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John Osborne
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John OsborneJohn Osborne

A lifelong satirist of prigs and puritans

by David Hare

Reprinted from his speech at the memorial service for John Osborne in June 1995

I've an idea. Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say? Let's pretend we're human.'

It took the author's sudden death last Christmas and his burial in a Shropshire churchyard, just a few miles from the blissful house he shared with his beloved Helen, to wake his own country into some kind of just appreciation of what they had lost. It is impossible to speak of John without using the word 'England'. He had, in some sense, made the word his own. Yet it is no secret that latterly John had imagined the local eclipse of fashion that is inevitable in his profession to be sharper and more hurtful than ever before.

However, in the flood of heartfelt and often guilty appreciation which followed on his death, he would have been astonished to see publicly acknowledged what he most surely knew all along: that the world is full of people who feel strangely rebuked by those who dare to live far freer, more fearless, even more reckless lives than the ones we are able to lead ourselves. Of all human freedoms the most contentious is the freedom not to fear what people will think of you. It still shocks people when you claim the right to hate with the same openness with which you love. But even the stage carpenter at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, who liked regularly to greet the visit of each of John's plays with the words 'Oh, blimey, not you again', would have admitted that the man who wrote 'Don't be afraid of being emotional. You won't die of it' had all along been possessed of an enviable courage.

'It's deep honesty which distinguishes a gentleman,' he wrote on one occasion. 'He knows how to revel in life and have no expectations — and fear death at all times.' On another: 'I have been upbraided constantly for a crude, almost animal inability to dissemble.' Or, as his mother, the famous Nellie Beatrice, put it after watching him act: 'Well, he certainly puts a lot into it. Poor kid.'

Central to any understanding of John's life — five marriages, 21 stage plays and more flash clothes than anyone can count — is the striking disparity between his popular reputation as a snarling malcontent, the founding member of the Viper Gang Club, and the generous, free-spirited man that most of us in this church knew and loved. What he called his 'beholden duty to kick against the pricks' concealed from public view a man whom we all adored as an incomparable host, an endlessly witty and caring friend and one of the best prospects for gossip and enchantment I have ever met in my life.

He had, in Dirk Bogarde's happy phrase, a matchless gift for 'uncluttered friendship'. His postcards alone were worth living for. To a man writing from America to ask him the meaning of life, his typically courteous reply ran, in whole: Wish I could help you with the meaning of life. J.O.' To me, a colleague consoling him on some routine professional humiliation, he wrote from his beautiful home: 'Never mind. I lift my eyes to the blue remembered hills, and they call back: "Shove off".' To an Australian student, astonished to get an answer to his card saying he wanted to be a playwright: All I can say is trust your own judgement. Don't be discouraged by anyone. The only ally you will have is yourself

It is hardly surprising that right until the end of his life students and young people continued to write to him. The whole world knew that it was John who established the idea that it would be to the stage that people would look for some sort of recognisable portrait of their own lives. It would not be from this country's then weedy novels, nor from its still shallow and mendacious journalism that people would expect strong feeling or strong intelligence, but from its often clumsy, untutored living theatre. Free from the highbrow pieties of the university on one side, and from the crassness of what came to be called the media on the other, the theatre alone could celebrate John's approved qualities of joy and curiosity. It could also affront his deadly enemy, opinion.

And for many years, ridiculously, this central claim of John's, his ruling belief in the theatre's unique eloquence held and kept its authority. 'On that stage,' he said, of the little space behind the proscenium arch at the Royal Court Theatre, 'you can do anything.' John knocked down the door and a whole generation of playwrights came piling through, many of them not even acknowledging him as they came, and a good half of them not noticing that the vibrant tone of indignation they could not wait to imitate was, in John's case, achieved only through an equally formidable measure of literary skill.

John was too sensible a man to make extravagant claims for what he achieved. He knew better than anyone that the so-called revolution attributed to him was on the surface only. The counter-revolutionary enemy was waiting, preparing to send relentless waves of boulevard comedies, stupid thrillers and life-threatening musicals over the top, in order to ensure that the authenticity and originality of John's work would remain the exception rather than the rule. Nobody understood the tackiness of the theatre better than John. After all, he had played Hamlet on Hayling Island, not so much, he said, as the Prince of Denmark, as more like a leering milkman from Denmark Hill. Yet behind him there remains the true legend of a man who for some brief period burnished the theatre's reputation with the dazzle of his rhetoric.

'I love him.' he wrote of Max Miller, 'because he embodied a kind of theatre I admire most. "Mary from the Dairy" was an overture to the danger that [Max] might go too far. Whenever anyone tells me that a scene or a line in a play of mine goes too far in some way then I know my instinct has been functioning as it should. When such people tell you that a particular passage makes the audience uneasy or restless, then they seem (to me) as cautious and absurd as landladies and girls-who-won't.'

There is in everything John writes a love for the texture of real life, a reminder of real pleasures and real pains. 'I never,' he wrote in what I once claimed was his most characteristic statement, 'had lunch in Brighton without wanting to take a woman to bed in the afternoon.' When he heard that my own theatre company, Joint Stock, had gone on a mass outing to Epsom races to research a play about Derby Day, his scorn was terrifying. He said that when he was a young actor everybody he knew went to the Derby anyway, to enjoy it, not to bloody well research it.

It is fashionably said of John's work that he experienced a decline in the last 20 years of his life. There was nothing he resented more in later years than being asked what he was writing at the moment. Nobody, he said, asked an accountant whose accounts they were doing at the moment. Nor indeed did they ask, 'Done any accounting lately?' As he himself remarked, it is invariably those who have detested or distrusted your work from the outset who complain most vehemently of their sense of betrayed disappointment at your subsequent efforts.

Yet in making this familiar observation critics ignore or take for granted the two outstanding volumes of autobiography, which prove — if proof were needed — that his celebrated gift for analysing the short-comings of others was as nothing to his forensic capacity for making comedy from his own failings. If he could be hard on others, he could be almost religiously brutal on himself. They also omit to mention what it was John declined from: a ten-year period, the last ten years of his great friend George Devine's life, in which he wrote Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, A Patriot for Me, Luther and Inadmissible Evidence. Oh, yes, John Osborne declined. He declined in the sense that an unparalleled, mid-century period of dramatic brilliance remains precisely that. Unparalleled.

A real pro is a real man, all he needs is an old backcloth behind him and he can hold them on his own for half an hour. He's like the general run of people, only he's a lot more like them than they are themselves, if you understand me.'

The words are Billy Rice's, and yet they apply as much to John — more like us than we are ourselves, if you understand me — as to any music-hall comedian.

'Oh, heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm — that's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out "Hallelujah! Hallelujah. I'm alive!"'

It is, if you like, the final irony that John's governing love was for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get labelled cold. If they are emotional, they get labelled stupid. Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John's case, a person is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing and bolt the back door.

John Osborne devoted his life to trying to forge some sort of connection between the acuteness of his mind and the extraordinary power of his heart. 'To be tentative was beyond me. It usually is.' That it why this Christian leaves behind him friends and enemies, detractors and admirers. A lifelong satirist of prigs and puritans, whether of the Right or of the Left, he took no hostages, expecting from other people the same unyielding, unflinching commitment to their own view of the truth which he took for granted in his own. Of all British playwrights of the 20th century he is the one who risked most. And, risking most, frequently offered the most rewards.

For many of us life will never be quite the same without the sight of that fabulous whiskered grin, glimpsed from across the room. Then John heading towards us, fierce, passionate and fun.

John Osborne

John Osborne started writing plays while working as a repertory actor in the 1950s. He first gained international fame in 1956 when Look Back in Anger was presented at the Royal Court Theatre, London, where many of his plays were produced, including The Entertainer (1957), Epitaph For George Dillon (1958), Luther (1961), Plays For England: The Blood of the Bamburgs and Under Plain Cover (1962), Inadmissible Evidence (1964), A Patriot For Me (1965), Time Present (1968), A Hotel in Amsterdam (1968), West of Suez (1971), A Sense of Detachment (1972). His other plays include The World of Paul Slickey (1959) at The Palace Theatre, The End of Me Old Cigar (1975) at the Greenwich Theatre, Watch It Come Down (1976) at the National Theatre and Deja Vu (1992) at the Comedy Theatre. His adaptations include Lope de Vega's A Bond Honoured (1966) at the National, Hedda Gabler (1972) at the Royal Court, A Place Calling Itself Rome (a re-working of Shakespeare's Coriolanus), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1975) at the Greenwich and Strindberg's The Father at the National. His work for television includes A Subject of Scandal and Concern, The Right Prospectus, Very Like a Whale, Almost A Vision, A Gift of Friendship, You're Not Watching Me Mummy, Try a Little Tenderness, God Rot Tunbridge Wells, and his autobiographical play, A Better Class of Person. He won an Oscar for his screenplay of Tom Jones in 1962, and collaborated on the screenplays of Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Inadmissible Evidence and The Charge of the Light Brigade. He wrote two acclaimed volumes of autobiography, A Better Class of Person and Almost a Gentleman and published a volume of essays and articles, Damn You England. John Osborne received the Evening Standard Drama Award as most promising playwright of the year for Look Back in Anger and the Best Play of the Year Award for A Patriot For Me and Hotel in Amsterdam. He also received the Tony Award for Best Play for Luther and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writer's Guild of Great Britain.

 

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