The Angry Young Man
With the publication of Look Back in Anger in 1956, John Osborne came to be known as the "angry young man". This label was both his good fortune and misfortune. The play marked the beginning of the new drama and it became a talking point in a way that had no precedent. But the author's misfortune consisted in the fact that he could not afterwards grow out of the label or could not atleast convince the public that he had done so.
His First Appearance on the London Drama Scene
Osborne, however, continued to develop right from the first production of Look Back in Anger on the London stage on the 8th May, 1956. That date marked his first appearance as a dramatist in the London theatre, though his two earlier plays (The Devil Inside Him and Personal Enemy), written in collaboration, had been produced out of town, the first in Huddersfield in 1950 and the second in Harrogate in 1955.
Two Earlier Plays Written in Collaboration
The Devil Inside Him (written in collaboration with Stella Linden) is a strange melodrama about a Welsh youth whom the villagers think to be an idiot and his relations think to be a sex-maniac because he writes poetry; his talents are recognized by a visiting medical student but meanwhile he is constrained to kill a local girl who attacks his idea of beauty by trying to pass him off as the father of her child. Personal Enemy (written in collaboration with Anthony Creighton) concerns the reactions of a soldier's relatives and friends when he refuses to be repatriated from his capacity in Korea. This play suffered at the time from wholesale deletions demanded by the Lord Chamberlain, including a whole homosexual strand in the plot.
Reactions to "Look Back in Anger"
Osborne was just twenty-six when Look Back in Anger was produced, and he was considered something of a juvenile prodigy. The play had been quite simply sent by him through the post to the newly established English Stage Company, a group idealistically devoted to new theatrical writing, and was their first new British play to be produced. It received mixed reviews, but on the whole critical opinion was favourable. The reviewers were agreed on one point: that Osborne's was a distinctive new voice. Soon the hero of Look Back in Anger became a kind of folk-hero for a young generation puzzled by the Hungarian revolution, unhappy about Britain's last imperialist fling at Suez, and determined to protest against the hydrogen bomb and about all sorts of political and social questions. The play became the centre of a lot of solemn theorizing about the "angry young man" and his place in society. More important, the success of the play ensured the survival of the enterprising company which had staged it (the English Stage Company), and kept the Royal Court Theatre (where it was staged) open as a platform for young writers with something new to say.
A Realistic Story in a Non-realistic Context
Epitaph for George Dillon (1957), written by Osborne in collaboration with Anthony Creighton, was technically similar to Look Back in Anger, though it managed to give more of a fair hearing to other points of view besides that of the unsuccessful writer-hero. But with The Entertainer (1957), Osborne broke away from realism, to encase the story of a run-down comedian's relations with his family, quite realistically told, in a frame-work of fantastic music-hall numbers which generalized the personal drama into some sort of allegory of the state of Britain in decline. In other words, this play places a realistically treated story of a failed comedian in a non-realistic context of allegorically significant sketches and numbers. The play reflects on the present state of Britain and relates Archy Rice's personal emotional failure to a wider loss of nerve and purpose. Incidentally, the play marked the first important marriage of the old theatre and the new because Sir Laurence Oliver played the lead in its first production.
An Epic Drama
A similar use of an "en-distancing" frame-work was witnessed in the television play A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960), about Jacob Hohoak. the last man to be tried and imprisoned for blasphemy in
, which suggested some influence from Brecht, and the idea was confirmed by Luther (1961), an epic drama very much on the lines of Brecht's Galileo. Even here, though it was noticeable that Luther made a hero very much in line with Osborne's own invented heroes, a Renaissance angry man railing against the way things were and most effective when given the stage to himself to deliver sermon, the usual thrust-and-parry of historical drama, even as defined by Brecht, is virtually non-existent in Luther. England
A Completely Subjective Approach to Drama
Though all these plays achieved considerable success, Osborne still seemed in them to be looking for a style which would enable him to move beyond the subjective out-pouring of Look Back in Anger towards a broader, more objective statement. But curiously enough it was a more completely subjective approach to drama than anywhere else in his work which brought his next major success, and in the opinion of many critics his best play, Inadmissible Evidence (1964). Here the central character, Bill Maitland, is a drunken, disreputable lawyer of around forty, who finds that the world has ceased to listen to him, that his tirades, brilliant though they are, move no one and change nothing. The play is written almost as a monologue, with the other characters presented unmistakably as projections of Maitland's own neurotic, guilt-racked mind. This gives the play a unity and coherence lacking in Osborne's previous work.
A Period of Great Fertility in Osborne's Career
Inadmissible Evidence started a period of great fertility in Osborne's work. The next year, another major play, A Patriot for Me, was produced. It tells the history of the homosexual double agent, Alfred Redi, and his spying activities for both the Austrians and the Russians in the years preceding the First World War. The play is an attempt to place Redi and his problems in a larger social and moral context, but the overall balance is unsatisfactory, and finally Redi's character and motivation are obscured rather than illuminated by the elaboration of the context. In 1966, Osborne adapted a play by Lope de Vega, giving it the title A Bond Honoured, but it proved a flop. In 1968 came two more plays, Time Present and The Hotel in
. The first of these is notable insofar as it is the first time that Osborne has taken a woman as his central character, and the second is an uncharacteristic attempt by Osborne to broaden his talent and increase his technical resources by presenting a balanced collection of six major characters rather than a magnetic central character surrounded by an attentive chorus. Opinions are sharply divided as to the extent to which these two plays are successful. Amsterdam
In subsequent years Osborne's writing continued to follow much the same lines as his earlier plays, predictable in its content and its attitudes, but often unexpected in the precise form it took. He seems, for instance, to have had second thoughts about the hard words he once had for television, and has written a series of major television plays, including The Right Prospectus, a wildly comic story of school life, and two studies of a new topic, the problems of fame and distinction, and how the famous and distinguished deal with them, in Very Like a Whale and The Gifts of Friendship. Indeed, as Osborne has progressed in his own life from being an angry unknown to being an angry middle-aged institution, his interests and sympathies have shifted more towards the problem of middle age, of fame and money and power. West of
(1969), perhaps the most substantial of Osborne's later stage-plays, is a muddled panorama of family life in an outpost of the collapsing Suez British empire in which the older characters seem to have most of the author's sympathy. Other plays by Osborne, such as A Sense of Detachment (1972) and The End of Me Old Cigar (1975), are satirical charades which some thought significant and some merely messy, but A Place Calling Itself Rome (1973), a modern re-working of Shakespeare's Coriolanus as a sober political drama, suggested, like his adaptations of Hedda Gabler and The Picture of Dorian Gray, that Osborne was taking a new practical interest in his craft as such, the how as well as the why of what he was saying.
"In all these plays Osborne has shown a large-scale, unruly talent. His attempts to extend it have been more successful than his attempts to discipline it; he remains a splashily effective, untidy dramatist, whose work seems almost infallibly to capture the attention of a more broadly based public than that of any of his contemporaries. He is, indeed, the nearest that the whole new drama in Britain has come to producing a genuinely popular dramatist, a dramatist with the sort of shameless theatrical effectiveness which alone can get over to some sort of mass audience in the theatre today. It seems unlikely that we can expect any great change in his dramatic attitudes, which have remained remarkably consistent from the first; deep distress, which apparently he continues to feel about the way things are, shows little sign of humanizing his soul. But the expressions of the distress, if not always profound, are seldom less than striking in their instant effect, and his best plays remain remarkably fresh in revival: Look Back in Anger, though already a period piece and a social document of the disoriented mid-1950's, does not date, but, if anything, seems better today, when a more balanced view is possible, than it did at the time, as a centre of excited controversy."
A Critical Note on Some of Osborne's Plays
The World of Paul Slickey, an ambitious satirical musical about a gossip columnist with a dual personality, was a failure. The two historical plays which followed, A Subject of Scandal and Concern and Luther, did not create the impression of being original creations, though in the latter Osborne did succeed in making over the character of Luther into a figure somewhat after the image of Jimmy Porter, or rather managed to find in the outlines of the character someone after his own heart. The Blood of the Bambergs was a feeble satire about a royal wedding and was generally regarded as Osborne's poorest play. Under Plain Cover, however, opened up an interesting new area by embarking directly on the world of private neurosis, in this case the strange, shared fantasy-world of a married couple who turn out to be brother and sister.
What had worried some critics about Look Back in Anger was that Osborne seemed in it to be dealing with a neurotic character whom he did not fully realize to be neurotic, and any way he allowed him to win all the arguments and take on a heroic role by virtue of his sheer biting eloquence. Under Plain Cover might almost be a fourth act to Look Back to Anger, showing what could have happened to Jimmy and Alison a few years after they were reunited. Osborne's next play, and still in many ways his best, Inadmissible Evidence pursues this line of dramatic thinking further. Its central character, Bill Maitland, is a lawyer who could also become Jimmy some years later. But this time he is allowed centre stage for his monologues simply because nobody bothers to listen to him any more; he rails at a world which does not care, and his deep sense of dissatisfaction is seen no longer as an objectively justified response to the ills of the world, but as the expression of a mind at the end of its tether. This play has the extra kick of a kind of personal anguish expressed with all the lucidity and technical skill of a born dramatist working at the height of his powers.
Perhaps no play Osborne has written since has quite achieved the same happy balance, but at least there is no doubt possible about his being a born dramatist, one to whom dramatic expression comes with a perfect naturalness and ease. Whatever the successes of other dramatists of his generation, he is the only one who has contrived to win through consistently to an ampler public utterance, to remain defiantly a popular dramatist capable of speaking to a mass public, even if some of his plays may individually fail. A Patriot for Me failed, primarily because of a belated tangle with the theatrical censorship over its homosexual theme: a large-scale period drama, it recounted the strange history of Alferd Redi, master double spy for Austria and Russia in the period immediately before the First World War. A Bond Honoured was in comparison a minor work, a long one-act phantasy on themes of Lope de Vega's La Fianza Satisfecta, which made Lope's God-defying hero into almost a parody of Osborne's earlier railers.
In 1968 Osborne returned to the wider public stage with two new plays, presented in the first instance together although they have little or no thematic connection—Time Present and The Hotel in Amsterdam. Both represented in some respects new departures. Time Present was Osborne's first play to have a female protagonist, though Pamela, a "resting" actress, could not unfairly be described as a Jimmy Porter in skirts, a feminine variation of the familiar pattern, considering it her right to bitch everyone in sight to compensate in some way for her gnawing sense of dissatisfaction. The Hotel in Amsterdam seems on the contrary like some sort of answer by Osborne to those critics who have complained that he tends to write monologue plays, plays in which only one character is really given a chance to speak. It is much more of an ensemble play, with several characters of almost equal weight, all of them refugees from the unseen presence of the dreaded "K.L.", a film producer around whom, in one fashion or another, all their lives revolve, who have holed up for a week-end of respite or holiday or group therapy in the hotel in Amsterdam.
The Right Prospectus, a farcical school tale for grown-ups, and Very Like a Whale, a study of a public man on a self-destructive kick, are slight plays (meant for television). But West of Suez, for all its untidiness, its eagerness to pack everything possible into a limited compass, does all the same have passages of Osborne's best writing. It contains a surprising range of rounded, believable characters (in a sense it is another ensemble play), and touches upon many of Osborne's pet themes, from the decline of imperialist Britain through homosexuality and nostalgia for the settled values of the past to a wary acceptance of a new, irrational order of things which may be coming to birth. In this play more than any other, Osborne seems to be deliberately siding with the conservatives, the old values. It is a long way from Look Back in Anger, but also by the look of it something very like a new beginning, a further development of a dramatist who has, through triumph and disaster, never ceased to change and grow.