Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
On a Sunday evening in April, Jimmy Porter and Cliff Lewis, both working-class men, and Jimmy’s upper-class wife, Alison, are in the attic flat they share. Music is playing on the radio, and while Alison irons, Jimmy and Cliff read the newspapers. From time to time, Jimmy makes acid comments on what he is reading, orders the other two to minister to his needs, or points out Cliff’s defects, in particular his ignorance and his ineffectuality. Jimmy’s worst venom is reserved for his wife, who he says is as vacuous as her mother and father and, like them, incapable of thought. Cliff defends Alison, and she treats him with sisterly affection, pressing his trousers and giving him cigarettes, despite the fact that the doctor and Jimmy have forbidden him to smoke. Furious because Cliff and Alison refuse to fight with him, Jimmy contrasts their lethargy with the energy of his former mistress, Madeline, and of Webster, a gay friend of Alison. He then returns to his verbal attacks on Alison, her family, and her gender, claiming that women’s worst vice is that they are noisy. Increasingly annoyed with both Alison and Cliff, Jimmy turns off the radio, contending that with Alison ironing and Cliff turning the pages of his newspaper, it is impossible to hear the music.
Cliff finally insists that Jimmy apologize to them both, and in the resulting scuffle, the ironing board is knocked down and Alison is burned. Angry at last, she tells Jimmy to leave. He walks...
(The entire section is 1119 words.)
Act I Summary
The plot of Look Back in Anger is driven almost entirely by the tirades of Jimmy Porter rather than outside forces. The play is set in a one-room attic apartment in the Midlands of England. This large room is the home of Jimmy Porter, his wife Alison, and his partner and friend Cliff Lewis, who has a separate bedroom across the hall.
The play opens with Alison at the ironing board and Jimmy and Cliff in easy chairs reading the Sunday papers. Jimmy complains that half the book review he is reading in his "posh" paper is in French. He asks Alison if that makes her feel ignorant and she replies that she wasn't listening to the question. Immediately one of the main themes is introduced, Jimmy's railing against the inertia of Alison and the inertia of the whole middle-class of England. Jimmy teases Cliff about being uneducated and ignorant and Cliff good naturedly agrees with him. Jimmy says that Alison hasn't had a thought for years and she agrees. Jimmy is depressed by their Sunday routine and says their youth is slipping away. He says,"Let's pretend that we're human beings and that we're actually alive." Cliff complains about the smoke from Jimmy's pipe. When Alison says she has gotten used to it, Jimmy says she would get used to anything in a few minutes. He then rails about the fact that"Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasms." He says that England has lost her soul, that it is dreary living in...
(The entire section is 585 words.)
Act II Summary
Act II, scene 1
It is evening two weeks later. Helena and Alison are getting ready to go to church. Jimmy is in Cliff's room practicing jazz on his trumpet. Jimmy's friend Hugh and Hugh's working-class mother, who provided the money needed to start the candy business, are discussed. Alison talks of being cut off from the kind of people she had always known. She still hasn't told Jimmy she is pregnant. After Cliff and Jimmy enter, Jimmy launches into another attack on the Establishment in general and Alison's mother in particular. He then tells of keeping his father company as he lay dying for months and says he "learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless." Jimmy is called to the phone. Helena tells Alison that she has telegraphed Alison's father to come and take her home. Jimmy returns and says Hugh's mother has had a stroke and he will go to London to be with her. He tells Alison he needs her to go with him. She leaves with Helena.
Act II, scene 2
It is the following evening and Colonel Redfern, Alison's father, is visiting. Redfern is bemused by the modern England; he spent his whole career, from 1913 to 1947, in the colonial service in India. He sees some right on Jimmy's side and was horrified by his wife's brutal attempts to prevent Alison from marrying Jimmy. He says he and Alison are much alike in that they both "like to sit on a fence. It is rather comfortable." Alison tries to explain why she...
(The entire section is 401 words.)
Act III Summary
Act III, scene 1
It is early Sunday evening several months later. Jimmy and Cliff are sprawled in their armchairs reading the Sunday newspapers and Helena is at the ironing board. All seems very relaxed They talk about a newspaper article and Jimmy starts in on religion and politics. They then go into a vaudeville routine and Helena joins in. Jimmy and Cliff do a song and dance and end with playful wrestling. Cliff's shirt gets dirty and Helena leaves to wash it. Cliff says he is going to move out and give up the candy stall. He says he might find a woman of his own. When Helena returns with his shirt, Cliff hangs it over the gas fire in his room. Helena tells Jimmy that she loves him and has always wanted him. The door opens and Alison enters, looking ill and obviously thin. Jimmy exits and leaves the two women looking at each other.
Act III, scene 2
It is moments later. There is the sound of Jimmy's trumpet from across the hall. Alison has suffered a miscarriage. She says she doesn't know why she came, that she doesn't want to cause a breach between Helena and Jimmy. Helena says that it is all over between her and Jimmy, that she realizes that what she has been doing is wrong, and she can't live with that. She calls Jimmy in and tells him she is going to leave, and she does. Alison says she will go. Jimmy berates her for not sending flowers to the funeral. Then he softens and talks of the old bear going through the forest of...
(The entire section is 344 words.)