John Osborne by Reginald Gray 1957 Image source Wikimedia Commons
John Osborne's family background and early life is described in a separate piece, The Osbornes of Stoneleigh and Ewell. This article deals with his life and career after he left home.
According to theatre critic John Lahr, Osborne called his fourth wife, actress Jill Bennett, Adolf and, after her suicide in 1990, he apparently said, 'I have only one regret now in this matter of Adolf. It is simply that I was unable to look down upon her open coffin and, like the bird in the Book of Tobit, drop a good large mess in her eye'. We will come to the relationship between Osborne and Bennett in due course, but one would imagine his difficult relationships with women and the anger that poured forth in his work had a lot to do with his mother, Nellie.
Mr Lahr says in his February 2012 article for The New Yorker that Nellie 'rained withering contempt on her son throughout their arid life together, attacking him for his timidity, his spindly looks, his bed-wetting, his aspiration to better himself'.
Early adult life/career
John's education in Devon, which had ended abruptly, meant that he had only the School Certificate as a qualification (this was a standard certificate covering basic subjects, which preceded the introduction of GCEs), so there was no question of university or the professions. Instead, he had an unsuccessful try at trade journalism (some of the riveting titles he worked on were Gas World, Nursery World and The Miller) and then became involved with acting and stage management, joining a second-rate provincial touring company. Whilst there he met actress Stella Linden (1919-2005), who began helping him to write plays. The company toured Britain, moving to cheap digs each week, and the pair became lovers. In 1948 she married actor/manager Patrick Desmond, who was gay, which left Stella scope to continue her affair with Osborne. By 1949 they had moved into a Brighton flat, owned by Patrick, and stayed there for about a year: this was the basement flat (7A) at Arundel Lodge, Arundel Terrace, on the seafront (the actor Robert Flemyng lived upstairs).
They did manage to obtain a limited amount of acting work to earn a living while they worked on plays, but eventually Stella left for a job in Kendal while Osborne, who was not eligible for the dole owing to inadequate National Insurance contributions, did washing-up and waiting to make ends meet. From Friday to Sunday he usually went to stay with his mother.
Osborne was a huge fan of the comedian Max Miller, who was born, lived and died in Brighton and this is quite telling, since in his day Miller was risqué and outrageous, always a candidate for trouble from the censors - he might have been a template for Osborne himself.
The touring company was run by Anthony Creighton, who became his co-writer (of two early plays), friend and house-mate for a time. (Creighton was homosexual and after Osborne died he claimed that they had been in a relationship - a claim that he subsequently retracted. Osborne himself said that he had had no homosexual relationships but thought that he was probably about 20% gay).
In 1951 Osborne married actress Pamela Elizabeth Lane. At one point they lived in Derby and it seems that she was having an affair with a dentist. He might well have had affairs too, since he was not noted for marital fidelity, but in any event they split up in 1954 and were divorced in 1957. He used the experiences of his marriage to Pamela in his first solo play, Look Back in Anger (1956), which was written in a deckchair at Morecambe in just over a fortnight.
Look Back in Anger is probably the earliest well-known example of what was known as 'kitchen sink' drama. Older readers will know all about this, so if you were already in or nearly in senior school in the mid-to-late 1950s you can skip this section, but for younger readers I will just explain. I suppose that immediately post-WW2 the stereotypical British drama was in the Brief Encounter mould: this was made before I was born and when I finally saw it I thought it was utterly dated and unrealistic. I have watched it a couple of times since, trying to understand why it is so revered, and I don't really get it, which is because of when I was born and what life was actually like in my youth. The film involved two middle-class, respectable people who spoke very nicely, acted in a very mannered way and did the painfully right thing when they became involved in an illicit affair: it was based on a Noel Coward play, so it was terribly terribly British. However, the reality of post-war working-class Britain was that a generation of young men had been demobbed without a job to come home to, money was painfully tight, accommodation was near to primitive in today's terms and another generation - Osborne's generation - had reached adulthood soon after the war. And in 1945 the electorate had kicked over the traces, snubbing Winston Churchill and putting a Labour Government into office. Rationing of food and other essential goods rumbled on for some years. This was a fertile ground for young writers and the mid-to- late 1950s saw the birth of 'kitchen sink', or realism, other examples being A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and, on television, Coronation Street (from 1960). Although 'Corrie' today is very different from what it was at the beginning, at that time it was indisputably 'kitchen sink', - and all in grubby, grainy black and white. This resonated with me and very many others.
Generally, Look Back in Anger, staged at the Royal Court Theatre and directed by Tony Richardson, was panned but two influential critics, Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, praised it to the skies: it became a success on Broadway and was filmed in 1958. In the meantime Osborne had married Mary Ure, who was the female lead in the stage productions and also starred in the film. The marriage would be a short-lived disaster.
Osborne then wrote The Entertainer, the tale of an ageing stand-up comedian, which starred Laurence Olivier, then entering his 50s. Olivier was brilliant in this - and in the subsequent film - but if there is one thing you can say about Osborne's plays it is that they are not entertaining, although they were/are thought-provoking, dramatic and filled with good lines.
Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer. Image source: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts / Billy Rose Theatre Division, ID 1036833
We cannot deal with all of Osborne's plays here - and their quality deteriorated eventually - so we shall concentrate on the most celebrated. After a dud musical called The World of Paul Slickey (which was literally booed off the stage, particularly by Noel Coward and John Gielgud) Osborne produced a tour de force - Luther: this even became a set text for GCE A level, so I knew it quite well at one time, and hated it. As I said earlier, Osborne didn't do 'entertainment' - this one was interesting as an object of study and also powerful, but vulgar in places and not at all enjoyable. Still, it was successful and the Broadway production won a Tony Award for Best Play of 1964. That was also the year in which Inadmissible Evidence, starring Nicol Williamson, hit the stage, followed in 1965 by A Patriot For Me, which ran into trouble with the Lord Chamberlain's office and was denied a performance licence. The Royal Court Theatre had to change itself into a private members' club to put it on and lost a lot of money. The sticking point for the censor was a 'drag ball', which seems pretty tame stuff nowadays, but in 1965 it would have sent many people running for the smelling salts. In fact, the whole play was about homosexuality and it was just a fraction before its time because in 1968 the Lord Chamberlain's censorship powers were abolished and a play about gay men - The Boys in the Band - opened in New York; despite shocking some people, it was a great success.
Whilst Osborne's plays were bringing him fame and fortune his personal life had been an unmitigated car crash. It seems that he had had many affairs in the early years of his marriage to Mary Ure and in 1959 she embarked on a relationship with actor Robert Shaw and had a son by him; she then divorced Osborne and married Shaw in 1963. She committed suicide in 1975, aged 42.
In 1963 Osborne married writer Penelope Gilliatt (nee Conner), who is probably best remembered for the novel Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which was turned into an award-winning film starring Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson. Penelope was the mother of Osborne's daughter, Nolan.
Needless to say, Osborne tired of Penelope and she also had a drink problem; they were eventually divorced, whereupon, in 1968, Osborne married his mistress, actress Jill Bennett. If his preceding marriages constituted car crashes, then this one was a two-bus head-on collision. It wasn't long before she described him publicly as impotent and homosexual and he was vitriolic about her. The inevitable divorce happened in 1977 and Bennett killed herself in 1990, aged 58.
Still from a trailer for The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968, showing Jill Bennett. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
And finally, in 1978, there was a fifth Mrs Osborne - journalist Helen Dawson (died 2004), who seemed to suit him rather better than her predecessors.
Osborne scripted some notable films; he collaborated closely with Tony Richardson, who had directed Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. They fell out in due course but not before Osborne had won an Oscar for the script of Tom Jones (starring Albert Finney, who would also play the lead role in the London production of Luther); he also wrote the screenplay for Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade. Oddly enough, both Osborne and one of the film's stars, David Hemmings, named an offspring after Hemmings' character, Nolan (a boy in Hemmings' case).
I think it fair to say that Osborne's heyday was behind him by the end of the 1960s/early 1970s; there were other plays, he adapted some classics and wrote for television, but he never reached the heights again. According to his biographer, John Heilpern, in The Guardian of 29 April 2006 this had multiple causes, such as his toxic marriage to Jill Bennett, alcohol and its effects, debts and a drastic decline in his abilities; additionally, a new generation of playwrights, such as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and David Hare, had come to the fore: the dramatic world had moved on (not necessarily for the better in the case of Pinter, highly rated though he is). Osborne's stage career culminated in a play called A Sense of Detachment (1972), which was regarded by many as pornographic. In his Guardian article Mr Heilpern told a wonderful story of how Rachel Kempson, wife of Sir Michael Redgrave, was delighted to get the unusual part (for her) of an old lady who loves pornography and shows it to the audience; her lines were very explicit and apparently one theatregoer was moved to exclaim, 'Oh Lady Redgrave - how could you.' And once she leapt from the stage to attack two hecklers in the audience. The Times of 24 January 1973 reported that she 'said the two young men who had been barracking had spoilt her important speech and destroyed a love scene that followed it. After she pulled their hair and hit one of them on the face, one left. She did not regret what she had done'. Oh, Lady Redgrave, how could you! The critic Irving Wardle, reviewing A Sense of Detachment in The Times of 5 December 1972, made two very interesting observations. Firstly he said, ' The feeling is that Osborne, having set himself the task of covering the two-hour distance, found himself sinking into the bog of platitude at every step. So he remains on the farther shore of the first page; with a cast of unnamed, unlocalised figures inhabiting an eventless limbo where the writer has not yet run the risk of making mistakes by sketching a character or a situation with consequences'. He followed this with 'Alternatively, you might look at the piece as a terminal point of Osborne's derision, which has now spread from the world outside to the theatrical process itself. Everything has been done; everything is boring, except perhaps memories of old times and good prose; and nothing new is worth doing for those fools out front anyway.' An actor who was in the play recalled, in The Times of 28 May 2002, that it had no plot whatsoever and the audience 'threw things - programmes, coins, Pontefract cakes, boots (from the gallery), umbrellas - in fact anything that was handy'. Perversely, critic Harold Hobson praised the piece, which resulted in queues for tickets and an extension to the run - not, one feels, because of its merits as a play but because of the furore it had caused. I expect we would all have paid a pretty penny to see Lady Redgrave 'handbagging' the audience (yes, apparently she did use a handbag in the assault).
Everyone always had opinions about Osborne's plays - you could not be indifferent.
A Sense of Detachment was not the last of Osborne's works to be staged but it was probably the final coffin nail.