John James Osborne (1929-1994)

John James Osborne was born in 1929 in a suburb of London. He lived there until the beginning of World War II. He was educated in a boarding school in the west of England. At 16 he left school for journalism. Then, quite by chance he became an actor and worked in different provincial theatres. At the beginning of the 1950’s he was invited to play in London’s English Stage Company.

In 1956 he became a playwright. Since then Osborne has written over fifteen plays, such as “The Entertainer” (1957), “The World of Paul Slickey” (1959). These plays describe the laws and traditions of the British capitalist society.

In 1956 the Royal Court Theatre was established in London. It was greatly interested in performing new plays, because it was the first theatre with a permanent company of actors, the English Stage Company. Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” was staged in the Royal Court Theatre on 8 May, 1956. The author introduced a new kind of drama, a psychological play-monologue. The play reflects the life of the postwar youth with special emphasis on the new intelligentsia, the representatives of “Angry Young Men”. They get a university education, but can’t find their proper place in society.

People with their beliefs and disbeliefs, their desires and thoughts are in the centre of the play. The main characters are Jimmy Porter, Cliff Lewis, Alison Porter, Helena Charles. Jimmy, the central one, “is a tall, thin young man about twenty-five; wearing a very worn tweed jacket and flannels. […] He is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. […] To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others he is simply a loudmouth.” (Act I).

In fact, the plot of the play is of no importance at all. It is one of Osborne’s new devices in dramatic art. “Look Back in Anger” is a play in which the personal theme of Jimmy Porter stands above action. He is a graduate of a second-rate university, and he is dissatisfied with his life, and rebels. The events take place in the Porters’ one-room flat in a large Midland town. It is “a fairly large attic room, at the top of a large Victorian house”, where there is “a dark oak dressing table. Most of the furniture is simple, and rather old, […] the bed, a heavy chest of drawers, covered with books, […] a small wardrobe. […] Below the wardrobe is a gas stove, and, beside this, a wooden food cupboard, […] two deep, shabby leather armchairs.” Jimmy is sitting in an armchair reading a paper; Alison, his wife, is ironing in the middle of the room. Thus the picture is ordinary, and quite familiar. The action of the play can hardly be called action, for there is very little of it. There are many Jimmy’s monologues in the play, revealing his attitude to life. Jimmy’s speeches are full of irritation; his anger takes the form of swearing and shout:

“— God, how I hate Sundays! It’s always so depressing, always the same. We never seem to get any further, do we? Always the same ritual. Reading the papers, drinking tea, ironing. A few more hours, and another week gone. Our youth is slipping away. […]

Let’s pretend that we’re human beings, and that we’re actually alive. […]

[…] Oh, brother, it’s such a long time since I was with anyone who got enthusiastic about anything. […]

Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm. Just another Sunday evening. […]”

Jimmy’s speeches disclose the development of the main idea which permeates the whole play. Jimmy hates the established order of things, but his anger is nihilistic and uncertain which only comprises his weakness. His retreat into his own inner world, however, makes him a self-pitying egoist. Jimmy protests against religion, against H-bomb, but achieves nothing. His anger is meaningless. His bitterness and cruelty come from his demand for recognition. That is why much of his anger is turned against Alison, his wife. His life becomes a continuous attack on Alison because of their misunderstanding. As a result, he ruins their love, and she leaves him.

Alison’s friend, Helena, appears to be fascinated by Jimmy. But with Helena life seems to take a very similar pattern.

Nevertheless, at the end of the play Alison returns to Jimmy. They are together again. They invent an amusing game: he is a bear, she is a squirrel. It helps them to escape from reality into their own lonely world.

In his latter years, Osborne published two volumes of autobiography, “A Better Class of Person” (1981) and “Almost a Gentleman” (1991).

After a serious liver crisis in 1987, Osborne became a diabetic, injecting twice a day. He died from complications from his diabetes at the age of 65 at his home in Clunton, near Craven Arms, Shropshire. He is buried in St George’s churchyard, Clun, Shropshire alongside his last wife, the critic Helen Dawson, who died in 2004.

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