Few dramatists have by virtue of one play defined the beginning of a new age. John James Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, first produced on May 8, 1956 (the year of Great Britain’s Suez debacle), at the Royal Court Theatre in London, enjoys the distinction of such a historical moment. His play gave name to a new kind of theater, “the angry theater,” and to a new dramatic era. The English stage, dominated by the well-made, middle-class drawing-room dramas and Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, seemed to have changed overnight.
Dramatists of both older and younger generations, Rattigan on the one hand and Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard on the other, acknowledged being moved by the honest force of an angry Jimmy Porter, the main character, who as a graduate of a “redbrick” English university finds himself in a dead-end existence. His only means of livelihood is the operation of a sweets stall in a dreary Midlands town. Having no one or nothing on which to vent a lifetime of injuries endured, he unleashes his anger on those whom he loves and with whom he lives—his genteel wife, Alison, and his best friend, Cliff. His personal anger is aggravated by the loss of idealism; to Porter there are no more great causes, such as the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. The effect of the play was to unleash a proliferation of dramatists in two successive waves of British drama. In the first wave, Pinter emerged as the leading innovative stylist. In the second, Stoppard reinvigorated drama with the plotting and linguistic pyrotechnics of his high comedy of ideas.
Osborne followed Look Back in Anger—a stylistically conventional play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg—with others exhibiting the disillusionment of the post-World War II generations. Social alienation, the result of England’s colonial past and of the oppressive class system, came under angry attack from other working-class and lower-middle-class writers, as well as from Cambridge-and Oxford-educated dramatists such as Trevor Griffiths and David Hare, who wrote radical-left dramas attacking England’s past and present. Osborne thus enjoys a fixed place in British theater history.
Osborne was the only child of Thomas Godfrey, a commercial artist and copywriter, and Nellie Beatrice Grove Osborne, a barmaid. He grew up in poverty during World War II and, not thinking highly of his two years of charity-assisted...
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