John Osborne: 'Anger is not About...'

Peter Whitebrook
Oberon Books

John Osborne

As Peter Whitebrook’s thoroughly researched biography of John Osborne so ably demonstrates, the legacy of one of the most significant writers of the 20th century is simultaneously both invigorating and sad.

On the one hand, at the start of his career, the actor turned playwright wrote at least two plays, Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, that are amongst the finest of their era.

On the other, he embraced the high life, not to mention five wives and, it is intimated, numerous lovers reaching the stage before the age of 40 where legendary critic Ken Tynan concluded that the playwright had become “a friendless and mean-spirited man who feeds on hostility and only feels alive when he is hating or hated”.

That is all too accurate and readers may well conclude that John Osborne was a thoroughly nasty piece of work, although he somehow managed to retain a number of friends despite often impossible behaviour.

One of the tragedies of his life was that Osborne would turn on almost anybody whether they loved him, hated him or worked with him, constantly metaphorically stabbing friends and even relatives in the back.

This included a mother who seemed to dote on her young boy, particularly after his father died early. Moving in the opposite generational direction, he also cut off his daughter when she was still a mere teenager, never attempting to reconnect.

With the exception of his last wife Helen, the previous four also suffered horribly at his fickle hands, although the first, Pamela Lane, did eventually become a kind and devoted friend.

Most readers will pick up this book because they want to know about one of the most significant playwrights of the mid-20th century. Overnight, it is generally accepted, Look Back in Anger changed the tone of British theatre forever. While this might be a little bit of an exaggeration, it is not far from the truth.

Sadly, after a handful of really important and entertaining plays at the beginning of his career, perhaps as a result of too great a fondness for alcohol, the trick was never repeated.

This inevitably made a man who was rarely comfortable with himself or others exceedingly better, thus creating a perpetual circle of unhappiness, which eventually drove him very close to insanity.

He was not helped by a tempestuous private life and the ability to spend more money in a year than most of his own lifetime. By the end, his most regular correspondent was probably the taxman, desperate to recover some of the vast sums that were never paid.

Peter Whitebrook has written a readable biography that goes rather further than one might expect, presenting a considerable amount of social history as it analyses the life, work and milieu of perhaps one of the unhappiest playwrights that has lived in modern times.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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