- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007


By John Heilpern

Knopf, $35, 527 pages, illus.


This is a very pleasant book about a very unpleasant man. John Osborne was a playwright of some talent and even more originality, and he certainly had an enormous effect on postwar British theater. Unlike his contemporaries Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, he eschewed the mode of Samuel Beckett, with the result that, for all their newness, Osborne’s plays operated on a clear continuum of recognizably British drama.

His mid-Fifties smash hit, “Look Back In Anger,” identified him early on as one of that decade’s leading Angry Young Men, along with novelists like Kingsley Amis; indeed, his play’s title was absolutely key to the emergence of the phrase that became such a byword for its time. An angry young man Osborne was for sure, on paper and in person. He never lost his anger, which festered throughout his six and a half decades of life, leaving behind four ex-wives and an abandoned only child — and a talent simultaneously nourished and crippled by it.

In addition to his plays, Osborne wrote two of the most arresting autobiographies you could hope to read, and this is a bit of a problem for Mr. Heilpern, a drama critic, journalist and academic whom Osborne’s widow, Helena, designated as the official biographer. As I know from experience, it is a particular burden to write a biography of someone who has done it already and done it well.

In “John Osbourne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man,” Mr. Heilpern deals with it by dubbing Osborne’s autobiographical writings as interpretations, thus feeling free to provide his own more distanced ones, which he does consistently well. He also writes that “Osborne’s bias was my opportunity,” and he has made splendid and productive use of that to the great benefit of all who read this fine biography.

Osborne’s first volume of autobiography, “A Better Class of Person,” is a magnificent portrait of his childhood and family. He portrays a huge variety of Cockney and other relatives in all their eccentric glory, and he marvelously evokes the atmosphere of World War II and the Blitz. The book, however, is dominated by a vicious portrait of the artist’s mother, always referred to simply as Nellie Beatrice, undeniably awful but bearing a marked resemblance to her son. Questioned about it, Osborne denied that “it was a bitter attack. It’s simply a record of my feelings, really at the time. I haven’t gilded it at all in any particular way.”

Perhaps its power did come from successfully reflecting the immediacy of those long-ago feelings, but certainly the son’s hatred endured. He did not speak to her for the last seven years of her life and began an article by saying the year she had died couldn’t be all bad!

Osborne’s second autobiographical book, “Almost A Gentleman,” is almost but not quite as good as its predecessor. Alongside the story of his early struggles and poverty, which were followed by an astonishing burst of success, he hurls vituperation and denunciatory attacks at sundry targets. Perhaps the worst example of this is his divorced fourth wife, actress Jill Bennett, of whom he writes after her suicide:

“I have only one regret now … simply that I was unable to look down upon her open coffin and, like that bird in the Book of Topit, drop a good large mess in her eye.”

Mr. Heilpern’s comment on this is wise as well as apt and shows how he can frame Osborne’s rebarbative but memorable utterings, using the playwright’s notebooks as a jumping off point:

“The unforgiving Osborne who complained bitterly in his 1985 notebook that ‘people are afriad to hate anything’ demanded the right and freedom to hate until, like Hazlitt, he came to hate himself.

“It was truthfully said that no one despised Osborne more than himself. But his late wife surely didn’t deserve his passing, cruel revenge. After all, he had loved her once.

“Let be.”

If anything, what Osborne did to his teenage daughter and only child, Nolan (whose mother was journalist and film critic Penelope Gilliatt, wife number three), makes what he said — or even what he did — to Nellie Beatrice and Jill Bennett pale in comparison. Unable to live with her alcoholic, dysfunctional mother, Nolan came to live with Osborne and his fifth wife, journalist and editor Helena Dawson, the only one of his wives with whom he found enduring happiness.

All went quite smoothly for a time, but when his daughter displayed some typical adolescent behavior, nothing spectacular or even remarkable, Osborne reacted unforgivingly — literally. He turfed her out of the house at 16 and never spoke to her again, even when they bumped into each other on a London street.

It is to Mr. Heilpern’s credit that he does not give in to the temptation to let Osborne’s overarching character overwhelm the plays that are, after all, Osborne’s claim to fame. Not only does he succeed in his “declared intention to reclaim the place of ‘Look Back In Anger’ in British history from recent revisionists who would have us believe that its impact was somehow minor or even negligible,” but he gives due attention to the other triumphs, flawed masterpieces and downright disasters that comprised Osborne’s career.

He is interesting on the puzzling, contradictory aspects of the playwright’s politics on and off stage. Hard to characterize according to any conventional left-right axis, Osborne was at once dedicated iconoclast and scourge of all authority and institutions and at the same time right-wing curmudgeon and defender of standards in language, society and culture.

Osborne’s last book, posthumously published, had a title absolutely characteristic of him: “Damn You England.” He never lost his edge, but it cut him, those around him and ultimately his talent into bloody shreds. All this was a personal tragedy for him and for those others hurt and damaged by him.

That his anger could not in the end continue to spur the great stage dramas of which I believe he should have been capable, judging by such early efforts as “Look Back In Anger” and “Luther,” was a tragic loss for the theater. By exploring Osborne, his life and works in such detail and with such unflinching perspicacity, John Heilpern has reminded us of Osborne’s centrality to British drama and has also given us a memorable portrait of an appalling but fascinating character.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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