The First Angry Man: John Osborne (1929-1994)

John Osborne 1929-1994

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! 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.

Osborne could fight like a good backbencher or a bad drunk. He got into famous tiffs with National Theatre boss Peter Hall ("a cloying sensibility" expressing itself with "coarse relish"), Joan Plowright (he refused to allow Lady Olivier to play in a revival of The Entertainer) and political worthies left, right and center. In midlife he had some stage successes (Inadmissible Evidence) and scandals (A Patriot for Me), but by the end few cared to listen; shocks applied regularly to the system at last only numb it. Osborne recognized this in his last play, Dejavu (1992), a glum sequel to Anger. In it he described himself as "a churling, grating note, a spokesman for no one but myself; with deadening effect, cruelly abusive, unable to be coherent about my despair."

In Inadmissible Evidence a barrister stands accused of failure -- as a friend, a lover, a human being. He pleads guilty to all charges: "I succeeded in inflicting, quite certainly inflicting, more pain than pleasure." That, surely, was Osborne. In his life he inflicted pain on those close to him, perhaps himself most of all. Yet in his work he inflicted pleasure. To see a prime Osborne play is to be flayed by a distinctly modern, mordant wit. "Damn you, England!" he wrote in a famous 1961 screed. And damn us all for needing his exuberant misanthropy. He spoke, eloquently, to the worst in ourselves.

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