John James Osborne was born in London on December 12, 1929 to Thomas Godfrey, a Welsh commercial artist, and Nellie Beatrice, a Cockney barmaid. He loved his father deeply, but felt great disdain for his mother. He blamed her lower-class roots as part of his inability to succeed. When his father died in 1941, John was determined to get away from his mother, so he used his inheritance to attend boarding school at Belmont College in Devon. He soon became unhappy there, as well; after striking the headmaster, he left and moved back in with his mother. He soon began tutoring children in a touring theatre company, where he discovered his passion for the theatre. He began acting, worked as an actor-manager, and then tried his hand at playwriting.
Osborne wrote what he knew—the plight of being young, educated, and filled with contempt for the disappointing results of welfare reform, unfair class structure, and living in the harsh aftermath of World War II while being too young to have participated in it. He expressed his anger toward his mother, wives, and even children in his writing. In Look Back in Anger, he voices his complaints through the character of Jimmy Porter but does not propose any solution for these frustrations. This play was particularly based on his turbulent marriage to Pamela Lane, to whom he was married at the time he wrote it (and whom he left to marry Mary Ure, ironically, the actress playing Alison). In total, John Osborne experienced four troubled marriages before entering into his fifth, final and only happy marriage to Helen Dawson.
Look Back in Anger received a wide range of reviews when it was first produced: some berated it for its vulgarity and lack of polish; others praised it for its exciting, new, and unique voice. He wrote many plays concerning these unfortunate and volatile characters and even revisited the iconic Jimmy in his last play, Déjà Vu, in 1992. He died of diabetes on December 24, 1994 at the age of 65.
Osborne’s Look Back in Anger blew the roof off of the norm. The prevailing theatre in England in the 1950s was the “well-made play,” exemplified by Terence Rattigan (whose Man and Boy opened our season at Roundabout). These plays were comfortable, conventional, and careful plays about the upper middle class. Osborne led a generation of young playwrights writing gritty, shocking, and honest plays about their disaffected generation; these were known as “kitchen sink dramas” for their brutally honest portrayal of the harshness of reality. A press agent of the Royal Court Theatre referred to Osborne as an “angry young man,” and that became the moniker for the type of anti-heroes he and his contemporaries wrote about. These angry young men were a new niche in society: intellectuals educated at universities, but unemployed and unable to gain upward mobility because of their lower-class roots. With the emergence of this new class of people came this new breed of plays.
Osborne’s plays were always controversial; the government censored many of his shows by forcing scenes to be eliminated and shutting some productions down entirely. Finally, with A Patriot for Me, a play based on a true scandal involving a British spy, Osborne helped to end censorship that had been imposed by Lord Chamberlain. Osborne truly changed the theatrical landscape and is one of the most important British playwrights of the 20th century.
Look Back in Anger is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre January 13, 2012 through April 8, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Look Back in Anger, Upstage