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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Osborne , John James (1929-1994)
"Here we are, we're alone in the universe, there's no God, it just seems that it all began by something as simple as sunlight striking on a piece of rock. And here we are. We've only got ourselves. Somehow, we've just got to make a go of it. We've only ourselves."

-- John James Osborne

John Osborne was born in London, the son of Thomas, a copywriter and Nellie Beatrice, a Cockney barmaid. Thomas died in 1941, leaving the devastated young boy an insurance settlement which he used to finance a private education at Belmont College, Devon.

After school, Osborne went home to his mother in London and briefly tried trade journalism. A job tutoring a touring company of junior actors introduced him to the theatre. He soon became involved as a stage manager and acting, joining Anthony Creighton's provincial touring company. Osborne tried his hand at writing plays, his first The Devil Inside Him was co-written with his mentor, Stella Linden, who then directed it at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield in 1950.

Around this time he also married Pamela Lane. His second play Personal Enemy was written with Anthony Creighton (with whom he also wrote Epitaph for George Dillon staged at the Royal Court in 1958) and staged in regional theatres before he submitted Look Back in Anger.

Look Back in Anger
Written in seventeen days in a deckchair on Morecambe pier where he was performing in a creaky rep show called Seagulls over Sorrento, Look Back in Anger was largely autobiograpical, based on his time living, and rowing, with Pamela Lane in cramped accommodation in Derby while she cuckolded him with a local dentist. It was submitted to agents all over London and returned with cruel rapidity. In his autobiography, Osborne writes: 'The speed with which it had been returned was not surprising, but its aggressive dispatch did give me a kind of relief. It was like being grasped at the upper arm by a testy policeman and told to move on."

Finally it was sent to the newly-formed English Stage Company at London's Royal Court Theatre. Formed by actor-manager and artistic director George Devine, the company's first three productions had been flops and it urgently needed a success if it was to survive. Devine was prepared to gamble on this play because he saw in it a ferocious and scowling articulation of a new post-war spirit. Osborne was living on a leaky houseboat on the River Thames at the time with Creighton, stewing up nettles from the riverbank to eat.

So keen was Devine to contact Osborne that that he rowed out to the boat to tell him he would like to make the play the fourth production to enter repertory. The play was directed by Tony Richardson and starred Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure, and Alan Bates.It was a part-time press officer at the theatre who invented the phrase angry young man, which was to become a phenomenon with Osborne its epitome.

In 1993, a year before his death, Osborne wrote that the opening night was 'an occasion I only partly remember, but certainly with more accuracy than those who subsequently claimed to have been present and, if they are to be believed, would have filled the theatre several times over'. Reviews were mixed, most of the critics who attended the first night felt it was a failure and it looked as if the English Stage Company was going to go into liquidation.

The Evening Standard, for example, called the play "a failure" and "a self-pitying snivel". But the following Sunday, they were granted the miracle they had been praying for, Kenneth Tynan of the Observer - the most influential critic of the age - praised it to the skies: 'I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger,' he wrote, 'It is the best young play of its decade'. Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times called Osborne "a writer of outstanding promise".

During production, the married Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure, and would divorce his wife, Pamela Lane, to marry her in 1957. The play went on to be an enormous commercial success, transferring to the West End and to Broadway, touring to Moscow and in 1958 a film version was released with Richard Burton and Mary Ure in the leading roles. The play turned Osborne from a struggling playwright into a wealthy and famous angry young man and won him the Evening Standard Drama Award as the most promising playwright of the year.

The Entertainer and into the 1960s
Initially afraid of this new revolution in theatre and (correctly) seeing himself as a target, Laurence Olivier, then making The Prince and the Showgirl (itself based on a Rattigan play) with Marilyn Monroe, saw Look Back in Anger in London with her and then husband Arthur Miller. Olivier was finally persuaded by Miller to regard the development in a positive light, and subsequently commissioned Osborne to write a play for himself to star in.

The result was The Entertainer (1957, filmed in 1959). It was a Brecht-inspired piece (although Osborne always denied this) that uses the metaphor of the dying music hall tradition to comment on the moribund state of the British Empire, something flagrantly revealed during the Suez Crisis of November 1956 which ellipitically forms the backdrop to the play. An experimental piece, The Entertainer was interspersed with Vaudeville performances. Most critics praised the development of an exciting writing talent:

A real pro is a real man, all he needs is an old backcloth behind him and he can hold them on his own for half an hour. He's like the general run of people, only he's a lot more like them than they are themselves, if you understand me.
The words are Archie Rice's, though as with much of Osborne's work they could be said to represent his own sentiments, as with this quote from Look Back in Anger:

Oh, heavens, 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!'
Following The Entertainer were The World of Paul Slickey (1959) a musical which satirizing the tabloid press, and the 1962 double bill Plays for England, comprising "The Blood of the Bambergs" and "Under Plain Covers".

Luther, depicting the life of Martin Luther, the archetypal rebel of an earlier century, was first performed in 1961, it transferred to Broadway and won Osborne a Tony Award. Inadmissible Evidence was first performed in 1964. In between these plays, Osborne won an Oscar for his 1963 adaptation of Tom Jones. A Patriot for Me (1965) was a tale of turn-of-the-century homosexuality and was instrumental in putting the boot in to the eighteenth-century system of theatrical censorship under the Lord Chamberlain. Both A Patriot For Me and The Hotel in Amsterdam won Evening Standard Best Play of the Year awards.

1970s and Later Life
In 1971, Osborne turned in his most famous acting appearance, lending Cyril Kinnear a sense of civil menace in Get Carter. A Sense of Detachment, appeared in 1972. In 1978 he appeared as an actor in Tomorrow Never Comes and in 1980 in Flash Gordon.

In the last decade of his life, he published two volumes of autobiography, A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991).

He also collected various newspaper and magazine writings together in 1994 under the title Damn You, England. At his memorial service in 1995, playwright David Hare said:

It is, if you like, the final irony that John's governing love was for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get labelled cold. If they are emotional, they get labelled stupid. Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John's case, a person is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing and bolt the back door.

His last play was Déjà Vu (1991) a sequel to Look Back in Anger.

Critical Responses, Idols and Effect
Osborne was a great fan of Max Miller and saw parallels between them. 'I love him, (Max Miller) because he embodied a kind of theatre I admire most. 'Mary from the Dairy' was an overture to the danger that (Max) might go too far. Whenever anyone tells me that a scene or a line in a play of mine goes too far in some way then I know my instinct has been functioning as it should. When such people tell you that a particular passage makes the audience uneasy or restless, then they seem (to me) as cautious and absurd as landladies and girls-who-won't.'

Osborne's work transformed British theatre. He helped to make it artistically respected again, throwing off the formal constraints of the former generation, and turning our attention once more to language, theatrical rhetoric, and emotional intensity. He saw theatre as a weapon with which ordinary people could break down the class barriers and that he had a 'beholden duty to kick against the pricks'. He wanted his plays to be a reminder of real pleasures and real pains. David Hare said in his memorial address:

John Osborne devoted his life to trying to forge some sort of connection between the acuteness of his mind and the extraordinary power of his heart.
Osborne did change the world of theatre, influencing playwrights such as Edward Albee and Mike Leigh, however work of his authenticity and originality would remain the exception rather than the rule. However this did not surprise Osborne, nobody understood the tackiness of the theatre better than the man who had played Hamlet on Hayling Island. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writer's Guild of Great Britain.

Osborne remained angry until the end of his life. Women evidently found his anger attractive - he had more than his fair share of lovers in addition to wives, and he was not kind to them. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that in relationships he was an out-and-out cad. In his own autobiography he details some of the brazen subterfuges he created in order to commit adultery with Penelope Gilliatt before they were married. Jill Bennett's suicide is generally believed to have been a result of Osborne's rejection of her.

In his 2006 biography, John Heilpern describes at length a vacation in Valbonne, France, in 1961, that Osborne shared with Tony Richardson, a distraught George Devine, and others. Feigning bafflement over the romantic entanglements of the time, Heilpern writes:

"Let's see: Osborne is on a besieged holiday with his aggrieved mistress while having a passionate affair with his future third wife as the founding artistic director of the Royal Court has a nervous breakdown and his current wife gives birth to a son that isn't his."

Osborne's vexations with women extended to an extremely cruel relationship with his daughter Nolan; born from his marriage with Penelope Gilliatt. His vicious abuse of his teenaged daughter culminated with him casting her out of his house when she was aged seventeen. They never spoke again.

He was married five times:

1) Pamela Lane
2) Mary Ure
3) Penelope Gilliatt
4) Jill Bennett
5) Helen Dawson

He died from complications from his diabetes at the age of 65 in the UK. He is buried at Clun in Shropshire alongside his last wife, Helen, who died in 2004.

The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
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