“There were two Johns,” a neighbor of John Osborne’s told John Heilpern. “He could be the nicest person you could ever meet or the rudest.”
Heilpern, the drama critic for the New York Observer and a professor at Columbia University, has miraculously managed to put the two Johns together. His biography of the playwright who radically changed British theater overnight in 1956 with Look Back in Anger is a model of what a literary biography ought to be — the story of a life, not the inventory of one. The Osborne who emerges from these pages is a character of almost Shakespearean dimensions, grand as Falstaff, volatile as Hamlet, mad as Lear.
His three greatest plays — Anger, Luther and Inadmissible Evidence — are all epics of rage and self-reproach. Osborne himself was both tormented and tormenting. Indeed, his capacity for inflicting torment made him notorious.
His mother — “the grabbing, uncaring crone of my childhood” — was still alive when A Better Class of Person, the first volume of Osborne’s autobiography, was published in 1981. “He described her clinically,” Heilpern writes, “like some test-tube specimen or corpse laid out for inspection on a mortuary slab.” That’s putting it mildly. Here’s what Osborne wrote:
Her face was a floury dark mask, her eyes were an irritable brown, her ears small like her father’s (“He’s got Satan’s ears, he has”), her nose surprisingly fine. Her remaining front teeth were large, yellow and strong. Her lips were a scarlet-black sliver covered in some sticky slime named Tahiti or Tattoo.
When she died, in 1983 at the age of 87, her son began an article for the London Sunday Times thus: “A year in which my mother died can’t be all bad.” The article was rejected.
Osborne’s fifth marriage turned out happily, while his other four began and ended passionately — passionate romance and lust turning rapidly into equally passionate anger and recrimination. His fourth, to actress Jill Bennett, was simply appalling, an eight-year folie a deux of savage mutual demolition. When, some years after their divorce, Bennett committed suicide, Osborne penned this touching eulogy:
Everything about her life had been a pernicious confection, a sham. I have only one regret now in this matter. … It is simply that I was unable to look down upon her open coffin and, like that bird in the Book of Tobit, drop a good, large mess in her eye.
Bennett, in death, was spared the sting of his words. Not so Nolan, Osborne’s only daughter, who came to live with him and his fifth wife, Helen, after alcoholism left Nolan’s mother — Osborne’s third wife, the film critic and novelist Penelope Gilliatt — incapable of caring for her.
Things started off well enough, but quickly spiraled downward. Osborne seems to have found it intolerable that his daughter should behave like a typical teenager (he had, after all, left school for work at 16). And so, on Jan. 5, 1982, just before her 17th birthday, she returned home to find a letter from him — he hated confrontation — telling her that she was to move out and that he would no longer pay for her schooling. The letter rants on:
Your heart — such as that is — is irretrievably elsewhere, a place without spirit, imagination or honour. … A life of banality, safety, mediocrity and meanness of spirit is what you are set on. … I suggest you make arrangements about getting some suitable accommodation. … Happy 1982: This is where the long road really starts — On Your Own.
Father and daughter never spoke to each other again. She was taken in by the clergyman father of a school chum, a man she continues to call “Dad.”
If all of this sounds like something out of a John Osborne play, well, in a way it is. Osborne’s art was hopelessly entangled with his life. His first marriage, to actress Pamela Lane, provided the material for Look Back in Anger, and the ghastly turmoil of his marriage to Bennett is practically reproduced in Watch It Come Down.
But Osborne’s plays not only echoed his life; they could also seem prophetic of it. Inadmissible Evidence chronicles the unraveling of its protagonist, the lawyer Bill Maitland, an unraveling that prefigures Osborne’s own breakdown a few years later. Maitland, moreover, like Osborne, disowns his 17-year-old daughter, telling her:
I can’t connect to you, I don’t understand your taste or your generation. I don’t understand anything about you. … Do you want to get rid of me? Do you? Because I want to get rid of you. … I don’t know what you have to do with me.
If this were all there was to Osborne, he would be merely grotesque. But the spewer of horrific bile was also grandly generous, kind, shy, diffident — his hated mother lived quite comfortably at his expense — and it is Heilpern’s accomplishment that he has been able to draw all these threads together into a coherent and moving portrait of a man whose tantrums were the desperate lashings-out of a perpetually hurt child.
“Have you ever watched somebody die?” Jimmy Porter asks in Look Back in Anger. Osborne had. When he was 10, he watched his father die of tuberculosis. Practically every year thereafter, as the January anniversary of his father’s death neared, Osborne sank into paralyzing depression. A notebook entry written one summer when he was not yet 30 says it all:
I am governed by fear every day of my life. Sometimes it is the first sensation I have on waking. … I am afraid of the dark hole and the pain from it which grips me every day: That clenched warning which tightens the dark hole of my inside. It is fear, and I cannot rid myself of it. It numbs me, it sterilizes me, and I am empty, dumb and ignorant and afraid.
Though not raised in a religious family, he became a churchgoer later in life. Like Luther, he fervently believed that good works do not necessarily a good man make, and the words Osborne gives to Luther in his play about the reformer express his own feelings:
The truth is that the just shall live by faith alone. I need no more than my sweet redeemer and mediator. … If we are going to be deserted, let’s follow the deserted Christ.
As Heilpern notes, “a lacerating sense of sin ran through the latter part of Osborne’s life.” He died on Christmas Eve in 1994, 12 days after his 65th birthday. The last words that he wrote, found by his wife scrawled on a cigarette pack beside his deathbed in the hospital, were “I have sinned.”