Playwrights' Mafia declared war on critics

David Nathan recalls the abuse and invective that punctuated missives f rom the dramatist to his judges
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The Independent Online
John Osborne's relationship with theatre critics was rich in invective and abuse, though even this most sensitive and delicate-natured coterie reacted more with pleasure than fear on receipt of one of his missives.

In 1966 Osborne formed "The British Playwrights' Mafia", which would, henceforth, be in a state of war with critics. Osborne went on to say that he would personally beat up Benedict Nightingale, now critic of the Times but then on New Statesman magazine.

What the playwright actually did was to send him a seaside postcard. On one side was a joke illustrated with children with buckets and spades. The other contained the message: `Safer for your health to stay clear of downtown Chichester. You sing first; Fatso Morley next'."Sheridan Morley received a card from Osborne which declared: "Watch out behind you on dark nights." But it was signed: "Love, Osborne."

John Peter of the Sunday Times was sent a card after he had written a letter to the Guardian following an attack Osborne had made on Bernard Shaw. The critic said he thought Osborne had been shallow and that he had expected more substnatial criticsm fromthe man who had changed the face of English drama. "It was not criticism," wrote Osborne. "It was opinion, you dim Hungarian. I have better things to do than write criticism."

Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail received a "revised hit list" from Osborne which went: (1) Nightingale, Benedict (Mr); (2) De Jongh, Nicholas (Mrs); (3) Tinker, Jack (Miss). But after he wrote an obituary of Tennessee Williams, Tinker received another letter in which Osborne said how moved he had been by his tribute to Williams. The letter began "As you know, I never write to critics . . . "

An article I wrote in the IPC Sun in 1966, 10 years after Look Back In Anger, evidently pleased Osborne, for I received a copy of A Patriot for Me, which had been staged at the Royal Court a year earlier, signed with "Regards". A covering note said he had sent it as "I seem to remember you didn't like A Patriot For Me."

It came the same day as he announced his Playwrights' Mafia and, that evening, I met him in the bar of the Waldorf Astoria shortly before curtain rose at the neighbouring Aldwych Theatre.

"I don't know whether to thank you or defend myself," I said.

"Defend yourself," he said, clearly baffled.

"Your declaration of war on critics," I reminded him.

"Oh, that," he said. "That's just a lark. It creates a bit of excitement."