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.

After being expelled from school for punching one of his masters, Osborne worked as a copy editor for a trade magazine called Gas World. Most of his days were spent poring over the huge office dictionary. Notebooks from this period abound with word lists: "Acolyte, addled, alchemy, blancmange, bumbling, burgeon, bollocks, clammy, coverture, conk . . . . " But it was not until he escaped journalism for repertory theater that he put his love of words to the test. Look Back in Anger was not his first but his fourth play, and drew on much that he had learned as a repertory actor.

When it came to marriage, Osborne's motto was "Eat, Drink and Remarry." In trying to account for why he was such a serially poor husband, he explained, "I often confronted problems like an improvising chimpanzee faced with the dashboard of a jumbo jet." Osborne's first marriage to fellow actor Pamela Lane supplied most of the materials for Look Back in Anger. Lane's middle-class parents strenuously objected to the match, and Osborne pursued it largely to spite them, just as Jimmy Porter marries Alison to spite her parents. When Lane saw the play, she was amazed by its fidelity to their marital nightmare. After they divorced, Osborne married Mary Ure, his beautiful leading lady, who was playing Alison at the time. Osborne later admitted that he married Ure because she reminded him of Lane, which prompts Heilpern to remark: "The man who thinks of his first wife while marrying his second gives nostalgia a bad name." Although a talented actress, Ure would later descend into madness. (It is remarkable how many of his wives came to bad ends.)

It was with his third wife, Penelope Gilliatt, film critic for the New Yorker, that Osborne had his only child, Nolan, whom he would later disown after he discovered that she preferred the company of her teenage girlfriends to his. Worse, she reminded him of his stony, mocking mother. Gilliatt spent most of her adult life telephoning William Shawn with late edits and drinking herself to death; the man who brought up Osborne's castoff daughter was none other than the old Times critic Vincent Canby who, when asked for comments about the playwright, replied, "I've nothing to say about the bastard!"

Wife number four was another of Osborne's leading ladies, Jill Bennett, with whom he would have a bruisingly destructive marriage, fueled by drink and venom. After its collapse, Osborne formed something called Adolfs Anonymous, "Adolf" being his nickname for Bennett. Anyone tempted to marry Jill Bennett could ring the organization day or night and be talked out of it. Bennett would eventually commit suicide.

Before leaving Bennett, Osborne suffered a nervous breakdown, during which he mused: "'Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.' Is that right? It feels just right at this moment in time. I feel like a figment. A pretty awful fiction. I take back what I have said about the Irish." Osborne's fifth and final wife was Helen Dawson, arts editor for the Observer, with whom he shared estates in Shropshire and Clun--A.E. Housman land-- about which he would remark, "I may be the poorest playwright in England but I've got the best view."

That John Osborne should have been virtually bankrupt in the last decade of his life was proof of his extravagance: His lavish homes in London and the country, his cars, wives, many generous handouts to friends and colleagues down on their luck, drink bills--"Osborne and champagne," Heilpern writes, "were as inseparable as Fortnum and Mason"--and bills from his Savile Row tailor whittled away a sizable fortune. In his prime, he made money hand over fist. Several of his plays were box office hits in Britain and around the world, and Tom Jones (1963), for which he wrote the screenplay, was one of the most successful films ever made. (Its profits today would be the equivalent of $247.7 million.) Since half the profits went to Woodfall Films, owned jointly by Osborne and director Tony Richardson, Osborne was a multimillionaire by the time he was 35.

After his talent for playwriting dried up, Osborne was forced to write for The Spectator to keep the local tradesmen at bay, prompting the Angry Old Man to complain: "That's how you end up: A f--g journalist!" Nevertheless, the columns collected in Damn You England! (1994) are full of salutary diatribes against the English nanny state.

So what can be said about this impossible, gifted, unhappy man? Heilpern sums up matters rather lamely in an otherwise insightful biography by saying that "his cause was always the triumphant domain of the English language where words alone are certain good and man grapples with defeat and sadness." Osborne himself was nearer the mark when he said: "At least a man who hates his mother has a standard of excellence in mind." Like Archie Rice, the down-at-the-heels vaudevillian played so brilliantly by Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer, John Osborne could never resist seeing his life as a bad Music Hall gag.

Edward Short's forthcoming book on John Henry Newman and his contemporaries will be published by Continuum.