In the mid-1950s, a struggling young director with a failing production company staged the work of an unsuccessful young playwright and — overnight — changed British theater.
The producers were the English Stage Company, the director was Tony Richardson, the playwright was John Osborne and the play was Look Back in Anger. Based on the battles and ultimate breakup of Osborne’s explosive first marriage, it catapulted its author, the prototypical “angry young man,” to fame, fortune and widespread acclaim.
Osborne was an immensely talented writer, a loyal and amusing friend, a cruel son, a horrible husband and an absolutely vile father. Following Look Back in Anger, he turned out a long string of hits while breaking the heart of nearly every woman who played an important role in his life.
This evening the New York Public Library brought Osborne and his work back to life with Looking Back on John Osborne, a performance in the intimate (200 seat) Bruno Walter Auditorium at the Library for the Performing Arts.
The program featured Michael Sheen and Natasha Richardson reading from Osborne’s plays, letters and journals. Sheen, who recently portrayed Tony Blair in The Queen, is currently starring on Broadway as David Frost in Frost/Nixon. Richardson, recipient of a Tony Award for her work in a Broadway revival of Cabaret, had a personal connection to Osborne. Her father, Tony, directed Osborne’s first successful play and the men were close friends to the end of their lives.
Introduction and commentary was provided by John Heilpern, author of John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man. He discussed the man and his work, emphasizing both Osborne’s brilliance and his wretched treatment of his family.
Heilpern noted that Osborne despised his mother and drove one of his wives to suicide, but “the worst thing he ever did” was writing “an abusive, unforgivable letter” to his only child, his daughter Nolan, when she was 16 years old.
The audience audibly gasped as Heilpern went on to explain why he believes that the fact “she survived at all” is “a miracle.” At the age of 12, Nolan was sent to live with Osborne when her mother, who had been his third wife, descended into alcoholism and madness.
Four years after she moved in, Osborne left a letter for the girl to find when she came home from school. In it, he ordered her to remove her things from his home immediately and find a new place to live. He also stated that he was no longer willing to pay for her schooling, calling it “a waste.”
Osborne’s missive compared the teenager, whose only crime was normal adolescent moodiness, to one of King Lear’s daughters and said “your heart — such as that is — is irretrievably elsewhere, a place without spirit, imagination or honour … banality, safety, mediocrity and meanness of spirit is what you are set on.”
The day Nolan found the letter, she obeyed Osborne’s commands, packed a few things and fled. A classmate’s family took her in; the father and daughter never spoke again. Now a middle-aged woman living in England, on the rare occasions that she refers to the man who tossed her out and abandoned her, she never uses the word “father.”
Among those listening to the program was Vanessa Redgrave, who was once married to Osborne’s great friend, Tony Richardson, and is now on Broadway in The Year of Magical Thinking. It was a particular pleasure to observe the much-honored actress sitting in the second row, smiling and nodding, as she watched her oldest daughter read onstage.
John Osborne by John Heilpern
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New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: Calendar of Programs
Borzoi Books: Q&A With John Heilpern
The Guardian: Stage-Boor Johnny
Philadelphia Inquirer: A Life of Torment, Given and Received
David Hare on John Osborne
The Guardian: John Heilpern on “The Entertainer”
IMDB: Natasha Richardson
BBC: Michael Sheen
Broadway.com: Vanessa Redgrave Returns to Broadway
Internet Broadway Database: Look Back in Anger