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...
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By 1956 the British Empire had been shrinking for decades. With the granting of independence to India in 1947 after Gandhi's thirty years of struggle and the loss of African colonies and the near independence of the Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the British Empire was all but gone. The Suez crises in 1956, in which Egypt refused to renew the British-owned Suez Canal Company's concession and which resulted in a disastrous and humiliating intervention by England, simply emphasized the lack of power wielded by Britain in the Post World War II world.
There had also been incursions into the power structure since early Victorian times, with the ruling classes resisting every inch of the way. In 1945, the Labour Party won an impressive victory over the Tories, thus turning the war-time hero Winston Churchill out of office. This was a mandate for the welfare state and the end of the class system. Prosperity for all was the hope of the people. Nationalized medicine became a reality and a social welfare system was constructed. In the words of Harold Ferrar, "an era of affluence was predicted, and a meritocracy that would supersede the reign of old school ties." The new "red-brick" universities were built and greatly expanded educational opportunities, but the old power structure did not simply hand over the reins of control. Price controls and other austerity measures were imposed. By 1951 it was apparent that the land of...
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The play takes place in the Porters' one-room flat, a fairly large attic room. The furniture is simple and rather old: a double bed, dressing table, book shelves, chest of drawers, dining table, and three chairs, two shabby leather arm chairs. The drab setting of the play emphasizes the contrast between the idealistic Jimmy and the dull reality of the world surrounding him.
The construction of Look Back in Anger is that of an old-fashioned well-made play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, or most of Osborne's contemporary commercial playwrights. There is one plot developed over three acts (the expected number in 1956), and the basic plot device is ancient: misalliance in marriage compounded by a love triangle. There is some exposition that has been characterized as clumsy, such as when Jimmy tells Alison, to whom he has been married three years, how his business had been financed. Some plot devices stand out as the author's contrivances, such as Cliffs exit in Act I to buy cigarettes, and his unconvincing reasons for returning a couple of minutes later just as Alison is about to tell Jimmy that she is pregnant; the telephone call from Helena prepares for the Act I curtain and a phone call saying Hugh's mother is dying prepares the Act II, Scene 1 curtain. The end of Act II, Scene 2, with the two women left looking at each other, has been viewed as artificial. Osborne's...
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Compare and Contrast
1956: The welfare state was in place in England with public ownership of the main public utilities, such as the telephone, gas, and electric production, national health was in place, and a national welfare system that provided at least minimal economic security for nearly the whole population.
Today: The public utilities have been privatized, and there have been broad reductions in public programs, including national health.
1956: The European Common Market was still an idea and movement across national boundaries was strictly controlled.
Today: The European Common Market is firmly in place, Europe is on the brink of having a common currency, and borders between countries are practically open.
1956: The Cold War between blocks of nations led by two superpowers was in full effect and nuclear annihilation was felt as a constant possibility.
Today: With the collapse of the Soviet Union the Cold War was effectively won by the West and the threat of nuclear annihilation reduced; however, there are more nations with nuclear weapons ability and the threat of annihilation is still real if not popularly perceived as such.
1956: Rock and roll music was just starting in the United States and was hardly known in England
Today: Rock and roll music has gone through many stages, with many of the most influential strains originating in England,...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the "Welfare State" programs and policies in post-World War II England. Why would these not satisfy someone like Jimmy Porter?
Compare August Strindberg's The Father or Dance of Death and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House with Look Back in Anger for both style and content.
Research the decline of the British Empire. How would that decline affect England itself and people as different as Jimmy Porter and Colonel Redfern?
Is Jimmy Porter an "angry young man" with a purpose, or is he merely a tiresome, cruel whiner?
Does rock music of the 1960s and 1970s contain any of the themes of Look Back in Anger? Does the rock music of today contain any of those themes?
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Look Back in Anger was adapted in 1958 as a film by John Osborne and Nigel Kneale. It was produced by Woodfall Films, a company formed by John Osborne and Tony Richardson. It was directed by Tony Richardson, and stared Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. Available on video.
A second film as made in 1980, directed by Lindsay Anderson (a former artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre). It stared Malcolm McDowell and Lisa Banes. Available on video.
The 1989 revival directed Judi Dench for a very limited run in Belfast was filmed for Thames Television. The television version was directed by David Jones and stared Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Available on video.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Entertainer is Osborne's second play, produced by The English Stage Company in 1957. Osborne offers the outdated and dying English music hall and the main character, second-rate performer Archie Rice, as a metaphor for England.
Luther is Osborne's psychological study of Martin Luther as a private man, rather than as a public religious figure and instigator of the Protestant Reformation.
Inadmissible Evidence is the product of a more mature artistic mind and evidenced that Osborne could successfully break traditional dramaturgical rules. It picks up Osborne's chronicle of the state of contemporary England where Look Back in Anger left off.
A Better Class of Person is Osborne's autobiography up to the production of Look Back in Anger.
Almost a Gentleman is Osborne's second volume of autobiography and begins with his fame as a playwright that followed the production of Look Back in Anger.
Roots is a play by Arnold Wesker produced by the English Stage Company. It deals with a young woman of the rural working class finding her own voice and is an example of the many plays dealing realistically with contemporary England that followed Look Back in Anger.
Plays for Public Places are short plays written by Howard Brenton m 1971 which deal with England from a generation after the time of Look Back in Anger.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Athanason, Arthur Nicholas "John Osborne," in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 7 Writers After World War ll, 1945-1960, Gale, 1992, pp 231-54.
Barker, John A review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Express, May 9,1956.
Bilbngton, Michael A review of Look Back in Anger in Guardian, June 8,1989.
Carter, Alan John Osborne, Oliver & Boyd, 1969, pp. 1-4,22
Coveney, Michael A review of Look Back in Anger in Financial Times, June 13,1989.
Elsom, John Post-War British Theatre, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, pp. 72-87
Elsom, John Post-War British Theatre Criticism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 74-80
Ferrar, Harold John Osborne, Columbia University Press, 1973, pp 3-12,46.
Hobson, Harold A review of Look Back in Anger in Sunday Times, May 13,1956.
Hope-Wallace Philip A review of Look Back in Anger in Manchester Guardian, May 10,1956.
Osborne, John Look Back in Anger, Penguin, 1982.
Page, Malcolm File on Osborne, Methuen, 1988, pp 11-17.
Paton, Maureen A review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Express, June 8,1989.
Shulman, Milton A review of Look Back in Anger in Evening Standard, May 9, 1956.
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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. London: Heinemann, 1968. Argues that Osborne’s characters are not in fact representatives of a class or a point of view, but rebels dominated by their own egomania. A readable and persuasive analysis.
Hinchliffe, Arnold P. John Osborne. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A balanced and detailed work, tracing the action of Osborne’s plays in each scene and suggesting various interpretations. Also contains an extended and thoughtful discussion of Osborne’s politics.
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