Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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What is the social background of Osborne's drama Look Back in Anger?

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John Osborne wrote the play Look Back in Anger in 1956. The play is an intensely realistic tale, a "kitchen sink" drama that presents harsh realism as a counter to the escapist plays and musicals more familiar in the English theatrical cannon. At the time, many critics saw this play as dividing British theater into "before and after"—they thought that it changed the course of theater in general. While Osborne later described it as a "formal, old-fashioned play," its articulate energy, its fierceness and humor, its brave willingness to dive into "taboo" topics, and the "arias" (as Osborne called them) of its main character and anti-hero, Jimmy Porter, were quite unlike anything audiences had seen before.

For Osborne himself, a strong motivation for his writing the play was its autobiographical nature. Osborne was an angry young man too, and he poured himself into the character of Jimmy Porter: the views and ideas of Jimmy are the views and ideas of Osborne. The portrait of the disintegrating marriage of Jimmy and Alison is based on his own failing marriage with Pamela Lane. Later, Osborne said:

It's no good fooling about with love you know. You can't fall into it like a soft job without dirtying up your hands. It takes muscle and guts. If you can't bear the thought of messing up your nice, tidy soul, you better give up the whole idea of life and become a saint, because you'll never make it as a human being. It's either this world . . . or the next.

The plot of Look Back in Anger bears out Osborne's philosophy. Jimmy and Alison fight and make up, fight and make up, and so on. At their happiest, they have invented a silly game where they pretend to be animals and play-act in their love nest. The rest of the time, they are miserable. Alison leaves Jimmy, miscarries their child, and eventually comes back to Jimmy. Jimmy has an affair while she is gone, but it doesn't last, and in the end, the couple are together again—facing an uncertain future together. Osborne suggests that love is always going to be messy, but to be human is to be messy, and they should get used to it.

Jimmy is a smart, confused cynic—a hallmark of the smart young men of his generation. World-weary, he feels as though he has already seen it all, and he is not even out of his twenties yet. As he says at one point in the play:

I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. There aren't any good, brave causes left.

The rise of a strong consumer society in the 1950s in England also created a new, embittered generation of young people who either were not able to participate in it or did not agree with its values—or both. Osborne is squarely in the third and final camp. He and Jimmy see an emotional void beneath the smooth, shiny surface of consumer society. At one point, Jimmy shouts:

Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm—that's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah!

Though Jimmy is clearly far from perfect, he is intensely emotional and articulate. Osborne later wrote that "I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling," and this is a strong drive of the social criticism of Look Back in Anger: the expression of anger itself in the face of a society that represses it.

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John Osborne's play is centered around the first generation that came of age during the post-World War II deprivations that affected British society. Widespread debates about the best path for recovery dominated political discourse from the mid-1940s on in a nation that had won the war at great cost. The nation's victory had raised people's expectations about a prosperity that never came. Instead, Britain saw its status diminished as it lost large parts of its colonial empire. Sharp political divisions about the necessity for social welfare programs characterized the stances of the Conservative and Labour parties.

The disaffected younger generation, which includes young men like Jimmy Porter, bemoan the lack of "good, brave causes" and are shaped in part by constantly being compared to their parents' heroism during the war. Not even the threat of nuclear annihilation seems to impress Jimmy. Moreover, the shortage of jobs—even for those with higher education—disadvantages (if not outright impoverishes) many young adults who felt caught between adolescence and full adulthood. The ambivalence of Jimmy and Alison toward starting a family reflects this larger social malaise.

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There is a clearly a sense of social immediacy in the setting of Look Back in Anger.

As is true of much literature, Look Back in Anger is a strong mirror of the changing times of the setting in England. Certainly, the dissatisfaction and disillusionment of many after World War II and the political feelings regarding the new Labour Party's failed efforts to build a welfare system that would improve social conditions are also reflected. After the defeat of the Labour Party in 1951 and the restoration of the Conservative Party, many English felt that there was virtually no difference between the two political parties.

Reflecting the disillusionment of many British citizens, Jimmy Porter, in one of his more significant speeches, declares that people of his generation cannot feel a sense of value in fighting because "[T]here are no good, brave causes left in the world."

Also reflected in the play is the malaise of many young adults in their thirties, labelled "angry young men," who find that the new world envisioned by them has not materialized. Jimmy Porter embodies their disillusionment, cynicism, and rejection of the "official" attitude along with their fear of a nuclear bomb. Much like Hemingway's main characters, Jimmy expresses a certain nihilism:

If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won't be in aid of the old-fashioned, grand design. It'll just be for the Brave New-noting-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.

There is also a war waged with the class distinctions in the social setting of these "angry young men" as represented by Jimmy Porter. Jimmy rails against social distinctions as he criticizes his wife's upper-class family. For instance, he derogates his wife's father for living in the past and being out of touch. His brother-in-law Nigel does not escape his criticism, either. Satirically, Jimmy declares that Nigel's ignorance of life and ordinary human beings is so nebulous that he will probably become a Cabinet Minister.

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