The Entertainer - John Osborne's Masterpiece For Our Time
In his recent book 'The 101 Greatest Plays' the critic Michael Billington almost apologises for selecting John Osborne's The Entertainer above his more widely popular and culturally significant work Look Back in Anger (1956), which changed the face of British Theatre, the fortunes of the English Stage Company and was described as “the best young play of its decade”. Whilst Look Back in Anger went on to be a huge success in London, New York and on the silver screen, spawning the era of the “angry young man” within the context of kitchen sink realism, Billington describes The Entertainer, Osborne's 1957 follow up, as being “both a better play” and having a “more resonant metaphor”.
Whilst it may not have quickly been the success that Laurence Olivier originally predicted, thinking it would end up “in the same Reps Drawer as The Cherry Orchard and The School of Scandal before the century is out”, the play continues to fascinate audiences and theatre companies and in 2016 could hardly feel more relevant to a contemporary audience. Set against the background of the Suez Crisis, Osborne draws together the cultural significance of the decline of British music hall throughout the 1950s as a symbol for the decline of the country in a wider sense. At a time where Britain was losing its Empire and world dominance to America, it was also losing its place in the cultural centre of entertainment, as local governments up and down the country continued to tear down Victorian and Edwardian music halls as shifts in public mood embraced the arrival of rock and roll music. His protagonist Archie Rice performs twice nightly at a nude revue, with musical numbers intercepted into the drama drawing parallels not only with the wider cultural and economic movement but also with domestic issues that hang over his fractured family.
“The music hall is dying, and, with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.” Osborne's note at the beginning of the published script explains his composition and the desired effect he wishes the metaphor to have. He goes on to say, “I have not used some of the techniques of the music hall in order to exploit an effective trick, but because I believe that these can solve some of the eternal problems of time and space that face the dramatist, and, also, it has been relevant to the story and setting.”
The original production, which opened at the Royal Court Theatre featured illuminated numbers along the proscenium arch as though each scene in the three act structure was being played within a music hall bill. Each director approaches the text with a different level of symmetry between the domestic and the performance scenes, with some of the strongest productions blending the two worlds together, creating a stage within a stage for both the internal and external dramas to unfold. Osborne's structure and music hall convention is an idea that has often been seen on the American stage, most prominently in the 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy, by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. Whilst Gypsy focuses more on the domestic and cultural drama than the political one, at its heart it tells a similar story about the decline of entertainment, in this case American vaudeville, which shares many aspects with British Music Hall. Laurents' original production, and his 2008 revival, similarly featured illuminated show cards on the proscenium for each scene, structuring the drama in a similar fashion to Osborne. John Kander and Fred Ebb's two most successful works, Chicago and Cabaret both use the performance structure to tell a wider story, and whilst different in style and tone to Osborne's work, their narrative methods are somewhat similar in their execution – using the decline of a performance mode to highlight wider dramatic themes, similarly "relevant to the story and setting".
For as much as The Entertainer is firmly rooted as a play that is a product of the 1950s, its description of a country in crisis seems to transcend both time and place, speaking just as loudly to a 2016 audience who find themselves at a moment of uncertainty with Britain's place in the wider world. Osborne opens the drama with Billy Rice, a man in his seventies who becomes a spokesperson for Edwardian values and the distant memory of a time where men “used to take their hats off when they passed the cenotaph.” His unchallenged racism and xenophobia speaks as a generation wary of immigration – he values tradition and judges his son Archie's somewhat modern attitudes to marriage and the home. It was a period where not unlike today the question of 'Britishness' and what it means to be British was part of the public zeitgeist, having just come through the Second World War and the height of patriotism. As Archie's music hall act uses the iconography of Britannia, naked with her bulldog to almost trivialise the flag itself, that same flag achieves significance as it's draped over the coffin of soldiers killed in battle, creating a twisted image of a divided country somewhat in search of itself following a huge cultural shift.
Osborne uses the generational gap to further explore the political dimensions of the time, with Jean Rice, Archie's youngest daughter coming back from London following a demonstration in Trafalgar Square against the Suez invasion. One of the biggest demonstrations since before the Second World War, the protest drew over 30,000 people and featured a famously impassioned speech by Aneurin Bevan against Prime Minister Anthony Eden's decision to take military action in Egypt. No contemporary audience member can hear of those scenes without thinking about the Stop the War protest against the invasion of Iraq, as well as countless demonstrations in the past year alone, particularly post Brexit. That same level of distrust in the government and frustration at Britain fighting to find its place within the wider world are themes that underwrite Osborne's play and make for a suitable parallel to 2016. Billington goes further in his assessment of its importance within the play, suggesting that Osborne himself saw the protests as a form of "street theatre", with the failing Prime Minister Anthony Eden having a "touch of the fading matinee idol", matching Archie's own stage decline but on a wider and more public stage.
Politics aside, at its heart The Entertainer provides an intricate domestic drama that not only picks up the mantle of kitchen sink realism that would continue to develop in British drama, but it also manages to feel distinctly American in its delivery and exploration of the family unit. I am constantly reminded of Arthur Miller's 1947 play All My Sons, which similarly shows the effects of conflict on a fractured domestic environment, and there are parts of Osborne's text that distinctly feel aligned to the work of Eugene O'Neill or even Tennessee Williams. Archie's treatment of his suffering wife Phoebe keeps her on the edge of hysteria, comforting herself with gin and riddled with panic that she'll be 'laid out' somewhere undesirable or walk in on her husband with one of the music hall girls in their own home. The three fractured generations represent different aspects of society which are as ramshackle and tired as Archie's act, and the resentment he holds for the audience who ignore his worn-out jokes and stunted patter bleeds into this home life creating a British form of Miller-esque tragic hero.
Arthur Miller played a significant role in the history of The Entertainer, inadvertently convincing Laurence Olivier of Osborne's worth as a dramatist which led him to request a role in the original production. After initially dismissing Look Back in Anger as "a travesty on England", Olivier took Miller to the see the original production whilst he was in England working on the film version of 'The Prince and the Showgirl' with his then wife Marilyn Monroe. Impressed by Miller's reaction to Osborne, Olivier found himself prompted to ask for a role in his next drama, fearing he would miss the boat with the changing tide of British drama, and end up a somewhat life-like version of Archie Rice. Olivier's performance in the role was much talked about and became one of the highlights of his career and the yardstick for future productions.
The parallels between Kenneth Branagh and Olivier's careers are much discussed, and in many ways The Entertainer is the perfect conclusion to this year long self-named season at the Garrick Theatre. Solely directed by Rob Ashford, whose comfort and brilliance lies in musical theatre rather than angry British drama, this new production will certainly speak to modern audiences, and has the potential to show Branagh in his finest form. Moreover, the play itself uses this battered entertainer to paint a vivid picture of a country in search of itself, and Osborne's “immediate, vital, and direct” contact feels more necessary than ever before.
The Entertainer is currently in previews at the Garrick Theatre, where it is running to 12 November 2016.