Thursday, April 2, 2015

Inadmissible Evidence (John Osborne)

Meet Bill Maitland, protagonist of John Osborne's massive play Inadmissible Evidence. Bill, a 39-year-old lawyer, is not that likable a guy but seems to have his pick of the ladies. The pursuit of women has become a lifestyle for Bill, who has a wife and several mistresses both short and long-term, as well as opportunistic encounters. But this certainly isn't a sex comedy. It is more of an indictment. Bill is to be tried and found guilty -- though less for his sexual appetites than for his utter disregard of every single other's personhood.

John Osborne turned British theater on its head in the 1950s with his brilliant play Look Back in Anger, featuring the definitive "angry young man" character Jimmy Porter. Osborne early in his career wrote among the most punishingly large male roles in the entire world dramatic literature -- Porter, Archie Rice in The Entertainer, Luther in an eponymous play. With Maitland, Osborne pushes this line of inquiry as far as it will go; Inadmissible Evidence takes three to four hours to perform, the lead actor is onstage continuously, and is given any number of three, four, and five page speeches to execute. On top of all that, the actor is playing a self-justifying creep who has barely a single appealing moment and whose last big monologue is a cruel and incestuously tinged rejection of his teenage daughter. One critic of the play's premiere production in 1964 noted that the play has "no plot, no action, no interesting situations, no climaxes and no comedy...not even a clever set to look at." I know this all sounds horrible, and yet, such is the nature of the challenge Osborne set himself, to write a masterpiece (it has to be a masterpiece or nothing) within those boundaries. He pulls it off.

In reading and viewing Osborne, a book I am finding very helpful is Luc Gilleman's John Osborne -- Vituperative Artist. Gilleman states that "in many ways, Inadmissible Evidence is a bad play," but I would say that if so, it falls into the category of "bad great play" that Kenneth Tynan proposed for Camus's Caligula. (One might say that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is a bad great film -- you get the idea.) One "badness" of the play is that it probably relies too heavily on a great central performer to really work up there on stage. Osborne was terribly lucky to have the incomparable Nicol Williamson as Maitland in that first production, and many times subsequently; Williamson played Maitland in a total of five separate productions in London and New York, and in a little-seen 1968 film version. This was a signature role for him, and he was by all accounts mesmerizing in it; one gets a little of the flavor in the photographs that accompany the 1965 Grove Press printing of the play. Gilleman writes:

In playing Maitland, Williamson in fact seemed to die on the stage every night and was not adverse to berating the audience when it proved unworthy of such a sacrifice. Once he stopped the performance...starting again only when fidgety spectators had been cowed into silence. In another instance, he staggered off stage with chest pains, and the curtain lowered, until, sixteen minutes later, his understudy took over. After the interval, Williamson returned to complete the play and in a curtain speech offered the audience their money back, explaining the role was "terribly, terribly difficult," and, since he had been suspected of sustaining a heart attack, quite literally "killing."

Of such incidents are theatrical legends made -- and the performing history of Osborne's theatrical oeuvre offers a number of others of like kind. Still, actors love the challenge. As Osborne himself noted (my bolding):

[My work] requires very proficient actors. That is why they are very difficult to cast. They require a great deal of pure acting skill of a very special kind, I think...[The actors] must have an extraordinary technique as far as using the dense text, because it always is very dense. Also, they must have a wide intellectual grasp and tremendous pure verbal facility and a great ear and stamina and a lot of power and feeling.

Nothing much to ask for!

[Originally published in my blog Patrick Murtha's Diary in 2008, and slightly revised here. It is one of the very first pieces that I thought of porting over. My admiration for Osborne is huge.]

John Osborne: Plays 3 (Contemporary Classics)

John Osborne: Vituperative Artist (Studies in Modern Drama)

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