Fifty years ago next Monday, John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court and, in the view of most commentators, changed the course of British theatre. Although the real theatrical revolution took place the previous year when Waiting for Godot opened at the Arts, there can be no denying Osborne's historical importance, with the play paving the way for a new generation of writers, among them John Arden, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney. The value of Osborne's artistic legacy is, however, more contentious. While his foremost champion, David Hare, believes his work to be undervalued, many others see him as a Johnny One Note, fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time.
John Heilpern clearly stands in the Hare camp and has written an enjoyable, exhaustive, well-researched and highly readable biography, its major fault being that Heilpern's closeness to the material appears to have blinded him to the irredeemable flaws in the man whose portrait he is painting. Acknowledging that Osborne's two volumes of autobiography - in the view of this writer, his finest work - have already provided a full picture of both his childhood and family background, he declares that he has no wish to offer an alternative version. He sticks very closely to Osborne's account, except when suggesting that the persistent sense of loss Osborne felt sprang from the death of his sister when he was far younger than Osborne himself recalled.
Nellie Beatrice, Osborne's barmaid mother, emerges as at once monstrous and pathetic, whether expressing her reluctance to attend her son's Hamlet because she had seen the play before and "he dies in the end" or desperately seeking atonement for her maternal failings. Osborne maintained his implacable hatred of her all his life, publicly declaring in 1983, "A year in which my mother died can't be all bad", and breaking with his friend Eileen Atkins when she dared to portray her sympathetically in the TV dramatisation of the book. He did, however, support her financially, a pattern he followed in other relationships, pecuniary generosity being the only sort he was able to display.
After a brief career as a journalist, he entered the theatre and spent seven years as a jobbing actor, seizing the chance to reinvent himself both on and off the stage. During this period he made the first of his five marriages, to the actress Pamela Lane. For a man whose only advice to the budding dramatist Christopher Hampton was, "Never marry an actress", he proved remarkably willing to break his own rule, since he subsequently married Mary Ure and Jill Bennett. Both his other wives, Penelope Gilliatt and Helen Dawson, were critics, a profession he execrated even more violently, although the later constituted the one exception to a marital record of Strindbergian bleakness.
Heilpern is at pains to dismiss any suggestion that Osborne may have enjoyed a gay relationship with his friend and mentor Anthony Creighton, despite Creighton's own account (which he later retracted). While no one has suggested that Osborne lived a Somerset Maugham-like double life, his sexuality is significant, given the reductive treatment of homosexuality in A Patriot for Me (aptly described by James Fenton as "a nasty piece of work about nasty pieces of work") and the relentless homophobia of A Hotel in Amsterdam. Heilpern's view is contradicted by James Kent's recent TV biography, in which fellow-actors confirmed the two men's relationship. And my own knowledge of Creighton convinces me of his probity.
Heilpern scorns Creighton's attempts to sell Osborne's letters and his request for a small fee in exchange for an interview, yet, in his old age, Creighton was living in penury. The reason that he waited for Osborne's death to expose his hypocrisy was that he remained deeply afraid of Osborne and the forces that he believed he represented. That fear would also have prompted his retraction.
After collaborating with Creighton on An Epitaph for George Dillon, Osborne attained fame and fortune with Look Back in Anger and its successors, The Entertainer, Luther and Inadmissible Evidence. He showed enormous facility, rarely revising a word. His champion, George Devine, put it tellingly: "The problem is, John doesn't write a play. He shits it out - and it just lies there in a great steaming heap."
Osborne emerges from these pages as a deeply unattractive man, whose one saving grace was that "no one despised Osborne more than himself". The reader begins by accepting John Mortimer's characteristically even-handed assessment that he was "an affable, lovely, champagne-drinking man... and an absolute shit", and ends by endorsing Vincent Canby's "I've nothing to say about that bastard". His treatment of his first four wives and his rejection of his only child, Nolan, was callous, brutal and egotistical, and his unconscionable attack on Jill Bennett after her suicide was, in the words of his editor, Robert McCrum, "gratuitously cruel and tasteless and even silly".
Heilpern remarks defensively that good and great artists do not have to be good and great people, a fact that is self-evident. But, among the usual suspects he has listed, it is clear that Osborne alone can be charged with wanton cruelty. Moreover, such a remark raises the question of whether Osborne was a good, let alone a great, artist. On the evidence of recent revivals of the plays, there is no sign they add to the store of human knowledge or even make passable entertainment, let alone illuminate the soul. It is hard not to concur with Nicholas de Jongh's judgement that he was a "distinctly minor league" dramatist.
He did indeed introduce a new voice to the stage, but it was one that was alternately hectoring and wheedling, bilious and sentimental. Angus Wilson's claim that "Osborne's passion saved the English theatre from death through gentility" ignores his lack of any accompanying compassion. By contrast, the once-derided plays of Rodney Ackland and Terence Rattigan, with their repressed passion and hidden anguish, have proved far more successful at standing the test of time.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, in terms of his dramatic legacy, Osborne resembles the Porter in Macbeth, opening the gate with a great deal of bluff and bluster but doomed to vanish after his brief moment centre stage.
Michael Arditti's 'Unity' is published by Maia PressReuse content