Look Back in Anger, pr. 1956
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
Inadmissible Evidence, pr. 1964
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
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 (adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel)
West of Suez, pr., pb. 1973
Watch It Come Down, pb. 1975
Déjàvu, pb. 1991
Plays, pb. 1993-1998 (3 volumes)
Four Plays, pb. 2000
Look Back in Anger, 1959 (adaptation of his stage play; with Nigel Kneale)
The Entertainer, 1960 (adaptation of his stage play; with Kneale)
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)
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
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
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
Few dramatists have by virtue of one play defined the beginning of a new age. John James Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, first produced on May 8, 1956 (the year of Great Britain’s Suez debacle), at the Royal Court Theatre in London, enjoys the distinction of such a historical moment. His play gave name to a new kind of theater, “the angry theater,” and to a new dramatic era. The English stage, dominated by the well-made, middle-class drawing-room dramas and Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, seemed to have changed overnight.
Dramatists of both older and younger generations, Rattigan on the one hand and Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard on the other, acknowledged being moved by the honest force of an angry Jimmy Porter, the main character, who as a graduate of a “redbrick” English university finds himself in a dead-end existence. His only means of livelihood is the operation of a sweets stall in a dreary Midlands town. Having no one or nothing on which to vent a lifetime of injuries endured, he unleashes his anger on those whom he loves and with whom he lives–his genteel wife, Alison, and his best friend, Cliff. His personal anger is aggravated by the loss of idealism; to Porter there are no more great causes, such as the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. The effect of the play was to unleash a proliferation of dramatists in two successive waves of British drama. In the first wave, Pinter emerged as the leading innovative stylist. In the second, Stoppard reinvigorated drama with the plotting and linguistic pyrotechnics of his high comedy of ideas.
Osborne followed Look Back in Anger–a stylistically conventional play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg–with others exhibiting the disillusionment of the post-World War II generations. Social alienation, the result of England’s colonial past and of the oppressive class system, came under angry attack from other working-class and lower-middle-class writers, as well as from Cambridge-and Oxford-educated dramatists such as Trevor Griffiths and David Hare, who wrote radical-left dramas attacking England’s past and present. Osborne thus enjoys a fixed place in British theater history.
Osborne was the only child of Thomas Godfrey, a commercial artist and copywriter, and Nellie Beatrice Grove Osborne, a barmaid. He grew up in poverty during World War II and, not thinking highly of his two years of charity-assisted education at St. Michael’s College, chose not to continue his education at university. Instead he drifted from one unsatisfying job to another before becoming assistant manager and then an actor in the theater. His first four marriages (to Pamela Lane, Mary Ure, Penelope Gilliatt, and Jill Bennett) ended in divorce; at his death, he was living with his fifth wife, Helen Dawson, in rural Shropshire. The year of his death, 1994, saw the publication of the third volume in an autobiographical series, whose confessional titles indicate the honest, if angry, social progress in a life that had so strong an impact on the history of the English stage: A Better Class of Person, Almost a Gentleman, and Damn You, England.
Osborne epitomized the kind of dramatist who first emerged in the 1950’s. His characters give definition and dignified voice to an underprivileged class, theretofore treated on the stage mostly as comic characters (as by George Bernard Shaw) or as victims of society (as in the style of John Galsworthy). The dramatization of Archie’s breakdown in The Entertainer (and, by implication, of England’s famous music-hall tradition) is a continuation of the themes in Look Back in Anger.
The decay in the fortunes of a main character parallels the decay of English civilization: The Entertainer is set at a shoddy seaside music hall during the Suez crisis (in which Great Britain, despite the cooperation of Israel and France, was forced by pressure from the United States to withdraw). The acts of Archie’s performance deteriorate progressively until his final breakdown, which becomes a lower-middle-class and highly personalized version of the questioning of civilized values. The play made history with Laurence Olivier, a classical actor, playing Archie Rice.
In addition to Jimmy Porter and Archie Rice, the lawyer Bill Maitland from Inadmissible Evidence became a familiar name in the British theater. Most critics agree that Osborne’s art of the stunning verbal tirade nears perfection in that play. By means of a series of tension-filled psychological crises, Osborne moves with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy through Maitland’s personal and professional life, showing how his past affects him in the final hours of his deterioration.
Like Bertolt Brecht, Osborne explored history in plays such as A Patriot for Me, which deals with an Austro-Hungarian intelligence officer who, blackmailed on the basis of his homosexuality, became a Russian spy. Luther and West of Suez deal with situations of historical unrest, situations in which official ineptness and injustices are inextricably tied with intensely moving personal confrontations between a character and his past or between a character’s private and public worlds.
In 1992, Osborne’s stage-writing career came full circle in his long awaited play, Déjàvu, a sequel to Look Back in Anger. The play shared the fate of many sequels, being a pale version of the original.
Osborne often reiterated his basic intent: to effect social and political change by means of emotionally moving each member of his audience. Although employing Brechtian purpose and epic techniques, Osborne, unlike Brecht, intended to involve rather than to distance the spectator from the action on stage. Brecht’s distancing is directed toward making the audience think, Osborne’s involvement toward making the audience feel. Indirectly, Osborne’s influence can be seen in the plays of the many realistic writers who dramatize the social fabric of English life. What Osborne did was to open up the polite middle-class English stage to a large variety of honest explosions of private feelings and to attacks on systemic evils inherent in English codes of behavior.