A BETTER CLASS OF PERSON: An Autobiography by John Osborne
Kirkus Star

A BETTER CLASS OF PERSON: An Autobiography

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Whoever wrote the headline on a recent N.Y. Times excerpt from this 1930-1956 memoir--""Looking Back Without Anger'--either didn't read the book or doesn't know much about anger. Rarely, in fact, has a writer reconstructed a childhood with such glorious bitterness, such detailed distaste, such elegant, amused anger at the genteel horrors of family life. John's father is the chief victim in this quintessentially lower-middle-class, outskirts-of-London world: a gentle ad-agency copywriter, dying of tuberculosis. The chief villain: grandmother Osborne--prim, money-obsessed, manipulative, cold, and relentlessly cruel to her frail son, who would never be forgiven for falling ill as a child and generating hospital bills. Not that the other side of the family--the Groves--was much better. Just louder: ""Disappointment was oxygen to them. . . . The Grove despond was all chaos, shouting and tearful rebukes. . . . Comfort in the discomfort of others was an abiding family recreation."" And John's mother Nellie Beatrice--an upward-aspiring barmaid--is seen as onlyslightly this side of unforgivable: preoccupied with matching outfits, disdainful of her weak husband, mistress of the ""Black Look"" of disapproval, forever cleaning. (""Handing over the Hoover to my mother was like distributing highly sophisticated nuclear weapons to an underdeveloped African nation."") Small wonder, then, that young, acneous, concave John looked elsewhere for camaraderie. To the cinema (""my church and academy""). To a wildly original, unflappable school-pal named Mickey Wall. Eventually, then, after a hilariously dubious career as Ace Reporter for Gas World, to the theater. . . as an unprepossessing, rather pathetic bit-actor/stage-manager. And Osborne's evocation of the seedy world of second-rate touting--hideous Brompton, glorious Brighton, theatrical landladies, Sunday-morning departures with a dragging suitcase, unemployment, poor scripts and rotten performances (""We were disgraceful, inexcusable and boring"")--is one of the best ever. But soon he was also writing plays, sometimes in rather seamy (and stormy) collaboration with a quasi-married leading actress who upheld the ""immutable theatrical laws""--the laws which Osborne already loathed and would soon violate so ostentatiously in Look Back In Anger. For some mysterious reason, however, the natural conclusion of the memoir--the opening of Look Back--has been omitted from Osborne's manuscript. (Some of the missing portions appeared in that Times excerpt.) And so this book peters out disappointingly at the close. Still, that's a small flaw in an otherwise splendid production: a funny, dreadful portrait of the worst of extended families; a wry salute to showbiz-on-the-hoof; and, with telling excerpts from Osborne's notebooks and oeuvre, an illuminating (in effect revisionist) display of the personal, rather than political, sources of the Angry Young Man's fine, angry plays.

Pub Date: Nov. 6th, 1981
Publisher: Dutton