By Ray Sawhill
John Osborne’s store of grudges is vast. In his exuberantly bitter “Look Back in Anger,” the 1956 play that gave the staid British theater a kick in the pants, he let fly at what seemed like just about everything: the British Empire, noisy neighbors, boring Sundays. Now, in “A Better Class of Person” (Dutton), his first volume of autobiography, Osborne tears into his mother, relatives, and associates with a fist-swinging vengeance that makes Brooke Hayward’s “Haywire” look like a valentine. The result is a jolly, mean, exultant book.
Osborne has an explosive gift for denunciation and invective, and what he’s written is — deliberately, nakedly — a tantrum. Disguised bile turned the studiously dispassionate “Haywire” sour; bile, straight, is to Osborne high-octane fuel. He can blow meanness and pettiness up so large that they acquire a looming majesty and a spacious, dreamlike sensuality, like a slow-motion movie scene. His relish can be so palpable that you share his enjoyment of the dynamics of rage.
For its first half, the book is a horror story about a boy at war with his mother. (His sweet-natured father, whom he adored, died young.) Like some fairy-tale ogre, Osborne’s barmaid mother — he calls her Nellie Beatrice — scrubbed and washed as if hoping to eradicate all signs of life. “She talked about germs,” Osborne writes, “always as if they were like ants that could be made to writhe in a miserable death, gasping on their backs, in the cauldrons of her fortress home.” The one activity that afforded her furious soul passing relief was packing and moving; Osborne guesses she uprooted her little family — he was an only child — more than 30 times during the seventeen years he lived with her. Nellie Beatrice “liked the drudgery of moving for its own sake,” he explains.
He found no solace with relatives. His mother’s working-class family snarled and gnawed at each other. His father’s prissy, grim mother — a suburban order freak — hectored people and emotions into line with thin smiles and sharp little intakes of breath, daring even to sneer loftily at Nellie Beatrice. (That Scourge of Filth secured her revenge years later, when she planted the old lady in a nursing home.) Writes Osborne: “Comfort in the discomfort of others was an abiding family recreation.”
Sickly with rheumatic fever, Osborne gritted his teeth through a childhood of convalescences, playground bullies, and boarding school. Then he found work as an assistant stage manager and discovered the theater. The gypsy atmosphere unbridled him. He wrote his first plays, dumped a hopelessly middle-class fiancée and formed a troupe of his own. Not yet 21, he capped his season by starring in a scenery-chewing “Hamlet.” He married an actress, lost her to a dentist who had pulled two of his teeth, and wrote “Look Back in Anger” in just over a month. The book ends with the purchase of an option on the play by the English Stage Company for 25 pounds.
Lazy disdain mars this memoir’s last chapters, which are hurried and sketchy, and the unwritten next volume casts a shadow. The plays Osborne has written since the nightmarish, desolate “Inadmissible Evidence” (1964) have been little more than dismissive shrugs, and his defensiveness about this work gives sections of “A Better Class of Person” a beleaguered tone. But the story of his embrace of the theater has the fascination of accounts of wild boys taken from wolves to live in town, and his most bilious passages, as in his great plays, seem to erupt in your own mind. When John Osborne’s blood is up, he can make outrageous unfairness seem a bizarre state of grace.
- Buy a copy of “A Better Class of Person.”
- “Almost A Gentleman,” the second volume of Osborne’s autobiography, is another corker.
- John Heilpern’s recent-ish biography of Osborne offers another point of view.
© 1981 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.