Next Monday is the 50th anniversary of the opening of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. And a new Osborne bio is just out. But is Osborne’s seminal play, with its kitchen sink realism and its Angry Young Man archetype, as influential as people made it out to be at the time? I would argue yes, with the stipulation that if Osborne had not come along, someone else would have. Theatre was intended to break out of its decorum at some point and Osborne’s work, even if you view it as one-note, certainly fits the bill, paving the way for later work by David Mamet, Edward Albee, David Storey, Harold Pinter and David Hare (the latter, incidentally, is one of Osborne’s great champions).
The question of whether Osborne is a seminal figure or not has me wondering whether theatre is still something of a troubled medium. I’ve remarked upon this before, but, here in San Francisco, I find it particularly disheartening to see a lot of theatre people catering to audiences, resorting to staged adaptations of films (Evil Dead Live) and even television (the Dark Room’s Twilight Zone productions) to get young people into the seats.
What this suggests to me is that something which confronts will be either viewed as bad performance art (and let’s face it: much of it is) or it will be ignored by audiences looking for some comfort zone: essentially, a reproduction of something that can be seen on their televisions at home. Because of this, I wonder if an Albee or an Osborne is even possible outside of New York. Then again, perhaps not. When the top Broadway draws are The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Spamalot, what hope is there for the next wave of brash young playwrights who hope to present original material?
It’s a troubling thing to think about fifty years after Osborne stirred the stage and I hope theatre, in all of its many venues, stumbles upon an answer.