Youth and sex are so hot in John's plays
A play co-written by John Osborne before he shot to fame with 'Look Back in Anger' is about to be revived
Playwright David Hare tells Aleks Sierz why he can't wait to see it
Copyright Daily Telegraph September 21, 2005
Playwright John Osborne, the original Angry Young Man, burst on to the theatre scene in May 1956 with his unforgettable debut, Look Back in Anger. The play soon became notorious for its loudmouthed anti-hero, Jimmy Porter, who seemed to embody the discontent of all liberal intellectuals in the year of the Suez debacle.
But Osborne's reputation as an Angry Young Man has overshadowed his other early work, the prime casualty being Epitaph for George Dillon, which he co-wrote with his friend Anthony Creighton before Look Back in Anger, but which was first staged in 1957, in the wake of Osborne's newfound fame. Then, it starred a young Robert Stephens; now it's being revived with hearthrob Joseph Fiennes in the title role.
In the play, George Dillon is an unemployed actor-playwright who sponges off a lower-middle-class family who have taken him in to replace their dead son. Like many other Osborne leads, he hates mediocrity and the masses, while alternating erratically between vanity and self-doubt.
Peter Gill, who directs this revival, was born in 1939 and remembers the original version. "I saw it at the Comedy Theatre, which is the same theatre where our production is, after it had transferred from the Royal Court in 1958. At the time, I was a very young actor and had just come to London,'' says Gill, who grew up in Cardiff.
He rates the play as "among John's best work'', and argues that collaborating with Creighton helped Osborne. "You can never really know who wrote what, but, although there are passages that have the recognisable whiff of later Osborne, there was something about their collaboration that gave the play a more mature, and less neurotic, feel.''
The two men also wrote another play together, Personal Enemy in 1955. After Osborne's death in 1994, Creighton claimed that they had once been lovers, but Gill rejects this idea: "I knew John, and I never heard anybody say that he'd ever been to bed with a bloke. If there had been a gay streak in his personality, somebody would have noticed, and no one ever said anything to me about it.''
Gill believes that their relationship was not sexual. "But,'' he says, "having read some of their letters, I do think they had a profound attachment. But no more than that. And I think Creighton was a more interesting person than we have been led to believe.'' He was more a mentor than a sidekick, he says.
Gill's theatre career began in 1957 when he and fellow Welshman Anthony Hopkins worked as assistant stage managers on an Arts Council-funded tour of Look Back in Anger. "Then, not long after seeing Epitaph, Stephen Frears and I went to the Court as assistant directors. The Court was very inclusive in those days.''
Gill had previously tried to get work as an actor. "I auditioned once at the Court for [Ann Jellicoe's 1958 street-gang saga] The Sport of My Mad Mother, which I didn't get. Paul Bailey the novelist, who was an actor then, got the part. And he was also in the original Epitaph for George Dillon.''
The play, says Gill, "is rich, with lots of Osborne's characteristic themes - about failure and authenticity - which makes it a very satisfying evening. The central character appears in a more coherent setting than in his later work, and he expresses John's hatred of people who have no self-doubt.''
Playwright Sir David Hare, a long-time admirer of Osborne — he delivered the eulogy at a memorial for the author in 1995 as well as the first John Osborne lecture at Hay-on-Wye in 2002 — agrees with Gill. For him, Epitaph for George Dillon was something of a discovery.
"I'd never read it until this year,'' says Hare, "and I think it's a powerfully moving and evocative period piece, close in feeling to a play by Terence Rattigan - a similar genteel and shabby world.''
Yes, but is it any good? "Oh absolutely, without a doubt. And I think it will seem stronger now. There's something about its sensual hopelessness that is very contemporary. Youth and sexuality are so hot in John's plays. I can't wait to see it.''
Hare also defends Osborne from the scorn of his detractors. "People, with different axes to grind, have downplayed the impact of Look Back in Anger.
"The myth of 1956 didn't suit the right wing because it destroyed the theatre of entertainment, and it didn't suit the left wing because John wasn't a socialist. And it most certainly didn't suit the feminists: Julie Burchill describes Look Back in Anger as 'that play where somebody does the ironing while someone else shouts at her'.''
So what was Osborne's achievement? "John was a romantic English playwright who brought romanticism back to the stage. He had a strong personal voice in which he unabashedly celebrated individualism and the singularity of each human being. His gift was for creating very strong characters. He was also a man who never repressed a bad feeling.''
Hare thinks "that the erotic charge is very important in his writing. It really doesn't matter whether he was gay or not, which is a rather arid argument, but what's more important is that he wrote in an openly sexual way. And sex is a vital part of his romanticism.''
Osborne's amazing early success prompted a backlash, and he did himself no favours by behaving increasingly like an angry old curmudgeon. "In the late 1950s,'' says Hare, "you have a generation of writers, all of whom were extremely difficult people. John was a difficult man; Dennis Potter was a very difficult man; and Harold Pinter was not notably easygoing.''
In common with Pinter and Potter, Osborne "asserts that individuals are more interesting, profound and dark than normal society allows. John, like all good artists, insists on the complexities of individual psychology. He cries out against the homogenisation of life.''
More than a decade after Osborne's death, Gill's rediscovery of his forgotten play promises to be a notable epitaph.
'Epitaph for George Dillon' is at the Comedy Theatre (0870 060 6637).
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