‘Happiness’, John Osborne wrote in his notebooks in 1954, ‘means not looking back.’ Two years later, his play Look Back in Anger wiped the smugness off the frivolous face of English theatre. Osborne was a heavyweight hater. His malicious wit and fulminating tirades blazed a new trail for English drama and for playwrights better equipped than himself to follow.
Lacerating the tame and timid world of his parents, Osborne became the daring, romantic voice of a new generation’s rebellion. His play was aptly compared to Noel Coward’s The Vortex (1924) which likewise enlarged the limits of what was theatrically acceptable. ‘We both wrote about what we saw and didn’t like,’ Coward said later. ‘Mine was a more circumspect dislike. Everything bothers him. It may be a sign of the times.’ It was; and when times changed, so the sinew of Osborne’s writing turned to flab. Then, like Coward, the renegade became a roast beef Tory. A Better Class of Person, Osborne’s superb account of his early unfamous years, is still haunted by Coward. As a dissection of English life and his own volatile temperament, the book surpasses Coward’s Present Indicative as the most vivid chronicle of the making of an English playwright.