By Carly Hughes
Said of Paul Osborn by Michiko Kakutani: “He learned how to transform the sprawling narrative of a book into tight dramatic action and he learned how to retain the essential mood of a book while tailoring the characters to individual actor’s abilities (“40 Years Late, Osborn Has a Hit” [New York Times, 14 April 1980], 13). It is a statement celebrating Osborn’s success as a screen and stage adapter. Indeed with such credits to his name as South Pacific and East of Eden, his part in the public memory is largely tied to his skill in streamlining the work of preceding authors (World Authors 1980-1985, Osborn, Paul [H.W. Wilson Company]). Yet, behind recognition in such a roll lived a man hungering to create truly original works, not simply to condense the creativity of others, and longing for the audiences he courted to embrace the same. So it was that he felt the sweetness of acclamation in one vocation with the sting of being stifled within the confines of others’ work. His is a life both bitter and sweet.
Born in Evansville, Indiana on September 4, 1901, Osborn grew up with no intention to enter the world of writing, though he received his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Michigan (World Authors). In quite a different direction, he toyed with the idea of becoming an electrical engineer, but something within him balked at the idea of living the unremarkable life that was so often the premise and charm of his future works. In his own words, “I suppose I was a rebel in the sense that I wanted out of the environment. A lot of my old friends back there were working in hardware stores or banks, and that just wasn’t for me.” Osborn sought a way to escape the mundane and continued: “It wasn’t theater itself that gripped me at first; it was the need to get away from a life which sort of bored me. Playwriting seemed like a way out (Kakutani, C13). Thus, he took leave of practicality to pursue the dream and embarked on the journey that would last the remainder of his life.
It began in 1927 with the study of playwriting at Yale University and a gutsy move to New York City soon after. Working “one job after another” to support his passion for writing, he produced two rather forgettable plays, but though neither were hailed or even really noted at all, these first theatrical experiences served to exercise and refine his talent (World Authors). Experience notwithstanding, it was an incredible stroke of luck which facilitated his first success as a playwright. As Osborn himself relates, “I think I was letting up the gates of the railroad on Long Island, and the woman who was going to do my first play, Antoinette Perry, said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said I had a job and was working. She said, ‘Well, you’ve got a job writing.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but I’ve got to eat.’ She said, ‘Well, I wish you’d do something for me. I’ll give you a small allowance so you can quit your job on the railroad and you just write.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take it!’ She was delighted” (World Authors). The result was the production of The Vinegar Tree, which ran 233 performances, was eventually adapted to the screen, and left him the toast of Broadway (Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003). That same year The Vinegar Tree was listed as one of the most superb plays of the year (World Authors).
In 1939 Paul Osborn married Millicent Green, and was in every way imaginable “on top of the world,” but just as the world revolves, so did his status as playwright. Following The Vinegar Tree was a series of plays, including Oliver, Oliver and Morning’s At Seven, that were lost in the land of the forgotten. Receiving lukewarm acclaim at best, they were utter disappointments to their author. It was during this time that Osborn fell into his work as a writer of adaptations, and the acclaim of On Borrowed Time (1938) by Lawrence Edward Watkin was the first tie that bound him to the profession, a profession that was not unenjoyable for him, but neither was it completely fulfilling. Always, there were the limitations of dealing with a pre-set plot, but the assurance of income, alongside the ease of composition in comparison with creating original works, kept him engaged (Kakutani, C13). In a moment of candidness, Osborn revealed not a little regret, saying, “Sometimes, I wish I’d never done an adaptation. I like to write original plays so much more, but the adaptations were so easy. Someone would come up and ask me to do one, and since I wasn’t doing anything else, I’d end up doing it” (Kakutani, C13). What he would “end up doing” led to numerous Broadway box office hits and two Academy Award nominations for East of Eden (1955) and Sayonara (1957) (Contemporary Authors Online). Still, his heart was never in Hollywood, and he once described it disdainfully as “not the giddy life you were promised,” continuing, “I always felt my real work was in the theatre (World Authors).” Still, he persisted to write such familiar adaptations as Point of No Return (1951) and The World of Suzie Wong (1958).
As the years passed, Paul Osborn’s eyesight began to fail without ever seeing the success of an original play since The Vinegar Tree. Unable to continue in the professional world of writing, his life slowly slipped into anonymity. However, irony is rampant in the universe and with the resurrection of Morning’s at Seven in 1980, in a generation far removed from its characters, amid the closing of the curtain in the author’s life, he was once again in the public eye. Unlike its first debut, the play not only won the hearts, laughter, and praise of theatre attendees and critics alike, but the Tony Award for Best Broadway Revival (World Authors). It would be etched in history as an American classic and seal Osborn’s place as a great American playwright (Contemporary Authors).
The achievements he’d always dreamed of had finally come to pass, but for Osborne it was a sweetness tinged with the bitter irony that such a reception should come not to herald the birth of a brilliant career but hail its conclusion (Kakutani, C13). He died May 12, 1988 in New York City. Unlike the plays and scripts he wove so wonderfully, his own life would not acquiesce to the dictates of his every desire. Yet, regardless of regret, Osborn has left a legacy of work that continues to delight and inspire audiences, and, much as he used writing as an escape from the banal, his work allows us as spectators to take a vacation from it also.