Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*English Midlands. Central region of England in which the play is set. Midlands counties contain the country’s major industrial cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Leeds. Factories dominate their urban landscapes, and their residents are largely working-class. Historically, the Midlands have often been viewed with condescension by more cosmopolitan residents of London, Oxford, and Cambridge. Relatively few literary works prior to the 1950’s were set in the Midlands, and the distinctive northern accent was rarely heard on stage.
Porters’ flat. Described as “a fairly large attic room, at the top of a large Victorian house,” the one-room apartment of Jimmy and Alison Porter is an example of the trend derided as “kitchen-sink realism” by some critics during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In stark contrast to the stylish and elegant upper-and middle-class settings of then-popular plays by Noël Coward and others, Osborne’s setting is economically downscale. Its furniture is “simple and rather old,” including two “shabby” armchairs. A double bed takes up much of the space along the back wall.
As in plays by Tennessee Williams, the mere presence of the young married couple’s bed on stage connotes a certain frankness about sexuality that was considered daring for its time—as does Alison’s being seen wearing only a slip during the second act. Books crowd the shelves and cover the chest of drawers, indicating that Jimmy Porter, though of working-class background, is educated, in contrast to virtually all working-class characters depicted in literature earlier. The fact that on Sundays he reads the “only two posh papers,” which are strewn about the room, also indicates his level of intelligence and interest in the larger world, though he complains that the London-based book reviews all sound the same. The ironing-board symbolizes Alison’s unfortunate status in the marriage and the domestic subordination of women in the 1950’s, though her parents are more middle-class than her husband’s.
University. Unnamed institution of higher learning that Jimmy apparently attended but left early. He alludes to a university that is “not even red brick, but white tile.” In contrast to Oxford and Cambridge, where England’s social and intellectual elites are educated amid buildings of centuries-old gray stone, “red brick” universities were primarily twentieth century institutions that were more accessible to the public. White tiles are associated with public toilets.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Carter, Alan. John Osborne. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1969. The chapter on Look Back in Anger is a good starting point for study of the play. Discusses critical and popular reception and explains its importance in theatrical history.
Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976. Compares Osborne with other writers of the period. Affirms that, though hardly the proletarian war cry some have supposed, Look Back in Anger inspired other dramatists, particularly through its vivid characterization and riveting dialogue.
Hayman, Ronald. John Osborne....
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