Look Back in Anger opens on a lazy, mid-1950’s Sunday afternoon in a one-room attic apartment in a town in the English Midlands. As usual, Jimmy Porter and his friend and business partner, Cliff Lewis, are reading the Sunday papers while Jimmy’s wife, Alison, irons. As usual, Jimmy is verbally bashing everyone and everything around him, including Cliff and Alison—who seem to take his anger in stride.
What makes Jimmy so angry? To support a political reading of Look Back in Anger, critics cite Jimmy’s famous speech near the end of the play, “there aren’t any good, brave causes left,” suggesting that Jimmy’s anger comes from his disappointment that the faded Edwardian glory of England can no longer be real and felt with conviction and enthusiasm. This interpretation is supported by an earlier passage in the play in which Jimmy is quite nostalgic about the Edwardian world of Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern: “all home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms . . . what a romantic picture.” Jimmy admits that “if you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s.”
In his contemporary England, Jimmy sees only political decay and the pretense of continued health. As an intelligent, articulate, and educated twenty-five-year-old, Jimmy has not been able to find work that matches his skills, so he earns a meager living running a street-corner candy stand with Cliff as his partner. Part of him reaches for more success, symbolized most eloquently in his frequent, offstage riffs on his jazz trumpet, but part of him mistrusts success because he does not trust aspiration in a country where aspiration is associated with all that is false and hollow. From his demeaning social position, Jimmy lashes out at all the self-important people around him. His anger strikes at everything associated with British bureaucracy, but, unhappily, it also overflows into mistreatment of his wife and his friend Cliff.
A more psychological and domestic interpretation of the play often points to Jimmy’s pain over his father’s death. When Jimmy was ten years old, he spent a year watching his father die. To him, the rest of the family did not seem to care, and Jimmy sees a similar lack of sensitivity in Alison. He calls her “Lady Pusillanimous” (meaning cowardly), a “monument to non-attachment,” and in one of his verbal tirades even wishes that some catastrophe would shock her out of her lethargy, even something horrible such as having a child die. This is indeed what happens, and that tragedy serves, ironically, as the reconciling force in their marriage.
There are other interpretations of Jimmy’s anger, but his complexity derives from the fact that the precise cause of his discontent remains elusive. In fact, audiences and critics find Jimmy compelling because the richness of his pain defies final analysis.
Jimmy’s anger cools a little at the end of the play but only because his conflict with Alison is resolved at a very great price. When Alison discovers that she is pregnant, an old friend, Helena Charles, comes to stay with the Porters, and Jimmy’s badgering intensifies; his harassment is eventually directed toward Helena. In reaction, Helena convinces Alison that she should leave Jimmy and live again with her father, and Alison leaves. At the end of act 2, however, Helena is drawn by some strange attraction to Jimmy and offers herself to him, becoming his mistress. When act 3 begins, it is Sunday afternoon again and Jimmy and Cliff are once more reading their Sunday papers. Now, however, in a mirror image of the opening of the play, Helena has replaced Alison at the ironing board.
Both the resolution of the conflict and the end of the play come as Alison returns, having lost both the baby and her fertility. In a scene that some critics find insufficiently motivated, Helena leaves and gives Jimmy back to Alison. The play ends with Jimmy and Alison reconciling, in part because Jimmy is satisfied that Alison’s pain has brought her more in tune with his own suffering. The reconciliation is richly ambiguous. Have Jimmy and Alison repaired a marriage worth saving, or have they simply hid from problems they cannot face and handle? The enduring quality of Look Back in Anger is that either of these readings, and more, can be defended.