.

‘I worship him as a writer and believe almost none living can touch him,’ wrote Lynn Barber

Osborne’s midlife move to the right and his later fulminations, against anti-smokers, gay militancy, mischief making quangos, public-spirited ‘campaigns’, the sickening kitsch of managed group emotion – and, less forgivably, his fourth wife actress Jill Bennett – were sometimes comical in their vehemence, but compelling nonetheless. He may have been the Big Bad Wolf of English literature but, in a prose so timeless and resonant it was almost scriptural, he often hit the target in ways which, decades on, appear prescient.

‘There are blundering armies of nosy and interfering “caring” maniacs,’ he wrote in 1992. ‘Their compassionate masks conceal a vindictive, retributive energy…’ The modern Church of England he railed against too, with its trendy vicars and repudiation of the Book of Common Prayer, lamenting it had ‘truckled to all those guitars’ and ‘become a branch of Butlins…So that when you go to church it’s no longer a question of being confronted by what you might really be. And being chastened about it.’

Such things, even to someone young enough to remember little different, seemed true, and you were grateful to him for not prevaricating. ‘People are so mealy-mouthed these days, aren’t they?’ he said in interview. ‘You can never tell what someone is actually like.’ Actor Ben Walden, his godson, recalled that Osborne ‘wanted a theatrical element to life and people. He wanted all of them, the most of them, he wanted poignancy, accuracy, no wasted language no wasted time…He always told me, “Live fully, make mistakes, the worst sin is to edit your life and edit your behaviour to the point where you can’t feel your life properly.”’ To another he advised, ‘Think what you think, not what you ought to think’ – the sort of guidance which, coming at the right moment, could free you up for good.

Some people loathed him in his later years as a mean, ranting old has-been, a ‘bigot’, a ‘blimp’ and a playwright who’d lost all meaning for them when he shifted away from the Left. Others of us felt a respect for him and his work verging on awe. ‘I worship him as a writer and believe almost none living can touch him,’ wrote journalist Lynn Barber with unaccustomed abandon. Ferdinand Mount, in a far from fulsome piece about Osborne in this very magazine, nonetheless finished on a different note. He’d seen the playwright turn up to a confirmation service, he said, ‘this tall, reddish-grizzled man in a huge green overcoat with complicated flaps. He looked like an old-style actor-manager who had been transported from some other time, was absurdly stagey [and] exuded melancholy… He looked magnificent, terrible but magnificent.’

It was just this quality which meant that for many of us, as Lynn Barber put it, Osborne was a ‘bulwark against the creeping, Californian blandness of the age,’ a guarantor of full-blooded, often reckless free speech – however wrong-headed – and his death left you feeling oddly exposed. ‘I never met him and now, I shall miss him so much,’ wrote a stranger to Osborne’s wife Helen upon his death. ‘Just knowing he was there,’ wrote another, ‘was some kind of reassurance in this silly world.’ At his funeral, friend and fellow-playwright David Hare described him as ‘a lifelong scourge of prigs and puritans, whether of the right or the left…, expecting from other people the same unyielding, unflinching commitment to their own view of the truth which he took for granted in his own.’

All of which makes you wonder what an ‘Angry and Young’ Almeida audience will make of Osborne in 2024 – whether his candour and verbal violence will nauseate them, or if instead they’ll feel liberated from their repressions by the unfettered sound of his wrath. Expect trigger warnings, pearl clutching and pious disclaimers from artist and critic alike about Osborne’s ‘sexism’, ‘prejudice’, and how we’ve ‘moved on from attitudes very much of their times.’

Meanwhile, those who wish to denounce its central character and his creator too harshly might bear in mind a line from The Entertainer, now engraved on Osborne’s headstone as his epitaph, an abiding caution to all who would cast the first stone: ‘Let me know where you’re working tomorrow night, and I’ll come and see you.’

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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