John Osborne (1929–1994) was born in Fulham, west London, to Thomas Osborne and his wife Nellie Osborne née Grove. He idolised his father, a commercial artist and advertising copywriter, but despised his cockney barmaid mother. He grew up in suburban Surrey and was educated at a minor public school in Devon, from which he was expelled at the age of 15 for hitting the headmaster.
Early career as an actor
From the age of 18 Osborne worked as an actor in the repertory theatre system, touring the country with productions that were put together with very little rehearsal. Performing such a large number of plays was an excellent apprenticeship for his future career as a playwright. Travelling the country laid the foundations for what would become the main themes of his work: England and English social attitudes.
Early writing for theatre
In 1949 Osborne co-wrote his first play, The Devil Inside Him
, with his married lover Stella Linden. He described it as a ‘melodrama about a poetic Welsh loon’ who murders a girl when he realises that she is trying to frame him for sexual assault. Devil
was briefly performed in Huddersfield in 1950 but was largely forgotten about during Osborne’s lifetime, as were six other early plays (only one of which was produced).
Look Back in Anger
It was Look Back in Anger, Osborne’s eighth play (often mistakenly referred to as his first), which brought his work to public attention in 1956. The breakdown of his marriage to actor Pamela Lane was the stimulus for the play. Having completed the script in the spring of 1955 Osborne submitted it to the newly-formed English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. George Devine, the Theatre’s artistic director, was impressed by the play’s unusual forthrightness and decided not only to produce it but also to help Osborne financially by taking him on as an actor and script reader. Look Back in Anger opened in May 1956 and after a slow start became a huge hit. Its electrifying rhetoric and emotional intensity have long been credited with reviving British theatre.
Personally and professionally, Osborne developed a reputation for hot-headed, rebellious truth-telling. He lacked deference, questioned the monarchy and generally lived up to the ‘angry young man’ label that was applied to him. In his contribution to the 1957 anthology of essays Declaration
, he echoed Jimmy Porter from Look Back in Anger
when he wrote ‘I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards’.
Later plays: Successes and flops
Osborne’s second play for the Royal Court was The Entertainer (1957), which starred Laurence Olivier as faded music hall star Archie Rice. Like Look Back in Anger, it mourns the passing of English traditions and the British Empire. His third play to be produced by the Court, Epitaph for George Dillon (1958), was written prior to Look Back in Anger. George Dillon is a struggling actor-playwright, a failure and a sell-out; he is now often seen as a prototype for Jimmy Porter.
These three successful Royal Court productions were followed by a spectacular flop: a West End musical called The World of Paul Slickey (1959) which satirised the tabloid press and upper-class society. Osborne’s reputation was restored with Luther in 1961, a play about the 16th-century German Protestant reformer Martin Luther which chronicles his struggle with faith. It seemed surprising subject matter for a man who had railed against religion and the Church, but Osborne had always been beset by fear and guilt and in later life he joined the Church of England. The play impressed critics and audiences alike and won Osborne a Tony award on Broadway.
Luther was followed by Inadmissable Evidence
(1964), regarded by some as Osborne’s best play. Solicitor Bill Maitland is a typical Osborne anti-hero: a paranoid, self-hating man going through a mid-life crisis. The drama takes place in a courtroom dreamscape where Maitland presents evidence of his failings and disappointments. The style of the play is innovative, using intercut monologues to signal the dissociative, abstract quality of the piece. Three years on, when Osborne was struggling with his own nervous breakdown, he looked back on the play as ‘an act of self-prophecy’.
Next came A Patriot For Me, which premiered in 1965. The play is based on the true story of the gay Austro-Hungarian spy Alfred Redl, who was blackmailed by Russia for concealing his sexuality. It was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain because of its sexual permissiveness, forcing the Royal Court Theatre to become a private members’ club in order to stage the play. As a result of the outcry caused by the Lord Chamberlain’s decision, Osborne was invited to give evidence to the parliamentary committee which ultimately brought about the end of theatrical censorship in 1968.
Marriage, sexuality and later life
Osborne married five times. The relationships were marred by betrayal, jealousy and violence; it was not until he met his fifth wife, Helen Dawson, that he found domestic happiness and relative peace. Despite his many female lovers, Osborne’s camp demeanour and close friendships with gay men sparked rumours about his sexuality (when fellow playwright Noël Coward asked him, ‘How queer are you?’ Osborne famously quipped, ‘About 20 per cent.’). Though he denied ever having had sex with a man, homosexuality interested him and was a theme he explored in his writing. Until the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 he saw it as a heroic and admirably subversive way to be; as the law began to change his sympathy waned.
Osborne’s outspoken vigour mellowed little over the years. His political viewpoint shifted away from left-wing causes to a more right-wing libertarian stance. He spent his final years in Shropshire, where he enjoyed posing as a country squire and terrorising the local vicar with threats to withdraw covenant funding from the parish church. He died of heart failure and diabetes-related complications on 24 December 1994.
Further information about the life of John Osborne can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.