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One of the central themes of this important play is that of alienation and loneliness, that is of course presented to us in the character of Jimmy Porter. In particular, Osborne uses him as a mouthpiece to rant about the inequalities of British society in 1956. Even though he received a good education, the fact that he attended a newer (and therefore less prestigious) university meant that he felt he was prevented from playing any significant and meaningful role in society.
Those kind of privileged positions are only available to those who have been brought up in the "right" kind of families and attended the "right" kind of educational establishments. The famous British "stiff upper lip," which refers to the Englishman's distaste of expressing any emotion, is of course expressed in the character of Alison, Jimmy's wife, who seems unable to engage fully with her emotions, in spite of Jimmy's encouragement for her to do so. Note what he says at one stage about this trait of hers:
My heart is so full, I feel ill--and she wants peace!
He rants and raves in the attempt to produce some kind of reaction, but all in vain. Jimmy is therefore a character who is profoundly at odds with society and the kind of environment in which he has been brought up thanks to his class and life chances.
The Angry Young Man
Osborne's play was the first to explore the theme of the "Angry Young Man." This term describes a generation of post-World War II artists and working class men who generally ascribed to leftist, sometimes anarchist, politics and social views. According to cultural critics, these young men were not a part of any organized movement but were, instead, individuals angry at a post-Victorian Britain that refused to acknowledge their social and class alienation.
Jimmy Porter is often considered to be literature's seminal example of the angry young man. Jimmy is angry at the social and political structures that he believes has kept him from achieving his dreams and aspirations. He directs this anger towards his friends and, most notably, his wife Alison.
The Kitchen Sink Drama
Kitchen Sink drama is a term used to denote plays that rely on realism to explore domestic social relations. According to many critics, by the mid-twentieth century the genre of realism had become tired and unimaginative. Osborne's play returned imagination to the Realist genre by capturing the anger and immediacy of post-war youth culture and the alienation that resulted in the British working classes. Look Back in Anger was able to comment on a range of domestic social dilemmas in this time period.
Loss of Childhood
A theme that impacts the characters of Jimmy and Alison Porter is the idea of a lost childhood. Osborne uses specific examples -- the death of Jimmy's father when Jimmy was only ten, and how he was forced to watch the physical and mental demise of the man -- to demonstrate the way in which Jimmy is forced to deal with suffering from an early age. Alison's loss of childhood is best seen in the way that she was forced to grow up too fast by marrying Jimmy. Her youth is wasted in the anger and abuse that her husband levels upon her.Osborne suggests that a generation of British youth has experienced this same loss of childhood innocence.
The Rise and Fall of the British Empire
The character of Colonel Redfern, Alison's father, represents the decline of and nostalgia for the British Empire. The Colonel had been stationed for many years in India, a symbol of Britain's imperial reach into the world. The Edwardian age which corresponded to Britain's height of power, had been the happiest of his life. His nostalgia is representative of the denial that Osborne sees in the psyche of the British people. The world has moved on into an American age, he argues, and the people of the nation cannot understand why they are no longer the world's greatest power.
Masculinity in Art
Osborne has been accused by critics of misogynistic views in his plays. Many point to Look Back in Anger as the chief example. These critics accuse Osborne of glorifying young male anger and cruelty towards women and homosexuals. This is seen in the play in specific examples in which Jimmy Porter emotionally distresses Alison, his wife, and delivers a grisly monologue in which he wishes for Alison's mother's death.Osborne, however, asserts that he is attempting to restore a vision of true masculinity into a twentieth century culture that he sees as becoming increasingly feminized.
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