John Osborne

Angry Young Man of the English Theater

John Osborne Helped Revolutinize the Post-War British Stage With His "Kitchen Sink" Dramas


This Knol was written by Jon Hopwood.

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The press release for 26-year-old John Osborne's first produced play, Look Back in Anger, which opened on the 11th anniversary of Victory-Europe Day (May 8, 1956), called the dramatist "an angry young man." After the stunning success of the play, the term "Angry Young Man" became the abel for a generation of Englishmen born before World War II but who came to maturity after the defeat of Nazi Germany, when the sun that was the British Empire was sinking into the sunset. So seminal an event was Look Back in Anger, the American drama critic Clive Barnes dated Mary 8, 1956 as the "actual birthday...of modern British theatre."

Tony Award-winner John Osborne, one of the most important British playwrights of the 1950s generation that revolutionized English-speaking theater, was born on December 12, 1929 in London, England. His father, Thomas Godfrey Osborne, a native of Newport, Monmouthshire, was a copywriter, and his mother, Nellie, was a Cockney barmaid. In 1941, John's father died of tuberculosis when he was 11 years old.

"We all of us waited for him to die," Osborne remembered. "The family sent him a check every month, and hoped he'd get on with it quietly, without too much vulgar fuss."

John Heilpern, in his 2006 biography John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man, believes that the death of his father and that of an older sister (also from TB) were the formative events of Osborne's life. Along with his unhappy first marriage (which informed the acidulous portryal of Look Back in Anger protagonist Jimmy Porter's fictional marriage), these deaths were the genesis of Osborne's anger. Osborne's hatred of society, as elucidated on stage, was rooted in his life, not in politics. (For Osborne, the fact that May 8th was his father's birthday, as well as the day his career as a major dramatist was launched, assumed an almost mystical significance for him.)
The insurance settlement from his father's death allowed the young John to go to Belmont College, Devon. After completing school, Osborne did not go on to university but returned to London to live with his mother, where he tried to make it as a journalist. He was introduced to the theater through a job tutoring a touring company of junior actors. Smitten by the theater, he became a stage manager and actor, eventually becoming a member of Anthony Creighton's provincial touring company. Osborne wrote his second play, Personal Enemy, in collaboration with Creighton (their Epitaph for George Dillon would be staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1958, after Osborne had broken through as a solo artist with the watershed production of Look Back in Anger).
Look Back in Anger opened on May 8, 1956 at the Royal Court Theatre, the 11th anniversary of V-E Day (the surrender of Germany and the cessation of hostilities in the European theater of World War II). The play was revolutionary, as it gave voice to the working class and was a slap in the face of the gentility that characterized the English theater of the time. Osborne represents a transition figure in the history of the post-World War II British stage, between Terrence Rattigan and Nobel Prize-winner Harold Pinter.
A press agent came up with the phrase "Angry Young Man" that would stick to Osborne and his compatriots, who created a new type of theater rooted in the dramas of Bertolt Brecht and which displayed a working class consciousness. Though Look Back in Anger initially received mixed reviews, the play was a smash in London, and it soon made the transfer to Broadway, where it ran for a year. Look Back in Anger was nominated for a 1958 Tony Award for Best Play (with the nomination citing Osborne and producer David Merrick), Best Actress in a Play (Mary Ure, whom became Osborne's second wife), and Best Costume Design (The Motley). It eventually was made into a movie in 1959 starring Richard Burton and directed by Tony Richardson.
Sir Laurence Olivier, one of the three great knights of the stage of the post-War period (the others being John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson), had taken Arthur Miller and Miller's good Wyf of Bubble Bath Marilyn Monroe to see the play when Olivier was shooting The Prince and the Showgirl (based on a play by Terrence Rattigan) in London with MM. Olivier had not attended the play, but Miller was insistent on seeing Osborne's sensation. (Observer critic Kenneth Tynan had famously opined that he didn't believe he could be friends with anyone who didn't like Anger.)

Sir Laurence Olivier was abashed by the play, but Miller convinced him of its greatness as a theatrical work. Miller also claimed that Osborne was the only playwright then worth seeing in London. Olivier, sensing a sea-change in culture that could make actors of his ilk obsolete, engaged Osborne to write a play for him, and the playwright followed up Anger with another brilliant work, The Entertainer.
With The Entertainer, Olivier reinvented himself as an actor as well as realigned himself with the new youth movement shaking the foundations of the English theater. The knight of the theater gave a tour de force performance as Archie Rice, a down-at-the-heels, third-rate music hall entertainer facing emigration to Canada or oblivion. Osborne used the decline of the music hall, once the premier venue of British entertainment, as a metaphor for the post-war decline of the British Empire in light of the recent debacle in Suez, when the U.K., France and Israel were rebuffed by Egypt and an angry United States when the three countries invaded Egypt to seize the recently nationalized Suez Canal. Laurence Olivier received his sole Tony nomination for The Entertainer when he had brought his legendary performance to Broadway. (Sir Laurence also would win an Oscar nomination playing Archie Rice in Tony Richardson's 1960 film of the play.)
John Osborne's career continued strong in the 1960s. He won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Tony Richardson's movie version of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, which copped Richardson an Oscar as Best Director and was named Best Picture of 1963. It also transformed Albert Finney into a movie star, winning him the first of his five Oscar nods. Simultaneous with this cinema success was the Broadway production of his play Luther on Broadway, in which Finney won raves playing Osborne's portrait of Martin Luther, the original angry young man of Europe who revolutionized Christianity 1,500 years after The Christ. It was fitting that one rebel, the protester Osborne, would take on the father of Protestantism. The play, first performed in England in 1961 and transferred to Broadway in 1963, won Osborne a 1964 Tony Award for Best Play, as well as garnered a Tony nomination for Finney.
Other important plays followed. Inadmissible Evidence, first performed in 1964, made Nicol Williamson a stage star (both Osborne and Williamson were nominated for Tony Awards n 1966 after the show transferred to Broadway). His other major play of the 1960s, A Patriot for Me (London debut 1965), dealt with the blackmailing of the Austro-Hungarian officer Colonel Redl (a situation also dramatized in Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's 1985 film Oberst Redl), who was a homosexual and possibly a Jew in a pre-World War One society that was virulently anti-gay and anti-semitic. The production of the play helped erode theatrical censorship in Britain. The Lord Chamberlain, the theatrical censor in Britain, was opposed to the play and denied it the exhibition license the theater needed to put on public shows due to its frank depiction of homosexuality.
In exchange for an exhibition license, The Lord Chamberlain demanded multiple cuts, which would have resulted in the excision of half the play, according to Alan Bates in a B.B.C. interview during a 1983 revival of the play. Osborne and The Royal Court refused. Denied a license by the Lord Chamberlain, the theater had to be turned into a private club in order to put the play on in London. A Patriot for Me won The Evening Standard Best Play of the Year award (as would one of his latter plays, The Hotel in Amsterdam in 1968), though it was a succes d'estime, the theater taking a heavy loss on the production.
The year 1968 was a watershed in Osborne's professional life. Not only is 1968 the year that the counterculture "won," sweeping away all before it (and whose effects, as well as detritus, has yet to be replaced by anything else), it was the year of his last successful play, The Hotel in Amsterdam, and the year that Tony Richardson's masterful cine-satire The Charge of the Light Brigade -- based on a screenplay by Osborne -- was released. The end of the Sixties represented the eclipse of Osborne's career as an important dramatist. The Angry Young Man was superseded by the even angrier, and more anarchic, Baby Boom generation.
With the shift in the cultural winds, a strong breeze analogous to the one he himself turned on Britain in the mid-'50s, Osborne would not enjoy the same success as he had in the 1950s and '60s. Starring Oscar-winning Austrian actor Maximillian Schell, A Patriot for Me was not a success on Broadway, lasting but 49 performances in 1969. The play's flop bore witness to Osborne's decreasing commercial prowess in the theater, which once again was undergoing a revolution, but from the anarchist left with such productions as Tom O'Horgan's folk rock musical Hair. The Broadway stage has not been graced with an Osborne play or revival since that time.
The words of Osborne's generation, the thoughtfulness, which demanded that the audience actively participate, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually with the playwright and the theatrical production, were being replaced by sensation, such as the nudity that helped make Hair a huge hit, which enabled the audience to remain passive. Perhaps this is why the greatest playwright of the English-language theater in the post-War period was not Osborne or any other member of the kitchen-sink school of drama but the absurdist Harold Pinter, whose language was elliptical and, in itself, frequently meaningless.

The five-times married Osborne died from complications of diabetes on December 24, 1994, two weeks after his 65th birthday. His last produced play was Déjà Vu (1991), a sequel to his first great success, Look Back in Anger. His legacy was a transformed British theater, which had broken its links to the ossified D'Oly D'Carte consensual civilized theater of the prior generation, in which the theater was more about elocution by actors playing toffs than it was about life as lived by most Britons. Osborne and the legions of playwrights he influenced made language important, as well as introduced an emotional intensity into the theater. John Osborne and his brethren used the theater as a soapbox on which to attack class barriers, and, ironically, the very type of Establishment theater which itself reinforced those class distinctions.

Osborne's generation may well be regarded as the last generation in the Anglophone world in which the theater mattered. With the huge production costs of Broadway, American theater has retreated to the fringes, with Broadway hosting mostly musicals and revivals of once popular plays featuring TV and faded movie stars, miked for an audience who increasingly has never experienced true theater.