is a play I know pretty well but the only production I’d seen before
yesterday was the rather chilly production by Di Trevis at the National
almost twenty years ago, a production probably most famous for the
author reputedly being banned from the rehearsal room. From memory that
was a large-scale production and Trevor Eve’s Bill Maitland was rather
lost on the Lyttelton stage. Mind you, I watched it from the Circle and
since I’ve rarely ever enjoyed anything from the Lyttelton Circle, my
memory, like Bill Maitland’s, is not to be trusted.
It’s strange in some ways that Osborne is such an influential figure when he is so totally sui generis.
He’s not a formalist really; it would be hard to say he’d really shown
people new ways of writing, just a new way of being a writer. All you
can say is that you detect a bit of Osborne in any character who is
savagely articulate and seems determined to wind up and horrify everyone
around him. Butley for example. His major plays are actually all so different - the savage Look Back in Anger, the almost Brechtian The Entertainer, the austere historical drama Luther, the high-camp historical drama A Patriot for Me, and the intense monodrama Inadmissible Evidence
- that he left no clear lessons in dramaturgy, except to let yourself
go, be ruthlessly honest, don’t pander to anyone, and never censor
yourself. He wasn’t what Foucault calls a ‘founder of discourse’,
someone like Pinter who just makes possible a new way of writing. He
just wrote extraordinary plays and embodied a deathless attitude to the
role of the writer.
Oh and his first major play changed British theatre kind of forever, but let’s leave that to one side for a moment.
There’s a thing you can do on a bike
which isn’t good for the brakes but sometimes helps your stability,
where you ride against the brakes. Sometimes on a downward hill, either
to freewheel or to ‘pulse’-brake can risk you losing control of the bike
and it feels more in control to slightly brake and pedal at the same
time. I thought of this while watching Inadmissible Evidence, because it struck me that Osborne writes best when he feels the friction of resistance.
In the first scene, Bill Maitland finds
himself summoned before a Court of his own imagination. Bill’s opening
monologue is a wheedling, rambling, extremely funny plea of
self-justification. And it struck me how often Osborne adopts this tone;
his writing so often proceeds with the certainty of judgment; that is,
he and his character anticipate that they’re going to be judged, found
wanting, condemned. Osborne pre-empts this judgment with a mixture of
aggression (despising the judge), declarations of love (wooing the
judge), and confession (pre-empting the judge). Close to the end of the
play, there is a perfect instance of this: Bill’s daughter shows up in
his office, comes in and sits down. Bill starts speaking to her;
nervously, he admits that he is not going to attend her birthday party
because he’s going to Blackpool with his mistress. He then talks about
how he adored her and ends explaining how he despises her. And she sits
silently, saying not a word before she leaves again.
This silence may be silent judgment or
it may be that Bill has battered her power of judgment from her. This
ambiguity expresses the essential dissatisfaction in the heart of
Osborne’s work and maybe even in his life. His sense of judgment is so
acute that his characters tends to reject those they love, even before
finding out whether they judged him at all. Alison in Look Back in Anger
is the classic example who he drives away through his constant
battering, though all we really see her do is iron his shirts. Of course
in that play, Osborne’s fort-da game sees her come back to him in the end, but in Inadmissible Evidence,
successively, his secretary, his clerk, his daughter, his telephonist,
his mistress all reject him, leaving him alone at the end of the play.
And I’d include the audience in the
targets of Osborne’s pre-emptive strikes. There is an attitude to the
audience of pre-emptive rejection in a lot of the plays that says ‘I
know you’re going to hate this, so I’m going to make sure you hate this,
and I’m going to incorporate your rejection or silence it altogether’.
Like Pinter, he saw his relation to the audience as a boxing match and
relished being pursued by a (probably exaggerated) violent mob after the
first night of Paul Slickey. And this
isn’t just a personal attitude, it’s dramaturgical. In its mild form,
it’s the way Jimmy Porter’s or Bill Maitland’s monologues overflow the
realistic conditions of their scenes and appear directed to the
audience; it’s the way Archie Rice is acknowledged as bad from the
outset but still ends the play heckling the audience; and it becomes the
scripted walk outs in A Sense of Detachment or the final stage direction of Déjàvu
which instructs that ‘in the unlikely event of audience dissent at the
end of the performance, the loud playing of martial music can be
effective’. Even that ‘unlikely’ is an expression of the idea that the
audience might even deliberately fail to rise to Osborne’s provocation.
Jane Maitland, Bill’s daughter, never
speaks in the play. Bill’s speech to her - all ten minutes of it - is an
astonishing piece of rhetoric, bruised wit, deep feeling. To me, the
sequence is also unsatisfactory in some way. Why is
the daughter so silent? If she’s this pushy little thing that Bill
describes, why doesn’t she try to butt in? If she isn’t this pushy
little thing, then why is he trying to smother her with his words? Well,
maybe because this is what Osborne’s characters do with all the people
they love. John Heilpern’s biography of John Osborne reveals that Osborne rejected his own daughter, Nolan, in a letter of similar viciousness and articulacy.
The problem personally with this
attitude is you push away everyone you love, by pre-emptively causing
the very rejection you fear. In dramaturgical terms, this causes a
different problem: are the characters outside the author’s consciousness
or inside it? If outside, they are effectively silenced (Jane); if
inside, then they are really just a paranoid extension of the writer’s
own consciousness. And this is what you see in Inadmissible Evidence, as
the visitors to the solicitor become semi-hallucinatory, each new
client played by the same person. Either way, the characters kind of
offer no resistance and resistance, in all the plays, seems to me what
Osborne longed for and feared. He wanted someone to stand up to him
(this is what Jimmy Porter explicitly demands) and yet was terrified
that he would be rejected and crushed by it. So he wanted them and hated
them. He drew character but either rendered them cyphers or silent.
Of course, I’m being too schematic here.
Alison does stand up to him, precisely through her silence and the
metronomic thump of the iron (I know, I know, not exactly feminist fury,
but in theatrical terms is emphasises the failure
of Jimmy’s rhetoric, its collapse into silence). But I think
Inadmissible Evidence may be his best play because it’s the point when
he sensed resistance most strongly - it’s entirely a play about
rejection - and this made him work harder and bring those neuroses to
their psychological and dramaturgical peak.
This production brings all that off enormously well, with great humour and savagery. Douglas Hodge, as Bill Maitland, gives a performance that, if Mark Rylance weren’t strutting his astonishing stuff in Jerusalem, would be talked of as one of the great performances of the new century.