John Osborne Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When the much-heralded John Osborne hero tore into an entire generation yet had no prospect for viable change, he discovered his own nakedness and vulnerability. He was inevitably a man in limbo, caught between nostalgia for the settled order of the past and hope for an idealized future he could not possibly identify. His rage was directed against his own inadequacy, not simply against that of his society. Because it was ineffectual, protesting against the ills of society became primarily a ritual complaint of the self against its own limitations.

Every Osborne play deals with reality’s raids on self-esteem. His characters, even those who are most hostile to outworn conventions, are all in search of some private realm where they can operate with distinction. Sadly, that very search, which leads to isolation and denies communication, is as important a contributor to the contemporary malaise as is any governing body or social system. Angry young men and scornful old men, alike, feel disaffiliated and frustrated by the meager roles they occupy, but their greatest failure comes from not making a commitment to anything other than the justification of those feelings. Osborne wrote of a world that is immune to meaningful achievement. The degree to which his characters can move beyond complaint toward some constructive alternative that welcomes other people is the best measure of their heroism.

Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger is less specifically about rebellion than it is about the inertia that overcomes someone when he feels helpless to rebel. To excuse his own inanition, Jimmy Porter cries that there are no “good, brave causes left”; in fact, he daily rails against dozens of enemies—the bomb, advertisers, the church, politicians, aristocrats, cinema audiences, and others—until one realizes that the problem is that there are too many causes worth fighting for, and their sheer magnitude renders Jimmy impotent. His anger, his irreverence, and his castigating wit are all an imposture, an attempt to shield himself from his failure to take meaningful action. While he pricks the illusions and damns the lethargy of those around him, he himself holds fast to the sense that only he suffers, that his anger betokens spiritual superiority over Alison, who irons incessantly and who only desires peace, and over Cliff, who buries his head in the newspaper and who only desires comfortable seclusion in the Porters’ flat. However justifiable his charges against the other characters, Jimmy’s anger is less a mark of privilege than it is a standing joke—part of the “Sunday ritual.”

Jimmy at times seems almost envious of those he attacks. The man for whom he professes the greatest resentment, Colonel Redfern, is an illusion-ridden, displaced Edwardian whom Jimmy prefers to see as the tyrannical father from whose clutches he saved Alison; nevertheless, the colonel at least had a golden age, whereas Jimmy agitates in a vacuum. Similarly, Helena, Alison’s posh actress-friend, inspires in Jimmy equal portions of spite and sexual desire; he not only brings this officious snob down from her pedestal but also makes a place for her in his home after Alison’s departure. Even Alison’s political brother, Nigel, “the chinless wonder,” whose vagueness Jimmy loves to attack, reflects on Jimmy’s personal lack of commitment.

The point is that Jimmy cannot afford to see himself as in any way implicated by his own attacks. He resents everyone else’s desperate evasion of suffering—he goes so far as to wish that Alison should witness the death of a baby, thereby unwittingly previewing her fate—but he, too, tends to leave the scene at times of crisis, going off to play his horn in the other room, for example, when Alison returns to confront the “traitorous” Helena. At this crucial juncture, Helena decides to opt out of the mess. Rather than risk dirtying her soul, she spouts convenient clichés about doing the decent thing and thus escapes her guilt. Alison’s return is itself a compromise made in order to reaffirm the only security she has ever had. To say that Jimmy Porter proves any more willing to handle the pain and difficulty of being alive, however, is to ignore the fact that his has been an exclusive self-interest throughout the play. He is childishly arrogant rather than righteously indignant. So long as some woman is there to iron his clothes, he will not be bothered about his responsibilities to either Alison or Helena. (After all, he reasons, by leaving him, they have betrayed his “love,” and so they deserve little more than scorn.) The image that concludes the play—Jimmy and Alison huddled together in a game of bears and squirrels—marks a final repudiation of the complications of adult life. “Let’s pretend we’re human” is Jimmy’s original suggestion at the beginning of Look Back in Anger, but the consequences of human thought and feeling are too great; only within the limited arrangement of a “brainless” love game can either of them function at the end of the play.

Look Back in Anger portrays a world that lacks opportunities for meaningful achievement. Jimmy Porter loses his glibness and sarcasm as the “cruel steel traps” of the world close in on him; he trades in his anger for anesthesia. Ironically, even more obsolete than Colonel Redfern’s visions of bygone days is Jimmy’s own anger; Helena suggests that he really belongs “in the middle of the French Revolution,” when glory was available. Jimmy Porter, who embodies the failures of his society, can support no cause other than that of the self in retreat. An impotent reformer and would-be martyr, he is consumed by a burning rage that finds no outlet.

The Entertainer

Osborne’s society is one that seems immune to creativity and inimical to full humanity. In The Entertainer, Archie Rice looks back on the past nobility of the music hall (his is now a tawdry striptease joint) and forward to the barren legacy he has to offer his alienated children, and he wonders where all the “real people” have gone. Like Colonel Redfern, he is an anachronism, a personification of degraded values, as exemplified by his adherence to a dead art. He lacks even the satisfaction of the dying Billy Rice, who can at least withdraw into memories of free pudding with a pint of beer and respectable women in elegant dresses. Instead, Archie must console himself as best he can with a pitiful affair, his “little round world of light” onstage, and the conviction that at least he has “had a go at life.”

The music hall structure of “turns” on a bill is imitated in the structure of the play itself. In this way, the story of the Rice family becomes an elaborate sketch, including overture, comic patter, heartrending interludes, and skits of love and death. Like the music hall, which has been corrupted by nudity and obscenity, the family unit, once a bastion of British dignity, has fallen on hard times. Phoebe, Archie’s wife, indulges her husband’s adulteries and failures and seeks shelter in local movie houses (another degraded art form). His son Frank is a conscientious objector who can only manage a “relationship substitute” with his father. His daughter Jean is also estranged from her parents, as she nurses the pain of a failed engagement and teaches an art class to children she loathes. In short, the younger generation is embittered by an inheritance of disappointment and ruined values, and Archie is incapable of communicating with them naturally and openly. He chooses, rather, to relate to them through a contrived performance, as he would to one of his vulgar audiences. In the place of intimacy, there is cajolement and manipulation, so that it becomes impossible for characters to distinguish sincerity from routine, confession from monologue.

“Everybody’s all right,” croons Archie, and the central tension of The Entertainer is that between his efforts to sustain happiness, Britishness, the welfare state, and the state of his private little world, all by sheer theatricality, and the steady deconstruction of those myths. The final blows are the deaths of Billy Rice and young Mick, the one seeming to pass away out of his own irrelevance to the contemporary world, and the other killed in an otherworldly war. The result is shell shock. All...

(The entire section is 3433 words.)