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. "When I saw Look Back in Anger," said John Gielgud, a star of the old school, "I thought my number was up."
Gielgud was still around this past Christmas Eve when Osborne, 65, died of diabetes and other complaints. And Osborne was not such a radical that he couldn't find use for the great old British lions; in The Entertainer he gave Laurence Olivier his meatiest modern role as a decayed vaudevillian. But 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.
This was drama as rant, an explosion of bad manners, a declaration of war against an empire in twilight. The acid tone, at once comic and desperate, sustained Osborne throughout a volatile career as playwright, film writer (Tom Jones) and memoirist (A Better Class of Person). More important, it stoked a ferment in a then sleepy popular culture. Anger's curdling inflections and class animosities were echoed in the plays of Joe Orton and Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a direct descendant), in Dennis Potter's savage TV scripts and in a generation of performers, from Albert Finney to the Beatles, whom Osborne's example encouraged to speak in their own rude voices. He was the first to cry fire in a crowded London theater. From Anger on, no sexual or social rancor was off limits. Nobody had to behave.
For Osborne the stage was a cage. And prowling inside was Anger's protagonist, Jimmy Porter, a bear with poisoned claws, a creature of sadistic, pathetic, possessive, unflagging rage -- rage at the world in general and at any woman in particular, notably his wife Alison. His simmering emotional violence may provoke Alison to break into tears, shy a hot iron at him or walk out. Yet Jimmy sees himself as a Byronic figure, the last righteous romantic. No one can feel things as intensely as he; no one can feel so bereft or betrayed. He can connect with people only when they are at the whip ends of his invective. So he desperately needs Alison, as both his victim and his audience.
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, an advertising copywriter in London. Jimmy's gibes at snooty relatives are Osborne's revenge on his barmaid mother Nellie Beatrice. 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. He photocopied Pamela's stoic bearing, her suspicious relatives, even her Dear John letter of farewell when she'd finally had enough.