John Osborne

From Academic Kids

This article is about the playwright. See John Osborne for the Montserrat politician.

John James Osborne (December 12, 1929December 24, 1994) was a English playwright, the first of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s.

He was born in London, the son of a copywriter. He was educated at Belmont College, Devon but was expelled after attacking the headmaster. He became involved in theatre, as a stage manager and then as an actor. He tried his hand at writing plays and two of them (The Devil Inside Her and Personal Enemy) were staged in regional theatres before he submitted Look Back in Anger to the newly-formed English Stage Company at London's Royal Court Theatre. The company, led by artistic director George Devine, saw in the play a ferocious and scouring articulation of a new post-war spirit and chose the play as the third production to enter repertory. Reviews were mixed, but Kenneth Tynan - 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'. During production, the married Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure, one of the stars of the play, and would divorce his wife to marry her. The play went on to be an enormous commercial success, transferring to the West End and to Broadway, and was later filmed with Richard Burton and Mary Ure in the leading roles.

Osborne's next work was The Entertainer (1957), also at the Royal Court and starring Laurence Olivier. It was a Brecht-inspired (though he always denied this) piece 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.

Luther (1961) and Inadmissible Evidence (1964) were powerful pieces, using Osborne's characteristically soaring rhetorical venom to powerful effect, but lacing their stories with complexity, ambiguity and richness. 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. A Hotel in Amsterdam (1968) was much underrated because, perhaps, of its apparent conventionality, while A Sense of Detachment (1972) was very unconventional, but, for pressing the new avant-garde's techniques into the service of Osborne's by now unfashionable social vision, it was also derided. Osborne's work was no longer produced by the Royal Court in the 1970s and it faded in quality as the decade wore on. His last play was Deja Vu (1991) a sequel to Look Back in Anger and has some force, but seems self-absorbed and grouchy, lacking the fire of the first play.

As well as plays he also wrote a number of screenplays, mainly adaptations of his own works; he also won an Oscar for his 1963 adaptation of Tom Jones. He acted in a few films, including Get Carter (1971), Tomorrow Never Comes (1978) and Flash Gordon (1980). In the last decade of his life, Osborne received most praise (and vilification) for the two volumes of autobiography he produced, A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman (1991), which used that familiar acidity of language to lay low all his enemies, whether in the theatre, his family, or society at large. These included his ex-wife, actress Jill Bennett.

Notable among commentaries on John Osborne is Nancy Huntting's discussion of the relation of Jimmy and Alison in "Look Back in Anger." She points to a deep feeling in Osborne that criticizing a person's contemptuous disdain for the world is the same as loving that person. Her paper, relating this play to women's lives today, was presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City with the title "Love and Criticism: Is There Any Relation?". (

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 died from complications brought on from his James Osborne pl:John Osborne


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