John Osborne World Literature Analysis
It is traditional to say that Osborne’s Look Back in Anger represents a turning point in the history of British theater, ending the era of the 1930’s and 1940’s and ushering in the new, more contemporary style of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In British theater, the 1930’s, 1940’s, and early 1950’s had been dominated by the esoteric verse dramas of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, the aristocratic drawing-room comedies of Noël Coward, the commercial successes of Terence Rattigan, and the revivals of time-tested classics. In Look Back in Anger and subsequent plays, Osborne offered different fare.
His subject was not genteel, upper-class life but the life of contemporary, rough, and often unsophisticated working-class people. He was critical of British culture both past and present. Detesting the British elitism that emphasized class distinctions, Osborne questioned the conventional pride in England’s Edwardian past and was equally critical of England’s post-World War II welfare state, scoffing at anything “highbrow” or “phoney.” His style was robust, even coarse, rather than elevated or dainty. These qualities of political attitude and style were the features that brought Osborne so much attention when he became a London phenomenon in the late 1950’s. Since then, the more enduring feature of Osborne’s drama has become the Osborne hero, modeled after the original “angry young man,” Jimmy Porter in Long Back in Anger. Archie Rice in The Entertainer, George Dillon in Epitaph for George Dillon, Bill Maitland in Inadmissible Evidence, Pamela in Time Present (pr., pb. 1968), and perhaps even Martin Luther in Luther are all, more or less, heroes in the Jimmy Porter mold.
Like Jimmy, these heroes are often outspoken and irreverent in their criticism of contemporary British society, frequently angry, alienated, bitter, caustic, insensitive, and critical of people and things around them. Sometimes these characters brutalize those closest to them as they strike out from their personal pain. They are often failures, but not simply because they suffer from class distinctions. Mainly, they suffer and fail because they experience the past as a terrible burden. They often look back at their lives and find them very unsatisfactory. These are not genteel characters one can analyze from a distance with a detached attitude. These characters demand an emotional, complex, and often sympathetic response. In an oft-quoted statement, Osborne had said, “I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards.” The richness and complexity of Osborne’s art in these characterizations is that in spite of their many unpleasant characteristics, these Osborne heroes are often still compelling. They are what American critic Harold Ferrar has called “the bastard we can’t help caring about.”
Yet the quality and prevalence in Osborne’s drama of this kind of character also constitute a literary deficiency. At his best, Osborne creates an unforgettable portrait that may live forever in theatrical history; such a portrait was achieved in Jimmy Porter. This sort of angry hero, however, often becomes so dominant in Osborne’s plays that other characters seem one-dimensional and cardboardlike in comparison. This charge is sometimes even made about Look Back in Anger, in which Jimmy’s friend, Cliff, is seen as a cartoon sidekick, and Helena, a friend of Jimmy’s wife, Alison, is seen as an unconvincing contrivance of plot when she suddenly accepts the abusive Jimmy as a lover at the end of act 2 and then gives him up just as suddenly in the last scene when Alison returns. Furthermore, the heroes who succeeded Jimmy Porter generally pale in comparison with their startling original counterpart, and Osborne seemed to be repeating himself without adding depth or dimension.
Some of Osborne’s most interesting, if flawed, developments as a dramatist came after his great early successes. Though his later experiments were not tremendously successful, Osborne did move on to more technically innovative work. In The World of Paul Slickey, for example, Osborne made a clumsy attempt at the musical form. In his teleplay A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960), Osborne attempted to employ historical materials for dramatic purposes, even though he did not achieve that harmonious blend of past and present that makes such materials come alive onstage.
In Luther, Osborne achieved more artistic success in shifting from a contemporary to a historical hero, though Osborne focused more on the unsophisticated and troubled personal psychology of Martin Luther than he did on the historical context of the Protestant Reformation. To many commentators, this play’s focus on Luther’s obsession with constipation seems distracting and not artistically effective, a retreat from the potential significance of such a monumental historical subject. Simon Trussler (The Plays of John Osborne, 1969) found a way to bring the two subjects together: “the evacuation of the bowels and the purification of the church are thus conceived as parallel processes in the life of the eponymous hero.” More to the point, perhaps, is that Osborne was here enlarging the portrait of his typical hero, this time working out, on a great historical stage, his hero’s difficult past relationship with his father.
In Osborne’s boldest and perhaps most successful technical experiment, Inadmissible Evidence, Bill Maitland’s mental breakdown is portrayed in a dream sequence that locates the play’s action in the courtroom of Maitland’s mind. In The Hotel in Amsterdam, Osborne seemed to be attempting to break from his focus on a single hero to create more of an ensemble approach to drama.
Osborne’s historical importance is assured because Look Back in Anger altered the style and subject matter of a whole generation of British writers. The great nineteenth century poet and critic Matthew Arnold insisted that historical importance should not be confused with artistic importance, but Look Back in Anger is both a historical watershed and a significant artistic success.
Look Back in Anger
First produced: 1956 (first published, 1957)
Type of work: Play
A pathologically unhappy and bitter young man vents his anger on all around him and is estranged from but then eventually reconciled with his wife.
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...
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