John Osborne: Looking back at the genesis of genius

A revival of John Osborne's long-lost first play shows flashes of the anger that made his name, says Michael Coveney

Almost exactly six years before his Look Back in Anger opened in May 1956 and torpedoed the cultural apathy of British theatre, John Osborne sat holding hands with his married lover in the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield, watching the first performance of his first play, The Devil Inside Him.

This week in Cardiff, the newly formed National Theatre Wales is presenting that play once again, two years after the unpublished manuscript was discovered (having been long presumed lost) in the archives of the Lord Chamberlain, who censored and licensed plays for performance until his office was rubbed out, partly thanks to Osborne, in 1968.

The rediscovery gives a whole new twist to the legend of Jimmy Porter in Look Back, Osborne's voice of scabrous, critical disillusionment. Like Jimmy, Huw Prosser in The Devil Inside Him works in a shop and cries out in deep frustration at being made to live through learning how to hate.

We know how much Osborne loathed his mother, but he was deeply sentimental about his father, who was born in Newport, and who had died when he was just 10. So a Welsh production of Osborne's first play seems fitting: it's set in a small village 40 miles from Swansea.

Huw Prosser is lonely, weird, deformed and writing poetry in a Methodist household reeking of repression: "We are here to resist our impulses," says his father. Huw's bugged, too, by the local vicar, who tries to expel the devil from him.

There's a clear line, therefore, running from Huw to Jimmy via the failed actor/dramatist George Dillon in the play that immediately pre-dates Look Back, Epitaph for George Dillon. In Osborne's case, this struggle to find your voice in an unsympathetic theatre, something all new writers have to go through, is particularly potent.

For The Devil Inside Him belongs firmly in the old weekly rep tradition that Osborne knew as an actor and lowly stage manager – he'd been touring in rep since 1948, when he was just 19 – while also leaning towards the European existentialism of Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre.

There are stock characters, and crude plot developments, but the play is transformed by Osborne's coruscating attack on moralising Christianity and by his hero's assault on the flirtatious local girl who wants to seduce him, framing him as a rapist and father of her unborn child.

His fate sealed, Huw is somehow victorious in defeat: "Before, I could live but I didn't understand. I understand now, but I can't live. Still, most people live all their years and never understand. Perhaps I'm lucky."

Osborne had begun writing the play while on tour in Sunderland; he was a production dogsbody on a tour of No Room at the Inn by Joan Temple. An actress 12 years his senior, Stella Linden, joined the company. They fell in love. The affair was consummated in Llandudno, with Osborne marking the occasion in a pair of yellow poplin pyjamas. Stella's husband, a homosexual producer called Patrick Desmond, promised to produce The Devil Inside Him if Osborne allowed Stella to advise him on the play's structure; she also added a few jokes.

After that one-week run in Huddersfield, the play vanished. And then, in 1962, Desmond produced it once more in Croydon. The play was re-named "Cry for Love" and Osborne, now the most successful playwright in Britain, hid behind a nom de plume, "Robert Owen". One critic hailed Owen as "a dramatist of great potential of whom we ought to be hearing a great deal more in the future."

In Cardiff, the play takes time to get going. But there's a powerful performance from Jamie Ballard as the medical student who sides with Huw, and a physically wired, deeply affecting one from Iwan Rheon as Huw himself. Osborne has, almost literally, come home and started again.



'The Devil Inside Him', to 15 May, New Theatre, Cardiff ( Newtheatrecardiff.co.uk)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    Th Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up