A few months ago when my wife and I were returning to town after a game of golf in the country our car was held up by the traffic in Sloane Square. Actually we were anchored just outside the entrance of the small Sloane Square Royal Court Theatre where, more than thirty years ago, a few of us tried to save Shaw’s play Heartbreak House, which the critics had assailed with such shafts of wit as “Headache House,” “Jawbreak House” and other variations on the same theme.
Gazing from our car we saw that the current attraction was the much discussed play Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, who had become more or less the recognized leader of the Angry Young Men movement which had seeped its way into London’s West End. As the traffic in the square showed no signs of moving, I darted to the box office and came out with the only two tickets available.
It is hard to say when or how this strange Angry Young Men manifestation of the human spirit took form. We recalled how, after the 1914-18 war, there emerged the night club and jazz age, with the alternative piquancy and ugliness
of the short-skirt craze, and we thought that perhaps this new cult was a somewhat belated offspring of the Hitler war.
At 7.30 that evening we returned to the square and found that our seats were in the front row, with the result that when the curtain rose we seemed to be almost part of the sordid and untidy scene that greeted our eyes.
At one side of the stage a nicelooking slut was ironing clothes. On the floor two young men were lying on their stomachs reading and discussing the London Sunday newspapers. The younger of the two blasted a cornet now and then but convinced both his companions and the audience that he would never bother to learn how to play it properly. It seems that offstage there was a candy stall that the two men operated but they could not bother answering the bell when someone entered the shop.
They were reading and mocking the Sunday newspapers and could not be bothered about such things as candies. When would something happen? But soon we realized that this was a different kind of play. Mr. John Osborne of the suburbs had written continued on page 82
continued from page 12
“One look at her mother and the age of chivalry was dead,” John Osborne wrote. Baxter yielded
it to amuse himself, not the audience. I wished that I could say that he succeeded in boring me but that would be a lie. Admittedly, the talk of newspapers was music, even if discordant music, to my ears. Nearly all my adult life I have lived and worked to the roaring serenade of the printing press. Words, words, words — what fascinating, dangerous things they are! Hitler rose from a doss house in Vienna to the dictatorship of Germany on a roaring cascade of words, but when he put Europe to the sword he was hammered to defeat and death by the words of Winston Churchill.
Well what happened in this play Look Back in Anger? Nothing—nothing at all. But there was a magnificent moment near the end when the author caused himself to recount how he once got himself engaged to the daughter of a county family: “She asked me to meet the family. I took one look at her mother and the age of chivalry was dead.”
Reluctantly 1 surrendered. This was the very essence of drama. This was a style of dialogue that thrust itself like a dart into one’s brain. No matter how puerile the plot and how decadent the theme I found my mind dancing with delight. It was destructive with the very irony of uselessness. It was a superb drama without a plot. Somewhere, as with all born dramatists, Osborne had touched the emotions in the very moment of mocking them. We went home with a feeling akin to ecstasy because of the sheer bravado of the author’s genius.
Actually, John Osborne had just returned from a visit to Russia, so next day 1 sent him a telegram asking him to lunch at my house. There was no reply,
which was not wholly unexpected, but at one o’clock he turned up and we drank a glass of sherry in the garden.
He seemed taller and leaner than on the stage and his manner was gentle and respectful. Heaven alone knows what thoughts were going on inside his head, but he could not have been more modest or unassuming.
“Will you tell me about Russia?” 1 asked. “Or are you tired of talking about it?”
“Oh no!” he answered. “I want to talk about it. I’d never been there before. In fact, I’ve never been anywhere very much.”
Where was the anger of this young man? Would he at some stage of the conversation tell me just what he thought of a Tory MP like myself? Nothing would have surprised me except what actually did happen. Without ranting or indulging in irony he described Russia as a dull, colorless, lifeless place where the women were as drab as their clothes and the men were not much better. The only exception was his delight at seeing the crown jewels of the late Czars in the palace at Leningrad.
“The Russians were very nice to me,” he said rather apologetically. “They did everything they could to make my visit pleasant, but the women, poor things, are so drab and everything so dull.”
Then we fell to discussing the forthcoming premiere of his play on Broadway. “It won’t go down with the Americans,” he said. “It will be an awful flop.”
In an attempt to cheer him up I argued that there is nothing the theatre public in New York enjoys more than a play based upon utter hopelessness. It
reminds the tycoons of their earty u<tys and makes them feel good when they see how far their lot has been improved. But he shook his head. “It will be a flop,” he repeated.
Then I had a bright idea. “Mr. Osborne, I will buy a one-third interest in the American rights of your play. So you will be sure of having enough to get to New York and back.”
“Oh no,” he said, “I couldn't do that.” That was all I could get from the mild soft-spoken suburbanite, and thus the luncheon came to an end. A milk-fed kitten could not have been more gentle than this leader of the fiery new movement that was giving nightmares to nice old ladies all over Britain.
“Oh. by the way,” he said as we opened the garden gate to the street, “my wife, Mary Ure, is going to play the lead in my play on Broadway.” It seemed like an aside that had just occurred to him.
The whole incident faded from our minds but soon we were to be reminded of Angry Young Men by the vicious and childish outbursts of Lord Altrincham and his pipsqueak imitator, the Marquis of Londonderry. This was too much for John Osborne’s vanity. In bearing he is modesty itself but as the uncrowned king of Angry Youth he obviously felt that his followers would expect some utterance on the subject. So, selecting a magazine called Encounter, Osborne decided to air his views on royalty.
“Nobody can seriously pretend that the royal round of gracious boredom, the protocol of ancient fatuity, is politically useful or mildly stimulating,” he wrote. “My objection to the royal symbol is that it is dead. It is a gold filling in a mouth full of decay.”
Thus did he out-pip the peers who had started the game. But there was a man who decided to play Banquo to Osborne’s Macbeth. The man in question was no less than the headmaster of the public school where Osborne went as a boarder, the name of the school being Belmont College.
The headmaster took to his pen when he read his ex-pupil's tirade, and announced publicly that Osborne, when one of his pupils, got three young boys under his influence and started a reign of terror throughout the school. When Osborne was between fourteen and fifteen years old he was found with a bottle of cider and refused to give it up. The headmaster struggled with him but was unsuccessful. Next day the headmaster spoke to Osborne in front of the whole school and Osborne gave him an insolent reply. The headmaster thereupon slapped Osborne’s face, and in return Osborne did the same to the headmaster. The future playwright was immediately expelled, which may
have been the beginning of his anger.
It must be put on record that when the story was published following his attack on the monarchy, he admitted the incident but not all the details.
There is no moral to my tale unless it be that genius, like the mule, has no pride of ancestry or hope of progeny. Obviously, John Osborne has never known real poverty nor have the gates of opportunity been barred to him. His pen has not been directed against those who have succeeded in life, but rather to ex-
plain and dramatize the ineffectual. He does not ask us to give them sympathy nor does he see any special virtue in the fact that the young man in his play cannot get more than one or two notes from his cornet.
Yet such is Osborne’s genius that he can make us feel a touch of pathos and dusty beauty in the very fact that the young man does blow into the instrument and produces sound of a kind.
Somehow, perhaps reluctantly, playwright Osborne touches the emotions though we do not know' why. In short.
he has genius although he docs his damndest to conceal the fact.
No wonder the New York critics acclaimed him. No wonder he can fill a London theatre at his choosing. The confounded fellow can write and even his discordance creates a harsh beauty. At any rate I thought you might like to know about the Angry Young Man who came to my garden in St. John's Wood and was as mild and gentle as a milk-fed lion.
I w'ish that I could look back in anger at him but it is just not possible. ★
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