The Magazine

Mum's the Word

John Osborne's rebellion began in the cradle.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By EDWARD SHORT
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John Osborne

The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man

by John Heilpern

Knopf, 527 pp., $35

When John Osborne's Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court on May 8, 1956, the initial response was dismal. To an audience fond of the witty badinage of Noël Coward, the clever plot twists of Terence Rattigan, and the modern morality plays of T.S. Eliot, the scattershot invective of Jimmy Porter, Osborne's hero, seemed tedious and offensive. Osborne himself recalled the first night audience as "mostly adrift, like Eskimos watching a Restoration Comedy." Many walked out.

The reviewers were equally unsympathetic. One found Porter "a caricature of the sort of frustrated left-wing intellectual who, I thought, died out in the war." Another took Osborne himself to task: "When he stops being angry--or when he knows what he's angry about--he might write a very good play." Others were more straightforwardly abusive, calling the play "putrid," "sickening," and "self-pitying." But then Kenneth Tynan's review claimed that "I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger: it is the best young play of its decade," and the production was saved. Osborne became famous overnight.

When Osborne followed up his unexpected success with The Entertainer (1957) and Inadmissible Evidence (1964)--which gave memorable expression to his sense of loss and futility--he proved his staying power, though later he would write several plays that should never have left his notebooks.

In this entertaining new biography John Heilpern looks squarely at the many flaws of the first Angry Young Man without losing sight of his good points. Like Piers Paul Read's brilliant biography of Alec Guinness--another flawed man of talent--Heilpern's book shows his subject unusual compassion. In many respects, Osborne was a monster; but he could also be remarkably generous and good-hearted. Heilpern's evenhandedness underscores the radical contradictions of the man.

To try to describe Osborne the playwright, Heilpern quotes Artie Shaw describing how he approached playing the clarinet: "You're trying to make a sound that no one ever got before, creating an emotion. You're trying to take notes and make them come out in a way that moves you. If it moves you, it's going to move others." Yet Osborne's plays exhibit too much emotion: Structurally ramshackle and devoid of any sustained thought, they are often little more than staged jeremiads. If there is an apt jazz parallel to Osborne's work it is not the swinging aplomb of Artie Shaw but the cacophonous banality of Ornette Coleman. Nevertheless, even for those skeptical about the merits of Osborne's work, this book is worth reading. It re-creates a theater that has all but vanished, and a rackety life hobbled by hate.

John James Osborne (1929-1994) was born an only child in Fulham. His mother, Nellie Beatrice Grove, was an enterprising cockney who began work as a charwoman in an orphanage, did a stint as cashier in Lyons Corner House in the Strand, and finally became a popular barmaid known for her lewd patter.

Osborne's father, Thomas Godfrey, was a frail, asthmatic Welshman, a commercial artist who had wanted to be a real artist but never managed it. In the all-important calculus of class, he married beneath himself and regretted it; every time his wife opened her mouth, he winced. Like many of the artists Osborne admired--Anton Chekhov, Aubrey Beardsley, D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell--he died young of tuberculosis.

Osborne went to his grave adoring his father, even though his most vivid memories of him were of his coming home "after supper full of Waterloo buffet whiskey, Guinness or Moussec playing the upright piano and singing 'Red Sails in the Sunset.'" On such crumbs did Osborne feed his filial love. In Look Back in Anger he has Jimmy Porter say: "For twelve months I watched my father dying when I was ten years old. . . . You see I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry--angry and helpless. And I can never forget it."

Osborne claimed that he hated his mother because she was "the grabbing uncaring crone of my childhood," berated him publicly when he was growing up, and showed no grief when his beloved father died. What most galled him was her refusal to show him the maternal love he craved. When she died at age 87, he began an article for the Times, "A year in which one's mother died can't be all bad." He repaid her cockney cruelty with something of his own cockney vindictiveness.