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Analysis of John Osborne’s Plays

John Osborne’s (12 December 1929 – 24 December 1994) most generous critics credit him with having transformed the English stage on a single night: May 8, 1956, when Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre. He is celebrated as the principal voice among England’s Angry Young Men of the 1950’s and 1960’s, who railed vindictively against Edwardian dinosaurs and the empty-headed bourgeoisie; it should be noted, however, that his antiheroes rebel against their own frustrations and futility more than they do in the service of any substantial social or political reform. Indeed, they betray their envy of the stability and the “historical legitimacy” of the very generation they condemn. Perhaps Osborne’s most profound influence has been his leadership in bringing authenticity into contemporary English theater; a member of what has loosely been defined as the kitchen-sink school, he helped institute a new receptivity to social issues, naturalistic characterization, and the vernacular, thereby revitalizing a theater scene that had been dominated by the verse elevations of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry and the commercial conventionality of Terence Rattigan.

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In addition to his achievements as a playwright, Osborne was also an accomplished actor, director, and screenwriter. Testimonies to his popular and critical successes include three Evening Standard awards (1956, 1965, 1968), two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards (1958, 1965), a Tony (1963), and an Oscar (1964). In the last twenty years of his life, Osborne devoted much of his energy to television plays for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Although some saw this as a confirmation of dwindling artistic resources, Osborne’s reputation as a prime mover of the postwar English stage held secure. He created some of the most arresting roles in twentieth century drama, and his career-long indictment of complacency is evident in every “lesson of feeling” he delivered to his audiences.

When the much-heralded John Osborne hero tore into an entire generation yet had no prospect for viable change, he discovered his own nakedness and vulnerability. He was inevitably a man in limbo, caught between nostalgia for the settled order of the past and hope for an idealized future he could not possibly identify. His rage was directed against his own inadequacy, not simply against that of his society. Because it was ineffectual, protesting against the ills of society became primarily a ritual complaint of the self against its own limitations.

Every Osborne play deals with reality’s raids on self-esteem. His characters, even those who are most hostile to outworn conventions, are all in search of some private realm where they can operate with distinction. Sadly, that very search, which leads to isolation and denies communication, is as important a contributor to the contemporary malaise as is any governing body or social system. Angry young men and scornful old men, alike, feel disaffiliated and frustrated by the meager roles they occupy, but their greatest failure comes from not making a commitment to anything other than the justification of those feelings. Osborne wrote of a world that is immune to meaningful achievement. The degree to which his characters can move beyond complaint toward some constructive alternative that welcomes other people is the best measure of their heroism.

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Gary Raymond and Richard Burton in Tony Richardson’s 1959 film version of Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger is less specifically about rebellion than it is about the inertia that overcomes someone when he feels helpless to rebel. To excuse his own inanition, Jimmy Porter cries that there are no “good, brave causes left”; in fact, he daily rails against dozens of enemies—the bomb, advertisers, the church, politicians, aristocrats, cinema audiences, and others—until one realizes that the problem is that there are too many causes worth fighting for, and their sheer magnitude renders Jimmy impotent. His anger, his irreverence, and his castigating wit are all an imposture, an attempt to shield himself from his failure to take meaningful action. While he pricks the illusions and damns the lethargy of those around him, he himself holds fast to the sense that only he suffers, that his anger betokens spiritual superiority over Alison, who irons incessantly and who only desires peace, and over Cliff, who buries his head in the newspaper and who only desires comfortable seclusion in the Porters’ flat. However justifiable his charges against the other characters, Jimmy’s anger is less a mark of privilege than it is a standing joke—part of the “Sunday ritual.”

Jimmy at times seems almost envious of those he attacks. The man for whom he professes the greatest resentment, Colonel Redfern, is an illusion-ridden, displaced Edwardian whom Jimmy prefers to see as the tyrannical father from whose clutches he saved Alison; nevertheless, the colonel at least had a golden age, whereas Jimmy agitates in a vacuum. Similarly, Helena, Alison’s posh actress-friend, inspires in Jimmy equal portions of spite and sexual desire; he not only brings this officious snob down from her pedestal but also makes a place for her in his home after Alison’s departure. Even Alison’s political brother, Nigel, “the chinless wonder,” whose vagueness Jimmy loves to attack, reflects on Jimmy’s personal lack of commitment.

The point is that Jimmy cannot afford to see himself as in any way implicated by his own attacks. He resents everyone else’s desperate evasion of suffering—he goes so far as to wish that Alison should witness the death of a baby, thereby unwittingly previewing her fate—but he, too, tends to leave the scene at times of crisis, going off to play his horn in the other room, for example, when Alison returns to confront the “traitorous” Helena. At this crucial juncture,Helena decides to opt out of the mess. Rather than risk dirtying her soul, she spouts convenient clichés about doing the decent thing and thus escapes her guilt. Alison’s return is itself a compromise made in order to reaffirm the only security she has ever had. To say that Jimmy Porter proves any more willing to handle the pain and difficulty of being alive, however, is to ignore the fact that his has been an exclusive self-interest throughout the play. He is childishly arrogant rather than righteously indignant. So long as some woman is there to iron his clothes, he will not be bothered about his responsibilities to either Alison or Helena. (After all, he reasons, by leaving him, they have betrayed his “love,” and so they deserve little more than scorn.) The image that concludes the play—Jimmy and Alison huddled together in a game of bears and squirrels—marks a final repudiation of the complications of adult life. “Let’s pretend we’re human” is Jimmy’s original suggestion at the beginning of Look Back in Anger, but the consequences of human thought and feeling are too great; only within the limited arrangement of a “brainless” love game can either of them function at the end of the play.

Look Back in Anger portrays a world that lacks opportunities for meaningful achievement. Jimmy Porter loses his glibness and sarcasm as the “cruel steel traps” of the world close in on him; he trades in his anger for anesthesia. Ironically, even more obsolete than Colonel Redfern’s visions of bygone days is Jimmy’s own anger; Helena suggests that he really belongs “in the middle of the French Revolution,” when glory was available. Jimmy Porter, who embodies the failures of his society, can support no cause other than that of the self in retreat. An impotent reformer and would-be martyr, he is consumed by a burning rage that finds no outlet.

The Entertainer

Osborne’s society is one that seems immune to creativity and inimical to full humanity. In The Entertainer, Archie Rice looks back on the past nobility of the music hall (his is now a tawdry striptease joint) and forward to the barren legacy he has to offer his alienated children, and he wonders where all the “real people” have gone. Like Colonel Redfern, he is an anachronism, a personification of degraded values, as exemplified by his adherence to a dead art. He lacks even the satisfaction of the dying Billy Rice, who can at least withdraw into memories of free pudding with a pint of beer and respectable women in elegant dresses. Instead, Archie must console himself as best he can with a pitiful affair, his “little round world of light” onstage, and the conviction that at least he has “had a go at life.”

The music hall structure of “turns” on a bill is imitated in the structure of the play itself. In this way, the story of the Rice family becomes an elaborate sketch, including overture, comic patter, heartrending interludes, and skits of love and death. Like the music hall, which has been corrupted by nudity and obscenity, the family unit, once a bastion of British dignity, has fallen on hard times. Phoebe, Archie’s wife, indulges her husband’s adulteries and failures and seeks shelter in local movie houses (another degraded art form). His son Frank is a conscientious objector who can only manage a “relationship substitute” with his father. His daughter Jean is also estranged from her parents, as she nurses the pain of a failed engagement and teaches an art class to children she loathes. In short, the younger generation is embittered by an inheritance of disappointment and ruined values, and Archie is incapable of communicating with them naturally and openly. He chooses, rather, to relate to them through a contrived performance, as he would to one of his vulgar audiences. In the place of intimacy, there is cajolement and manipulation, so that it becomes impossible for characters to distinguish sincerity from routine, confession from monologue.

“Everybody’s all right,” croons Archie, and the central tension of The Entertainer is that between his efforts to sustain happiness, Britishness, the welfare state, and the state of his private little world, all by sheer theatricality, and the steady deconstruction of those myths. The final blows are the deaths of Billy Rice and young Mick, the one seeming to pass away out of his own irrelevance to the contemporary world, and the other killed in an otherworldly war. The result is shell shock. All that Archie can turn to is a quiet drink and a few awkward old songs in the faded spotlight. Like Look Back in Anger, which concludes with a desperate desire for mindless retreat, The Entertainer shows the responses to crisis as the familiar patter and the old soft shoe.

Luther

Luther was both a departure from and an expansion of familiar themes for Osborne. The move from contemporary middle-class England to sixteenth century Germany makes Luther seem an anomalous experiment, but Osborne was once again concerned with the psychology of a sensitive man who prefers to escape the world rather than cope with the burden of mammoth causes that he finds overwhelming. Luther is a direct ancestor of Jimmy Porter: He is frightened by the implications of his own anger. The realization of God’s enormous task sends him into an epileptic fit. By embracing a monastic alternative, Luther can rationalize, at least temporarily, his divestment of the trappings and complications of secular life in the protective bosom of the Lord. The Augustinian order is the religious equivalent of the psychological refuges in Osborne’s previous plays.

It is not God alone who castigates Luther for his retreat. Luther’s father, a practical and rather blasphemous man of the world, argues that his son, who could have been a fine lawyer, has chosen to run away from such a challenge and is now “abusing his youth with fear and humiliation.” Luther’s response is that his father is narrow-minded and blind to the glory of God, but the indictment still plagues Luther. The other brothers, too, laugh at the intensity of his “over-stimulated conscience”; Brother Weinand says Luther always speaks “as if lightning were just about to strike” behind him. Even Luther’s sleep is infested by demons, and his days are soured by constipation and vomiting. Having entered the monastery to find security and certainty, Luther is instead faced with weakness and doubt. Not only does he fail to forge his soul into a human equivalent of sanctuary, but he also finds his worst traits are exaggerated within this restricted arena. As Staupitz will advise him years later, his fanaticism does not guarantee the order’s potency, it simply renders it ridiculous. It is paranoia, not faith, that underlies Luther’s devotion.

One can appreciate the fact that, despite Luther’s ultimate role as world-shaker, he is not a social revolutionary. He consistently sides with the forces of law and order during the Peasants’ Revolt. Although he prefers to drink to his own conscience instead of to the pope, he is equally disdainful of the “empty” rampage of revolution, which he deems an affront to what is truly Christian. In short, Luther has never learned the last tool of good works—to hate his own will—and his one-man crusade in the play is not so much against Satan as it is against the devilish fears in his own heart.

It is ironic that Luther contributes to the dismantling of the fortress that Cajetan calls a representation of the perfect unity of the world because Luther has never desired anything more than its unassailable safety. As he tries to bargain with God, he insists, “This cause is not mine but yours. For myself, I’ve no business to be dealing with the great lords of the world. I want to be still, in peace, and alone.” Luther concludes with the hero crawling into a substitute sanctuary, in the form of marriage to a nun, Katherina von Bora. One is left with a weary man cradling his sleeping son in his arms and praying that God grant both of them sweet dreams. Luther is no different from Osborne’s wholly fictional creations in that he is the one who appears to be most afflicted by the fires he has ignited; the fact that Luther is far more successful in having an effect on the world at large than is Jimmy Porter does not free him from the sense that all he has “ever managed to do is convert everything into stench and dying and peril.”

Inadmissible Evidence

Inadmissible Evidence resumed Osborne’s contention that one can suffer more personal damage from one’s own attempts to insulate oneself than from those things—a hostile world, a guilty past, or simply other people—from which one desires insulation. Bill Maitland is an attorney who undergoes a play-long crossexamination about the quality of his own life. Although his detestation of computerized, deculturalized, dehumanized society may in part explain his callousness and conceit, it does not justify his personal inadequacies or his inability to maintain meaningful relationships. The most damaging evidence against him is that, however virulently he argues that the world has discarded him, he appears to be the instrument of his own isolation, and this is what he cannot admit to himself.

The play records Maitland’s last hours in a process of collapse. It opens in a “dream-court,” in which he conducts an anxious, helpless defense; when he awakens to his real world, he is no longer capable of handling the trials there. Like so many of Osborne’s main characters, Maitland turns to rhetoric to defend himself and to convince himself of his own existence. With a lawyer’s expertise, he spins convoluted monologues. He proposes to obscure, if he cannot eliminate, the ambiguous “wicked, bawdy and scandalous object” of which he stands accused: a life lived at a distance.

Inadmissible Evidence has the effect of a one-man play, for Maitland is so manipulative and exploitative that other characters in the play are reduced to two-dimensional fact files, existing solely as embodiments of reactions toward Maitland. Their limited existence is a result of his incapacity for engaging in relationships of any real complexity or depth. What he sees as betrayal by his friends and family—one by one they appear in his office or call up to confirm their desertion—is, from another perspective, Maitland’s steady disappearance into solipsism. Having treated everyone with the same cynical caution, he grows to feel more and more “like something in a capsule in space, weightless, unable to touch anything or do anything, like a groping baby in a removed, putrefying womb.” He is losing the control he once exerted over people both sexually and professionally, and now he cannot stem the tide of their retreat. Eventually, not even taxis notice him, and the newspapers feature the replacement of lawyers by computers that will render them obsolete. Ironically, the sentence for the crime of a practiced detachment is a suffocating anonymity.

Maitland’s last clients serve as the most effective witnesses for the “prosecution.” The women who complain of the callousness and the adulteries of their men come for legal counsel, but their function in the play is to force Maitland to recognize his own crimes in those of their men. (That all the women are played by one actress seems to insist on their symbolic status; they represent a single indictment.) Maitland can no longer escape into his work, for his work presents further evidence against him. He becomes indistinguishable from his last client, the self-consumed Mr. Maples, who also wants to avoid the ugly issues he has helped to create for himself.

The play ends in plea bargaining. It is no longer possible to keep from being “found out” (his fear in the opening dream sequence), so Maitland considers changing his plea to guilty in order possibly to mitigate the judgment against him. Perhaps he can salvage something by warning his daughter not to make the same mistakes and messes he did. Unfortunately, it may simply be too late to avoid his sentence; after all, can his daughter take to heart the didactic instruction of a man who has shown her nothing but insincerity? Inadmissible Evidence leaves one with the image of a man repenting his sins in solitary confinement.

A New Focus

Osborne never deserted the theme of life’s failure to measure up to human desires, and of people’s unwitting contribution to that failure by virtue of the self-interest that underlies their complaints. Thus, for example, does Pamela in Time Present take up the gauntlet from Jimmy Porter, ridiculing the tawdriness and banality of the 1960’s, the drugs, hippies, happenings, and the need to be “cool,” with the same fervor that Jimmy railed against the uninspiring prospects of life in the 1950’s. Osborne’s later approach to this theme, however, was from the point of view of the conservative forces that were the target of the younger heroes of his earlier plays. This approach was not so much the inevitable by-product of an aging playwright’s political reassessment as it was a change of focus that intensified his argument. In other words, the materially comfortable Establishment and the stolid aristocracy are as dissatisfied as the disenfranchised younger generation. In West of Suez, the first play designating this new focus, the shift from self-righteous anger to anxious unsettledness denotes not only nostalgia for the past and dissatisfaction with the present but also a fear of the future.

West of Suez

West of Suez examines yet another cramped refuge: In this case, it is the garden of a villa in the West Indies meant to serve as a retreat from the “cold, uncertain tides and striving pavements. And the marriage of anxieties.” What had been intended as a reservation for the vestiges of the old British Empire is instead proof of its degradation. The Suez Canal is closed; the dreams of the empire it once exemplified are choked. The fiction cannot survive unless those who maintain it do so miles away from the reality, “in the West, among the non-descripts of the Bahamas.”

Like their literary predecessors, Colonel Redfern and Billy Rice, the nostalgiaridden members of this “exclusive circle” have been trivialized into comedy. A brigadier is reduced to domestic chores; the aged writer, Wyatt Gillman, gives an interview “like a wounded imperial bull being baited by a member of the lesser breeds”; social gatherings are contaminated by hippies, homosexuals, and tourists. The only defense against this invasion is boorish prejudice, which the traditionalists exhibit throughout the play.

The offspring of their obsolescence, represented by Edward and Frederica, are saddled with a useless legacy, and their marriage encompasses the tension and disappointment of people who must live vicariously on other people’s distant memories. Edward immerses himself in pathology because it affords him uncompromised detachment, and Frederica finds her self-possession in a kind of sneering sophistication. Their conversations are nothing more than highly stylized verbal exercises designed to take their minds off the supreme boredom of their lives. In a sense, they aspire to the state of blissful self-importance of Wyatt Gillman, the extreme version of which must be senility.

Modern life is not something in which the couple would choose to involve themselves, but their island home is no escape from vulgarity. Tourists litter the place, cheapening it with their very presence, and the native blacks are charmless and sullen. Finally, there is the anarchist-hippie Jed, something of a reincarnation of Jimmy Porter, who lambastes the befuddled aristocrats with curses and threats of violence. His heavy-handed assault summarizes their ineffectuality, their pathetic irrelevance to the real world, while also demonstrating the ugliness of that world and almost justifying aristocratic stereotypes of the undignified lower classes. The response of Wyatt Gillman to all of this is to ask to go to bed, but there is no hiding from Jed’s vicious prophecy. Wyatt is murdered at the end of West of Suez by a band of natives. Nothing is sacred anymore, especially not the memory of colonial power and prestige. Wyatt’s children, friends, and associates, all of whom have staked claims in a world that no longer exists, stand over his corpse in stupefaction.

Déjàvu

In 1992, Osborne returned to the London stage with Déjàvu, which brought Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter back to life after two and a half decades. In Déjàvu, Jimmy, now a middle-aged drunk, still vents his spleen at all those around him. Few critics, though, thought that the new incarnation matched the power of the original.

Principal drama
Look Back in Anger, pr. 1956, pb. 1957; The Entertainer, pr., pb. 1957 (music by John Addison); Epitaph for George Dillon, pr., pb. 1958 (with Anthony Creighton); The World of Paul Slickey, pr., pb. 1959 (music by Christopher Whelen); Luther, pr., pb. 1961; Plays for England: The Blood of the Bambergs and Under Plain Cover, pr. 1962, pb. 1963; Inadmissible Evidence, pr. 1964, pb. 1965; A Bond Honored, pr., pb. 1966 (adaptation of Lope de Vega’s play La fianza satistecna); A Patriot for Me, pr., pb. 1966; The Hotel in Amsterdam, pr., pb. 1968; Time Present, pr., pb. 1968; A Sense of Detachment, pr. 1972, pb. 1973; Hedda Gabler, pr., pb. 1972 (adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play); A Place Calling Itself Rome, pb. 1973 (adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus); Four Plays, pb. 1973; The Picture of Dorian Gray, pb. 1973, pr. 1975 (adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel); West of Suez, pr., pb. 1973; Watch It Come Down, pb. 1975, pr. 1976; Déjàvu, pb. 1991, pr. 1992; Plays, pb. 1993-1998 (3 volumes); Four Plays, pb. 2000.

Other major works
Screenplays: Look Back in Anger, 1959 (with Nigel Kneale; adaptation of his stage play); The Entertainer, 1960 (with Kneale; adaptation of his stage play); Tom Jones, 1963 (adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel); Inadmissible Evidence, 1968 (adaptation of his stage play); The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968 (with Charles Wood).
Teleplays: A Subject of Scandal and Concern, 1960 (originally as A Matter of Scandal and Concern); The Right Prospectus, 1970; Very Like a Whale, 1971; The Gift of Friendship, 1972; Ms.: Or, Jill and Jack, 1974 (later published as Jill and Jack); The End of Me Old Cigar, 1975; Try a Little Tenderness, 1978; You’re Not Watching Me, Mummy, 1980; A Better Class of Person, 1985; God Rot Tunbridge Wells, 1985; The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1991 (adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel).
Nonfiction: A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956, 1981; Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography, Volume Two: 1955-1966, 1991; Damn You, England: Collected Prose, 1994.

Bibliography
Banham, Martin. Osborne. Edinburgh, Scotland: Oliver and Boyd, 1969.
Brien, Alan. “Snot or Not?” Review of Almost a Gentleman. New Statesman Society 4 (November 15, 1991): 47. In Denison, Patricia D., ed. John Osborne: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Ferrar, Harold. John Osborne. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.
Gilleman, Luc. John Osborne: Vituperative Artist. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Hayman, Ronald. John Osborne. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1972.
Hinchliffe, Arnold P. British Theatre, 1950-1970. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974.
_______. John Osborne. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

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Categories: Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Realism, Theatre Studies

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  1. Thank You for this article. It surely is a great delight for the Lit lovers.

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