Compiled by E. Sue Terhune
John James Osborne was born Dec. 12, 1929 in London, England, the son of Thomas Osborne, an advertising copywriter in London and Nellie Beatrice, a barmaid. Osborne used insurance money from his father's death in 1941 for a boarding school education at Belmont College, Devon. He hated it and left after striking the headmaster. He went home to his mother in London and briefly tried trade journalism until a job tutoring a touring company of juvenile actors introduced him to the theatre. He was soon acting himself, later becoming an actor-manager for various repertory companies in provincial towns and also trying his hand at playwriting. Osborne achieved note for his skill in providing actable roles. He is also significant for restoring the tirade--or passionately scathing speech--to a high place among dramatic elements. Most significantly, however, he reoriented British drama from well-made plays depicting upper-class life to vigorously realistic drama of contemporary life.
Osborne made his first appearance as a London actor in 1956, the same year that Look Back in Anger was produced by the English Stage Company. On stage for the first time were the 20- to 30-year-olds of Great Britain who had not participated in World War II and found its aftermath shabby and lacking in promise.
His Look Back in Anger (1956), about a restless young working-class man at war with himself and society, became the seminal work of the so-called angry young men, a group of rebellious English writers of the 1950s. In 1958 Osborne and director Tony Richardson founded Woodfall Film Productions, which produced motion pictures of Look Back in Anger (1959), The Entertainer (1959), and, from a film script by Osborne that won an Academy Award, Tom Jones (1963), based on the novel by Henry Fielding.
May 8, John Osborne wrote, "is the one unforgettable feast in my calendar. "It was the birthday of the playwright's beloved father Thomas, whose early, lonely death would scar young John for life. On May 8, 1956, in London, Osborne's play Look Back in Anger had its premiere - a seismic shock that seemed to signal the birth of a new urgency and the death of the reigning 'theatrical gentility'. With Look Back in Anger, the 26-year-old actor-author, who never went to university and who, only a year before, was playing callow Freddy Eynsford Hill in a road-company Pygmalion, forever changed the face of theater. From Anger on, no sexual or social rancor was off limits. Nobody had to behave. Graduates and stars of the Royal Court Theatre,1969. Standing (left to right): David Cregan, playwright; Jack Shephard, actor; Sir Laurence Olivier; Anthony Page; John Osborne. Seated: Christopher Hampton, resident dramatist; Joan Plowright; Peter Gill, Jill Bennett, Victor Henry (Jimmy Porter in the revival of Look Back in Anger), Edward Bond. On Floor: Kenneth Haigh, the original Jimmy Porter.
Peter Gill production photo
Like many a first work, Look Back in Anger is a memory play - a self-portrait of the artist as an angry young man. Its most wrenching speech, about seeing a loved one die, is a replay of Osborne's witnessing the death of his father. Jimmy's gibes attack the mediocrity of lower-middle-class English life personified by his mother, Nellie Beatrice, whom he hated. Madeline, the lost love Jimmy pines for, is based on Stella Linden, a rep-company actress who first encouraged Osborne to write. At 21 he married actress Pamela Lane, whom he transformed with little rouge or camouflage into Alison. Pamela was the first of Osborne's five wives, who included actress Mary Ure (the original Alison in Anger) and writer Penelope Gilliatt. All but the last of his marriages (to journalist Helen Dawson) were the stuff of sour melodrama. He gave his third wife, actress Jill Bennett, the nickname Adolf for her "common and strident" ways, wrote that onstage she sounded "like a puppy with a mouthful of lavatory paper," and openly rejoiced at her suicide.
In his life Osborne inflicted pain on those close to him, perhaps himself most of all. He died Dec. 24, 1994, at age 65, of diabetes and other complaints in Shropshire, England.
Obituary: TIME Domestic, January 9, 1995 Volume 145, No. 2, By Richard Corliss.