Next month, Epitaph for George Dillon by Anthony Creighton and John Osborne - written before but produced after Osborne's leap to celebrity with Look Back in Anger in 1956 - is to be given a West End revival, at the Comedy Theatre. Peter Gill directs and Joseph Fiennes will be in the title role.
Anthony Creighton has been reduced to mere footnote status in the history of post-war British theatre, but more light will be shed on his shadowy figure when, next year, John Heilpern's authorised biography of John Osborne - with whose life and career Creighton in the 1950s was inextricably linked - is finally published. With access to Osborne's papers and the letters he wrote to Creighton, Heilpern will, perhaps, resolve the truth of their relationship.
Creighton could have a caustic tongue but he came nowhere near Osborne's capacity for venomous spleen. In his autobiography, along with vicious hatchet-jobs on various wives and collaborators, Osborne contemptuously dismissed Creighton as "a cadging homosexual drunk"; undeniably for a period after their time together Creighton did have a problem with alcohol (later conquered) but during Osborne's lifetime he remained publicly silent about their friendship.
Only in 1995 - coinciding with a posthumous revival of A Patriot for Me, Osborne's epic, once-banned play of the Franz Joseph empire era centred round the closeted gay (and duplicitous) Colonel Redl - did he state in an engrossing interview with the critic Nicholas de Jongh that his involvement with Osborne had been "a love affair - a good, mutually supportive and enduring relationship", although later, in a 2002 television documentary, he puzzlingly seemed to contradict his previous remarks.
Osborne's fifth wife and fiercely protective widow, the former Observer journalist Helen Dawson, vigorously rebutted Creighton's claim ("utter tosh"). His first wife, the actress Pamela Lane - who for a time in the 1950s shared a flat with both men - felt that Osborne surely would have told her (although some argue that, given the degree of self-loathing and the violent repudiation of gay sensibilities often revealed in his work, suggestive of at least some denial, that is perhaps not so certain).
The extracts revealed to date from Osborne's letters to Creighton, frequently written when both men were acting separately in the often unlovely circumstances of provincial repertory in a bleak age of austerity - with Osborne sometimes sending remittances when he was employed and Creighton was not - are full of concern and an unexpectedly open, palpable tenderness (he often calls Creighton his "Mouse": shades of Jimmy Porter's "squirrels and bears" in Look Back in Anger). His fellow dramatist Richard Harris, living for a time on a houseboat on the Thames at Chiswick adjacent to The Egret shared by Creighton and Osborne - Creighton, on occasion unaccountably wearing a kilt, would visit Harris's boat for company after Osborne's solo success with Look Back - and forced to overhear some explosive rows, formed the impression that they were, indeed, a "couple".
Whatever is finally revealed, even what is known so far and the tone of the letters quoted from to date ("My love for you is deeper than I could ever start to tell you to your face. It is so strong and indestructible"), will inevitably bring into question the second assertion of Osborne's grandiloquent 1964 claim that he had been blessedly granted "two of God's greatest gifts: to be born English and heterosexual". ("Damn You, England", his splenetic diatribe written to his compatriots in 1961, had already made the first blessing a compromised claim.) Creighton certainly emerges as much more than a sad loser of a supporting figure as, say, Kenneth Halliwell became to Joe Orton.
Little can be established with any certainty of Creighton's very early life. Born in Swansea in 1922, he was raised by his always-loving mother, Elsie, after her husband deserted her soon after Anthony's birth, often with little money even when she managed to settle in Essex near Saffron Walden as an antique dealer. Elsie inadvertently provided her 12-year-old son with a neo-Damascene experience when she took him to see the legendary 1934 Hamlet at the New Theatre with John Gielgud and his recently formed innovatory ensemble.
Hooked on theatre and set on an actor's career, Creighton lived for a period in adolescence in Canada, studying at Merrill University in Montreal before wartime service (clearly of some bravery - he was awarded a DFC) with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His theatrical ambitions were partly satisfied by performances in shows, mainly revues, for RAF ground station personnel.
Following demobilisation Creighton trained at Rada and then played a season at Barnstaple before setting up, with financial help from his mother, the touring Saga Group which travelled round England's south-west with a repertoire of mainly small-cast rep standbys including Terence Rattigan's Flare Path and Emlyn Williams's Night Must Fall. It was when Saga moved to Sidmouth that Osborne, then a rep actor with dreams of becoming a dramatist, joined the company; he and Creighton moved to The Egret in Chiswick when Saga based itself at Hayling Island in Hampshire.
Their first collaboration was on Personal Enemy (unpublished), a fiercely felt piece set in McCarthyite America, produced in 1955 at Harrogate Opera House. When the team submitted Epitaph for George Dillon (written in 1955) to the same theatre it was rejected, largely because of its awkwardly confusing flashback structure which was subsequently totally revised. The play was finally produced at Look Back in Anger's home, the Royal Court, in 1958, directed by William Gaskill, with Robert Stephens - who rejected suggestions of Osborne's bisexuality, claiming with some understandable admiration that during his second marriage to Mary Ure Osborne had a mistress ensconced round the corner "and a courtesan at the Savoy Hotel" - giving an unforgettably charismatic performance as the eponymous flawed charmer.
Set in suburban London, the play gives an accurately grisly picture of middle-class England seemingly set in the aspic of a grey post-war narrowness. George Dillon is an unsuccessful actor and aspiring playwright taken in by the Elliot family, to the mother of whom he becomes a surrogate for the son she lost in the Second World War, sponging off the family by exploiting a spurious showbiz glamour and seducing the daughter. The play's other major creation is Ruth, Mrs Elliot's divorced sister, who sees through Dillon by challenging him to prove himself as a creative artist rather than denouncing a society which refuses to recognise his talent. She and Dillon have a superb scene crackling with emotional electricity, as she intuits that his tirades against bourgeois values mask a revulsion at his own failure.
The play did strong Royal Court business but ran for only six weeks on transfer (entitled simply George Dillon) to the Comedy Theatre. It had ill luck in New York (John Golden Theatre, 1958) when Stephens repeated his mesmeric performance of a complex, paradoxical character. Produced by the monstre sacré David Merrick, it undoubtedly suffered from an Osborne surfeit on Broadway (both Look Back and The Entertainer had been recently seen) and the New York Times review was cool. Merrick wanted to close at once but Marlene Dietrich, who had seen it with Noël Coward (with brisk accuracy he pinpointed its main flaw - "weak second act") and had been much taken by Stephens, warned Merrick, then pursuing her to repeat her Frenchy in a planned Broadway musical of her film Destry Rides Again, that she could not work for "a man who closes George Dillon". Merrick kept it open (Dietrich still never signed for the show) but the run was disappointing.
As Osborne's marriage to Mary Ure collapsed as he began his affair with Penelope Gilliatt, the friendship between him and Creighton slowly faded. With Bernard Miller, Creighton wrote Tomorrow with Pictures (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1961) but the play had a sticky first night and failed critically and at the box office. He wrote no produced work subsequently but taught drama - by several accounts he was an astringent but often helpful teacher - at various London adult education establishments.
The former friends and collaborators met on one last occasion in 1994, at Osborne's country home shortly before his death, to discuss George Dillon royalties. Osborne, by then diagnosed as diabetic but heavily drinking, was reduced to a near-incoherent shadow of his former high-voltage personality; nevertheless Creighton said of that melancholy visit only that he would prefer to remember the impecuniously happier times of the 1950s. "I look back on Osborne with love."
Alan StrachanReuse content