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International Socialist Review, Fall 1961


Trent Hutter

The Most Angry


From International Socialist Review, Vol.22 No.4, Fall 1961, p.130-131.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Entertainer
A play by John Osborne
Paperback edition published by Bantam Books, New York, by arrangement with Criterion Books, Inc., June 1960, 35 Cents.
— 1957-58 stage performances starring Laurence Olivier and co-starring Dorothy Tutin, Brenda de Banzie, George Relph.
Motion picture version starring Laurence Olivier and co-starring Joan Plowright, Brenda de Banzie, Roger Livesey.

Among the serious plays I have seen on Broadway in the last five years, The Entertainer by John Osborne, who is considered the leader of England’s “angry young men,” remains one of the two or three that stand out in my mind. Meanwhile I have seen the excellent motion picture version, too. (I do not recommend it to those whose idea of serious dramatic fare is an Elizabeth Taylor movie ...)

In The Entertainer which also makes fine reading, John Osborne, author of Look Back in Anger, shows us the world of the British music hall, embodied mainly by two generations of entertainers – Billy Rice, the father, and Archie Rice, the son. Billy was a star of the music hall. He was one of its most lovable, most capable artists in the time of its glory, which coincided with the time of Britain’s greatest power, the British bourgeoisie’s zenith. Now retired, old and impoverished, Billy still maintains his self-respect and his ideals and standards of pre-World War I days.

While the father represents the “classic” British music hall – where, incidentally, a Charles Chaplin served his apprenticeship and won his first plaudits – his son Archie is a very different man, a third-rate comedian moving in a decaying music hall in an England beset by grave problems and facing the chilly winds of disappointment. The time is during and after Anthony Eden’s unfortunate Suez campaign.

Archie is rather vulgar but can be quite charming. He is eternally immature and irresponsible, somewhat cynical but not evil, born to be a showman but forever unable to be a very good one, and he knows it. He is perceptive, far from stupid, a professional though an undistinguished one, and a witty storyteller in private. He does not feel very deeply and knows that too. This applies to his feelings about people and about his country. Of course, he likes England and hates to leave it because he is used to English surroundings and customs, but the awful chauvinistic song he sings on stage does not really mean anything to him, while his father’s patriotism is sincere. Archie simply does not care. “I’m dead behind these eyes. I’m dead, just like the whole inert, shoddy lot out there ...” – “Why should I care, why should I let it touch me?” is his theme song.

He is bankrupt and has avoided the income tax for twenty years. He lives in a world of make-believe, but this is his only reality. To him the outside world is but a disturbing dream. He is forever trying to produce shows, and this does mean a lot to him, more than the feelings of individuals with whom he is in touch. In order to save him from a financial catastrophe, his father offers to make a come-back, since his name is still a big attraction. Archie’s egoism agrees to this, and the old man dies of a heart attack when he is about to appear on the stage again. Apparently, Archie does not repent his guilt very much. But now only his wealthy brother can save him, and as he does not want to go to jail, he has to accept his brother’s conditions: Brother Bill will pay his debts; Archie and his family will emigrate to Canada and work for a relative who has a job as a hotel manager waiting for Archie.

Aware of his many shortcomings, Archie Rice, despite his pose of hedonic bravado, keenly feels he has not accomplished anything worthwhile. He would have loved to be a real artist, at least once to be able to sing like some poor Negro woman he once heard in an obscure bar in America:

“... the most moving thing I ever heard ... But if ever I saw any hope or strength in the human race, it was in the face of that old fat Negress getting up to sing about Jesus or something like that. She was poor and lonely and oppressed like nobody you’ve ever known. Or me, for that matter ... you knew somehow in your heart that it didn’t matter how much you kick people, the real people, how much you despise them, if they can stand up and make a pure, just natural noise like that, there’s nothing wrong with them, only with everybody else ... I wish to God I could feel like that old black bitch with her fat cheeks, and sing. If I’d done one thing as good as that in my whole life, I’d have been all right.”

Archie’s drinking, his perennial chasing after women, his “not caring” are above all a running away from his artistic frustration, the realization that “I’ll never do it.” His daughter Jean wants to “do it,” to accomplish something, be someone. She is the strongest member of the family, an art teacher in the youth center of a London slum section, where she has to deal with the toughest kind of teenagers. Although she never used to be interested in politics, she “managed to get myself steamed up about the way things were going,” participated in an anti-war meeting in Trafalgar Square and broke with her bourgeois fiancé:

“I hadn’t realized – it just hadn’t occurred to me that you could love somebody ... and then suddenly find that you’re neither of you even living in the same world.”

Archie Rice had a good deal of love and admiration for Jean’s mother who walked out on him because of his unfaithfulness. She was “a person of principle ... She felt everything very deeply.” Jean seems to be like her in some respects, we might add. Archie’s second wife, Phoebe, the one with whom Jean’s mother found him in bed, is about sixty – he is about fifty – and it is pity that has prevented him from leaving her. His two sons Mick and Frank are from her.

Archie’s three children are all determined to face social reality instead of living in a make-believe world. Each of the three faces this reality in his own way. Frank is a rebel. He has spent six months in prison for refusing military service. He is bitter about the way things are. “They’re all so busy, speeding down the middle of the road together, not giving a damn where they are going, as long as they are in the bloody middle!” Frank can’t see any hope for himself in England. He had the courage to go to prison for his convictions, but he is no revolutionist who would enter upon a systematic and patient struggle for his ideas. Therefore, emigration to Canada where he has a future is his personal solution, and his mother is all for it.

While Jean and Frank are disgusted with the British situation and with society, Mick, the youngest, is “a boy without problems,” a conformist. He does not protest or complain when he is drafted. And he gets killed in Egypt. The shock of his death prompts Jean, who feels much closer to her family than to her unimaginative and unemotional ex-fiancé, to sharply criticize her father’s egoism and flight from reality.

And she asks herself,

“... why do boys die, or stoke boilers ... what are we hoping to get out of it, what’s it all in aid of – is it really just for the sake of a gloved hand waving at you from a golden coach?”

Social and psychological realism are among the main characteristics of The Entertainer. All the persons in it are highly significant, and so is the story. This makes us feel the play is important, whereas so many others are merely clever, or reasonably well-written, or momentarily enthralling, but not important.

Old Billy Rice remarks, “A real pro is a real man ... He’s like the general run of the people, only he is a lot more like them than they are themselves, if you understand me.” And just as the successful popular comedian is somehow a concentrated image of the masses where he originated and to which he is addressing himself, the music hall in The Entertainer, the dying of a folk art as Osborne calls it, reflects a larger sociocultural phenomenon – the increasing decay of a society.

The great realistic drama always contains a good deal of symbolism, as it shows even the most individual, original figures in their social context and, through the individuals and their story, lets us glance at some fundamental human emotions as well as some aspects of a given society. This undoubtedly applies to The Entertainer.

It is not a thesis in dramatic form. If it were, it would not be the masterwork it is. It is first and foremost a superb play, a work of art. To accuse the author of merely being bitter and angry without offering a solution for the social ills of England is foolish. The anger, the bitterness and the searching of Britain’s “angry generation” – represented in The Entertainer by Jean and Frank, indeed by Jean even more than by Frank – are a big step in the direction of a solution, whether Osborne is aware of the solution or not. The “angry young men” are no beatniks who simply turn from the “squares” in contempt and prefer to live in a world of their own where there actually is little belief in the possibility of communication even among themselves. The “angry generation” wants to communicate but finds that it has become difficult to do so and that the question “What is to be communicated?” has to be answered first. Jean pictures one of the countless women in the workers’ sections of Britain’s drab industrial towns, “What can you say to her? What real piece of information, what message can you give to her? ...” Rejecting the concept of a supernatural order of the universe, Jean concludes that the human person is our own center and standard. “We’ve only got ourselves. Somehow, we’ve just got to make a go of it.” Jean’s answer may not be complete. But her searching is thoroughly honest, and she is on her way.

This honest searching of the younger generation, a searching without cheap consolations or self-delusion, prevents The Entertainer from being a play without hope. But John Osborne wisely abstains from a superficial, artificial, contrived sort of hope. Nor is The Entertainer a cynical play, although Archie Rice is frequently cynical. It is written with deep feeling.

Unfortunately, I cannot deal here with the ingenious form of the play or with the modifications of the film version, adapted to the requirements of that medium. But let me finally mention Laurence Olivier’s marvelous performance as Archie Rice, a truly memorable achievement. Olivier, the star of a cast that is absolutely first-rate, is one of the very few actors who really deserve to be called great. Not just good or brilliant, but great. And it will astonish no one that The Entertainer has become identified so much with Laurence Olivier who made it a hit.

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