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.
Anyone 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.
I 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.
Heilpern 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.
Arguably, 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.