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John Osborne: His early plays spoke to the young, but how well has his work aged? (©Frank Pocklington/Getty Images)


In recent months we have had major London revivals of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. In the New Year the Old Vic will be celebrating Stoppard’s 80th birthday with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. These are landmark plays by Britain’s leading post-war playwrights. What do we make of them today? Do they still have the same impact that bowled over critics and audiences half a century ago?

What is striking is how differently these productions have been received. Kenneth Branagh’s revival of The Entertainer had very mixed reviews. The Observer called it “sluggish” and “off-key”. “There is too little fluidity throughout,” wrote its theatre critic, Susannah Clapp, giving the production just two stars. Michael Billington, in the Guardian, hailed Branagh’s performance but called it “a misjudged production”. 

This was being kind. The production was deeply disappointing. The director, Rob Ashford, has been successful on Broadway, but from the catastrophic opening number on, he clearly thought Osborne’s play was set in glamorous Las Vegas rather than a rundown 1950s English seaside  resort. And Kenneth Branagh looked wrong as Archie Rice. Branagh has had such a stellar career that he clearly cannot imagine what it would be like to be a hopeless failure like Rice. He looked too fit and handsome, he seemed too smooth and charming, a world away from Osborne’s womanising wreck.  

However, the critics missed the key questions. Whatever the problems with the production, what about the writing? Has the play aged well? More seriously, 60 years on, has Osborne aged well?

Osborne had a huge impact in the mid-1950s with two hits in two years, Look Back in Anger (1956), followed by The Entertainer (1957). The reviews are the stuff of legend. “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger,” wrote Kenneth Tynan, the Observer’s influential young theatre critic. “It is the best young play of its decade.” Tynan also praised The Entertainer. “Mr Osborne has had the big and brilliant notion of putting the whole of contemporary England onto one and the same stage,” he wrote. “He chooses, as his national microcosm, a family of run-down vaudevillians. Grandad, stately and retired, represents Edwardian graciousness, for which Mr Osborne has a deeply submerged nostalgia. But the key figure is Dad [Archie], a fiftyish song-and-dance man reduced to appearing in twice-nightly nude revue.” 

Osborne was one of a new generation of young British playwrights who launched a revolution in British drama, what Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times called “The Great Uprising”. It was partly, of course, the tone, anger and sense of a country on the slide. More important though, it was as if with Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney, the working class had suddenly appeared centre-stage. Instead of the genteel drawing-rooms of Rattigan and Noël Coward, there were new plays about kitchen workers, music-hall performers and East Enders.

Osborne was the right man at the right time. His plays caught the national mood of Suez, CND and the New Left. In The Entertainer Archie’s daughter Jean has just been to a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Above all, his plays spoke to young theatregoers: the duffel-coat generation who embraced the new culture of rock and roll, Soho cafés and irreverent comedy. Osborne seemed a spokesman for a new generation. “I agree that Look Back in Anger is likely to remain a minority taste,” wrote Tynan in 1956. “What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of 20 and 30.”

The old guard suddenly seemed like dinosaurs. “I wish I knew why the hero is so dreadfully cross and what about?” said Noël Coward.

 “There I was in 1956, a reasonably successful playwright with Separate Tables just opened,” Rattigan said in 1977, just before he died, “and suddenly the whole Royal Court thing exploded, and Coward and Priestley and I were all dismissed, sacked by the critics.”

Tynan didn’t just criticise Rattigan’s plays. He tore into the social world Rattigan seemed to represent. In Rattigan’s plays, Tynan wrote, “the inhabitants belong to a social class derived from romantic novels and partly from the playwright’s vision of the leisured life he will lead after the play is a success — this being the only effort of imagination he is called on to make.”

Rattigan and Coward weren’t just old-fashioned and posh. They were homosexuals. Looking back at the theatre revolution of the 1950s, there is something distinctly homophobic about the way in which Coward, Rattigan and the impresario Binkie Beaumont were attacked.

Sixty years on, the tide has turned. It is Osborne’s The Entertainer which seems flat and old-fashioned. His attempt to borrow from Brecht, so fashionable at the Royal Court in the mid-1950s, seems terribly dated now. The play’s politics should be very topical today with the debates about Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there is no insight, no sense of a changing world beyond little England. Osborne’s men just seem to rant and rage. They are not interesting or clever. Who would want to sit next to Jimmy Porter or Archie Rice at a dinner table? The truth is they are rather dull. Instead, it is Rattigan who has endured. Joseph Fiennes recently played T.E. Lawrence in Adrian Noble’s production of Ross at Chichester. In 2015, Kenneth Branagh revived Harlequinade in the West End. And in 2011 there were a number of acclaimed Rattigan revivals to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The National’s recent production of The Deep Blue Sea, written just five years before The Entertainer, was a huge hit. The Daily Telegraph called it “intoxicating”; interestingly, it damned the original review in the Observer for getting the play so wrong and for missing its emotional power and complexity. Michael Billington gave it four stars and hailed Rattigan’s “composite picture of England”.

In particular, it is Rattigan’s women who seem so full of life and vitality. Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea is in her mid-thirties, passionate, artistic, suicidal. Catherine Winslow in The Winslow Boy is much more intelligent than anyone else in her family and ends up taking over the play with her radical politics and firm principles. Anne Shankland in Separate Tables is, like Hester, out of place, caught in a self-destructive but passionate relationship. Not surprisingly, these roles are attracting bright young directors like Carrie Cracknell and leading actresses like Rachel Weisz, Helen McCrory and Zoe Wanamaker.

What is intriguing is how these plays were so badly misunderstood by leading critics in the Fifties like Tynan. What Tynan, in all his bluster and bravado, missed was the powerful dynamic between passion, destruction and restraint in Rattigan’s best plays. He didn’t see what speaks so eloquently to audiences today: that intelligent young women can so often be caught in a spiral of self-destruction, or that the dark side of love and romance can be desperate loneliness and defeat. How can these fascinating female characters be so alone?

These were never just plays about posh people in drawing rooms. One of the most intriguing figures in The Deep Blue Sea is Mr Miller, a German-Jewish refugee doctor struck off for performing an abortion. Hester, like the Winslows and Andrew Crocker-Harris, the old classics teacher in The Browning Version, is running out of money. It was Rattigan, educated at Harrow and Oxford, who caught the pulse of post-war England, hard-up and in decline, reeling from austerity.

Something else Tynan missed was the power of restraint in Rattigan’s writing. Rattigan, wrote Philip Hensher in the Guardian in 2011, is “the great playwright of restraint, which means, of course, that he was obsessed with the prospect of passion breaking out. There is no more fervent champion of sexual obsession than the puritan, and no more convincing exponent of the destructive power of passionate emotion than the poet of repression. Rattigan’s great subjects are what may not be spoken about; what may be concealed; and the moments when people — particularly English people — find it impossible to say what they feel.”

The tension at the heart of Rattigan’s plays is between restraint and passion. Love is far from genteel in his plays. It is dangerous and destructive. After all, for a homosexual like Rattigan, writing in the Fifties, love was dangerous. Osborne might have been arrested for protesting against nuclear arms; it was Rattigan’s friends who were arrested for breaking the law against homosexuality. It is surely no coincidence that so many of the great women’s roles at this time were written by homosexual playwrights: Blanche DuBois, Hester Collyer, Kath in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. Osborne’s women are thin gruel by comparison, almost as bad as the men.

One question which Rattigan’s critics missed was whether his women were really men in disguise. And, today, if we compare Osborne’s hectoring, one-dimensional men with Rattigan’s tragic heroines, it is clear who are more interesting and who speak to today’s audiences, more open to feminine and gay perspectives. 

Pinter’s No Man’s Land has no female characters but, like the revival of Rattigan’s play, received rave reviews. This was in part because of the star cast which made it “event theatre”. But it was also, surely, because Pinter’s play, 40 years after the famous Gielgud/Richardson production, has lost none of its dramatic power. There is something fresh and alive about the movement between comedy and menace, between an uncertain present and a mysterious past, between Spooner’s garrulous mobility and Hirst’s stasis, between the intruder and the occupant. No Man’s Land reworks themes that had preoccupied Pinter since his first great works in the late 1950s. Benedict Nightingale once called Spooner “the opportunist with territorial ambitions, the intruder in the hunt for space to steal”, a better-educated version of Davies in The Caretaker.

No Man’s Land was never topical or political in the way Osborne’s acclaimed plays were. It did not feel, then or now, that it had caught the mood of the times. But that has made it all the more timeless. There is nothing in No Man’s Land that feels dated, stuck in a moment that has passed. There are no references that now feel clunky in the way Osborne’s references to Anthony Eden are today. Pinter’s play never feels anachronistic.

The louder Osborne’s characters shout, the less dramatic or moving they seem. However, what is so powerful in Rattigan and Pinter is the restraint, the mystery of human relationships and the relentless focus on the distance between people. Who are Foster and Briggs? Do Spooner and Hirst know each other from the past or have they just met? Do they know each other at all or is their relationship one of wary conflict? Reviewing the original production, Michael Billington wrote, “The play is a masterly summation of all the themes that have long obsessed Pinter: the fallibility of memory, the co-existence in one man of brute strength and sensitivity, the ultimate unknowability of women, the notion that all human contact is a battle between who and whom.”

What could be further removed from Osborne or the other so-called angry young men? Pinter comes from a very different strand of 1950s drama. At a recent celebration at the Royal Court of Arnold Wesker’s life and work, a director told the story of how Wesker was told to rewrite Roots. Who is going to watch a play where the main character never turns up, he was told. This was three years after Waiting for Godot.

It is easy to think of British post-war theatre as a battle between the Gentlemen and the Players, between plays with French windows and those with kitchen sinks. But this misses out modernism, the line from Beckett to Pinter. The set in No Man’s Land is “sparsely furnished” but there is “a wall of bookshelves”. Pinter once told the story of his first encounter with Beckett’s work. It was when he read Murphy: “I suddenly felt that what his writing was doing was walking through a mirror into the other side of the world which was, in fact, the real world.” A “real world” — but one with neither French windows nor kitchen sinks.

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties was inspired by a reference to Beckett’s hero, James Joyce. Reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, Stoppard discovered that he met Lenin and Tristan Tzara, the father of Dadaism, in Zurich during the First World War. Travesties premiered less than a year before No Man’s Land and  the recent London revival with Tom Hollander and Freddie Fox, directed by Patrick Marber, has been hailed by critics as one of the theatrical events of the year. It has lost none of its wit and sparkle in 40 years, playing with history and ideas (Tzara meets Joyce, The Importance of Being Earnest meets Lenin). Together with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1964) and Jumpers (1972), Travesties established Stoppard’s reputation for intellectual high jinks, a distinctive mix of erudition and wit.

These four revivals confirm the reputations of Rattigan, Pinter and Stoppard. They also tell us something very interesting about the road-map of British post-war drama. First, Osborne and the Angry Young Men have not lasted. It was a short-lived fad, in large part the creation of one critic, Kenneth Tynan, a frantic self-publicist desperate to make his name by promoting the new and young (including himself) and dismissing the theatrical ancien régime. Its appeal never reached far beyond the Royal Court. “The fact was that the celebrated plays of the late Fifties were rarely very popular with audiences,” writes Dominic Sandbrook in his fascinating, revisionist book on British culture from Suez to the Beatles, Never Had It So Good (2005). “Most theatre-goers still preferred the old-fashioned entertainments of the West End.” Watching The Entertainer 50 years on, it feels like a museum piece, as dead as the world of provincial music hall it depicted.

Second, what feels alive today, many years after they were written, are stories about individuals: Rattigan’s tales of self-destructive passion, Pinter’s mysterious comedies of menace, and Stoppard’s verbal pyrotechnics. It is hard to imagine three more different writers or more different plays than their three great recently revived dramas. All three were outsiders: a homosexual who wrote about women tormented by love, and two Jews who wrote about strange encounters between non-Jews.

Perhaps this is a clue to what drove the great creativity of post-war British drama and why the 1950s-70s were its great heyday. It was the moment when homosexual and Jewish writers started to find their voices on the British stage. What is extraordinary, all these years on, is what strange and unpredictable voices they turned out to be.
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