Osborne - A Patriot for Us|
The British got two nasty shocks in 1956. One was from the Suez Crisis, which showed that Britain no longer had the power to go it alone on the world’s political stage. The other was from playwright John Osborne, whose play Look Back in Anger revealed a spirit of discontent lurking behind the façade of post-war complacency. This biography by the drama critic of the New York Observer mark’s that play’s fiftieth anniversary and jolts us into remembering why Osborne made such an impact with his theatrical work and highlights its implications today.
wanting to write something new or noteworthy about Osborne had to
contend with two challenges, namely the twin volumes of autobiography
– A Better Class of Person (1981) and Almost a Gentleman
(1991) – which Osborne produced, and which must rank as two of the
most self-lacerating examples of the genre ever written. So Heilpern
can’t avoid taking us through territory familiar to Osborne fans - the
miserable suburban childhood (he was born in 1929), early days as a cub
reporter on trade magazines, the treadmill of acting in rep, the success
of Look Back, the five marriages, the varied fates of his plays
and rows with the theatrical establishment, the supposed descent into
cantankerous old buffer. Nor can he offer a tougher verdict on Osborne
than Osborne himself has already done. But Heilpern throws new light on
his subject – the dream of every biographer – by means of his access
to the playwright’s private notebooks, over 20 of which had survived
sporadically from the 1950s until Osborne’s death in 1994.
am governed be fear every day of my life. These words are, perhaps, the
most significant of what Heilpern mines from this treasure-trove. They
go a long way in explaining Osborne’s famous explosions of hatred and
his need for loyalty. Heilpern thinks that Osborne’s turbulent
childhood – in which his father defended the weak boy against his
mother’s criticisms – was the basis of this fear, a hell that was
exacerbated by his father’s death from tuberculosis when Osborne was
ten. The question of apportioning blame to Osborne’s mother for her
treatment of him is not an easy matter to resolve. To be fair to her,
the task of raising a child during the hardships of the Depression as
well as looking after a sick husband couldn’t have been easy. To be
fair to Osborne, children often don’t understand the deeper nuances of
family life and first impressions stick.
is on surer ground when he shows what Look Back achieved – it
linked private turmoil to a public view of England. Fear and loathing
– both personal and political – were openly expressed on an English
stage still dominated by emotional understatement and respect for the
establishment. But what was Osborne’s view of England? What were its
origins? Heilpern reminds us that a delight in books was the foundation
of Osborne’s entire education, and that he was a lover of the music
hall tradition which reflected an entire working-class culture that was
on speaking terms with Shakespeare, Kipling, Shaw and the language and
beauty of the King James Bible. But – from his early, drab years –
he also knew of the Englishman’s skill at maiming with indifference.
These remained the reference points of his English (on the subject of
which it’s worth remembering Chesterton’s comment on the English:
‘they are in exile in their own country… torn between love of home
and love of something else… “Over the hills and far away”’).
According to Jimmy Gardner, Osborne’s first chauffeur, the playwright
understood the English and it frightened them. Heilpern quotes Sir
Peregrine Worsthorne’s comment that Osborne was more a member of the
non-party awkward squad than any party whose line had to be followed and
Keith Waterhouse’s view that Osborne began to seem right-wing when the
Establishment moved to the left with all its political correctness.
Heilpern shows that Osborne wasn’t only a patriot for threatened
English values, architecture, customs and liturgy, but also for his own
individualism, outlawed freedom of expression, and personal conflicts.
Heilpern isn’t at ease with anything detracting from the
early-established view of Osborne as an anti-establishment socialist. He
downplays the fact that, despite the success of Look Back,
traditional plays remained firm favourites among theatregoers. He
catalogues Osborne’s early involvement with the left, but underplays
his later rejection in Almost a Gentleman of the Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament (good-hearted adherents… exploited by… born
enemies of their own country). But he clears the playwright over the
other perceived prejudices. Charges of supposed racism and dislike of
homosexuals are nailed by the fact that Osborne made Colonel Redl –
the central character of his play A Patriot For Me – both a Jew
and a homosexual, a double outsider. Osborne didn’t usually come
honourably out of his difficulties with girls, but Heilpern shows that
actress Jill Bennett (wife number four) was a whirlwind of hatred and
physical force. The question of Osborne’s homosexual affair with early
collaborator Anthony Creighton – an assertion made by the latter after
Osborne’s death – is cleared-up (Creighton withdrew his claim).
Despite this year being the 50th anniversary of Look Back, it’s doubtful whether the arts establishment will do much to honour the playwright once described by Jill Bennett as a Welsh Fulham upstart despite its supposed enthusiasm for social inclusion (and what fun Osborne would have had with New Labour and its project). However, to their credit, Channel Five and the BBC have, respectively, shown a three-part documentary on Osborne, and broadcast extracts of Heilpern’s book. Meanwhile, few playwrights seem ready to challenge today’s establishment and the new, unquestioned conventions which (self) censor them far more effectively than the Lord Chamberlain ever did Osborne. Heilpern both refreshes and inspires his readers with the fizz of a better class of person, a patriot for us.