John Osborne

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Herbert Goldstone (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Goldstone, Herbert. Introduction to Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne, pp. 1-26. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

[In the following essay, Goldstone addresses misconceptions about Osborne's life and work.]


I am writing about John Osborne, over twenty-five years after his first success Look Back in Anger, because, more than any other single playwright, he is most responsible for the great reinvigoration of British drama that has occurred since the 1950's—possibly the most important development in British literature since the end of World War II. Beginning with that play, the dramatization of the tormented life of an articulate, sensitive, working class intellectual, both isolated from and yet concerned about his society, Osborne has gone on to write some sixteen other plays, not to mention a translation, adaptations, television scripts, and movie scenarios, that in subject matter and form have significantly enlarged the range of experience of the modern theatre. He has written revues, “well made plays,” and Brechtian epic theatre—to mention just a few forms; he has written about historical figures, such as Martin Luther, Col. Redl of the Austrian army, and Coriolanus, and a variety of contemporary characters with different problems; he can be very funny and very serious and combine the two interestingly; he has written some of the great acting parts in the British theatre; and he has enriched dramatic language, particularly as a means of presenting the fascinating, painful, yet at times humorous, and intensely self aware efforts on the part of his expressive main characters to live with their complex selves, the people they need and care about, and their society with which they are often at odds and yet in which they are deeply involved.

At the heart of such efforts on the part of the main characters is their passionate and articulate interaction with those they care about in their personal lives and with the larger outside world that brings out into the open in escalating tensions so many of the strong pressures they are confronting.

As a result, Osborne's plays, however varied their format, the particular issues of most concern, and the range of emotions generated, make themselves readily accessible to audiences and readers. Yet their very accessibility has seemed to encourage gross oversimplifications and misconceptions about the nature and quality of Osborne's achievement to date.

The most obvious oversimplification is to label most, if not all, Osborne heroes as being angry. At first glance this may not seem important but, as J. W. Lambert points out in a review of Osborne's most recent play, this is not so. The reason is that such criticism only reveals half of Osborne's vision—the contempt that is present. However, it ignores the other half, which is the undeniable emphasis on love, friendship, and kindness that has pervaded his work from the beginning.1 Moreover, even when Osborne characters are angry, they differ considerably. For example, three of Osborne's most recent main characters, Pamela, the talented actress heroine of Time Present, Frederica, the beautiful, intellectual daughter of Wyatt Gilman, the celebrity-writer major male character of West of Suez, and Sally Prosser, the novelist second wife of film director, Ben Prosser, the major male character of Osborne's most recent play, Watch It Come Down, are angry—if that can encompass being abrasive and outspoken. Yet whether this justifies lumping them all together merely as three Osborne bitchy females, as did one reviewer, is another matter.2 Pamela's abrasiveness and outspokenness reveal themselves most characteristically in the vigorous way she expounds to friends (who ask her) her opinions of others in the...

(This entire section contains 10856 words.)

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theatre. She makes no bones how many of them are mediocrities who have fooled critics, but she also expresses some admiration for them. Through hyperbole, she is trying to show her highly ambivalent reactions as well as to express her pleasure in having an audience that appreciates her energy and awareness. Frederica's abrasiveness and outspokenness reveal themselves primarily by her terse, ironical comments and probing questions designed to force those she cares about most to be more honest with themselves and others. She does so not only because she feels that they are hurting themselves but others (including herself) by undermining some of their feelings of trust. Sally's abrasiveness and outspokenness come out most strongly in free wheeling put downs directed mainly against her husband whom she holds responsible for almost all that frustrates her—and that comprises a lot.

Clearly these women differ a great deal. Yet common to all of them and what helps provide focus and depth to Osborne's characterization is their desire to love and be loved and yet their self doubts which aggravate such desires. In turn, this underlying similarity, together with the differences I've emphasized, adds complexity to his portrayal of each.

Even worse than oversimplification of Osborne's characters, is a serious misconception of their real natures that turns on the meaning of self concerned. In this regard I am referring to a tendency to dismiss many of his characters as narrow and egotistical because they care about themselves a lot.3 However, as Willard Gaylin points out, we can't care a lot about others unless we care a lot about ourselves.4 When we look at Osborne's characters from this perspective and observe what they care about themselves, we get a very different impression of them, one that helps us see the large, vital human context in which Osborne views them and his strong concerns about them.

To begin with, (1) they care about participating in many facets of life in their society. Yet they also feel strongly that real injustices exist in this society that make them critical of many of its values. (2) They have a sense of themselves as different or non-conformist in some respects and they value such feelings. (3) They care about setting high standards for themselves, especially in areas of achievement, and try to live up to these, particularly because of pride and conscience. (4) They value being highly self aware and honest and yet recognize how difficult such efforts can be, even with people who are understanding and sympathetic. (5) But most of all, they care a great deal about their feelings which vary greatly in range and depth and reveal themselves most noticeably in their interaction with others. Consequently, they greatly value relationships of friendship, loyalty, and love for through the right feedback they not only feel a heightened sense of their own worth and the life around them, but they hopefully might stimulate such reactions in others.

Clearly what these characters care about is considerable and reflects their awareness of many of the great potentialities that can be realized in human beings lives. In doing so, they reveal a vitally important concern Osborne has about his characters that helps us understand the depth and complexity of his view of life. That concern is one that he shares with many modern dramatists, namely with the problem of self-realization or what we currently speak of as identity. By this, I mean at least two things, both interrelated: self awareness, or individuals' efforts to understand their own natures in their many ramifications, and self-fulfillment, or their efforts to come to terms with their natures through the dynamics of their interplay with those forces and persons who most strongly affect them. As Erik Erikson, who has contributed some of the most important pioneering research in this area has observed, “If the dominant problem of Freud's age was confronting our feelings of sexuality, that for our period centers on identity.”5 Even if we might feel that Erikson is overstating his point, there is no doubt, merely judging from the wealth of literature on the subject, that the problem has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Moreover, some compelling reasons exist as to why this should be so. In particular, I would emphasize the heightened pressures upon people because of rapid changes of many kinds (as in science and technology) and the resulting increasing complexity of many aspects of their lives; the weakening of older, established institutions, such as church and family that in the past have provided sources of values and stability; the liberating effects of changing attitudes, as in sexuality, but which also have created value conflicts; threats to community, intimacy, and sense of self because of the increasing depersonalization of many areas of life; and the stifling of opportunities for individual growth and the possibilities of a better life, especially for the underprivileged, because of various forms of oppression.

What is distinctive about Osborne's exploration of this problem and makes it so pertinent is the rich human perspective in which he views it and the dramatic contexts in which he places it because of his strong convictions about human beings and society and the many conflicts these engender. He creates this perspective by focussing on the main characters who are, as is apparent in my discussion of the wide range of their concerns for themselves and others, acutely aware of so many of the potentialities for such realization but, as will be evident, also aware of the pain and difficulties that result because of what I would call their heightened sensitivity or vulnerability. Nevertheless, the pain and difficulties can also impel such people to struggle to realize as much as they can of what they most value in themselves, those they care about, and the life around them.

As for the dramatic context, it is one in which the main characters and others are living at close quarters and concerned with their intimate lives and yet simultaneously reacting to other forces that are crucially affecting them, whether openly or internally. These forces include the impact of a larger world outside, both that of their peer group and society, which provides opportunities for realization but also creates tensions; aspects of their past life, particularly key relationships or crucial memories which surface as they do in Ibsen (but in different ways); and aspects of the recent or historical past which may still significantly affect some of their attitudes and behavior as well as those of their society. As for the dramatic structure, it may be an occasion, serious or even slight, which (just by the very meeting of people) may provide a catalyst to bring out into the open the various feelings and attitudes I have mentioned. As a result, through a series of reversals and discoveries, widely ranging conversations that touch on many exposed nerve ends, or the shifting consciousness of the main characters reacting to what is affecting them, a kind of pressure cooker force is generated that can't be contained. Or instead of an occasion there may be some crisis or near crisis, such as marital tension or the impending death of a loved one, that generates the pressure. Still a third possibility may be a crucial formative event in a person's early career, the dynamics of which (as well as those of other experiences), significantly affect other phases in his life as it unfolds at different stages. As a result, any Osborne play, however narrow its setting or slight its action, may create an atmosphere in which, to quote Donne's poem, “one little room becomes an everywhere.” As to the nature and quality of the explosions generated in this room, these will become more evident when we explore some of the reasons why the characters are so vulnerable.

To begin with, the list of concerns or cares I've emphasized is so impressive and exacting—living up to high standards, acting out of a good conscience, being deeply self honest and consistently self aware, daring to be different, and deeply involving themselves in many caring relationships of depth—that just to realize some of them under optimal conditions would be demanding. For example, wanting to have a good conscience could be almost a life time's effort in itself since a person could discover that he has a confused conscience, an overly demanding one, or just a minimal one. Furthermore, even under optimal conditions, some of these cares and concerns could conflict with one another. For example, valuing high achievements might mean trying to become successful in one's society. However, if a person has a critical view of many aspects of his society and values himself as being different or non-conformist, he can experience strong conflicts. These conflicts, in turn, can become more acute because of the character's self awareness and the need to be honest, not to mention a demanding conscience that insists upon weighing carefully the merits of conflicting demands. Conversely, not living up to high standards can generate comparable, but different, conflicts—and so on.

If, in the second place, some of these feelings of caring derive from earlier experiences that reflect considerable frustration and unhappiness, then the need to satisfy them may be all the greater. Yet by the same token the capacity for doing so may be severely limited. For example, if some of the feelings of differentness have resulted from considerable isolation, one consequence for such a person might have been that he didn't receive much love and therefore needs this all the more. As Gaylin also points out, “To care adequately for ourselves, we need others to care for us.”6 Consequently, under such conditions a person could feel differentness so acutely that he might experience what Eric Fromm describes as a “sense of separateness” that could be devastating. As Fromm has remarked in The Art of Loving, “The awareness of separateness without reunion by love is the source of shame. It is at the same time the source of guilt and anxiety.”7 It is also significant to point out that feelings of guilt and shame could make a conscience demanding in a punitive way and so create other areas of conflict. Or, to take still another example, if feelings of differentness are associated with those of inferiority as a member of a lower social class, then the difficulties of having an adequate sense of self worth become all the greater. Consequently, differentness can seem to be such a burden that a person may try to compensate by trying hard to conform in some areas of society. Yet doing this may militate against other values he esteems.

If, in the third place, one reason to set high standards results from a need to prove oneself in order to deserve love rather than feel it unconditionally, then these expectations can seriously affect a person's sense of self worth or his need to care adequately for himself. Since one of the strongest traits of an Osborne character is a capacity to love others and be loyal to them, then the effort to live up to standards of loved ones becomes all the greater. Yet again the capacity for feeling worthy to do so may become less, especially if the character's values differ from those of loved ones.

In the fourth place, the main character's acute sensitivity to others' feelings, which makes feedback so stimulating and the giving and receiving of love so enriching, can also greatly accentuate his sensitivity in a number of ways. If, for example, his doubts about self worth also comprise guilt or shame feelings from earlier experiences, then he may feel all the more intensely the need for feedback. Yet he may feel so apprehensive about his worthiness to receive such feedback that this causes him both to seek it and yet distrust it. As a result, he may strike out in self destructive behavior which, in turn, can hurt those whom he needs above all to understand and support him. Besides, persons so sensitive to others' feelings, as Osborne's characters are, may pick up from the latter many of their feelings and internalize them. If, for example, the latter also feel guilt, not to mention other emotions, as so many of them do in Osborne's plays, such feelings may so affect those of the main character, already burdened with conflicts from earlier experiences, that he will feel these all the more acutely in a present relationship. As a result, he may experience feedback that can make already painful feelings of low self worth and guilt almost unbearable. In this context and others, we could do well to remember R. D. Laing's observations in The Politics of Experience that the way others experience us significantly affects the way we experience ourselves.8 For characters so responsive as Osborne's are to feedback, such experiencing can accentuate vulnerability in many areas.

Just from the few examples of vulnerability I've cited, it is apparent how closely related, pervasive, and painful such feelings can be within a person. Consequently, we might at this point conclude how despairing the results might be. Yet need this really be the case? To be able to confront so many aspects of one's life forcefully and to feel the impact so acutely can also reveal strength, resilience, understanding, and determination. Moreover, if one also has, as most of these characters do even at their lowest point, energy and a sense of humor, then the outcome can reveal sources of hope.

Obviously, just from this brief discussion, some compelling reasons exist for writing about Osborne's work. Yet at least one other reason I haven't mentioned exists. That is, that all of the books written about his plays to date were completed in 1969 or shortly thereafter. Consequently, they have little, if anything, to say about his most recent works. Nevertheless, Osborne has written three plays, in particular, that have received highly mixed reviews and certainly need more sustained attention than they have received to date. These are West of Suez, a play about an aging writer and his four daughters spending Christmas reunion at a West Indian villa belonging to one of them; A Sense of Detachment, a free wheeling, Hellzapoppin' revue that spoofs social mores and facile role playing; and most recently Watch It Come Down, a play about the failure of a marriage and of a commune supposedly based on mutual need. Mary Holland in reviewing West of Suez felt that she was seeing the play only because she had been sent to do so and out of loyalty to Osborne's earlier work.10 On the other hand, Helen Dawson spoke of the play very favorably as “brave and loving and providing an impressive evening in the theatre.”11 In reviewing A Sense of Detachment, Benedict Nightingale spoke of the “Disintegration of John Osborne.”12 In contrast, Michael Billington described the play as inventive and masterful, an original work.13

To come nearer to home, almost all of the reviews of Osborne's newest play, Watch It Come Down, have been unfavorable and markedly so. J. W. Lambert begins one of the few moderately favorable reviews by acknowledging that the faults of the play are too obvious to mention.14 One such is high flown language.15 For example, Ben Prosser (Sally's husband) eulogizes a dead writer homosexual friend of his (modelled on Lytton Strachey) in these words: “But he didn't trim, he didn't deceive himself, he preserved his precious English personality and grinned at everyone—”. Here the alliteration and phrasing create a combination that is ornate and stilted. But, since Ben is being portrayed as both a sentimentalist and snob, such language might be appropriate here.

Moreover, even if we should still prefer earlier Osborne to his later work, we may appreciate the former all the more pointedly when we realize how consistent and yet varied his work has been from the beginning.

Clearly, Osborne's concerns, as I've been describing them, have great relevance for us today, aware as we are of how much the pressures and insecurities he describes pervade many areas of our lives. Osborne helps make us understand how much we can hurt ourselves and one another, particularly when we live in societies that do considerable damage to our potential for caring. This awareness of where we may be hurting most at a particular time in the present may explain what Frank Marcus had in mind at the end of his review of Watch It Come Down. After acknowledging many reservations, he concluded that, nonetheless, the play may be important because Osborne again, as in the past, may be taking our current moral temperature accurately.16

But equally important, Osborne also shows us how much we can do to find sources of strength arising out of these needs, particularly if we remain vital, honest, judiciously self aware, able to trust ourselves and others, and willing to assume as much responsibility for our lives as we can.

While almost all Osborne plays have the kind of format I've described so that they might seem to lend themselves to some kind of common approach or grouping, they differ significantly because each presents its particular areas of vulnerability, its distinctive characters and society, and its own dramatic shape, emotional tones, and even language. For all these reasons, it is best to explore each play separately in depth and in a way appropriate to each. This is what I propose to do by focussing on the plays I consider Osborne's best to date: Epitaph for George Dillon,Look Back in Anger,The Entertainer,Luther,Inadmissible Evidence,A Patriot For Me,A Bond Honoured,Time Present,The Hotel in Amsterdam,West of Suez,A Sense of Detachment, and Watch It Come Down. In some cases this means that I have relied more on certain aspects of the play than others, and that proportionately I have gone into more detail in discussing Osborne's three most recent plays, not necessarily because they are his best but because they depend on many rapidly shifting contrasts of varying dimensions that don't easily lend themselves to compression or selectivity.

However, before exploring each play separately, I want to point out some details of Osborne's life as we know of them, some of his values as a writer that emerge from his occasional journalistic pieces and interviews he has granted over the years, and some features of the post World War II England that affect his work, for these help us better understand some of the features I have been stressing about his plays.


So far as Osborne's life is concerned, we are particularly fortunate now, because in addition to interviews and occasional pieces that have come out since 1956, there has just appeared Volume I of his autobiography, A Better Class of Person,17 which in roughly chronological form presents the first twenty-six years of his life up through the acceptance by George Devine and the English Stage Company of Look Back in Anger.A Better Class of Person is important not only because of what it reveals about some of the major forces that have shaped Osborne's life, but also as a literary work in its own right for its sharply focussed detail, its striking contrasts in tone, especially from wry humor to stabbing pain, and its compelling, if also disquieting, insights into human nature.

John Osborne was born on December 12, 1929, in Fulham, London, where he spent the first five years of his life before his family moved out to more suburban Stoneleigh, near where his father's parents lived. His mother, Nellie Beatrice Grove, came from an upper working class background, her father having been a fairly prominent publican, and Mrs. Osborne herself has worked most of her life as a bar maid. Osborne's father, Thomas, came from a family of impoverished gentility, his father having lost his jewelry business because he spent too much of his time playing cricket. During the years that Osborne knew the latter, he was little more than a flunkey, since he kept busy doing errands for his wife, and he subsisted on pittances she gave him from money she earned in alternate years by taking care of the son of her nephew, a civil servant in Africa who was able to have his wife but not child stay with him every other year. Osborne's father from early life on was sickly. When he was sixteen, he won first prize in a contest, the award for which was a free trip to South Africa. Despite strong family objections, young Osborne accepted the prize. Unfortunately he suffered such a severe asthma attack en route that at Gibraltar he had to be removed from the boat, hospitalized, and then sent back by train to England, all at his family's expense. Mr. Osborne's mother not only never forgave her son for incurring such expenses but badgered him so much that he agreed to will over to her his estate, such as it was, to repay the debt. Osborne saw little of his father during his youth since the latter was away much of the time convalescing from tuberculosis. Moreover, even when Mr. Osborne was able to work at his job as an advertising copy writer, he wasn't around the house a lot since he and his wife apparently didn't get along too well and so for considerable periods of time remained unofficially separated. When Osborne was eleven, his father died. At this point I should add that Osborne had a sister a year younger than himself who died, also of tuberculosis, when she was two.

Because of the details I've mentioned, Osborne not only grew up as an only child but a heavily burdened one. He accompanied his father on visits to the latter's parents where he had to listen to reproaches heaped upon his father because of what happened at Gibraltar. In addition, Osborne had to serve as a sounding board for his mother as she poured out many of her complaints about her life.

Not only did Osborne witness a lot of illness, he also experienced a great deal himself, as well as other sources of pain. Since early childhood, he was sickly and scrawny and had a long siege of rheumatic fever which necessitated his lying on his back for almost a year and then recuperating for two years in a grubby public convalescent home. In addition, Osborne frequently had to change schools since his mother constantly kept moving from one apartment to another because she was perennially dissatisfied with every place to which she insisted on moving. One consequence was that Osborne, as a newcomer, was forced into fights which he always lost. Nor was being beaten up the only painful consequence of Osborne's relations with people his own age. During these years he had just two friends his own age, and one of them, a girl named Joan Buffen, treated him, as I want to show later, with great disdain.

As for Osborne's schooling itself, it was desultory since, except for one brief period he spent at a third rate public school, St. Michael's, to which he was sent as a follow up from his convalescence from rheumatic fever, his teachers paid him little attention and were boring to listen to. Although Osborne did receive some encouragement from the headmaster at St. Michael's and did well on some preparatory examinations, he was expelled for hitting the headmaster when the latter slapped him hard and unexpectedly in public. Embarrassing as the dismissal was, it did provide Osborne with the opportunity for a freer, more varied life than he had previously known.

Even though Osborne had few vocational skills, he was able on his return home to get a job for some trade journals as a reporter. Here he made friends with one of the journal editors, a Canadian named Arnold Running, who liked Osborne and encouraged him to write. At the same time Osborne decided to do something to overcome his feelings of social backwardness and began taking dancing lessons. Not only did he discover that he was a good dancer but that he had made quite an impression on an attractive, sincere young woman in the neighborhood, Renee Shippard, who was also taking lessons. Before Osborne quite knew what has happening, he found himself encouraged by Renee's parents to become engaged. However, almost as quickly, he became aware of how narrow and stifling such a projected life as a lower middle class suburbanite could be. Besides the entrapment of marriage, Osborne also felt that he was, like so many other young men of his age, doomed to two years of military service as a draftee. However, much to his surprise, Osborne discovered that his physical disabilities, for which he was not responsible, disqualified him once and for all from military service of any kind. Therefore he was free to begin establishing a life of his own away from Renee, even if this meant hurting her and her parents. At this point Osborne had some more luck because his dancing teacher praised him for what she regarded as his innate acting talent and encouraged him to join a local amateur theatre company. On the strength of this experience and his obvious desire to take more control of his life, Osborne got a job as Assistant Stage Manager with a touring theatrical company. Not only did the position give Osborne experience in assuming varied responsibilities, but it provided him with an excuse to use as a basis for terminating his engagement to Renee (in a letter which he describes as “long winded, dishonest, and evasive, larded with banalities about Life, Art, and God”). Nevertheless, the letter achieved its purpose, and Osborne was free to devote himself to the theatre and a more diversified and exciting personal life. Professionally, from this point on, except for brief periods of unemployment or temporary jobs, Osborne spent the years up to the writing of Look Back in Anger working in a variety of companies as Assistant Stage Manager, getting some acting experience and, most important, writing in collaboration plays of varying quality.

His first such effort was a play entitled The Devil Inside Him, which he did with Stella Linden, an attractive, sexually overpowering actress in one of the companies in which he worked and with whom he was having an affair that at least for a while did wonders for his ego (until Stella terminated it, as she warned that she would, when it began interfering with her career and personal life). As for the play itself, it was based on a melodramatic script Osborne had begun about a romantic young Welshman, and it was eventually put on for one performance at Huddersfield. Whatever originality the play might have had, despite its obvious crudeness, was eliminated by Stella's ruthless play doctoring based on her rigid and simplistic ideas of commercial audience expectations.

Much more important artistically were two plays that Osborne did in 1954-55 with Anthony Creighton (with whom he was involved in a repertory company at Hayling Island in 1950 and with whom he became friendly). The first, entitled Personal Enemy, derived from Osborne's interest in Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunting which was then at its height. Osborne, aided by Creighton who supplied a melodramatic plot framework of a thriller, wrote dialogue apparently based on actual testimony that showed how destructive such tactics could be. Although Osborne was unsuccessful in getting the American actor Sam Wanamaker (who was then appearing in London and was one of the targets for McCarthy's attacks) to put on the play because the latter feared that British audiences wouldn't tolerate its anti-American politics, he did have the satisfaction of knowing that Wanamaker was impressed by the work. The other was Epitaph for George Dillon which derived from an experience that happened to Creighton (while he was working as a bill collector) when two middle aged women took a strongly maternal interest in his career. For now it is enough to say that Osborne found this collaboration in Epitaph for George Dillon more satisfying than either of the others because he could concentrate even more on what he liked best, character development and confrontation, while Creighton willingly restricted himself to exposition and minor plot details. Just as important, Osborne could control the pace of the writing, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that Creighton, unlike Sheila, accepted his standards.

So far as Osborne's personal life with women is concerned, just the brief description of his affair with Stella shows how much more exciting it was than that with Renee. However, in addition, Osborne had two other involvements with actresses. The first was with Sheila, a romantic and expressive actress younger than Stella, who resisted all of Osborne's attempts to seduce her by exhibiting hysterical symptoms at just the right time.

The second, which was much deeper and more painful, was Osborne's marriage to Pamela Lane, a young actress whom he met when both were members of a repertory company in Pamela's home town of Bridgwater. While all of the women with whom Osborne was involved impressed him from the beginning, none affected him as strongly as did Pamela. From the moment that he first saw her when they were playing minor parts in one of the company's productions, Osborne was so stricken that he felt virtually helpless. In part he felt drawn to her as a fellow rebel since she had cut her hair to the bone to show her defiance of her local public that expected her to live up to their conventional expectations of how an actress should look and act. In part she made such an impression because of her large green eyes which, as he remarks, “… must mock or plead affection, preferably both at least.” Still another reason may have been Osborne's misunderstanding of Pamela's temperament. “Pamela's emotional equivocation,” he observes, “seemed so unstudied that I regarded it as ineffable passion.” If all the foregoing reasons weren't enough, the strong opposition to his involvement that came from local residents and Pamela's family (who hired a private detective to watch his movements) made Osborne all the more determined to have Pamela as his own. He proposed; she accepted, as he states, “warmly and casually”; and despite opposition and intrigue that almost seemed like comic opera, they were married.

As for their married life, which was spent mainly in and around London where both continued their careers, what stood out was its continuing precariousness and their growing estrangement. In part, such consequences were difficult to avoid because they were forced to remain apart from each other so much. Yet to a greater extent these consequences resulted because Osborne discovered how increasingly lonely and insecure he felt while Pamela was away, and yet how easily she accepted such separations, especially as she was getting better parts and improving her acting noticeably.

It is true that Osborne sensed that they were drifting further and further apart. Yet he continued to resist such awareness, all the more so when Pamela managed to get her company, then playing in Derby, to hire him, and he, upon arriving, noticed how well she was looking. However, when they were finally alone, she let the truth out as she told him “uncomplainingly that she found marriage and a career difficult.” Osborne was so stunned by what he regarded as her hackneyed and superficial answer that he couldn't reply. “Sweet reason,” he remarks, “was unanswerable, demoralizing as it did unconfident reason or passion.” Under these circumstances, he couldn't feel any malice on either side. “Almost soothingly,” he concludes, “she had wiped our slate out.” It is true that they remained together for a while at Derby, and Osborne continued to hope, despite his learning that Pamela had been unfaithful to him earlier and was going on holiday with someone else, that she might come back. However, for all practical purposes, their relationship ended that first night in Derby.

What seems almost like a footnote, I might add, is Osborne's brief notation, some twenty pages later in A Better Class of Person and one year later chronologically, that he wrote Look Back in Anger in just over a month. Yet this very terseness might indicate how far he had progressed in coming to terms with the experience, since some of it, as he freely admits (especially Pamela's coolness and parental opposition), underlies Look Back in Anger.


Just from these details I've emphasized, at least three strong impressions emerge. The first is how much of Osborne's life before he became famous involved the theatre. In particular, he consistently saw the differences between mediocrity or hackneyed commercialism, such as that of Stella and others, and honest efforts to have standards and a voice of one's own, even if these were not recognized immediately. Yet even Osborne's disdain for mediocrity didn't keep him from appreciating good acting wherever he found it and of entertainment as a source of energy, joy, and shared human experience.

The second, as the accounts of illness and schooling for example show, is how much pain Osborne experienced. Yet the details I've mentioned represent just the tip of the iceberg. The feelings, attitudes, and behavior of his family, as well as the social environment in which he grew up, created, if possible, even more anguish.

To begin with, Osborne received very little attention from the people around him. At the end of the first chapter of his autobiography, he observes, “Throughout my childhood no adult addressed a question to me …” even though a few pages later, he notes, “… but then I was the only one who seemed to listen to anybody. They didn't talk to each other so much as barrack themselves.” What is more, the kind of attention Osborne did receive from adults often constituted outright rejection. For example, immediately after stating that no adult addressed a question to him, Osborne goes on to say:

When I was at boarding school, when I went out to work, until the day she died when I was thirty, my father's mother never once asked me anything about myself. I think she had a glancing fondness for me. If I volunteered information, she would smile a thin winter of contempt and say nothing. Or change the subject firmly. To how well my cousin Tony was doing at Sandhurst. How her niece Jill was engaged to such a nice young man. Who had been to Blundells School and had a very high position in Lloyds Bank in Lombard Street. I was convinced that her dismissive smile was aimed only to chill my father's coffin yet again.

Yet painful as the foregoing, as well as other comparable incidents must have been, it doesn't compare to the impact that resulted because of the kind of attention that he did receive from his mother (about whom I also want to say more later). For now it is enough to call attention to what Osborne continually calls the “Black looks” that she gave him for almost anything that he did. Even as an adult, he could expect them as soon as he came in the door. To make matters worse, after his father's death, his mother not only would give him one of her Black looks but also would let him know that his behavior was also affronting his father's memory, even though the opposite was probably true, since, after his father's death, he frequently made choices by ascertaining what he thought his father would do in such a situation.

Just as members of Osborne's family could hurt him emotionally, so could people on the outside, especially those who came from a higher class or fancied themselves, to paraphrase the title of his autobiography, ‘a better class of person.’ A very good example of such social cruelty would be some of the treatment Osborne received from Joan Buffen (a young girl I've already referred to), with whom at the age of nine he became friendly. It is true that Joan, to whom he was was attracted because she was vigorous and daring, did initiate him into some mysteries of sex and invited him to her home a number of times. Nevertheless, Osborne felt deeply hurt when Joan's cousin (who went to one of the right schools) appeared for a visit. Although Joan still saw Osborne during this time, it was clear to him where her preference lay and how deeply inferior he came to feel:

I began to see that my longing for any scrap of affection, friendliness or even tolerance would come to nothing. The crumbs would diminish and be given with less and less grace until they were withdrawn altogether. I was a makeshift, and a poor and fleeting one at that. When her cousin left, I would be reprieved. For a day or two she would smile on my enthusiasm until her patience broke again. Seeing my misery only urged her on to throw me back to whence I came, like an amusing mongrel who quickly proves his dull breeding, untrained, untrainable, and ultimately unrewarding.

To add to Osborne's pain, he had to listen to his mother telling him regularly that such treatment was what he should expect in life. “My mother,” he points out, “always made it clear that my place in the world was unlikely to differ from her own. There was no reason why Mrs. Buffen or her daughter should care to speak to me. I had nothing to offer the Buffens, therefore why should they bother to acknowledge my existence …”

Besides feeling the pain of inferiority (accentuated, I might add, by his awareness of how undesirable he was because of his “weak body, blemished skin, ugly limbs, teeth, and dandruff”), Osborne had to spend many years around people, mostly his family, who led joyless, narrow lives. For one thing, almost all of them filled their days with petty routine. His mother spent every Friday cleaning so angrily and noisily that his father preferred remaining at his parents' home during this time, despite the rebukes he would experience there. As for Grandmother Osborne, every afternoon she ate chocolates, read one newspaper and a novel by Warwick Deeping, and then dozed off, although stoutly denying that this was taking place; as for Grandfather Osborne, all that he did was to take a nap until tea time. Although these and other examples I could mention seem harmless enough, yet the tragedy is, as Osborne points out, that such routine repressed whatever vitality and sexuality they may have felt: “Grandfather Osborne, poor neutered old dog, was to die in 1941, going without his oats for thirty eight years. I thought of them in their feather bed, of the old man lying upstairs alone every afternoon, Annie [his wife] downstairs reading the South Wales Argus. What were his thoughts. Denied affection, sex, respect, even the work he shunned …”

Considering how empty these people's lives were, it isn't surprising that they should be bitter, unhappy, and resigned. Whatever the reason may be, such feelings became most articulate and disquieting at Christmas time in what turned out to be the most important and yet distressing ritual of all, the annual family row when all the accumulated bitterness of so many years would, as Osborne put it, “claim its victims long before the Christmas wrappings had been thrown away.” It is true that the rows differed in some ways. That of the Grove family was more violent and often used religion for its fuel. In comparison, that of the Osborne family was more subtle and enduring in its effects. Nevertheless, as Osborne makes clear in one of the most powerful descriptions in the book, profound disappointment dominated both:

Disappointment was oxygen to them. Their motto might have been ante coitum triste est. The Grove despond was all chaos, shouting and tearful rebukes. Their battle cries were: ‘You've always had it easy.’ … ‘You didn't have to go out to work like I did when I was twelve.’ … ‘You were always Dad's favourite.’ … ‘What about you and Mum then?’ … ‘I've worked hard for everything I've ever had.’ The Osborne slough was full of sly casual strokes, all the more wounding to my mother because no one said openly what they meant, not about money and certainly not about property, but about emotional privilege, social advantage, hypocrisy and religiosity against ordinary plain dealing. The Osbornes appeared to preserve calm while being more succinct and specific. Their bitterness and sense of having been cheated from birth were certainly deeper. If my mother tried to wade in to an Osborne Row she was soon made speechless by the cold stare of Grandma and the passing looks of amusement between her and Nancy as my mother mangled the language and mispronounced words and became confused at their silences. ‘Did you see that?’ she'd say afterwards. ‘They were passing looks.’ She would flush through her flaking Tokalon powder, bite her nails and turn to my father for support, which seldom came.

For Boxing Day, Grandma Osborne had perfected a pumpkin trick which turned all the cold Christmas pudding and mince pies suddenly into funeral baked meats. She did it almost on the stroke of five and in one wand-like incantation. Lying back in the Hymnal position, she would close her eyes, smile her thin gruel of a smile and say, ‘Ah, well, there's another Christmas over.’ I dreaded the supreme satisfaction with which she laid the body of Christmas spirit to rest. In this one phrase she crushed the festive flower and the jubilant heart. On New Year's Eve she used less relish in confirming that there was little reason to feel good about the year passing and certainly less about the coming one.

Undeniably such infighting could well provide Osborne with rich dramatic material, but at what a human cost so far as it could affect belief in trust, goodness, and the joy of life!

Yet even more distressing than the fall out connected with the family row was that which resulted from the feelings about love that dominated Osborne's mother (and to a lesser extent members of her family). While Osborne points out many examples of this attitude perhaps none is more revealing and devastating than the very first mention he makes of it, namely when he comments about the reasons that his mother's family strongly disapproved of Auntie Winnie, one of Grandmother Grove's sisters:

… Her affectionate nature didn't seem to be returned by her sisters who dismissed her with, ‘Poor old Auntie Winn, she'll never leave that place.’ No one made any effort to see that she might. They were all pushy in their way, tolerating one another peevishly rather than having any actual exchange of feelings. If one of them died, fell ill or short of money it was something to be talked about rather than experienced in common. It was as if they felt obliged to live within the literal confines of their emotional circumstances. The outlet for friendship or conviviality was narrow in spite of the drunken commiseration, endless ports and pints of beer and gin and Its. This may in part explain my mother's stillborn spontaneity and consistent calculation that affection had only to be bought or repaid in the commonest coinage. ‘He doesn't owe you anything,’ or ‘You don't owe him anything.’ ‘What's she ever done for you?’ These were the entries that cooked the emotional and filial books. They were chill words, flaunting their loveless, inexorable impotence.

It would be difficult to imagine a harsher, more despairing description of cold heartedness than “flaunting their loveless, inexorable impotence,” unless it would be a later passage which comes after the comment I've already quoted about Mrs. Osborne's insistence that because her son had nothing to offer people like the Buffens, he could hardly expect them, as indicated, to acknowledge his existence. Immediately afterwards, Osborne goes on to say, “It was consistent with her [his mother's] view of affection or friendship as a system of rewards, blackmail, calculation, and aggrandizement in which people would only come off best or worst. Nothing ever strikes me with such despair and disbelief as the truly cold heart. It disarms utterly and never ceases to do so. I wish it were otherwise.” Although Osborne in the first passage quoted recognizes why his mother and people like her react as they do, he still tries to shield himself from the impact of such behavior. However, such efforts on his part became increasingly difficult, as two other examples pointedly show.

The first centers on his mother's behavior at the time of his father's death and its effect on Osborne who was then eleven. Despite his mother's insistence that Osborne should stay with her when it became obvious that his father's death was imminent, Mr. Osborne's doctor mercifully arranged that Osborne should stay with friends who lived nearby. However, immediately after her husband's death, Mrs. Osborne insisted again that her son should return at once. Although Mrs. Osborne was prevailed upon to let her son stay away one more day, as soon as he returned she took him to view his father in the coffin. Osborne describes this scene, like that of the family row, in stark detail:

… The smell in the room was strong and strange and, in his shroud, he was unrecognizable. As I looked down at him, she said, ‘Of course, this room's got to be fumigated, you know that, don't you. Fumigated.’ Frumigated was how she pronounced it. With my father's body lying in the bedroom across the landing, I had been obliged to share my briefing room with my mother, who spent hour upon hour reading last Sunday's News of the World, the bright light overhead, rustling the pages in my ear and sighing heavily. For the first time I felt the fatality of hatred.

It is no wonder that from this point on Osborne could never again refer to his mother as “Mum” or “Mummy,” as he used to, all the more so since she apparently had no idea as to why the change occurred.

The second example is one of a number of entries from Osborne's diary (dated 1955) that he includes in the text of A Better Class of Person. After he notes what must have been a standard response that his mother made about theatre acquaintances that he brought home (“I'll say that for him—he's never been ashamed of me. He's always let me meet his friends—and they're all theatrical people, a good class all of them, they speak nicely”) there follows this entry: “I am ashamed of her as part of myself that can't be cast off, my own conflict, the disease which I suffer and have inherited, what I am and never could be whole. My disease, an invitation to my sick room.” Despite all of Osborne's efforts to the contrary, such as the quotations I've cited about the effort to deny the impact of cold heartedness, he feels that his mother has profoundly, if not irrevocably, affected his life because, to restate Willard Gaylin's observation to which I've already referred, the way that others care about us affects the way we care about ourselves. Clearly Osborne's journal entry expresses profound disappointment that verges on self punishment.

Although he may regard such feelings of self punishment as unfair, unlike members of his family for whom disappointment was oxygen, Osborne realizes that he has so deeply internalized feelings he is describing that they are uniquely his. However, unlike members of his family on Christmas day, he can't escape by projecting them onto others. This awareness leads to the third strong impression that emerges from reading A Better Class of Person—the necessity to assume full responsibility for one's life and to cope with all its limiting conditions as hopefully as one can, however difficult, complex, and even misunderstood such efforts may be.

In this regard the one person in Osborne's family who honestly made such efforts, restricted as they were, was his father. This constitutes a strong reason why Osborne admired the latter so much. Significantly, the very first episode Osborne recalls in A Better Class of Person is that of his father waving goodbye to his mother and himself from the window of a train that was taking him to a sanitarium from which all three knew that he was unlikely to return. Nevertheless, his father leaned out the window, smiled, gave Osborne a ten shilling note, and said, “Take your mother to the pictures, son, and then go to Lyons Corner House.”

An incident such as this helps make clearer Osborne's comments that he made in an interview with John Freeman in a volume called The Playwrights Speak (edited by Walter Wager). In the interview Osborne acknowledged that while his father always seemed to be in the control of other people, he was “a man of tremendous strength, tremendous integrity.”18 As for other incidents that would also corroborate Osborne's admiration of his father, I would mention these: 1) He was honest and thoughtful in expressing his feelings for others. For example, while in the sanitarium Mr. Osborne wrote only brief post cards to his son, as well as including post scripts to his wife. He did so obviously not to upset them but also to avoid writing the proper but dishonest letters that a dutiful father might be expected to send home. 2) He made some efforts to modify the conditions of his life as shown by the unofficial separations from his wife. Yet he continued to show a sense of responsibility towards his wife and his son. 3) Unlike other family members, Mr. Osborne interested himself in a larger world outside as shown by his extensive reading, his appreciation of song and social companionship, and his insistence on formulating his own careful opinions about religion, politics, and the character of those around him. 4) He was, as the train episode shows, affectionate and cheerful in his relationship with his son, and to the extent that this was possible, with his wife and parents.

As for Osborne's own behavior, A Better Class of Person clearly shows how much it resembles that of his father. 1) Osborne did try to enjoy his life, even in his isolated, painful childhood, as shown in his frank appreciation of whatever happy times he experienced. 2) He was honest, as shown in his admission of the way he treated Renee, his fiancee. 3) His careful efforts to understand others' motives and to that extent limit their responsibility for their effect on him, as shown in his insights into his mother's and grandparents' behavior and the absorbing attention he showed to the lives of those around him. 4) His devotion to his father, especially the way he remained close to the latter and spent many hours reading to him before his death, and his appreciation of those few people who treated him kindly and encouraged him.

At the same time Osborne seemed better able than his father, even before the success of Look Back in Anger, to bounce back as shown in his reaction to the break up with Pamela. Perhaps one reason that Osborne could do so was that he profited from his father's example. But, in addition, Osborne may have done so because, from a very early age, as we have seen, he was so much on his own that he became tougher and more resilient than perhaps he realized.


Finally, I would emphasize a fourth impression that emerges, partly from Osborne's autobiography, but even more so from early occasional pieces and interviews, and that is a strong social conscience. Actually, in pointing out Osborne's awareness of class snobbery I've revealed part of this concern. Yet, in addition, I would point out Osborne's comments on the convalescent home to which he was sent to recuperate from rheumatic fever, particularly the dismal surroundings and the insensitive responses of staff members to the shame and embarrassment felt by some of the boys.

However, other works provide stronger evidence of Osborne's social concern. In “They Call It Cricket,” Osborne's contribution to a collection of essays (Declaration, edited by Tom Maschler) by “angry young writers,” he insisted that it wasn't his job as a writer to propose solutions to problems.19 Nevertheless, his angry tone and the precise questions that he raised about specific problems indicate that he was more of an activist than he admitted. For example, Osborne proposed that writers should ask questions about the kinds of housing and education that people should have, the kind of political leaders they need, and the intellectual and cultural environment required to develop as freer, happier human beings.20

Even stronger evidence of Osborne's concern and his belief that a writer, although not active in specific political action or programs will try to affect what happens, reveals itself in his well known, if greatly misunderstood, “A Letter to My Fellow Countrymen” (1957).21 Osborne wrote this because he greatly admired Bertrand Russell's efforts to make the British people aware of the disastrous consequences of British nuclear policy as it was then being formulated by Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskill, then leaders of, respectively, the Conservative and Labour Parties, without any real effort to involve the British people, or even Parliament, in the decision making process. If anything, the leaders were avoiding doing just that. Since Osborne felt that Russell wasn't reaching either the public or the leaders directly, he decided that he would deliberately adopt a tone of cold hatred towards the leaders to provoke them to answer in such a way as to expose their real purposes to the public and therefore arouse the latter to mobilize opposition. Unfortunately, Osborne's efforts backfired so that many people thought that he was just expressing spiteful personal hostility rather than outraged general concern.22 That “A Letter” didn't succeed doesn't invalidate Osborne's efforts to stir people up politically, the counterpart to what is still his best known statement about his purpose as a writer, namely his assertion in “They Call It Cricket,” “I want to give my audiences lessons in feeling.”

Nevertheless, the most powerful early statement of Osborne's social awareness is this comment in the Preface to the Evans Acting Edition of Look Back in Anger: “People who believe that the setting of Look Back in Anger is unutterably squalid are simply unaware of the facts of life, that there is a housing shortage, that a great many houses are not only old, dirty, and hideous, but are unaware of the ugliness of their own surroundings, ugliness they have helped create themselves.”23

Yet precisely because of the force of this criticism, it is difficult not to feel in reading later comments, such as those Osborne made in a two-part interview with Kenneth Tynan in The Observer (June 30 and July 7, 1968), that his position had changed, at least for a while. The most obvious thing to say, and to some extent Osborne himself would agree, is that at this time he became somewhat conservative in his politics and social attitudes. Not only did he admit to Tynan that he “got the hell out of the working class” but that he looks critically on working class political action.24 “The trouble is,” he told Tynan, “that history has rather pulled the carpet out from under [the working class as a political force]. The Labour Party has appealed to cupidity and the appeal has been answered by technology.” Nor does Osborne just limit his attacks to the working class, for he also looks critically at the student radicals of the Sorbonne (who were then, as we know, pressing for major changes in many areas of French life). While he frankly admits that, if the student radicals came to power, they would threaten his security, he also expresses strong reservations about their ideology. “But a lot of left wing feeling,” he insists, “strikes me nowadays as mashed potato radicalism. It hasn't been felt through and worked through. I find it easy and superficial and tiresome.”25

On the other hand, much more recent evidence suggests that Osborne may be reverting back to his earlier more anti-establishment position. In an interview on his fiftieth birthday, he had these strong words to say about present day England. “I'm not so much angry as passionate. I am passionate about the way this country has changed since I wrote that play Look Back in Anger. We used to be the gentlest nation on earth. Now we've become brutal, aggressive, and competitive. People do not care about each other.”26 Certainly in this comment Osborne expresses stronger, more open concern for a better life for people than seems evident in the Tynan interviews. Still this concern seems less sharply focussed on particular social and economic problems than was true of the earlier statements that I've quoted.


That Osborne should express a strong concern for a more humane and just society is understandable. Just the most cursory glance at some of the underlying social, political, and economic problems confronting Great Britain since 1945 makes clear how necessary such concern is, for, although much has changed for the better, real grounds for dissatisfaction still exist.

It is true that even the most reactionary Tory government won't dare touch the National Health Program that provides almost totally free medical care to anyone in the United Kingdom or denationalize more than a few industries that have been put in the public sector. Moreover, some class barriers have been weakened, as shown in the adoption of the comprehensive school, to begin to replace the public (or what we would call private) school system and the increasing democratization of the arts, as Osborne's own career attests. Furthermore, many social attitudes, particularly those involving sex and divorce, have become much more liberal, and efforts are being made to update some features of the judicial system.

Nevertheless, real grounds for enduring dissatisfaction remain. To cite just a few of these, I would emphasize the following: 1) the loss of national self esteem and sense of identity that resulted from the long overdue liquidation of the Empire and the failure of any real national sense of community to emerge to compensate. 2) The continuing technological obsolescence, managerial incompetence, and low worker productivity that still keep British industry in a disadvantageous position in comparison to that of Japan and some of the western European countries. 3) The continuing existence of strong class barriers in many areas. 4) The rise of Fascist groups such as the National Front and the noticeable increase in racism, as shown most recently in violent clashes in the summer of 1981 between whites and non-whites in Brixton and other areas of London. 5) The continued violence and political and social oppression in Northern Ireland that have taken such a toll in human lives. 6) Pervasive hardcore poverty and marginal subsistence as shown most dramatically in the current unemployment figures of 11.7 percent (as of January 1982) that represent the highest since the 1930's.


  1. J. W. Lambert in a review of Watch It Come Down, Drama, No. 121 (Summer 1976), p. 41.

  2. Robert Cushman in his review of Watch It Come Down in The Observer Review, 29 Feb. 1976.

  3. Although I could cite many such articles or reviews, here are three that make Osborne's characters sound like chronic complainers—and little else: John Simon's review of Luther in The Hudson Review, 16 (1963), 584-585; Philip French's review of Time Present in The New Statesman and Nation, 76 (31 May 1968); and Hilary Spurling's review of the same play in The Spectator, 220 (31 May 1968), 752.

  4. Willard Gaylin, Caring (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 164.

  5. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 7.

  6. Gaylin, op. cit., p. 164.

  7. Eric Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), p. 9.

  8. R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1967), p. 10.

  9. These include the following: Martin Banham, Osborne (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969); Alan Carter, John Osborne (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969; rev. ed., 1971); Harold Ferrar, John Osborne (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973); Ronald Hayman, John Osborne (London: Heinemann, 1968; rev. ed., 1972); and Simon Trussler, The Plays of John Osborne (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1969). The revisions consist only of brief, summary discussions of West of Suez, and three of the books—Banham's, Ferrar's, and Hayman's—are intended only as brief introductory studies.

  10. Mary Holland, Plays and Players, 19 (Oct. 1971), p. 38.

  11. Helen Dawson, The Observer Review, 22 Aug. 1971.

  12. Benedict Nightingale, The New Statesman and Nation, 84 (8 Dec. 1972), 875.

  13. Michael Billington, The Guardian, 7 Dec. 1972.

  14. J. W. Lambert, The Sunday Times, 22 Feb. 1976. However, in a later review, Drama, op. cit., pp. 40-43, Lambert speaks more favorably of the play.

  15. Robert Cushman, The Observer Review, op. cit., 29 Feb. 1976. B. A. Young, The Financial Times, 25 Feb. 1976.

  16. Frank Marcus, The Sunday Telegraph, 29 Feb. 1976.

  17. John Osborne, A Better Class of Person (London: Faber and Faber, 1981; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981).

  18. John Freeman, edited version of interview in “Face to Face” on BBC, 21 Jan. 1967. In Walter Wager, ed., The Playwrights Speak (New York: Delacorte Press, 1967), p. 98.

  19. “They Call It Cricket,” in Declaration, ed. Tom Maschler (London: McGibbon and Kee, 1957), p. 84.

  20. Ibid.

  21. “A Letter to My Fellow Countrymen,” Tribune, 13 May 1960. (Reprinted in John Russell Taylor, ed., Look Back in Anger: A Casebook, op. cit., pp. 67-69.)

  22. Osborne explains his purpose in an interview with Terry Coleman, The Guardian, 8 Aug. 1971, as well as in that with Freeman, in Wager, op. cit., pp. 107-108. Cf. also Osborne's letter to The Times, London, 3 Sept. 1968, in which he apologizes for having written this piece.

  23. John Osborne, “Foreword” to Look Back in Anger. Evans Acting Editions (London, n.d.) p. 3.

  24. Interview with Kenneth Tynan, The Observer Review, 7 July 1968.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Quoted in The Chronicle, Willimantic, Connecticut, 12 Dec. 1979, p. 2.


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John Osborne 1929-1994

(Full name John James Osborne) English playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and autobiographer.

Osborne's landmark play, Look Back in Anger (1956), established him as a leading English dramatist and helped initiate a new era in British theater emphasizing aggressive social criticism, authentic portrayals of working-class life, and anti-heroic characters. Osborne often is associated with a loosely categorized group of English writers called the “Angry Young Men,” whose literature contributed to the heightened social and political awareness developing in England during the 1950s and 1960s. Osborne's plays are often dominated by strong, articulate protagonists who express disgust with bourgeois complacency and materialistic social values through outbursts of abusive language.

Biographical Information

Osborne was born December 12, 1929, in London, England. Osborne’s father died before he was in his teens; he and his mother, Nellie Beatrice Grove Osborne, lived through the Second World War in Fulham. Osborne attended a number of day schools and then, when he was sixteen, attended (through the financial assistance of a charitable institution) St. Michael's College, which Osborne has dismissed as an obscure and “rather cheap boarding school” in North Devon. Osborne remained at St. Michael's for slightly less than two years to receive his General School Certificate. After leaving St. Michael's, he received no other formal education. He took jobs on several trade journals, but soon became disillusioned with journalism and drifted, obliquely, into theater by accepting a job as a tutor for child actors in a provincial touring company. Shortly thereafter, Osborne was found to be unqualified as a teacher, and, relieved of his tutorial responsibilities, was invited instead to stay on as assistant stage manager and eventually as an actor in the company. Osborne made his acting debut at the Empire Theatre, Sheffield, in March 1948, in Joan Temple's No Room at the Inn. For the next seven years he made the rounds of the provincial repertory theaters as a competent actor specializing in characterizations of old men. While a repertory actor, Osborne began writing plays—many of them collaborative efforts with other actors—on the side. After the failure of one of his first plays, Personal Enemy in 1955, Osborne returned to acting. He went to London, where he encountered long periods of unemployment and “lived” in a public library because it was warmer than his “digs.” During one of these periods, Osborne wrote his first solo play, Look Back in Anger. He submitted copies of the script to every theatrical agent in London but it was rejected by all. In responding to the English Stage Company's advertisement soliciting plays by new British playwrights, Osborne sent a copy of Look Back in Anger to the artistic director of the company. The English Stage Company had just been founded to provide a theater and proper conditions in London where contemporary playwrights could express themselves without having to submit to the increasing restrictions of the commercial theater. Look Back in Anger received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best foreign play of the 1957 Broadway season. Osborne received several awards for his work, including the Macallan Award for lifetime achievement, and an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for Tom Jones in 1964. He died of heart failure December 24, 1994.

Major Works

Look Back in Anger focuses on Jimmy Porter, a twenty-five-year-old university-educated sweetshop owner who shares a cramped attic apartment with his wife, Alison, and his co-worker and friend, Cliff. Embittered and alienated by his inability to advance socially and angered by the apathy he encounters in others, Jimmy strikes back at the world with explosive intensity. His diatribes range in subject from the failings of his marriage to the inequalities of English society. The Entertainer (1957) firmly established Osborne’s importance in postwar British drama. Essentially an in-depth portrait of three generations of the Rice family (who comprise almost the entire cast of the play), The Entertainer demonstrates once again Osborne's gift for invective and his deep compassion for failures. In addition to being a portrait of three generations of an English middle-class theatrical family, The Entertainer can also be seen as a depiction of the past, present, and future of contemporary England. Principally, however, this play is Osborne's requiem for the dying music hall and the vital part of English life that it represents. The Entertainer enjoys the distinction in Osborne's canon of being his first play commissioned by an actor: Laurence Olivier, who eventually played the part of Archie Rice, a seedy, fifth-rate music-hall comedian. Upon reading a portion of the script, Olivier felt an immediate interest in the character. Almost ten years later in an interview with Kenneth Tynan, Olivier described the role of Archie Rice as “the most wonderful part that I've ever played” in a modern play.

Often considered to be Osborne's angriest and most uncompromising work, The World of Paul Slickey (1959) is a biting musical satire of the London press and an attack on individuals who allow themselves to be influenced and manipulated by the mass media. Luther (1961) is a historical and psychological portrait of the leader of the Protestant Reformation. The play chronicles Martin Luther's years as an Augustinian monk, his confrontations with royal and papal authority, and his later role as husband and father. Luther won both a New York Drama Critics Circle Award and an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award. Inadmissible Evidence (1964) is regarded by many critics as a culmination of the themes developed in his earlier plays and his finest dramatic achievement. The play concentrates on Bill Maitland, an unscrupulous London lawyer who is haunted by feelings of guilt and self-doubt that eventually lead to his disengagement from society and his nervous breakdown.

Critical Reception

Look Back in Anger established Osborne as a leading writer for the British theater. Moreover, the play is credited with having a great influence on British theater and culture; commentators have investigated the play's influence on such prominent playwrights as Joe Orton and Edward Albee. Many critics regard Look Back in Anger, as well as a few of his other plays, as insightful commentary on England's social and political situation during the 1950s. However, later critics consider Look Back in Anger to be a conventional and disappointing play, more a cultural achievement than a literary one. Although some commentators have asserted that Osborne's later plays contain some of his best writing, they have been less popular than his earlier works. Critics have noted an unevenness in his works, but have declared Osborne's canon as impressive, rich, and vital. In his artistic maturation, he grew beyond the somewhat narrowly personal tone of Look Back in Anger without losing much of his original fire and vitality. Osborne is recognized for his prominent role in the revival of British theater during the 1950s and 1960s.

Arnold P. Hinchliffe (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Hinchliffe, Arnold P. “Look Back in Anger.” In John Osborne, pp. 1-25. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following essay, Hinchliffe surveys the critical reaction to Look Back in Anger.]

John James Osborne was born on 12 December 1929 in Fulham, a suburb of London. His father, Thomas Godfrey Osborne, was a commercial artist whose family came from South Wales, and his mother was Nellie Beatrice Grove. Details of his childhood and adolescence are now brilliantly recorded in the first volume of Osborne's autobiography, A Better Class of Person (1981). His childhood in London was dominated by a remarkable galaxy of larger-than-life relations of whom possibly only his invalid father inspired or gave affection. The lack of love comes over very strongly, as in the phrase which he uses to describe his Grandma Osborne's smile: “a thin winter of contempt.” Osborne's use of quotations from the plays to illustrate his early life shows how personal material provided the basis for the plays. Thus his marriage to Pamela Lane is used for the description of Jimmy Porter's marriage to Alison, and Jimmy gets his surname from a cousin who tormented the young Osborne. Billy Rice owes much to Grandpa Grove, who was reputed to have spent a weekend in Brighton with Marie Lloyd! Osborne describes the difference between the two sides of the family—one loud, the other quiet—succinctly:

The Osborne Row differed from the Grove Row but they had their similarities. With the Groves at Tottenham or Harbord Street the atmosphere would be violent, even physically, and thick with accumulated melodrama … The Osborne Family Rows, in spite of the fact that they were unheedingly Christian, were centered on the related subject of money. Their disputations were on wills, testaments, entails; who had been left out, what some loved one's real intentions had been and how subsequently thwarted after death.1

Osborne's father died in the early years of the war after spending many years in a sanatorium. What Osborne remembers about his childhood is that very little of it can be remembered with pleasure; but the excitement of the war remains. Most of the war was spent with his mother in London, where he attended state schools, but his father's charitable association, the National Advertising Benevolent Society, which had seen the family through the illnesses of both father and son, arranged for Osborne to go to boarding school in the west of England. Osborne was not particularly happy at school and when he was nearly sixteen he was expelled for striking the headmaster (who had switched off a radio playing Frank Sinatra). The Benevolent Society found him a job writing for trade journals such as Gas World and it was at this time that he bought a typewriter and started writing again. An interest in amateur dramatics led to a job as acting stage manager with a touring company and he appeared on the stage for the first time professionally as Mr. Burrells in No Room at the Inn, in 1948, at the Empire Theater, Sheffield. For the next eight years Osborne, medically unfit for National Service, was with stock companies in seaside resorts like Sidmouth and Ilfracombe, with a stint at Derby Playhouse. As Michael Billington points out:

… it was a background of low pay, poor digs, Sunday trains and cold theaters on a Monday morning. With the establishment of so many comfortable, well-subsidized reps and the virtual disappearance of the touring network, it is hard to remember that such an era ever existed. But the meticulous observer will find much of it recaptured in early Osborne.2

Osborne says that he always enjoyed acting but never took himself seriously as an actor, “and neither has anyone else.”3 He married the actress Pamela Lane in 1951, and while he was living with her on a Chelsea houseboat he took the script of Look Back in Anger to the Royal Court Theater. They were divorced in 1957 when Osborne married Mary Ure (who played Alison in London, New York, and the film version). They were divorced in 1962 and Osborne married Penelope Gilliatt, film and later drama critic of the Observer, in 1963. They separated in June 1966 and Osborne did not defend the divorce action in June 1967. In 1968 he married the actress Jill Bennett (who had been cited as corespondent in the divorce proceedings) at the Chelsea Registry Office. Osborne and Jill Bennett were divorced in 1977 and in 1978 he married Helen Dawson, formerly a journalist with the Observer, with whom he now lives in “an Edwardian magnate's house set in 23 acres of Kent.”4


Osborne claims that his first play was produced when he was seventeen and that it was “terrible.” There are, apparently, several works unperformed and unpublished as well as the two plays produced outside London before Look Back in Anger and Epitaph for George Dillon, written in collaboration with Anthony Creighton and performed after Look Back in Anger.

Osborne showed Resting Deep to Stella Linden and she advised “a short sharp lesson in Pinero” and, presumably, in collaboration with Osborne provided that lesson. The play, now called The Devil Inside Him, was performed at Huddersfield in May 1950 (and revived at the Pembroke, Croydon, in 1962 as Cry for Love by Robert Owen). The play is about a Welsh youth whom the villagers think is an idiot and his family a sex-maniac because he writes poetry, but whose talents are recognized by a visiting medical student. Unfortunately a local girl tries to pass him off as the father of her child and he feels obliged to kill her. The play was directed by Patrick Desmond and the Huddersfield Examiner detected “real dramatic instinct” behind the play.5

Personal Enemy, written with Anthony Creighton, was presented by the White Rose Players at Harrogate on 1 March 1955, again directed by Patrick Desmond, and seems to be Osborne's first encounter with the Lord Chamberlain. According to John Russell Taylor it is about the response of a soldier's relative when he refuses to be repatriated from Korea, but Patrick Desmond, in a letter to the Observer in 1964, about problems with the Lord Chamberlain, suggests another play:

It dealt with a McCarthy type witch hunt in Canada and the two young men accused of being “Commies” (i.e. liberals) were also smeared with the homosexual brush.6

However, four days before the opening night, author and director were summoned to St. James's Palace and presented with cuts that made the play “largely unintelligible.” There was no time to rewrite, resubmit, or rehearse, so the play went on. It is not surprising that the Harrogate Advertiser (5 March 1955) found the piece uneven, though H. H. Walker, theater critic of the Harrogate Herald, who knew of the Lord Chamberlain's interference, thought “they very nearly succeeded in making some sense of the piece.”7


When Osborne submitted his script to the Royal Court Theater and became a member of the English Stage Company he joined a family which supported him and which, more importantly, he supported to the greater good of British theater. Osborne's plays in the first five years earned the Court £50,000 as compared with the Arts Council grant of £30,000. Most of Osborne's plays written in his formative years (from 1956-72) were staged there, behind the proscenium arch, and many critics have felt this to be restrictive. Osborne has conceded that with a play like The Entertainer the stage at the Court was a problem (and even more so with the “epic” plays like Luther and A Patriot for Me) but he has also pointed out that he likes “to establish a kind of remoteness between the actors and the audience, which I only like to break at certain times, and I can do that in the picture-frame stage.”8 More importantly, though we can only speculate on this, there seems to have been a very close and fruitful relationship between Osborne and George Devine.9

The facts about the English Stage Company at the Royal Court are well known.10 The absence of any theater for experimental work in London was strongly felt and by 1955 the English Stage Company, in its initial stages of formation, was ready to step in and fill the gap. They had very slim resources and originally intended to take over the Kingsway Theater, but in fact they moved into the Royal Court in Sloane Square, reviving memories of the great Vedrenne-Barker period at that same theater—two managements which aimed at a theater removed both by geography and purpose from the commercial aims of Shaftesbury Avenue.11 On 2 March 1956, the first five plays were announced. The third play was Look Back in Anger, which would open on 8 May 1956.

If Look Back in Anger was not an immediate success it certainly made Osborne successful, with enough offers to keep him busy for five years, the play considered for a film, and a salary on which he had to pay his first income tax. But it was never done in the West End. Donald Albery wanted to do it but would only put it on at Wyndham's if Osborne “cut out the fun about bears and squirrels because he said it embarrassed everyone. I said ‘I know it does, but I'm sorry, no.’”12 It continues, however, to make money. In 1981 Osborne announced a video production in New York for which he got something like $50,000, which he compared to real estate: “You get a return not through more work, but through a change in values.”13

The English Stage Company purchased first refusal rights on the next three plays (for £50) and the American rights on Look Back in Anger (for £200). Osborne's play, in fact, was the only one out of about 750 which the Court received in response to an advertisement in the Stage which the two directors, Devine and Richardson, considered.

From its opening in April 1956 ten years of continuous activity followed and, until October 1965, everything was under the direction of George Devine, who died in 1966 at the age of fifty-five. It found new writers, though it never achieved its initial hope of creating a stock company, an ensemble of actors playing together continuously. Accusations of left-wing bias in this period are simply not borne out by the list of plays produced. Whatever Devine's own political beliefs may have been, his aim at the Court was simply to give the playgoer the best available in drama. As part of its program the Court also tried to educate critics in responding to new and experimental work. Some of the momentum was lost after a while and it is fair to say that the loss of George Devine was deeply felt. But if British theater needed a movement the Court provided the impression that it had one. Foreign authors like Artaud, Brecht, and Beckett were also introduced into British theater, and most importantly—particularly for Osborne's plays—the style of acting changed:

What it unleashed was a pride of lion-like young actors and actresses into a world of roles formerly denied to them … So far as the good, brave causes lamented by Jimmy Porter were concerned, there was none more swiftly won than the victory implicit in Jimmy's presence on stage.14


It was this “presence” which suggested to the critic of The Times a comparison with Coward's The Vortex, “which established Mr. Coward as the sympathetic voice of another post-war generation. It has the same air of desperate sincerity … the heroes of both plays are neurotics, but they suffer, and when an author can convey that suffering on the stage is genuine, it matters not how thin-spirited the sufferer; we are moved.”15 It was this voice, speaking for a postwar generation, rather than the formal qualities of the play, that convinced Devine and Richardson to stage the play, and although it was immediately dubbed “kitchen-sink” and its success seemed to send the Court on a course of social realism, the initial staging was not completely naturalistic: “… there was a sky-cloth instead of a ceiling, and all the props were still inside the surround.”16

Osborne himself confused the matter by describing Look Back in Anger as “a formal, rather old-fashioned play” that “broke out by its use of language” and confessed, in 1961, that it embarrassed him to look at it.17 More recently he has come to think those remarks misguided:

In fact I took a lot of daring risks. For instance, it was almost a rule when I first started working in the theater at all that you never discussed anyone on the stage who never appeared because it worried the audience … In Look Back in Anger there are about 27 people referred to and only five of them actually appear.18

It is easy, too, to say that Look Back made a lot of noise because the theater was so empty. A whole generation of playgoers had grown up who were no longer satisfied by a diet of Rattigan, T. S. Eliot, and Agatha Christie. The leading commercial production in 1956 was probably Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden at the Haymarket, with Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, and Felix Aylmer. Tynan described the dialogue of this comedy as speech of “exquisite candour, building ornamental bridges of metaphor, tiptoeing across frail causeways of simile and vaulting over gorges impassable to the rational soul.”19 Osborne noted that critics had ignored Nigel Dennis's Cards of Identity at the Royal Court while giving serious attention to this play, which he described as “the doddering apotheosis of the English theatrical decadence of the last thirty years.”20 Yet his own play was—in one sense at least—old-fashioned. Allardyce Nicoll has pointed out that all the ingredients are similar to those used in plays between 1900 and 1930 and he makes specific comparison with The Best People (1926), by David Grey and Avery Hopwood, and Galsworthy's The Fugitive (1913).21 Eliot and Fry, too, had been dealing with restlessness and loss of direction but in language so mannered and decorated that it was self-regarding and little else. The most immediate parallel was made by Irving Wardle, who pointed out that Look Back was running alongside Ronald Duncan's Don Juan. Both plays had heroes who were men of passion invading “the territory of good manners”:

The message is the same. England has gone to sleep behind its mask of respectability. … The all-important difference between the two is the language. In Duncan it is so self-admiring that it gets in the way of what was being said. … With Osborne you have no time to observe the stylistic pirouettes, because the sense hits you like a blow in the mouth.22

Clearly Osborne's early plays reflect the kind of thing he had been acting in for the last eight years and, like Pinter, he begins by writing plays which resemble them in form but which confound audience expectation either by parodying the content or abandoning it. To an older playgoer the content was shocking but to younger playgoers both situation and language were, at last, “real”—not everyone, after all, had french windows and a tennis court. Look Back in Anger, therefore, broke new ground even if that ground was familiar. As Ronald Duncan commented:

The so-called “kitchen-sink” dramatists are still writing within the conventions of Mrs. Tanqueray. They have swopped the drama of duchesses and cucumber sandwiches for bus drivers and empty sauce bottles.23

In fact, though both dramatists use language differently, Osborne and Pinter are acutely aware of the cucumber sandwiches, and Osborne specifically directs our attention to them: that is part of the shock of recognition. But Osborne's hallmark, according to Wilson Knight, is his ability to rush on, expand, and exhilarate:

The attack is delivered through an amazing resource of half-slangy, intensely modern phrases; it is a kind of poetry, coming naturally from an educated young man of low birth and blending a contumacious proletarianism with the academic tradition, for Jimmy Porter's reference is wide.24

Osborne has called these speeches “arias” and they are elaborate solos to be performed by a star actor. Michael Billington finds Jimmy more a typical young man in a stock company than a university graduate though Gareth Lloyd Evans sees him as using the typical language of an undergraduate—“a neutral speech” by which Osborne makes little attempt to indicate character, class, or accent:

It is the language of educated youth feeling its feet and determined to put things right. It is the language of a certain self-conceit—often not a vicious or deep one, but a cosy one born of self-awareness of intelligence, a sense of words, and a desire to chalk up a victory in the intellectual stakes.25

Evans lists the characteristics of this language as eloquence, lucidity, exaggeration, repetition, and the danger of always “seeming to be on the point of breaking into a public rhetorical speech.” But other critics have noted that Osborne can use silence; that his language is theatrical and hence not entirely verbal:

… it is in the simple silences without movement that the sustaining energy of his characters is most nakedly revealed. Between the various and resourceful engagements of their encounters, there are moments when the characters are not fighting or defending themselves, and then they reveal their basic desires and needs, that are dumb and helpless.26

Such a description could almost equally apply to a play by Pinter and it hints at the Strindbergian side of Look Back, though initially the play was praised for what seemed like its political statement. Thus Hayman insists that Osborne does not use language to characterize Jimmy Porter; rather Jimmy is offered as a spokesman for a generation that in America would be responding to James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955):

Without being a revolutionary, Jimmy set himself up as a pugnacious enemy of the status quo and of the apathy it was floating on.27

Jimmy, then, could be seen as a spokesman in a play with a deliberate political and social aim and, indeed, Look Back in Anger rapidly became, as Simon Trussler caustically remarks, “a harbinger of the New Left, of Anti-Apartheid, and of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.” But, Trussler also reminds us, if Jimmy's emotional needs were typical his response was clearly exceptional.28


Jimmy Porter, obviously, would not have been clamoring to join any of these organizations but that is no answer. Coward, after watching Look Back in Anger, found it “electrifying” but believed “it to be composed of vitality rather than anger.”29 It is a nice distinction but we must still ask what were the roots of that vitality, the causes which made it take the direction it did take. As John Russell Taylor has pointed out, no past is “so imaginatively remote as the recent past, just out of one's own field of vision and not yet far enough away to be history.”30 Recalling the anxieties of 1956 requires a very conscious effort and even reading what contemporary observers thought was the mood of the time can be a difficult, often sardonic exercise. It was a period of labels and nouns:

Fascism, Nazism, Communism, Spain, Imperialism, Hitler, Stalin, … Pearl Harbor, Hungary, Suez … names of violence and disaster, of guilt, betrayal, spiritual exhaustion.31

It was a period when Protest linked Angry Young Men in England with the Beat Generation in America—a generation responding to and finding expression about contemporary history. In England young men felt that socialism had let them down. They found that in spite of their education (which had made them rootless) the class structure still excluded them as it has excluded their ancestors for centuries; they had the privilege of a university education but they were, in Somerset Maugham's word, scum. Lumping together Osborne and Kingsley Amis or John Wain was a journalistic convenience and there is little point in exploring it here.32 Amis's Lucky Jim has little in common with Jimmy Porter. Jim Dixon has little concern for those around him and draws back from involvement whereas Jimmy Porter cries out for people to come alive, be involved—in anything. Jimmy Porter, therefore, easily became an all-purpose hero—since he was angry about everything he embraced the angers of everyone. Most would agree with Laurence Kitchin, however, that our sympathy for him is qualified:

He shares his home with a friend and grieves at an old woman's death. His ill-treatment of his wife can partly be condoned as the by-product of a collision of values. … But his job, selling sweets in a market, seems a self-imposed misuse of education, a gesture of self-pitying exhibitionism. He is less angry than petulant. …33

There is wide agreement that Osborne is not didactic. His plays are “lessons in feeling” and, therefore, “more instinctive than calculated and more passionate than coherent”;34 the social themes are not of first importance.35 Yet for Harold Ferrar Look Back is

a virtual compendium of urgent mid-century concerns; isolation and alienation, non-communication, the death of ideals and the vanishing of heroism … the confrontation of nothingness, the uselessness of awareness for changing a cruel world.36

Ferrar, moreover, goes on to suggest that those who find this political content upsetting note Jimmy's narcissism, paranoia, sado-masochism, and escapist nostalgia and use these symptoms to discount the political content. So Jimmy, often confused with his author, is representative of a generation which is lost; a generation trying to adjust to a peacetime situation at home and confronted, internationally, with the fiasco of Suez and the spectacle of Russian tanks rolling into Hungary. Osborne's own comment on Suez is revealing:

What made Suez a typically Tory venture was not only its deception, its distaste for the basic assumptions of democracy, but the complete ineptitude of its execution.37

The tone of that comment is precisely what so often foxes critics. Mander, for example, taking the hint Osborne gives us about Jimmy—“to be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal”—goes on to apply this to the whole play. Despite the force of Jimmy's personality and the fact that he has been taken as a spokesman for a generation Mander finds the play “fundamentally non-committal”; it does not “add up to a significant statement about anything. The anger is not realized in terms of human relationships, and worked into the dialectic of the play. …”38 From this Mander pursues a familiar argument. If the play is to be taken seriously then we must take Jimmy's views seriously in their dramatic context. The play must counterpoint Jimmy against society, yet the other characters do not exist sufficiently to do this and we are left only with Jimmy's energy. The play gives us

one powerfully realized, entirely possible human being; and a setting in which other human beings, despite the talk, are not much more than stage-furniture … Such values as it expresses are simply Jimmy's values, with which the author is evidently in agreement.39

But this, as literary criticism, will not do, either. The idea that Osborne and Jimmy are in agreement overlooks the dramatic distance the author keeps from his hero; and it can be argued that the other characters do exist, more than sufficiently. A more serious problem arises on the thematic level when a critic like Edwin Morgan takes Osborne's statement about making people feel and letting them think afterward:

Supposing we don't make the effort—or if we do make the effort and find that no very definitely formulated theme emerges—or that a theme emerges which doesn't deserve our approbation?40


Look Back in Anger was obviously not what it seemed. As Gordon Rogoff puts it:

By what was undoubtedly an unplanned sleight-of-thought, the play gave all the appearance of being lined up with new Left political positions. It seemed to be about commitment, it seemed to be a protest, it seemed to be political, and it even seemed to be new, though the only startling “innovation” was that what seemed to be a five-character play was really a monologue.41

Now it is just possible that Osborne knew what he was doing both as a dramatist and as one concerned with politics and society. The idea that his main characters from Jimmy Porter onward speak for Osborne is seductive, and Osborne has often shown a tendency to speak like his characters—even sometimes quoting from them. It is an appealing idea since the main characters are rarely challenged within the world of the play. They do turn into public speakers but it is precisely this art of public speaking, of showmanship, that attracts Osborne. The failure of his characters to pursue a calculated and consistent program marks them out as characters and not megaphones. In 1957 Osborne was asked to make statements about his social and political beliefs but in his replies he consistently reminds us that he is an artist. Take, for example, his famous comment in “They Call It Cricket”:

I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards. In some countries this could be a dangerous approach, but there seems little danger of people feeling too much—at least not in England as I am writing. I am an artist—whether or not I am a good one is beside the point now. For the first time in my life I have a chance to get on with my job, and that is what I intend to do. I shall do it in the theater and, possibly, in films.42

Osborne will fulfill his role as a Socialist by being an artist who cares. Thus the theater, for Osborne, is a weapon and those who work in the theater have power which they should never underestimate. The theater in which they work “must be based on care, care for how people feel and live.”43 When Osborne was sent a list of questions posed to writers by the London Magazine in 1957 he took care to specify that his care operated for him “as a writer working in the theater.” Commenting on the indifference of writers to the problems of human freedom like Hungary and the Rosenbergs, Osborne felt these were ignored because writers find it difficult to be engaged in problems on their own doorstep. Surrounded by inertia at home it is easy to make up your mind when people are being thrown into the ash-can but now, with material prosperity, it is not easy to see that people are still being thrown into the ash-can because it is such a comfortable one. It is the writer's duty to find the language with which to speak to those people who have been thrown into the ash-can.44 As a Socialist writer he can say very little about kinds of houses, schools, or pensions, but there are questions he can ask:

… how do people live inside those houses? … What are the things that are important to them, that make them care, give them hope and anxiety? What kind of language do they use to one another? What is the meaning of the work they do? Where does the pain lie? What are their expectations? … Experiment means asking questions, and these are all questions of socialism.45

They are not, many critics have observed—with some justice—exactly the questions Osborne has asked in his plays. Moreover as the years have passed critics have grown uneasy as the angry rebel seemed to be turning into an irascible High Tory who would like to see “this whole hideous rush into the twentieth century halted a bit.” In the Tynan interview of 1968 he was asked if he had not moved in the last few years toward a right-wing position:

That's what people would say, but I doubt whether it's true. I've always had leftist, radical sympathies. On the other hand, I'm an authoritarian in many ways, simply because of the kind of work I do. If I didn't subscribe to some kind of discipline, I wouldn't be able to do it. In that respect, I'm inevitably a conservative rather than an anarchist. But a lot of left-wing feeling nowadays strikes me as instant-mashed-potato radicalism. It hasn't been felt through and worked through. I find it easy and superficial and tiresome.46

This contrasts with his backward glance from 1981 recalling the feeling—felt through and worked through—that gave rise to Look Back in Anger:

… In the 1945 election when the Labour Party got in, people like me thought the world was going to change, but instead it became more drear and austere. It was a dull time, joyless and timid. This was followed by the collapse of the Empire and the Suez crisis. We became very disillusioned, and out of this feeling came our writing, which so many people identified with because it was expressing what they felt themselves.47

Osborne, then, emerges as a serious artist concerned with social and political matters, as any dramatist must be whose work for those causes occurs in the theater; whose main weapon is language, which he uses as extrovertly when writing about socialism as he does when creating a character.


In a review of Tennessee Williams published in the Observer (20 January 1957) called “Sex and Failure” Osborne suggests that a playwright criticizing another playwright is merely explaining how he would have written the plays. He could also have said that a playwright writing about another playwright tells us a great deal about himself. He praises the plays of Tennessee Williams for their portrayal of suffering and sees them as “an assault on the army of the tender-minded and tough-hearted, the emotion snobs who believe that protest is vulgar, and to be articulate is to be sorry for oneself.” The plays of Tennessee Williams are about failure, which is what makes human beings interesting, and to those critics who say that the characters are neurotic and therefore too exceptional Osborne replies:

Adler said somewhere that the neurotic is like the normal individual only more so. A neurotic is not less adequate than an auditorium full of “normals.” Every character trait is a neurotic writ small. I like my plays writ large, and that is how these are written. … These plays tell us something about what is happening in America and that is something we must know about. Lacking a live culture of our own, we are drawing more heavily than ever on that of the United States … America is as sexually obsessed as a medieval monastery. That is what these plays are about—sex. Sex and failure.

Look Back in Anger was started in May 1955 (and, incidentally, was never called On The Pier At Morecambe, though some of it was written there); it is a play writ large. Its central character is a neurotic and it is about sex and failure, problems rooted in social and political history. The first thing we notice when reading Osborne's play is a liking for long and explicit stage directions. Osborne has since dismissed this habit of showering his scripts with “irrelevant” stage directions48 but we cannot ignore them. They remind us of Shaw, but he at least had the excuse that his plays would not be produced and the habit of reading plays was more usual (so much so that dramatists like Ibsen published separate reading editions). Are these directions aimed at the director, the actor, the reader or, perhaps, all three? They certainly provide hints without which the text would be the poorer, like the well-known description of Jimmy:

… He is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loudmouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.49

The location—a flat in the Midlands—and the time (early evening on an English Sunday) provide a static situation where boredom has set in and the only thing to do is talk, to pass the time. The French title, La Paix du Dimanche, was a good, ironic translation which also removed the need to ask what Jimmy was angry about. But the anger is important and by no means as unselective as the rambling discourse would suggest. Mention of the Sunday newspapers allows Jimmy to range over a large number of topics but they all boil down to the basic causes of Jimmy's rage: class and inertia. Sunday—always the same—emphasizes the inertia and leads into his cry for a little enthusiasm and his plea that they pretend to be human beings, alive and human. But the stage direction in the middle of this (he bangs his breast theatrically)50 reminds us that this is a performance, for an audience. For when we talk of talk we mean monologue. If Jimmy is on stage the other characters are his audience and if he is not they tend to talk about him. But this is not to say that they do not develop as characters as many critics have suggested. In act 1 they feed Jimmy with topics of one sort or another. Alison leads to mention of her father “still casting well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight,” which in turn leads to Jimmy and patriotism—a liking for Vaughan Williams (“Something strong, something simple, something English”) and Jimmy's surprising sympathy for the Colonel. The backward glance is tempting, particularly as “it's pretty dreary living in the American Age,” but Jimmy is not lost in the vision of high summer, long days in the sun, croquet and crisp linen:

What a romantic picture. Phony too, of course. It must have rained sometimes. Still, even I regret it somehow, phony or not. If you've no world of your own, it's rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else's. I must be getting sentimental.51

Osborne then deflates the high seriousness with a kick at Cliff, who has been sitting there not listening. Understandably—but again lacking the kind of vitality, curiosity that characterized Madeline and that is conspicuously lacking in brother Nigel. After one brief meeting Nigel provides Jimmy with a large topic—but the speech is less about a particular Nigel and more about what Nigel stands for: all the things Jimmy hates and needs to fight. Jimmy's hatred of women is disturbing (though the comic tone qualifies the disturbance) particularly as his relationship with Cliff seems so warm. Indeed his previous relationship with Hugh was close enough to arouse the suspicions of Alison's mother, though this, again, tells us more about Alison's mother than about Jimmy and Hugh. Jimmy admits that “sometimes” he “almost” envies Gide and the Greek chorus boys, but his confession (in act 3, sc. 1) that friendship is one thing but sex is something else, and more important, puts homosexuality like nostalgia into perspective.

The noisy scenes must also be balanced with the quiet scenes. Thus, when Cliff leaves there is an interlude between Alison and Jimmy which explores the bear and squirrel relationship, the only level, fantasy, on which their marriage works. It is therefore, as Trussler suggests, compensatory rather than complementary:

Now this, surely, suggests what the play is about—or what it was about, before the myth-makers got to work: it explores, within a formally unexceptionable framework, a particular kind of sexual relationship, the incidental frustrations of which (expressed in Jimmy's outbursts about everything but his feelings towards his wife) just happened to set off or coincide with a theatrical chain reaction.52

Again, Osborne is not credited with doing what he is doing. The framework is “formally unexceptionable”: Alison has just told Cliff that she is pregnant (so we know but Jimmy does not) and Jimmy describes the plot of the play by hoping that she will have a child and lose it (which she does), but his hope is that she will learn to feel:

If only something—something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! … If you could have a child, and it would die. Let it grow, let a recognizable human face emerge from that little mass of india-rubber and wrinkles. Please—if only I could watch you face that. I wonder if you might even become a recognizable human being yourself. But I doubt it.53

Drawn to Alison by the relaxation her class has given her he finds that she is only a Sleeping Beauty. The causes of frustration are social and political as well as emotional. And they can be explored only if an outsider, Helena, arrives. Helena, an actress, looks as if she might fight back. Osborne's stage directions speak of the “royalty of that middle-class womanhood, which is so eminently secure in its divine rights” that she can behave with “an impressive show of strength and dignity.”54 We are also told that the strain is beginning to tell. Living with Jimmy is not easy, and though he does not know how cruel his wish for a dead child was, we do and we can appreciate that Alison needs a rest and must go away. Helena, however underdrawn, at least in act 2 (“little more than a dramatic convenience”55) can ask the questions that by this stage are puzzling us. Why and how did Alison marry Jimmy? Why can the marriage exist only intermittently on a nursery level—itself a fine ironic touch? This allows Alison to tell us how they met and how the image of the knight in shining armor turns into the game of bears and squirrels—“a silly symphony for people who couldn't bear the pain of being human beings any longer.”56 Helena also helps to crystallize Jimmy's feeling about feeling, which he locates as a response to death (though death is linked with virginity—about which Jimmy has been angry, too). Carter believes that this is the clue to Jimmy's anger—he cannot bear the thought of dying in the same way as his father:

Is there not something wrong with a society which permits such a death and comfortably goes about its everyday life? Can society make people so unfeeling?57

But Jimmy's view of his father's death is more complex than that. His father fought in Spain and came back to die. His family were embarrassed by this, exhibiting the emotions of the middle class; his mother was only interested in “smart, fashionable” minorities and left the failure of a man with an audience of one small frightened boy who could not understand what his father was saying and could only feel despair, bitterness, the smell of death:

You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless. And I can never forget it. I knew more about—love … betrayal … and death when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know in all your life.58

It is true that the substance of the speech is Jimmy rather than his father, and that is the point; it is a helpless Jimmy, one who fails to measure up, if through no fault of his own, to the requirements of the moment. He does not want to fail again when confronted with the death of Hugh's mum. But Helena has arranged for Alison to go home just when he needs her. Even here Osborne puts us at a distance from the emotions. His stage direction is quite specific. Jimmy cannot believe that Alison has refused him, and picking up the teddy bear he throws it downstage, where it “makes a rattling, groaning sound—as guaranteed in the advertisement.”59 Jimmy's pain at that moment is without an audience and dumb—except for that trivial comic groan.

Scene 2 introduces the Colonel and, again, stage directions indicate his character. Where his wife would have relished the situation (Alison leaving Jimmy) he is only “disturbed and bewildered by it.”60 Colonel Redfern never meets Jimmy, though, according to Jimmy, he nearly runs him down with his car. The Colonel, too, asks questions about the marriage to fill in the background. Why the sweetstall, for example? And the sordid business of private detectives? When Alison repeats Jimmy's description of him his reply—simply and without malice—is that Jimmy has “quite a turn of phrase,” which, in its modest way, is perceptive. He recognizes, too, what marriage to Jimmy has done for Alison. It has taught her a great deal though he cannot understand all this talk about challenges and revenge and cannot believe that love is really like that. His nostalgia is, like Jimmy's, more complex than critics will allow; he knows that life for him was over when he left India, though the knowledge does not alter his unhappiness. As Alison recognizes, her father is unhappy because everything is changed, and Jimmy is unhappy because everything is the same.

When Jimmy returns he is preoccupied with the death of Hugh's mum, which, characteristically, gets muddled up with Alison's not sending any flowers because Hugh's mum was “a deprived and ignorant old woman” who said the wrong things in the wrong places and could not be taken seriously. What terrifies Jimmy, of course, is that once more he has had to face death alone. When Helena slaps him he cannot even hit her back, but contact has been made and, in pain and despair, he allows her to seduce him.

Act 3 opens very much like act 1, with Helena instead of Alison at the ironing board. Circularity is much admired in Beckett but in Osborne it is criticized as primitive stagecraft. Yet, as in Beckett, things are the same but not quite. Helena, we are told in the stage directions, is looking “more attractive than before, for the setting of her face is more relaxed”61 while Cliff has developed, too, and is “actually acquiring … a curiosity.”62 Though he falls into the old routine with Jimmy (this time it is Flanagan and Allen) he is preparing to leave and Jimmy provides him with the right tone to manage this: “rather casually,” a tone Cliff picks up in explaining that the sweetstall is all right for Jimmy, who is educated but he needs something better. The interchange when Cliff says that his feet hurt and Jimmy advises him to try washing his socks shows the depth and easiness of their relationship but, as Jimmy admits, though Cliff has been “loyal, generous and a good friend” he is prepared to let him go for something he knows Helena will not give him, and it is this theme of women bleeding men to death, through sex, which introduces the brave-causes speech. Dying for brave causes was possible in the 1930s and 1940s but now there are no causes left. There is no longer any grand design, only the big bang, which makes death as “pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus”; so all that is left for men is to let themselves be butchered by women. Again the stage direction indicates the tone: “In his familiar, semi-serious mood.” Katharine Worth is perfectly correct when she points out that this speech is not meant to set us thinking about brave causes that do exist:

This is not a play about brave causes but about a special kind of feeling, what Osborne has described as “the texture of ordinary despair.” Jimmy is a suffering hero, and the action is designed to illuminate his suffering rather than force a conflict.63

But, as Alison acutely points out, Jimmy would be lost without his suffering. He may be trapped by it and lost with it but it is all he has left. Spain in a sense was the last cause about which a moral choice could confidently be made. Jimmy is quite specific—he sees himself as part of a generation that has inherited the debt of brave causes and dying for them but which is confused, understandably in the year of Hungary and Suez, about moral choices. Heroism is impossible, so all that is left is personal relationships, and for him (Alison has made it clear to her father that only some men and women talk of challenge and revenge in marriage) that experiment has failed. It is often overlooked that life without Alison is brighter and more relaxed; the tone of act 3, initially, is easy and even cheerful, but people are preparing to leave Jimmy. Cliff goes first, and then, when Alison returns, Helena too. Jimmy is described as an Eminent Victorian—“slightly comic—in a way”64—and the brave causes are discussed in his “familiar, semi-serious mood.” Jimmy can cope with pain through language and sex. When Alison returns he avoids her challenge and they withdraw into the game of bears and squirrels on which note the play ends. As he insisted she has lost her child, she can and does grovel. She is also sterile.

This ending contains the possibility of two interpretations. The pattern is circular—we are back where we were before. In the debate after the production Tony Richardson insisted that it was a hopeful play—the relationship had improved, they were playing the game for the last time, with irony; as the stage directions suggest. Alison has really suffered, and Jimmy and she can now feel together. But for Hayman the irony does not work and the ending can only be taken as a “retreat into immature emotional cosiness.”65 Carter, feeling Alison has suffered enough, sees a reconciliation as possible:

Alison's submission allows them to unite hopefully in the dream world they have created, where Alison is a gleamingly beautiful squirrel, and Jimmy a strong powerful bear, content perhaps never really to make out as successful human beings in a mundane, futile world.66

John Russell Taylor, who had seen the ending as escapist in Anger and After, is less certain in the Casebook:

It seems possible that this basis of warm, animal love might, on the other side of suffering, lead to happiness, though some critics think otherwise, and see in the ending only a temporary further escape into whimsey. Both possibilities are left open, and remarkably so in a play which has often been thought propagandist in aim.67


“A piece of shit” was, according to Osborne, Olivier's first reaction to the play but he was persuaded to visit it again and changed his mind. On this occasion he was accompanied by Arthur Miller, who saw Look Back in Anger as

… the only modern, English play that I have seen. Modern in the sense that the basic attention in the play is toward the passionate idea of the man involved and of the playwright involved, and not toward the surface glitter and amusement that the situation might throw off … an intellectual play … and yet it seems to have no reflection elsewhere in the theater.68

As far as press reviews were concerned it is now generally agreed that the immediate reception of the play was “almost uniformly favorable” and most critics agreed that Osborne was a dramatist to watch.69 The French reaction to La Paix du Dimanche was noncommittal without being vehement: “It is a play to reassure everyone: it attacks nothing, it demonstrates nothing.”70 This seems to suggest that something was lost in translation. American audiences were intrigued as to what Jimmy was angry about:

Jimmy “risen” from the working class is now provided with an intellect which only shows him that everything that might have justified pride in the old England—its opportunity, adventure, material well-being—has disappeared without being replaced by anything but a lackluster security. He has been promoted into a moral and social vacuum. …71

For Arthur Schlesinger, Jimmy's anger had nothing to do with either intellectual frustration or class conflict. He was angry because he would not recognize that he was a homosexual,72 but Leslie Corina replied immediately that Jimmy was not gay and the play was about class struggles.73 Gordon Rogoff saw him as born out of his time:

Jimmy Porter, railing against his wife and contemporary England, was simply the old British Rajah turned inside-out, a pukka sahib gone sour. …74

The review that made the most impact was, of course, Kenneth Tynan's in the Observer, where he suggested that Osborne's picture of a certain kind of modern marriage was hilariously accurate:

… he shows us two attractive young animals engaged in competitive martyrdom, each with its teeth sunk deep in the other's neck, and each reluctant to break the clinch for fear of bleeding to death. The fact that Osborne writes of this situation with charity has led many critics into believing that Osborne's sympathies are wholly with Jimmy but nothing could be more false: Jimmy is simply and abundantly alive; that rarest of dramatic phenomena, the act of original creation has taken place; and those who carp were better silent. Is Jimmy's anger justified? Why doesn't he do something? These questions might be relevant if the character had failed to come to life; in the presence of such evident and blazing vitality, I marvel at the pedantry that could ask them. Why don't Chekhov's people do something? Is the sun justified in scorching us?

Tynan found in the play qualities he had despaired of seeing on the stage—“the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of ‘official’ attitudes, the surrealist sense of humor” but above all the fact that the Porters deplore the tyranny of good taste and refuse to accept “emotional” as a term of abuse. Osborne was the first spokesman for this group, a minority taste (he estimated the number in that minority at roughly 6,733,000 people), he admitted, and concluded that he could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger, the “best young play of its decade.”75

Harold Hobson's review, if less forceful, was, in restrospect, remarkably perceptive. He detected two plays in Look Back in Anger:

One of them is ordinary and noisy, and Mr. Osborne has written it with some wit but more prolixity; the other is sketched into the margin of the first, and consists of hardly words at all, but is controlled by a fine and sympathetic imagination, and is superbly played, in long passages of pain and silence, by Miss Mary Ure.76

This both begins to recognize the two silences with which Pinter's work has familiarized us and, more significantly, recognizes the existence of other characters in what was often called a monologue. It directs us to style and behavior as well as pain and despair. But the social questions continued to nag. This Wolverhampton Hamlet, as T. C. Worsley dubbed Jimmy, led to comparisons with Hamlet, brilliantly in the case of Wilson Knight,77 casually by Mary McCarthy.78 Hamlet, with his Oedipus complex, encouraged the psychoanalytical approach and pushed aside the social dimension of M. C. Bradbrook's comparison:

Jimmy is a child casualty of the war before last—the Spanish Civil War. “There aren't any good brave causes any more” he says, in the year of Suez. His torrents of invective are set off by Cliff, the decent Horatio to this Hamlet of the Butler Education Act, and by the Colonel, an honest man of good will, whose Army memories are of military bands in India.79

This approach, according to Roy Huss, misses the point altogether. A large part of Jimmy's behavior can be explained by “the unresolved Oedipal situation in which he is enmeshed,” indeed, by the classic pre-Oedipal neurosis when the child decides to turn his fear and resentment toward his mother into masochistic enjoyment. Thus all references to social iniquities are really “a subterfuge masking his underlying predicament with women” to which Osborne, “knowingly or unknowingly, gives dramatic context.” Thus we cannot compare the play to Strindberg since Jimmy Porter's problem is not that women threaten him. Indeed they are propelled toward him by the same sadomasochistic impulses:

To overlay this kind of atmosphere with a theme of social protest, as Osborne does, is to distort, not sharpen, the real dramatic focus in the play.80

Some might feel it was a little pretentious to analyze a character as if he were a real person. M. D. Faber defends this approach, however, claiming that it is justified “as long as we confine ourselves to the text,” and so, from the “fact” that Jimmy is continually eating and drinking (and keeps a sweet-stall) we move inexorably to the conclusion that what the play really presents us with is “an orally fixated neurotic who projects his own psychological shortcomings onto the external environment.”81 Ironically, the next article, by David H. Karrfalt, is called “The Social Theme in Osborne's Plays” and opens with the sentence: “John Osborne's view of man is primarily social.” The real difficulty in justifying analysis “as long as we confine ourselves to the text” is that the text is only part of the drama. Moreover, the original interpreters of Jimmy Porter—Kenneth Haigh and Richard Burton—were not the weedy neurotics the text rather invites but substantial, even heroic, figures. Jimmy is very much a mixed character—“a warm-hearted idealist raging against the evils of man and the universe” but also “a cruel and even morbid misfit in a group of reasonably normal and well-disposed people”:

In short, if Osborne intended elements of self-portrait then he did so in no uncritical mood … if Jimmy is offered as a “typical” hero, he is so as Hamlet is—a recognizable and recurring type, perhaps, but also a permanent possibility in the make-up of any sensitive person; but in a minority in any generation and in most individuals resolutely suppressed.82

This view is echoed by John Elsom, who points out that Jimmy is himself a chief example of the social malaise he attacks:

Through Jimmy Porter, Osborne had opened up a much wider subject than rebelliousness or youthful anger, that of social alienation, the feelings of being trapped in a world of meaningless codes and customs. Osborne's ambivalence towards Jimmy is apparent even from his descriptions of him in the script. …83

When Look Back was revived at the Royal Court in 1968 John Russell Taylor noted that those qualities which had given it urgency and topicality thirteen years ago now seemed curiously incidental. Jimmy in this production was seen much more as a character in relation to other characters; his tirades

… as something both arising out of his own nature and directed with particular purpose to those around him, to needle them out of their apathy, to stir them one way and another by challenging their social assumptions, outraging their political ideas, or even arousing them sexually by provoking them just blindly to strike out, resist, hit back.

Victor Henry, in the role of Jimmy, managed to suggest both sides of the character—the heroic Jimmy of what he says and the unheroic Jimmy of the stage directions and, though he still dominates, there was a more complete sense of the network of relationships which binds the group together:

… the two women, Alison and Helena, are given a sharper and more satisfying individuality as played by Jane Asher and Caroline Mortimer respectively. Jane Asher especially manages to bring out the underlying dogged stubbornness of Alison, the hard determination not to give in disguised under the apparent apathy. She thus makes more sense of the final bears-and-squirrels game, which now appears as a continuation and development of a complex relationship rather than a sentimental evasion of a straight admission of defeat.

This, Taylor felt, was all in the text but perhaps time was needed to remove the play from its immediate “inflammatory context” so that we could see it, and see, too, that it was the formal, old-fashioned elements that make the play “more than a spectacular flash in the pan.”84

Pamela, in Time Present, warns us to listen to the content of the tone of the voice and not be trapped into taking what is said as wholly significant. Osborne himself complained very early of this inability to listen:

At this I can hear all kinds of impatient inflections. “Well, if your characters only mean what they say some of the time, when are we supposed to know what they're getting at? What are you getting at? What do you mean?” At every performance of any of my plays, there are always some of these deluded pedants, sitting there impatiently, waiting for the plugs to come singing in during the natural breaks in the action. … I offer no explanations to such people. All art is organized evasion. You respond to Lear or Max Miller—or you don't. I can't teach the paralyzed to move their limbs. Shakespeare didn't describe symptoms or offer explanations. Neither did Chekhov. Neither do I.85

Look Back in Anger is a play full of talk, and Osborne's view of character is essentially theatrical. Jimmy has a sympathetic audience (at least on stage)—he usually knows how far he can go, though he does sometimes get carried away by the pleasure of his own images. But the interchange when Cliff breaks the news that he is leaving shows Jimmy offering Cliff the right tone to complete the break decently: the truth of what is said must be measured by the way it is said. If it is perfectly phrased it will be quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be. But is what happens in Look Back in Anger civilized? Again the tone helps; the play is funny. Osborne recalls that at a preview of the play a lot of students came and roared with laughter all the way through. Richardson and Devine asked in puzzlement why they were laughing and Osborne replied: because it's FUNNY. He himself thought of the play as “quite a comedy” but everybody else insisted that it was Human Drama.86 It is foolish to take out of context certain speeches and press them for answers on causes, women, homosexuality, class, or anything else—though remarkably all the themes of the later plays are already here. Subsequently Osborne chose as his main characters men or women who had at least something of the actor in their professional life. Jimmy himself is an actor—as Michael Billington remarks:

… the play plausibly reflects the problems of an actor buried in the rut of a Midland's weekly rep in the 50s, knowing that he has a talent and energy that have so far gone unrecognized.87

The extra turn of the screw that Osborne provides is that Jimmy does not know that he has talent that has gone unrecognized. The heroes that follow are also failures whose talent is questionable.


  1. A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography: 1929-1956 (London and Boston, 1981), p. 54.

  2. Michael Billington, The Modern Actor (London, 1973), pp. 162-63.

  3. “That Awful Museum,” reprinted in John Osborne: Look Back in Anger: A Casebook, ed. John Russell Taylor (London, 1968), p. 66; hereafter cited as Casebook.

  4. Observer, 18 November 1979.

  5. Quoted in Martin Banham, Osborne (Edinburgh, 1969), p. 100.

  6. Quoted in Richard Findlater, Theatrical Censorship in Britain (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967; Panther edition, 1968), pp. 213-14.

  7. Quoted in Banham, Osborne, p. 100.

  8. “That Awful Museum,” p. 66.

  9. Osborne's refusal to contribute to Irving Wardle's study The Theatres of George Devine (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978) is unfortunate for us but his reason, the private nature of his ten-year relationship with Devine, must be respected. Some inkling of his feeling comes through in “On the Writer's Side,” in At The Royal Court: 25 Years of the English Stage Company, ed. Richard Findlater (Derbyshire, 1981), pp. 19-26.

  10. See Wardle, Theatres of Devine; Terry Browne, Playwrights' Theatre (London: Pitman Publishing, 1975); At the Royal Court, ed. Findlater; and John Russell Taylor, “Ten Years of the English Stage Company,” and Gordon Rogoff, “Richard's Himself Again,” both in British Theatre: 1956-1966, Tulane Drama Review, no. 34 (Winter 1966), pp. 120-31, 29-40.

  11. During the Vedrenne-Barker regime at the Court (1904-7), of the thirty-two plays performed eleven were by Shaw. Galsworthy's first play, The Silver Box, was accepted immediately and during these three years the Court also performed plays by Yeats, Housman, Maeterlinck, and Schnitzler.

  12. Sunday Times, 1 March 1981.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Rogoff, “Richard's Himself,” p. 33.

  15. Quoted in Sheridan Morley, A Talent to Amuse (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 345.

  16. Wardle, Theatres of Devine, p. 181.

  17. “That Awful Museum,” pp. 66, 67.

  18. Sunday Times, 24 November 1974.

  19. Kenneth Tynan, A View of the English Stage (Frogmore, 1976), p. 175.

  20. “They Call It Cricket,” in Declaration, ed. Tom Maschler (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957), p. 81.

  21. Allardyce Nicoll, “Somewhat in a New Dimension,” Contemporary Theatre, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris (London, 1962), pp. 77-95.

  22. Wardle, Theatres of Devine, p. 183.

  23. Casebook, p. 192.

  24. Wilson Knight, “The Kitchen Sink,” Encounter 21, no. 6 (December 1963):50.

  25. Gareth Lloyd Evans, The Language of Modern Drama (London, 1977), p. 106.

  26. John Russell Brown, Theatre Language (London, 1972), p. 131.

  27. Ronald Hayman, British Theatre Since 1955: A Reassessment (Oxford, 1979), p. 10.

  28. Trussler, Plays of Osborne, p. 55.

  29. Morley, Talent to Amuse, p. 350.

  30. Casebook, p. 12.

  31. Protest, ed. Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg (New York: Citadel, 1958; London: Souvenir Press, 1959), p. 12.

  32. See, however, Kenneth Tynan, “The Angry Young Movement,” Tynan on Theatre (Harmondsworth, 1964), pp. 54-62; John Holloway, “Tank in the Stalls: Notes on the ‘School of Anger,’” Hudson Review 10 (1957-58):424-29; and Carl Bode, “The Redbrick Cinderellas,” College English 20, no. 7 (1959):331-37.

  33. Laurence Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama (London: Faber, 1960), p. 100.

  34. Banham, Osborne, p. 2.

  35. Katharine J. Worth, “The Angry Young Man: John Osborne,” in Experimental Drama, ed. William A. Armstrong (London, 1963), p. 149.

  36. Harold Ferrar, John Osborne (New York, 1973), p. 11.

  37. “They Call It Cricket,” p. 84.

  38. John Mander, The Writer and Commitment (London, 1961), p. 22.

  39. Ibid., pp. 187-88.

  40. Edwin Morgan, “That Uncertain Feeling,” in Encore Reader (London: Methuen & Co., 1965), p. 53.

  41. Rogoff, “Richard's Himself,” pp. 30-31.

  42. Declaration, p. 65.

  43. Introduction to International Theatre Annual, Number Two, ed. Harold Hobson (London: Calder, 1957), pp. 9, 10.

  44. Casebook, p. 61.

  45. “They Call It Cricket,” pp. 83-84.

  46. Observer, 7 July 1968.

  47. Sunday Times, 1 March 1981.

  48. A Better Class of Person, p. 23.

  49. Look Back in Anger (London, 1957), pp. 9-10.

  50. Ibid., p. 15.

  51. Ibid., p. 17.

  52. Trussler, Plays of Osborne, p. 45.

  53. Look Back in Anger, p. 37.

  54. Ibid., pp. 39, 40.

  55. Trussler, Plays of Osborne, p. 50.

  56. Look Back in Anger, p. 47.

  57. Carter, Osborne, pp. 54-55.

  58. Look Back in Anger, p. 58.

  59. Ibid., p. 63.

  60. Ibid.

  61. Ibid., p. 75.

  62. Ibid., p. 77.

  63. Worth, “Angry Young Man,” p. 155.

  64. Look Back in Anger, p. 90.

  65. Ronald Hayman, John Osborne (London, 1968), p. 22.

  66. Carter, Osborne, p. 61.

  67. Casebook, pp. 29-30.

  68. Ibid., p. 193.

  69. Ibid., p. 17. The reviews are collected in the Casebook; see also John Elsom's Post-War British Theatre Criticism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), pp. 74-80.

  70. Casebook, p. 173.

  71. Ibid., p. 170.

  72. Arthur Schlesinger, “Look Back in Amazement,” New Republic 137 (23 December 1957), pp. 19-21.

  73. Leslie Corina, “Still Looking Back,” New Republic 138 (10 February 1958), p. 22.

  74. Gordon Rogoff, “British Theatre: 1955-66,” Tulane Drama Review 34 (Winter 1966):31.

  75. Casebook, pp. 49-51.

  76. Ibid., p. 47.

  77. See “The Kitchen Sink,” Encounter 21, no. 6 (December 1963).

  78. “A New Word,” Harper's Bazaar, April 1958, reprinted in Sights and Spectacles (London: William Heinemann, 1959), pp. 184-96, and Casebook, pp. 150-60.

  79. M. C. Bradbrook, English Dramatic Form (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965), pp. 186-87.

  80. “Osborne's Backward Half-Way Look,” Modern Drama, no. 6 (1963), pp. 20-25.

  81. D. Faber, “The Character of Jimmy Porter: An Approach to Look Back in Anger,”Modern Drama 13 (1970-71):67-77.

  82. See whole discussion: A. E. Dyson, “Look Back in Anger,Critical Quarterly 1, no. 5 (1959):318-26.

  83. Elsom, Post-War British Theatre, p. 77.

  84. Plays and Players, January 1969.

  85. “They Call It Cricket,” pp. 69-70.

  86. Sunday Times, 24 November 1974.

  87. Billington, Modern Actor, p. 164.

Principal Works

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The Devil Inside Him [with Stella Linden] (play) 1950

Personal Enemy [with Anthony Creighton] (play) 1955

Look Back in Anger (play) 1956

The Entertainer (play) 1957

Epitaph for George Dillon (play) 1957

The World of Paul Slickey (play) 1959

Luther (play) 1961

Plays for England: The Blood of the Bambergs and Under Plain Cover (plays) 1963

Inadmissible Evidence (play) 1964

Tom Jones [adapted from the novel by Henry Fielding] (screenplay) 1964

A Patriot for Me (play) 1965

The Hotel in Amsterdam (play) 1968

Time Present (play) 1968

West of Suez (play) 1971

Hedda Gabler [adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen] (play) 1972

A Sense of Detachment (play) 1972

The End of Me Old Cigar (play) 1975

Watch It Come Down (play) 1975

A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956 (autobiography) 1981

Déjàvu (play) 1990

Almost a Gentleman, Volume II: An Autobiography, 1955-1966 (autobiography) 1991

Damn You, England: Collected Prose (prose) 1994

David Cairns and Shaun Richards (essay date autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: Cairns, David, and Shaun Richards. “No Good Brave Causes? The Alienated Intellectual and the End of Empire.” Literature & History 14, no. 2 (autumn 1988): 194-206.

[In the following essay, Cairns and Richards explore the issue of colonialism in Look Back in Anger.]

‘Then, on 8 May 1956 came the revolution …’1 With these words, John Russell Taylor, in his 1962 study of Look Back In Anger, confirmed the reception given to the play by, most notably, Kenneth Tynan which set the critical parameters within which much of the subsequent exegesis was to take place. While Osborne's own career has generated a response whose general tendency is best represented by the title of one article: ‘Whatever Happened to John Osborne?,’2Look Back In Anger continues to generate an interest which owes much to the view of Tynan, confirmed by Taylor, that while the play may be speaking for a minority ‘What matters … is the size of the minority. I [that is Tynan] estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of twenty and thirty.’3 It is true that some extreme reactions to the representational quality of the play have occurred—Freudian readings of Jimmy Porter as a case of arrested development in the oral phase for example4 but the intimate relationship between the play and its contemporary audience is now almost a critical truism. One of the most succinct expressions of this view is to be found in Alan Sinfield's survey of audiences for the ‘new’ British drama. The theatre of the mid-1950's, he argues, was ‘the particular form within which a new, growing and ultimately influential section of the middle class discovered itself. In the terms developed by Raymond Williams in Culture (1981). Look Back in Anger was associated with the development by “a class fraction” of an independent set of attitudes within the dominant culture.’5 Sinfield's position of identifying a relationship between the development of a ‘class-fraction’ and the reception of the play leads us to question the identity of that class-fraction and hence its distinctive features—issues which require a detailed examination of the play in its moment of production.

The questions which we wish to pose in the course of this paper are centred upon Look Back In Anger and in particular on the impotent rage and retreat from active political and social engagement which are such marked features of Osborne's protagonist. Subsequently, we shall consider the contemporary situation vis-a-vis colonialism, for the passing of which Jimmy evinces a curious nostalgic regret, through a brief examination of aspects of post-war colonialism, concentrating on the interplay of socialism and colonialism. Our conclusion will then seek to demonstrate the validity of Ashis Nandy's suggestion that ‘the experience of colonizing did not leave the internal culture untouched.’6 We shall suggest that Alison, Jimmy's wife, constitutes, as woman, one of the terrains on to which the discourse of metropolitan superiority vis-a-vis the colonial was transposed in decolonising and ‘post-colonial’ Britain. Suggestions therefore, as to some aspects of how and in what ways metropolitan culture was ‘touched’ by the experience of colonialism are the principal concern of this paper.

As a startling point in locating that class-fraction which is represented by Jimmy Porter, we should at least take note of that moment in the text when Jimmy provides a clear sense of having a group identity: ‘I suppose people like me aren't supposed to be very patriotic. Somebody said—what was it—we get our cooking from Paris (that's a laugh), our politics from Moscow, and our morals from Port Said. Something like that, anyway. Who was it?’7 The answer to Jimmy's question (or is it Osborne's nudge to the audience?) is George Orwell who, in ‘England Your England’, commented that the English intelligentsia were Europeanised, taking, as Jimmy mockingly paraphrases, ‘their cooking from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.’ The intelligentsia, Orwell concluded, formed ‘a sort of island of dissident thought.’8 To take Jimmy's self-definition as an intended indicator of that of which he can, in part, be seen as representative, leads us to consider a central issue in the play—Jimmy's politics, and Osborne's commentary via Jimmy on the contemporary Labour Party. Our procedure, therefore, will be to draw upon Osborne's reference to Orwell, cited above, as an invitation to consider the struggles of Jimmy Porter in the light of Orwell's observations on left-intellectuals. Writing in ‘Inside the Whale’, Orwell mocked the ‘Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing’9 with which the intellectuals of the 1930's had embraced communism, but then attempted a serious psycho-social analysis of the causes of this conversion; the outline of which has a direct bearing on our analysis of Look Back In Anger:

The debunking of Western civilisation had reached its climax and ‘disillusionment’ was immensely widespread. Who now could take it for granted to go through life in the ordinary middle-class way, as a soldier, a clergyman, a stockbroker, an Indian Civil servant, or what-not? And how many of the values by which our grandfathers lived could not be taken seriously? Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the old school tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline—anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes. But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in.10

The ‘something to believe in’ for the 1930's intellectuals was, above all, Spain and the anti-fascist struggle, which provided a ‘good brave cause’ around which the left and, very prominently, the extra-parliamentary left, coalesced. The defence of the Republic, and the limpness of the Labour Party's response to the policy of non-intervention, which was adopted by the National Government, gave to the extra-parliamentary left a cause which was emotive and popular. On Spain, as on little else, a broad popular opinion emerged in favour of the Republic and opposed to the Government; Spain becoming identified (despite the breadth of the support given) as a cause of the left. In the 1950's, to a very real degree, Jimmy is right: no cause until the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament achieved the emotional commitment that the '30s had witnessed for Spain. Moreover the function of Spain in British domestic politics should not be ignored: it heartened the left, produced some evidence of popular support, and partially occluded their marginalisation in virtually all other areas of national life. That marginalisation, undisguised in the 1950's by a ‘good brave cause’, is clearly referred to by Kingsley Amis in his Fabian Tract of 1957 when he says:

Until very recently there has really been only one political issue of anything like the same proportions and of the same kind as the Abyssinias and the Spains of the Thirties: I mean, of course, Cyprus. Here at any rate is something which potentially unites the romantic with the practical man. But what gets done about it? Compare what does get done about it with what would have got done about it in the Thirties. In my innocence I asked one of my Labour party sociological friends why there weren't protest meetings all over the place, why people weren't organising something. ‘We run meetings all right,’ he said, ‘but nobody turns up. Have you ever tried protesting to an empty hall?’11

It is this same sense of domestic apathy in the face of international issues which can be found in Osborne's own writing as, in response to a question on contemporary writers' interest in immediate international issues, he replied: ‘Of course most writers appear to be indifferent to the problems of human freedom, like Hungary and the Rosenbergs. The reason for this is, I believe, that most writers find it difficult to be engaged in the problems on their door-step. If you are surrounded by inertia at home, it is not so easy to get all steamed up about what is going on in Central Europe or America.’ Osborne develops his argument in terms which relate directly to Jimmy's demand for good brave causes when he writes: ‘It wasn't so difficult to make up your mind about which side of the barricades you were voting for, when men were standing on street corners all over England, and nobody was doing anything about it.’ Now, he argues, the material conditions of the working class have altered radically, and although Osborne makes it clear that his sympathies are still with those on what he terms ‘the ash-can’, he concedes that ‘This isn't the kind of atmosphere that produces the heart-searchings and the gestures of the ‘thirties.’12

What needs to be established therefore, is why the left in the 1950's were incapable of identifying ‘good brave causes’ and equally, of enthusing their supporters into campaigning on them. To answer that question we need to examine the situation of the left in the 1930's, for it is there, in the supposed hey-day of left activism, that we need to seek for the paralysis that beset the Labour left, and the left generally, in the 1950's.

We would agree with the seeming consensus amongst historians and political scientists that throughout the 1930's, the radical left constituted an isolated and increasingly marginalised force. Analysts have suggested a number of reasons for this—including the crassness of Comintern policy and the inadequacies of the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (C.P.G.B.). But although as early as 1960 Ralph Miliband was arguing in Parliamentary Socialism, that the Labour Party's embrace in the 1920's of the parliamentary road to socialism necessarily entailed a turning away from commitment to a thoroughgoing reformation of British society, it is only within the context of more recent reassessments of the politics of this period that we can begin to outline the parameters within which occurred, starting in the 1930's, the detachment from the politics of the left of significant numbers of young intellectuals—of whom in the 1950's the fictional Jimmy Porter might stand as one illustration, and Kingsley Amis as another.

Miliband's arguments have suggested how the strategy of parliamentarism operated as a hook, baited by the dominant group (which by 1924 had virtually become identical with the Conservative Party), on which MacDonald was first impaled and then helped to impale the bulk of the Labour Party. The strategy of parliamentarism operated as a hook because, having accepted parliamentarism as the only proper route to socialism, and therefore having rejected extra-parliamentary procedures and direct action, the Labour leaders and their supporters were constrained to operate almost exclusively on a terrain, the gradient of which gave their opponents positional and structural advantages. In the 1930's therefore, the continuing test of adherence to parliamentarism, which the Labour Party's opponents applied to it, was supplied by examining the vigour or otherwise with which the Party condemned left radicalism within its own ranks and denounced Communists and ‘fellow-travellers’ in politics generally. Thus, once the rules of the discourse of parliamentarism had been set by Baldwin, with the assistance of Macdonald, in the mid-1920's, the maintenance of monopoly power over the interpretation of those rules by the leaders of the Conservative Party acted to transmit and reinforce the power of the dominant group.13

A consequence of the position occupied by the Labour Party in the 1930's and after, was that intellectualism and speculation became suspect activities, which were permissible only under close control. As Orwell noted acidly ‘the intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political parties’—and it is doubtful here that he could have meant by ‘left-wing’ the Labour Party.14 This anti-radical stance on the part of the Labour Party hierarchy can be clearly discerned in accounts of the short life and unhappy end of the Socialist League and illustrates the impossibility at that time of blending left-wing intellectual speculation with parliamentarism.15

When we couple to this anti-intellectualism, and almost as a corollary of it, the failure of the Labour Party to organise and educate amongst the young in any systematic way16, we should not be surprised to find that the capacity of the Party to sustain itself and to develop a coherent political strategy for the achievement of its central objectives diminished as the age of its stalwarts increased and as a dwindling number of new recruits took their place. As Gramsci observes ‘A human mass does not “distinguish” itself, does not become independent in its own right without in the widest sense, organising itself and there is no organisation without intellectuals that is without organisers and leaders … the parties are the elaborators of new integral … intelligentsias.’17 By all the evidence, this was a function that, other than in a perfunctory fashion, the Labour Party was failing to do by the 1950's, so that without a large and committed cadre of organic intellectuals traditional intellectuals were not being incorporated into support for the fundamental class which was striving with the dominant group. Indeed, by the end of the 1930's the gap between the Labour and Conservative Parties on social issues and the economy was discernibly narrowing, if one ignores the rhetoric of each position to concentrate on the actual effect of measures.18 The result was the diminution of the critical gulf between the parties during the 1930's and its elision by the years of wartime coalition. Such close agreement on the advantages of maintaining capitalism and the measures needed for its reform (which came together in wartime and post-war Keynesianism) made criticism of capitalism as capitalism unthinkable by the Labour Party hierarchy.

We are reminded here of Gramsci's arguments that the elaboration of an ideological position requires a long-drawn out process of critical labour and ‘distancing’ from the dominant or hegemonic ideology through critical awareness of ‘what one really is.’19 For the group to which Jimmy Porter identifies himself as belonging, and to which, equally, Osborne and Amis identify themselves as belonging—i.e. the post-war radical intelligentsia—the failure of the Labour Party to elaborate a coherent critique of the dominant group and of its political expression, the Conservative Party, produced an inability to challenge capitalism and leads on to its acceptance in the form of the revisionism of the Gaitskellites. ‘Bevanism’, the stock bogey of the 1950's Labour Establishment, was in reality merely a collection of uncoordinated opinions and never approached the status of a coherent alternative to revisionism within the Labour Party.20 For would-be left-intellectuals therefore, all that there was to unite them to Labour was a rapidly evaporating emotional attachment and an empty rhetoric, while only a sense of exclusion from the interests and mores of the dominant group stood in the way of their absorption into it.

An important and near contemporary commentary of the situation for left intellectuals in 1956 is provided by Kingsley Amis in the Fabian Tract already referred to. As a summary of his position he says: ‘I confess in conclusion that I feel very little inclination to go and knock at the door of the local Labour party headquarters. My only reason for doing so, apart from mere vulgar curiosity would be a sense of guilt. And this is not enough. How agreeable it must be to have a respectable motive for being politically active.’21 Amis argues that the intellectual ‘is politically in a void’, ‘he belongs to no social group which might lend him stability’22 and what he requires is a cause which can generate the excitement and associated commitment. As Amis argues: ‘At some periods these things are readily available: Spain and its committees, Abyssinia, unemployment, the rise of Fascism and so on’23, but in the post-war era the situation is otherwise. ‘We were nicely fixed up, the romantics might say, in 1937; but what about 1957? When we shop around for an outlet we find there is nothing in stock: no Spain, no Fascism, no mass unemployment.’24 Although Amis was writing within the time of the Russian assault on Hungary and the Suez invasion and they, in consequence do not feature significantly in his article, his comments on the Cyprus issue indicate that he perceives not merely a dearth of potential ‘good brave causes’ but more importantly a general absence of interest in political causes per se. Hence, in Look Back in Anger, the lament of Jimmy Porter is that ‘people of our generation aren't able to die for good brave 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.’25 This speech has become central to many readings of the play—readings which see it as expressing the social sterility of the 1950's against which Jimmy is supposedly the rebel spokesman—a spokesman who contrasts, with nostalgia, the purposefulness of the left of 1930's with the numbing purposelessness which is his experience of the 1950's. What increases the irony of the situation is that in the very moment which appeared to the 1950's left-intellectuals as the heroic period of the Left can be identified the initiation of the processes, outlined above, which were to produce the isolation and alienation of the 1950's. Thus, marginalisation and passivity in the domestic arena is the supposed justification for the retreat from engagement with the substantive international issues of the moment. What is lacking is not causes but commitment.

The overall timbre of the play may be such as to validate its title vis-a-vis the immediate post-war period, and in particular the 1951 election, but in terms of his response to the Edwardian era, which is so fondly remembered by Colonel Redfern, Jimmy openly envies its air, when seen from the present of the 1950's, of serene imperial superiority. He is conscious that he may be exaggerating the attractions of those far off days before World War I, but nonetheless they attract him. The referencing of the imperial past in the play can all too easily be taken as tangential given the context we have outlined above. However, we would argue that we need to be aware that although Osborne's Jimmy Porter believes the Empire to be in the past, that in contemporary Britain the evidence suggests that notions and symbols of Empire were part of the everyday currency not only of Establishment British culture but also—perhaps particularly—of popular discourses, even of those cultural producers antipathetic to the Establishment. In this context we should note that the terms Empire and Commonwealth were used in day-to-day situations interchangeably, and that for popular consumption the practical effects of the Statute of Westminster, which had given the Dominions formal independence from the Westminster Parliament in 1931, and which signalled the end of the attempt to constitute an Imperial federation, had been downplayed. In the post-war period Labour Ministers in power were just as likely to evince pro-imperial sentiments in their public and private statements as the members of the Tory Opposition. Indeed, on first experience, it comes as something of a shock to learn that in 1946 Herbert Morrison expressed boisterous support for the ‘jolly old Empire’ or that in his diary, in 1950, Hugh Dalton described colonial territories as ‘pullulating poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities’.26 Quite apart from the overt and unashamed racialism of such comments we should not ignore the habit that British politicians had of treating the Commonwealth—even in the later 1950's—as if it were merely the Empire under a flag of convenience.27

What we wish to call attention to here is the open way in which imperial discourses were still being reproduced and productively activated at a time when it is often assumed that the Empire was widely perceived as defunct. The historian Kenneth Morgan states: ‘The mood of the British public, too … was also capable of being excited by the majesty and pomp of Empire … the literature of the time—for instance, Enid Blyton's immensely popular and very numerous adventure stories for children written in the forties—was unashamedly colonialist, perhaps racialist, with clear assumptions of the cultural superiority of the Anglo-Saxon and other white races. School geography primers and atlases with their extensive splashes of British red, reinforced the point by reindoctrinating a new generation of post-war children.’28 Robin Wilson, in his examination of the salience of Empire in Langan and Schwartz's collection of essays Crises in the British State 1880-1930, has shown how the Empire, Ireland, Tarriff Reform, and the rise of Germany and the U.S.A. as world economic powers, became for late nineteenth and early twentieth century Imperialists such as Lord Milner and Cecil Rhodes, not only the pressing and inextricably linked issues of the day, but the key to the remaking of the British State and the crushing of Socialism.29 Earlier studies, such as Semmel's Imperialism and Social Reform30 had indicated the ways in which early twentieth century Socialists and Fabians had cooperated with men like Milner in the belief that thereby they could win for the working class the benefits of economic affluence in an expanding, imperial economy. In Wilson's account he emphasises the use made of the Empire by the Unionists in terms of their attempt to undermine Gladstonian Liberalism, outflank New Liberalism and Socialism, and by seizing the State, remake Britain. But where his account concludes with the failure of this design, in the mid-1920's, what we wish to call attention to is the fact that, as Morgan notes, the discourses which promoted and elaborated upon the idea of Britain as an imperial power continued to be reproduced not only within schools but with ramifying effects throughout all levels of civil and political society until well after World War II. We have already referred to Nandy's comment that ‘the experience of colonizing did not leave the internal culture untouched’31 and certainly much could be made of his observation that ‘the experience of colonizing … openly sanctified—in the name of such values as competition, achievement, control and productivity—new forms of institutionalized violence and ruthless social Darwinism. The instrumental concept of the lower classes it promoted was perfectly in tune with the needs of industrial capitalism and only a slightly modified version of the colonial concept of hierarchy was applied to the British society itself. The tragedy of colonialism was also the tragedy of the younger sons, the women and all the “etceteras and so forths” of Britain.’32 What is significant here is that Nandy asserts that colonialism touched the metropolitan society at all levels, and in a continuing fashion, even after the retreat from Empire.

Nandy's considerations on the cultural aspects and effects of colonialism start from a number of premises. For example, it is assumed by Nandy that without an ideological buttress, imperialism and colonialism would have proved incapable of survival, because unless the colonizers get the colonized to accept their colonial status they will need constant recourse to physical coercion with associated costs. As Nandy puts it, the British ‘… could not rule a continent-sized polity while believing themselves to be moral cripples. They had to build bulwarks against a possible sense of guilt produced by a disjunction between their actions and what were till then, in terms of important norms within their own culture, “true” values.’33 The strategy through which colonial discourses were deployed was to seek a multiplicity of means by which to demonstrate that colonialism proceeded from a metropolitan superiority in organisation, morals and way of life and that its colonial subjects were subjects because of their lower civilisational and cultural status. We have not the space here to recapitulate Nandy's intricate, but always provocative, arguments, and by concentrating on a few aspects of his positions we may give a false impression of the power and significance of his project; this is unfortunate but unavoidable. What we wish to do, however, is to isolate from his work a line of arguments, coherent within the whole, which outlines, firstly, how discourses of sexuality were deployed within colonialism and, secondly, considers their effects.

Nandy's writing on the homology of colonialism and sexuality proceeds from a historical analysis of the development of certain discourses of sexuality in the West which were somewhat later deployed in the colonies and, particularly from his point of concern, in India. In essence, he argues that colonialism accentuated within both colonial and colonized societies sub-cultural forms which had hitherto been marginal. Thus, for Nandy, the deployment of sexuality within colonialism was both dependent upon—and at the same time productive of—‘a cultural consensus in which political and socio-economic dominance symbolized the dominance of men and masculinity over women and femininity.’34 In the case of India, Nandy shows how colonialism drew upon ‘the denial of psychological bisexuality in men in large areas of Western culture.’35 This worked to reduce the possibilities of sexuality from a continuum of positions to three only: the Masculine r the feminine r the androgyne. In order to posit an immutable theorem of power in which lordship and masculinity were the incontrovertible attributes of dominance, and subservience and submission were the attributes of femininity, it was above all necessary to reduce the range of possibilities which, Nandy argues, even in the West, had been available to men to a situation of polarity—masculine/feminine—which required the stigmatisation and repression of androgyny.

Nandy's analysis of the consequences of these procedures in the context of India and Indian responses to colonialism, is compelling. But, like Foucault, he maintains that discourse is uniformly available to both the oppressor and the oppressed, and that the discourse of colonialism/sexuality could not be differentially deployed; its effectiveness, and the positional superiority which it supported, derived from the mastery—and the manipulation—of the rules of discourse and therefore that discourses of sexuality deployed in a colonial context were also effective within the metropolitan power. That is why he states in his introduction ‘… the following pages speak only of victims; when they speak of victors, the victors are ultimately shown to be camouflaged victims, at an advanced stage of psychosocial decay.’36

Jimmy Porter's political life encapsulates the process of the marginalisation of the intellectual as outlined above, for what is clear is that commitment to ‘good brave causes’ has lapsed rather than never having been present. As we learn in the long section of exposition in which Alison gives Helena a resumé of Jimmy's past, he was a political activist at the time of the 1951 general election, breaking up the meetings of ‘Brother Nigel’ and, faced by the perceived defeatism of Hugh in the aftermath of the Conservative victory, Jimmy had accused him of giving up.37 But in the contemporary moment of 1956 that commitment has evaporated. In Jimmy's words: ‘The old grey mare that actually once led the charge against the old order—well, she certainty ain't what she used to be … she just dropped dead on the way.’38

Within the terms of the play the only possible solution is personal, because the social-political dimension is presented only as a void and, echoing Orwell, the collapse is experienced by both the Blimp and the Intellectual. Colonel Redfern laments the state of the England to which he has returned at the end of Empire: ‘I think the last day the sun shone was when that dirty little train steamed out of that crowded, suffocating Indian station, and the battalion band playing for all it was worth. I knew in my heart it was all over then. Everything.’39 Empire stands for Jimmy also as a now lost certainly: ‘If you've no world of your own its rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else's.’40 Empire may be then the yearned for, but absent, guarantor of purpose—but in reality the discourse of imperialism has been internalised, producing a complex and paradoxical personal politics which denies the Establishment, and implicitly the Empire, at the very moment when the supposed retreat from that world reproduces it in all its most repressive features. It is here that Nandy's comment on ‘camouflaged victims, at an advanced stage of psychosocial decay’41 becomes most apposite as indeed the opening didascaly indicate. Jimmy is a mixture of sincerity and malice, tenderness and cruelty and, while it is the former qualities which he claims for himself, it is the cruelty and malice which are most powerfully staged, and explicitly so in his violent and vehement treatment of Alison who has to shoulder the ‘White Woman's Burden’; literally, the ironing but also, our reading would suggest, that of the displaced discourse of colonialism. Women are described as ‘butchers’ and ‘bastards’, their ‘primitive hands’, which frequently carry ‘weapons’, are seen as threatening the very viscera and life blood of the male; ‘Why, why, why,’ laments Jimmy ‘do we let these women bleed us to death.’42 Women are a threatening ‘other’ in the face of which the male must, to guarantee his own security, exercise the ultimate sanctions of repression and the denial of the independent female subject. In terms of colonial discourse Jimmy's practise is a model of what Homi Bhabha defines as standard in this ‘apparatus of power’: ‘The objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonised as a population of degenerate types … in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction.’43 The play's conclusion is then particularly striking when read in this context, as Alison submits to Jimmy's definition of ‘love’ in an act of abject surrender: ‘Don't you see! I'm in the mud at last! I'm grovelling! I'm crawling! Oh, god’—She collapses at his feet.44 Such a reading, however, has to be erected in opposition to that preferred by the text where the strength of the characterisation indicates that the dramatic intention is to create empathy with Jimmy and an acceptance of his self—and social—analysis as confirmed by Alison and Helena; namely that society rather than the individual, is at fault: ‘He was born out of his time’ and ‘There's no place for people like that any longer—in sex, or politics, or anything. That's why he's so futile.’45

The fact of this sensed futility is undeniable; why it should breed the malaise so effectively dramatised by Osborne is clarified in part by reference to the work of historians such as Michael Walzer and Mark H. Curtis on what Curtis terms the ‘alienated intellectuals’ of Early Stuart England. As Curtis defines his term, the ‘alienated intellectuals’ are not to be seen as either economically oppressed or exploited. Rather they experience a frustration born of a lack of challenge, recognition and honour. Being thus alienated from society, and particularly from its inner circles, ‘they simultaneously viewed certain aspects of it with greater realism and objectivity than many of their contemporaries and yet on critical occasions acted and spoke irresponsibly.’46 They were, argues Curtis, ‘angry young men’, but his conclusion to his piece indicates the crucial distinction which we would wish to make between these Stuart intellectuals and their 1950's counterparts. ‘They’, writes Curtis, ‘were a significant segment of the educated, talented, sensitive, conscientious men in Stuart society—men who would be capable of giving leadership and direction to the causes that they shared in common with others.’47 Although there are some distinctions to be drawn between the conclusions of Curtis and Walzer, Walzer too, argues that these ‘advanced’ intellectuals were ‘capable of organising themselves voluntarily on the basis of ideological commitment’, that they could direct themselves to ‘enthusiastic and purposive activity.’48 Whether the intellectuals are seen as alienated as a result of their Catholicism, and so attempting incorporation, as David Aers and Gunther Kress argue is the case with John Donne, or as Puritan, and so are secure in the certainty of their oppositional ideology, the common factor among these ‘angry young men’ would appear to be the group cohesion resulting from adherence to a sustaining faith or ideology, the very things which, as we have argued above, are lacking in Jimmy Porter.

Written as it is within the dominant theatrical form of realism Look Back In Anger displays two central features of that form which bear directly on the nature of its socio-political analysis; namely empathy and closure. In terms derived from Brecht empathy is a characteristic of Realist, or what Brecht calls ‘Dramatic’ theatre, and is defined as drawing the spectator into something; involving the spectator in a stage-action; and making the spectator stand inside and experience with the characters. The result of the empathic identification, produced by the foregrounding of Jimmy Porter, is that members of the audience who belong to the same class fraction look to the staged solution of the problem as he defines it, as one which is indeed to be welcomed, since it provides, finally, the very commitment whose lack has produced the anguish and anger of the play. The point for emphasis is finally, for in raising the issue of alienation and the absence of any good brave causes the play has released the potential for a sustained and radical critique of the role of intellectuals in society; by providing a resolution to its character's problem the validity of further analysis is denied as Jimmy, the play's raisonneur, defines both the initial problem and its ultimate solution. The nature of that act of closure requires attention, for Jimmy—libertarian and radical—finds a resolution of a personal and profoundly political problem in terms of the subjection and effective ‘colonisation’ of Alison.

Lacking a cause on the political plane, Jimmy demands commitment on the personal level; and demands, rather than gives, is the operative word. He longs for enthusiasm and berates his wife until she, rejected, reviled, now having miscarried, returns to Jimmy finally able to give, having experienced, the absolute emotional intensity he has always required. The play closes on their embrace as they play the game of bears and squirrels which Alison had earlier described as ‘the one way of escaping from everything.’49 If the issue for the character has been to achieve intensity in personal relations then that objective has been achieved for Jimmy, albeit at the cost of Alison's independence, but only, it is clearly acknowledged, with the concomitant retreat from the ‘cruel steel traps’ of the world which, supposedly, lacks causes adequate to generate an equivalent political commitment. Jimmy may be able to identify the political inadequacies of ‘Brother Nigel’ and sense the significance of the end of Empire, but both the character and the play, far from being radical or revolutionary are, in fact, profoundly reactionary. A solution is staged which invites the audiences' acceptance of Jimmy's, and their, resolution to alienation as one of retreat from commitment. This is a profoundly unhappy ending, but both the work, and we would argue, the intellectuals among its audience who, in Alan Sinfield's terms, were likely to discover for themselves a set of independent attitudes, lacked—and had lacked for decades—the ability to think in terms of Brecht's Epilogue to The Good Woman of Setzuan: ‘You're thinking aren't you, that this is no right / Conclusion to the play you've seen to-night? … Can the world be changed? … It is for you to find a way, my friends / To help good men arrive at happy ends. / You write the happy ending to the play / There must, there must, There's got to be a way!’50

The position of the alienated intellectual at the end of Empire was that in retreating from a world supposedly lacking in ‘good brave causes’ they—or their stage representative Jimmy Porter—reproduced the discourse of that to which they were nominally opposed, and in the powerful dramatic evocation of impotence made impotence not so much a condition to be rejected, as a sign of intellectual integrity in the face of a world which now, supposedly, lacked the ability to provide them with a cause.


  1. John Russell Taylor, Anger and After (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 28.

  2. Arnold P. Hinchliffe, ‘Whatever Happened to John Osborne?’, in C. W. E. Bigsby (ed.), Contemporary English Drama: Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 19 (London: Edward Arnold, 1981), pp. 53-63.

  3. Kenneth Tynan, in John Russell Taylor (ed.), Look Back in Anger: A Selection of Critical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 50-51.

  4. M. D. Faber, ‘The Character of Jimmy Porter: An Approach to Look Back in Anger’, Modern Drama, Vol. XIII, No. 1, May 1970, pp. 67-77.

  5. Alan Sinfield ‘The Theatre and its Audiences’, in Alan Sinfield (ed.), Society and Literature 1945-1970 (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 174.

  6. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 32.

  7. John Osborne, Look Back In Anger (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), p. 17.

  8. George Orwell, ‘England, Your England’ in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962) p. 85.

  9. George Orwell, ‘Inside The Whale’ in Orwell, op. cit p. 30.

  10. Ibid., p. 35.

  11. Kingsley Amis, ‘Socialism And The Intellectuals’, Fabian Tract 304, in Fabian Tracts Nos. 295-320 (Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprints, 1971), p. 415.

  12. John Osborne ‘The Writer in his Age’, in Look Back In Anger: A Selection of Critical Essays, p. 60.

  13. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp. 101-102.

  14. Orwell, Op. Cit, p. 85.

  15. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London: Merlin, 1973), p. 250 ff.

  16. See Zig Layton-Henry, ‘Labour's Lost Youth’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 11, Nos. 2 & 3, July 1976, pp. 275-308.

  17. A. Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, eds. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), pp. 334-335.

  18. See Arthur Marwick, ‘Middle Opinion in the '30s: Planning, Progress and Political Appeasement’, English Historical Review, LXXIX, 1964 and Stuart Holland, ‘Keynes and the Socialists’, in Robert Skidelsky (ed.), The End of the Keynesian Era, (London: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 67-77.

  19. Gramsci, Op. Cit., p. 324.

  20. David Howell, British Social Democracy, (London: Croom Helm, 1976), p. 186ff.

  21. Amis, Op. Cit, p. 417.

  22. Amis, Op. Cit, p. 410.

  23. Amis, Op. Cit, p. 411.

  24. Look Back In Anger, p. 84.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Morgan, Op. Cit. pp. 194-200 especially pp. 194-5.

  27. See, for example the political circumstances surrounding the attempt by the Tory Government to palm-off Blue Streak, its cancelled ballistic missile on the Commonwealth as a satellite launcher to improve and develop Commonwealth ties. The rhetoric employed in press communiques used precisely the same tone and terminology as that which can be read in the communiques of the 1900's. For some unusual examples of imperial discourse therefore, see D. W. Cairns, ‘Intergovernmental Cooperation in Science and Technology: The Experience of E.S.R.O. and E.L.D.O. 1960-1970’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Keele, 1978, p. 44 and especially n. 22.

  28. Morgan, Op. Cit, p. 194.

  29. Robin Wilson, ‘Imperialism in Crisis: The Irish Dimension’, in M. Langan and B. Schwartz (eds.), Crises in the British State (London: Hutchinson—C.C.C.S., 1985), pp. 151-178.

  30. Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1960).

  31. Nandy, Loc. Cit.

  32. Nandy, Op. Cit., p. 32.

  33. Ibid., p. 10.

  34. Ibid., p. 4.

  35. Idem.

  36. Ibid., p. xvi.

  37. Look Back In Anger, p. 46.

  38. Look Back In Anger, p. 52.

  39. Look Back In Anger, p. 68.

  40. Look Back In Anger, p. 17.

  41. Nandy, Op. Cit. p. xvi.

  42. Look Back In Anger, p. 24 and p. 84.

  43. Homi Bhabha, ‘The Other Question …’, Screen, Vol. 24, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1983, p. 23.

  44. Look Back In Anger, p. 95.

  45. Look Back In Anger, p. 90.

  46. Mark H. Curtis, ‘The Alienated Intellectuals of Early Stuart England’, in Trevor Aston (ed.), Crisis in Europe 1560-1660, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 300.

  47. Curtis, Loc. Cit., p. 316.

  48. Walzer, cited in D. Aers and Gunther Kress, ‘“Darke Texts Need Notes”: Versions of Self in Donne's Verse Epistles’, Literature and History No. 8, Autumn 1978, p. 147.

  49. Look Back in Anger, p. 47.

  50. Bertolt Brecht, The Good Woman of Setzuan, trans. Eric Bentley, (New York: Grove Press, 1966), p. 141.

Further Reading

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Denison, Patricia D., editor. John Osborne: A Casebook. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997, 231 p.

Collection of critical essays focusing on Osborne’s work.

Goldstone, Herbert. Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982, 265 p.

Critical analysis of Osborne's plays.

Hincliffe, Arnold P. John Osborne. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984, 152 p.

Biographical and critical study of Osborne’s life and work.

Additional coverage of Osborne’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R, 147; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 56; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 11, 45; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-Studied Authors; Drama for Students, Vol. 4; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center;Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; and World Literature Criticism.

Niloufer Harben (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Harben, Niloufer. “Three Plays of the 1960s.” In Twentieth-Century English History Plays: From Shaw to Bond, pp. 156-212. Houndmills, England: Macmillan Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Harben identifies sources for Osborne's Luther and describes the critical reaction to the play.]

John Osborne's Luther presents another instance of a playwright being drawn to a historical subject for its religious interest. Yet Osborne's approach and achievement vary significantly from Bolt's and Shaffer's. His play, an arresting psychological study of a turbulent individual, at odds with himself and the social and religious institutions of his time, is one of considerably greater force and depth. Like Bolt, Osborne incorporates many of his central historical figure's recorded sayings into the dialogue of his play, but, unlike Bolt, he is able to match them with an urgent vital language of his own. This often results in impressive flights of rhetorical virtuosity or sequences of balanced arguments. Like Shaffer, he uses striking physical images, flamboyant spectacle and theatrical posture to create telling dramatic moments, but, where Shaffer indulges in these for their own sake, Osborne uses them with purpose, to reflect inner meaning or make a broad public point.

Luther is not the only time we find Osborne going to documentary sources for material and inspiration. His television play, A Subject of Scandal and Concern (1960) is based on events in the life of George Holyoake, who in 1842 was the last person in England to be imprisoned in England for blasphemy. Another play, A Patriot for Me (1964) is about Colonel Redl, the homosexual Austrian intelligence officer, who was blackmailed by Russian agents into betraying secrets to them in the period before the First World War. Luther has been selected for consideration because of its greater historical weight and dramatic impact, and because its concern with religious motivation links it with the other two plays dealt with in this chapter. It also illustrates the kind of history play, discussed in the introduction, which explores the relationship between the exceptional individual and his environment.

Luther at first was severely censored by the Lord Chamberlain's office—eighteen passages, including whole speeches, were blue-pencilled. Osborne refused to concede the excisions required, in an indignant letter to George Devine:

I don't write plays to have them rewritten by someone else. I intend to make a clear unequivocal stand on this because (a) it is high time that someone did so, and (b) … the suggested cuts or alternatives would result in such damage to the psychological structure, meaning and depth of the play that the result would be a travesty.1

The Lord Chamberlain's office finally gave in, and apart from a few small verbal changes, Luther was presented intact.

The play was first produced by the English Stage Company on 26 June 1961 at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, and it was published in the same year. It was acclaimed as an ‘excellent play which combined strength and clarity’,2 ‘the most solid guarantee yet given of Mr John Osborne's dramatic stamina’.3 It transferred to London to the Royal Court Theatre in July 1961, and then to the Phoenix Theatre in September for a fairly long spell, continuing to run in London till the end of March 1962. Opening in Paris in 1961 at the Théâtre Des Nations, the play was described by Kenneth Tynan ‘as the most eloquent piece of dramatic writing to have dignified our theatre since Look Back in Anger’. The language of the play did cause a stir but, ironically ‘the lines by which a presumably sophisticated audience was most shocked were nearly all direct translations from the hero's own works’.4

The production was also a great success in New York, opening on 25 September 1963 at St James Theatre, where it ran for 211 performances. New York theatre critics hailed it as a ‘brilliantly acted historical drama’,5 ‘a work of power and integrity’,6 ‘an overpowering massive play of ringing authority—bold, insolent and challenging’.7 The play offered a splendid opportunity to Albert Finney, who gave an explosive performance in the title role, establishing himself as an actor of international repute. ‘He makes it clear by this one performance that he is an actor of extraordinary skill and endless potentialities.’8 The role of Luther is extremely exacting, stretching an actor both physically and emotionally. Finney proved himself equal to its demands, as Walter Kerr indicates:

We meet a spiritual epileptic. … Out of the sweetest plainsong, in a small forest of cowls, comes a strangled sound that can neither be released nor repressed. This swallowed howl rises as Mr Finney breaks towards us, severing the neat little pattern of religious life around him, until he has been hurled to the floor in a tongue-locked seizure, gasping to let the genius out of him. … Something beyond his own intelligence drives, shatters, and then pacifies this hero. Mr Finney elaborates it for us with magnetizing energy.9

John Osborne was drawn to the subject of Luther, not for its historical but for its religious interest:

I wanted to write a play about religious experience and various other things, and this happened to be the vehicle for it. Historical plays are usually anathema to me, but this isn't costume drama. I hope it won't make any difference if you don't know anything about Luther himself, and I suspect that most people don't. In fact the historical character is almost incidental. The method is Shakespeare's or almost anyone else's you can think of.10

It is ironical and oddly amusing that one of the plays that fits my definition of a history play is written by a dramatist who detests history plays! But in spite of what Osborne says, historical truth obviously does make a difference to him since he is careful to base his play on the facts and is quick to defend his play on historical grounds. John Russell Taylor recalls that ‘Osborne and his supporters rapidly pointed out to the tender-minded, who quailed at the dramatist's obsession with constipation and defecation’, that the playwright had used Luther's own words whenever possible.11 This line of defence is one which Shakespeare would have felt no inward or outward pressure to assume, again revealing the much greater demand in our time for documentary evidence to support a view.

Critics were obviously unsettled by Osborne's portrayal of a Luther struggling with a private area of neurosis, and tended to attack the play as history. Simon Trussler calls it ‘an exercise in scatology’, and writes of its ‘failure to realize Martin's society—and more particularly the causes and effects of his impact upon it’.12 Laurence Kitchin asserts that ‘the historical Luther became a public figure and Osborne's Luther doesn't’.13 Alan Carter's complaint is that ‘Luther's real problem—the nature of faith—is hardly even discussed, and surely the Reformation was essentially an intellectual movement.’14 Ronald Hayman goes so far as to say that compared with Brecht's Galileo or John Whiting's The Devil,Luther is not a history play at all because of Osborne's exclusion of this social aspect.15

But what if Osborne does extricate Luther from his social background. Osborne claims that Shakespeare adopted a similar approach and professes to write along Shakespearean rather than Brechtian lines. Critics have understandably considered the play in Brechtian terms; it was fashionable to make the comparison with Brecht, and Osborne was aware of Brechtian stage techniques and undoubtedly influenced by them. There are features in the play that reflect this such as the episodic structure, and the use of the medieval Knight figure to announce the time and place of the action. But these are superficial outward resemblances, and the play is not essentially Brechtian in character nor is there any reason why it should be. Osborne's focus is much narrower, more personal and concentrated than Brecht's. Unlike Brecht who works for a degree of critical detachment in his spectators, Osborne is interested primarily in engaging their feelings:

I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards.16

As for the nature of the Luther he presents, the use of Luther's Christian name throughout suggests an emphasis on the personal inward dimension of the man rather than the social public figure.

Many names could be given to Luther—great religious leader, rebel, scholar, preacher, iconoclast, publicist, poet. In his play, Osborne draws attention to all these facets of the man, but, focuses mainly on an aspect many people might be inclined to resist—Luther as victim or patient. Osborne was obviously influenced by E. H. Erikson's book, Young Man Luther, a psychoanalytical study of Luther, first published in England in 1959, just two years before the play was staged. In it Erikson quotes a statement of Søren Kierkegaard's—‘Luther is a patient of exceeding import for Christendom’—and comments that Kierkegaard saw in Luther ‘a religious attitude (patienthood) exemplified in an archetypal and immensely influential way’.17 The full text of Kierkegaard's statement is that Luther:

confuses what it means to be the patient with what it means to be the doctor. He is an extremely important patient for Christianity, but he is not the doctor; he has the patient's passion for expressing and describing his suffering, and what he feels the need of as an alleviation. But he has not got the doctor's breadth of view.18

What Kierkegaard seems to mean by this is that Luther expressed in himself the symptoms or consequences of what was wrong in the Church. His was the subjective response to the problem, but, not possessing the doctor's objective overall view, he was not in a position to prescribe the cure.

Osborne might have come across the portion of Kierkegaard's statement quoted in Erikson, or even been familiar with the original passage itself, because he did read Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Sartre in the 1940s, when he says ‘existentialism was the macrobiotic food of the day’.19 At any rate in his play, Luther embodies this subjective, ‘patient’ side of life. The intellectual impact of Luther's achievement is not dealt with so much as the felt experience, the crisis of belief and identity.

Luther is presented equivocally, which is fitting, considering the continuing controversy over this complex towering figure, enigmatic to admirers and detractors alike. He can be seen as the hyperconscious individual, the artist, the prophet, the Christlike figure who takes on the tensions and torments of his age because he feels more acutely than others—‘Am I the only one to see all this and suffer?’ The sense of being singled out and hounded is prevalent:

Somewhere, in the body of a child, Satan foresaw in me what I'm suffering now. That's why he prepares open pits for me, and all kinds of tricks to bring me down, so that I keep wondering if I'm the only man living who's baited and surrounded by dreams, and afraid to move.

(Act 1, Sc. 2, p. 30)

His condition can thus be seen as an aberration from the norm, or indicative of ‘an overstimulated conscience’, as it is dismissed by some fellow monks. Luther is also accused of megalomania by Cajetan, the papal legate: ‘Why, some deluded creature might even come to you as leader of their revolution, but you don't want to break rules, you want to make them’ (Act 2, Sc. 4, p. 73). Even Staupitz, Vicar General of the Augustinian Order, who immediately recognizes a greatness of mind and spirit, discerns a definite leaning towards the theatrical: ‘One thing I promise you, Martin. You'll never be a spectator. You'll always take part’ (Act 2, Sc. 2, p. 56). Then again, Martin's predicament could reflect the inner tumult of the man of creative intensity who wrestles with experience, and sees in his own imaginative terms. The Knight, who bitterly confronts Luther at the end, regards him as out of touch with reality in his exaltation of “the Word”:

Word? What Word? Word? That word, whatever that means, is probably just another old relic or indulgence, and you know what you did to those! Why, none of it might be any more than poetry, have you thought of that, Martin. Poetry! Martin, you're a poet, there's no doubt about that in anybody's mind, you're a poet, but do you know what most men believe in their hearts—because they don't see in images like you do—they believe in their hearts that Christ was a man as we are, and that He was a prophet and a teacher, and they also believe in their hearts that His supper is a plain meal like their own—if they're lucky to get it—a plain meal of bread and wine! A plain meal with no garnish and no word. And you helped them to believe it.

(Act 3, Sc. 2, pp. 90-1)

Osborne presents all these alternate perspectives of the man and leaves the questions open-ended.

The play opens on a compelling note, with Martin being received into the Augustinian Order of the Eremites at Erfurt. In the original production the ‘setting is dominated by an agonized Christ hanging from a crucifix bent as if by the burden of humanity's crime’. An ‘atmosphere of reverence that amounts to awe’20 is created by prayer, music, ritual, as Martin proceeds to take his vows. In the presence of the assembled convent, Martin is undressed to represent the divestment of the former man, and rerobed in the habit of the order, to signify investment of the new man in Christ. Martin kneels, and swears the oath of obedience. Then he prostrates himself, while the prior prays over him. A newly lighted taper is put in his hands, and he is led up the altar steps to be welcomed by the monks. Indistinguishable in their midst, he marches with them slowly in procession and is lost to sight (Act 1, Sc. 1, pp. 13-14). The powerful symbolism in the ceremony strongly conveys the idea of the absorption of the individual into the communal.

Martin's experience in the monastery is presented as a tremendous struggle for self-denial and subjugation. He is overscrupulous in his attempts to conform to the rigours of a highly disciplined life. Yet an exaggerated sense of being bound down and closed in gets the better of all his efforts at self-abnegation. This again is communicated in striking visual physical terms, in the form of a violent fit which suddenly grips Martin during mass. When at first the office commences he is lost to sight in the ranks of the monks. Presently there is a quiet moaning, just distinguishable among the voices. It becomes louder and wilder, until finally Martin appears staggering between the stalls. Outstretched hands fail to restrain him as he is seized in a raging fit. Two brothers go to him, but Martin jerks with such ferocity, that they can scarcely hold him down. He tries to speak, the effort is frantic, and eventually, is able to roar out a word at a time, ‘Not! Me! I am not!’ He finally collapses, and is dragged off. ‘The office continues as if nothing had taken place’ (Act 1, Sc. 1, pp. 22-3). The idea of the suppression of the individual by the institutional is put across vividly. The all-unifying world of the ‘participation mystique’ is set against the self-aware and self-imposing. The loss of uniqueness or identity takes on magnified proportions for Martin, who experiences it as abysmal self-loss.

The trammels of his environment—home, monastery, Church—all contribute to the sense of being fractured, dispersed and separated from himself. Hans Luther is an oppressive father-figure, affronting the dignity of the child, undermining his self-concept and presiding as a dominant factor in Martin's adult psyche. Hans who feels no less threatened than his son, is continually asserting himself to cover up his own feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. There is great strain and aggression in the relationship. In a Pinter-like situation, both can be found playing for the upper hand, manoeuvring to keep the advantage, shrinking from direct contact, yet striving to make connection. Here Osborne dramatizes the archetypal father and son conflict. Martin has to fight free of the identity of being Hans's son in order to discover his own personhood. At the very close of the play, we hear Martin telling his son, Hans:

You know, my father had a son, and he'd to learn a hard lesson, which is a human being is a helpless little animal, but he is not created by his father, but by God. … You should have seen me at Worms. I was almost like you that day, as if I'd learned to play again, to play, to play out in the world, like a naked child.

(Act 3, Sc. 3, p. 102)

Martin here recalls his experience at Worms as a rare moment of contact with his spontaneous untouched self.

The child is used as a powerful leitmotif in the play to suggest Martin's sense of wrested childhood, of having lost something that at root he is, underneath the demands and distortions of his environment. This feeling of self-loss is symbolized in the poetic image of the lost body of a child. Dredged out of Martin's tormented subconscious, this image haunts him continually. Martin's troubled interior state is forcefully realized in Act 2, Scene 1, partly by the expressionistic setting. A huge knife is suspended above the acting area of the stage with the torso of a naked man hanging over its cutting edge. Below this is ‘an enormous round cone, like the inside of a vast barrel, surrounded by darkness’ which suggests the deep corridors of the subconscious. ‘From the upstage entrance seemingly far, far away, a dark figure appears against the blinding light’ inside the cone, approaching slowly until it reaches the downstage entrance. ‘It is Martin, haggard and streaming with sweat.’ He cries out from some deep dimension of himself:

I lost the body of a child, a child's body, the eyes of a child; and at the first sound of my own childish voice. I lost the body of a child; and I was afraid, and I went back to find it … I'm afraid of the darkness, and the hole in it; and I see it sometime of every day! … The lost body of a child, hanging on a mother's tit, and close to the warm, big body of a man, and I can't find it.

(Act 1, Sc. 2, p. 24)

Osborne must have come across this image of ‘the lost body of a child, hanging on a mother's tit and close to the warm big body of a man’ in Erikson, who relates how the historical Luther once said that he did not know the Christchild any more; ‘in characterizing the sadness of his youth, he had lost his childhood.’ But later he could say that ‘Christ was defined by two images: one of an infant lying in a manger, “hanging on a virgin's tits”’ and ‘one of a man sitting at his Father's right hand.’21 Erikson talks of man as being bound in the loves and rages of childhood—the child is in the midst—and asserts that

man's adulthood contains a persistent childishness: that vistas of the future always reflect the mirages of a missed past, that apparent progression can harbour partial regression and firm accomplishment hidden childish fulfilment.22

Osborne uses these ideas in his dramatization of Luther's interior state and thus can be found keeping close to history even in his depiction of the kind of image that could mentally possess Luther.

Martin's tortured self-consciousness brings home the idea that man is the centre of his own experience and subject to an inescapable narcissism of outlook. Man relates with others, but only from within a consciousness of which he is the focus. Society might present a picture of selves together, but essentially it is each alone in his own tragedy. This is brought out strikingly when the monks are shown at communal confession. The stage directions indicate that the scene throughout should be ‘urgent, muted, almost whispered, confidential, secret like a prayer’. They are all prostrated beneath flaming candles, and the formal confession of trifles by the other monks is punctuated by Martin's wrenched outcries: ‘I am alone. I am alone, and against myself.’ ‘I am a worm and no man, a byword and a laughing stock. Crush out the worminess in me, stamp on me’ (Act 1, Sc. 1, pp. 19-20). The close physical presence of the other monks going through the motions of the office, oblivious of Martin's anguish, emphasizes his essential isolation.

Martin suffers from an excessive emotional sensibility, and the fact that his condition is partly of his own making, contributes to his dilemma. He confesses to an oppressive dream:

I was fighting a bear in a garden without flowers, leading into a desert. His claws kept making my arms bleed as I tried to open a gate which would take me out. But the gate was no gate at all. It was simply an open frame, and I could have walked through it, but I was covered in my own blood, and I saw a naked woman riding on a goat, and the goat began to drink my blood, and I thought I should faint with the pain and I awoke in my cell, all soaking in the devil's bath.

(Act 1, Sc. 2, pp. 19-20)

The nightmare conveys the experience of being incarcerated in a self-imposed prison and assaulted by feelings of overwhelming fear and guilt, related to sex.

Luther's frightening sensation of being encased, closed in, dominates his personal sense of dilemma in the play. Osborne again probably derives this idea from Erikson, who describes Luther's traumatic experience of this sensation during a thunderstorm which occurred just before he became a monk:

In the thunderstorm, he had felt immense anxiety. Anxiety comes from angustus, meaning to feel hemmed in and choked up; Martin's use of circumvallatus—all walled in—to describe his experience in the thunderstorm indicates he felt a sudden constriction of his whole life space, and could see only one way out: the abandonment of all his previous life and of the earthly future it implied, for the sake of total dedication to a new life. This new life, however, was one which made an institution of the very configuration of being walled in.23

Osborne seems to have taken up this idea and built on it. The whole play dramatizes the agonized thrust to break free. Luther is man making a bid for independent judgment, and experiencing a guilt which is very closely associated with freedom. It is the sense of being accused by some enclosing whole or order—family, Church, or more radically, the psychic womb—from which the independent self seeks to break out. This guilt grows with self-consciousness, and inheres in any free as opposed to ‘being part of’ action. Its gravamen is not merely non-conformity but independence, and it is inseparable from loneliness—‘Am I the only one to see all this and suffer?’ (Act 1, Sc. 2, p. 30).

Tormented by thoughts of judgement and hell, Luther finally breaks through to some sort of release, in the sudden revelation he receives of the profound implications of St Paul's affirmation that ‘The just shall live by faith.’ Throughout the play, Luther's sensation of being hemmed in by spiritual fear and tension is linked to his physical struggles with constipation—‘I am blocked up like an old crypt.’ (Act 1, Sc. 2, p. 29). Consistently, Luther's great moment of spiritual inspiration occurs at a time of relief from acute physical and emotional stress caused by this chronic disability:

It came to me while I was in my tower, what they call the monk's sweathouse, the jakes, the john or whatever you're pleased to call it. I was struggling with the text I've given you ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed, from faith to faith.” And seated there, my head down, on that privy just as when I was a little boy, I couldn't reach down to my breath for the sickness in my bowels, as I seemed to sense a large rat, a heavy, wet, plague rat, slashing at my privates with its death teeth. I thought of the righteousness of God, and wished his gospel had never been put to paper for men to read; who demanded my love and made it impossible to return it. And I sat in my heap of pain until the words emerged and opened up. “The just shall live by faith.” My pain vanished, my bowels flushed and I could get up. I could see the life I'd lost.

(Act 2, Sc. 3, p. 63)

Luther is driven to this spiritual discovery by his pervasive anguish at the unbearable destiny of being human and hence totally vulnerable and susceptible. Throughout the play there is great emphasis on the physical as well as the spiritual. The reek and weight of the body are continually registered. Martin often appears pouring with sweat, as if suffused with the sense of his own mortality. He continually feels betrayed by his body:

If my flesh would leak and dissolve, and I could live as bone, if I were forged bone, plucked bone, warm hair and a bony heart, if I were all bone, I could brandish myself without terror, without any terror at all—I could be indestructible.

(Act 1, Sc. 1, p. 21)

His father tells him:

You can't ever, however you try, you can't ever get away from your body because that's what you live in, and it's all you've got to die in, and you can't get away from the body of your father and your mother!

(Act 1, Sc. 2, p. 41)

It is as if Martin is terrified of his own animality, and this relates to his emerging conviction that all men fall inescapably short of God's law, because God requires assent from the heart and concupiscent man cannot give obedience with total spontaneity of mind and body.

The first Act of the play concentrates on the interior dimension and for this Osborne is heavily indebted to Erikson. Osborne's treatment of history has been criticized in relation to his use of this source. Trussler claims that Osborne ‘fails to assimilate all his available source material—mainly garnered from the psycho-analytical study Young Man Luther, by Erik H. Erikson’.24 Hayman states that Osborne ‘seems to have done hardly any reading outside this one book’.25 But this is not the case because he also appears to have drawn substantially upon another source which critics do not seem to have noticed—Roland Bainton's concise but authoritative biography, Here I Stand: the Life of Martin Luther (New York: Mentor, 1950). I shall be turning to this later to illustrate Osborne's interesting use of Bainton. But even if Erikson's study had been Osborne's only source, it is a well documented work, based on a sound reading of collated evidence and the most significant modern scholarship on the subject.

E. Gordon Rupp, a well-known modern Luther scholar, acknowledges this in an article, ‘John Osborne and the Historical Luther,’ first published in The Expository Times, volume 73 (February 1962).26 This article is the substance of a lecture delivered at the University of Aberdeen on 31 October 1961, after the play had aroused much public discussion. Rupp cites Erikson's Young Man Luther as the book of the play and comments:

Erikson brings to his highly intelligent study not only his clinical experience but a wide reading which includes all the more notable modern books of Luther study. His work is a psycho-analytical commentary on Martin Luther's development. It is not the first such study, but is perhaps the most effective … in 1941 a Danish medical man and a Catholic, Paul J. Reiter, wrote two volumes on Luther's World, his character and psychosis. His picture of Luther as a tipsy manic-depressive is not very convincing, but his second volume puts together almost all the available evidence about Luther's physical and spiritual troubles and is very useful. On this and the valuable collection of historical documents by Otto Scheel, Erikson has drawn, so that this study of first-hand evidence has been to Mr Osborne's advantage.27

Rupp points out the vastness of the material on Luther—the great spate of Luther's own writings, and the immense international field of Luther study, which has caused attention to be turned to ‘histories of the histories of Luther’—and admits that:

one of the refreshing and valuable points of Osborne's play is that he does pry Luther loose, so to speak, from his orthodox framework—from theology and piety as Protestants have conceived it, and gives us a kind of “existential” Luther who is really disturbingly and excitingly alive.

However he maintains that ‘we have very little really reliable evidence about Luther's home and childhood’, and ultimately sees the play as a ‘highly complicated psychological interpretation read into or out of chancy little bits of historical evidence which have haphazardly survived’.28

But, as has been emphasized in the introduction, it is the historian's and not the playwright's function to weigh the evidence. What the historian sees as ‘evidence’ the dramatist sees more as ‘material’. Historical truth however is more than the available evidence. We cannot be sure we have the whole truth no matter how solid the evidence. Our knowledge of historical truth will always be fragmentary and the attempt to discover it will always involve the certain, the plausible and the purely speculative. The historian's contribution towards the recovery of the truth is specialized knowledge and systematic controlled inquiry. The dramatist's is imaginative sympathy and insight which must be given full play over his material, as long as no violence is done to history, and there are reasonable grounds for his portrayal. Of course Osborne did not set out to write a history play and might not even regard Luther as one. But I am calling it a history play because it fulfils the requirements of my definition for no matter how controversial a portrait of Luther Osborne presents, there is a firm historical basis for the vision presented.

Rupp finds the story that Luther had some kind of fit during Mass, ‘more than suspect’, asserting that it comes from four Catholic writers who were Luther's enemies. Erikson accepts the story, he says, because ‘it fits with his pre-fabricated psychological pattern—the interpretation of Luther's troubles as a persistent identity crisis.’ Rupp insists this is important ‘since it is in fact the only evidence that Luther had any attacks of this kind’, there is no trace of epilepsy before or after. But, as he amazingly goes on to admit, Luther had ‘psychosomatic attacks’ which first occurred in his forties and were ‘connected with his heart, dizziness, palpitations, and fainting fits. That as a monk he had desperate moments and occasional anxiety states is beyond doubt’.29 Here we see a fine example of the historian's concern with accuracy of a precise narrow type which a playwright would not be bothered with. Osborne naturally pounced on the wonderful dramatic possibilities of the story of the fit during Mass, which vividly epitomizes the kind of intense psychological ordeal Luther was so prone to suffer. Luther's conflict with his father on entering the monastery, the emotional trauma of his first Mass, his prodigious imagination, his force of rhetoric and often bitter scatological invective, his physical maladies and the periods of intense religious doubt and anguish which hounded him all his life, are firmly attested facts. If Osborne includes incidents that are historically suspect—the fit in the choir, the nailing of the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, the celebrated statement at the Diet of Worms: ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’—it is because the fascination of these is immense. This is so even for historians who deny their authenticity; irresistibly these stories have been repeated and are now an inextricable part of the legend surrounding the man.

Rupp however is impressed when Osborne keeps ‘marvellously close to the details’ of actual dialogue and incident, and dubious when he does not. His criticism of the play as history is on rather narrow, selective and inconsistent lines:

Now it is a valid point of Erikson that “nobody who has read Luther's private remarks can doubt that his whole being always included his bowels.” But since so much is made of this in the play, in the end to a comic and rather nauseating degree, and since it seems to me to damage the play as an historical chronicle, let it be firmly said that there is no evidence whatever that Luther had troubles like this as a monk, or indeed before the autumn of 1521 … To harp on this and show it as a constant factor in Luther's career from beginning to end, is quite unhistorical …

Yet he acknowledges nonetheless that:

Luther's illnesses are important and from 1521 onwards, there is a long list of them, deafness, noises in the head, dizziness, fainting, ophthalmia, hardening of the arteries, stone, bladder trouble, angina, so that when he died perhaps of a coronary thrombosis at the age of 63 he had been for some years a really old man.30

Osborne has solid grounds for emphasizing Luther's physical disabilities and suggesting a correlation between his physical and spiritual condition since he did suffer acutely from such ailments and from states of neurotic anxiety. As another historian, Roland Bainton, asserts, the recurrence of Luther's severe depressions ‘raises for us again and again the question whether they had a physical basis and the question really cannot be answered’.31 Osborne's ‘harping’ on this surely is in keeping with the new psychological perspective of our age, which sees the mind and body as inseparable, and stresses the indivisibility of the human personality.

Osborne's view of Luther is by no means limited to the purely personal. The play portrays a state of spiritual crisis that reflects the climate of Luther's age as it does ours. In some periods of history, Erikson writes, ‘man needs a new ideological orientation as surely and sorely as he must have air and food’, and Luther, ‘a young man (by no means lovable all the time) faced the problems of human existence in the foremost terms of his era’.32 It is this fiery young Luther that not surprizingly caught the imagination of John Osborne.

As indicated earlier, although Osborne draws considerably on Erikson for his vision of Luther, this is not his only major historical source as critics have claimed. He also appears to have used Roland Bainton's biography of Luther, Here I Stand—the internal evidence is overwhelming. One of the strongest features that points to this is the inspiration Osborne derived from drawings and woodcuts of the period for there are numerous illustrations of these in Bainton's book. In the play Osborne states in a note on décor:

After the intense private interior of Act One, with its outer darkness and rich, personal objects, the physical effect from now on should be more intricate, general, less personal; sweeping, concerned with men in time rather than particular man in the unconscious; caricature not portraiture, like the popular woodcuts of the period, like DÜRER.

As a backdrop for Act 2, Scene 4, which dramatizes Luther's interview with Cajetan, Osborne specifies as a backcloth:

a satirical contemporary woodcut, showing for example, the Pope portrayed as an ass playing the bagpipes, or a cardinal dressed up as a court fool. Or perhaps Holbein's cartoon of Luther with the Pope suspended from his nose.

(Luther, pp. 46, 64)

Illustrations of all these woodcuts are reproduced in Bainton's biography, and it seems obvious that Osborne found a ready source in Bainton.

Bainton writes of Dürer's profound disquiet at the futility of all human endeavour, and provides a graphic description of his engraving, Melancholia:

There sits a winged woman of high intelligence in torpid idleness amid all the tools and symbols of man's highest skills. … The bell above is ready to toll. Yet in sable gloom she broods, because the issues of destiny strive in the celestial sphere. In the sky the rainbow arches, sign of the covenant sworn by Noah, never to bring again the waters upon the earth; but within the rainbow glimmers a comet, portent of impending disaster. Beside Melancholia, perched upon a millstone, sits a scribbling cherub alone active because insouciant of the forces at play. Is the point again, as with Erasmus, that wisdom lies with the simplicity of childhood, and man might better lay aside his skills until the gods have decided the issues of the day? What a parallel have we here in quite other terms to Luther's agonizing quest for the ultimate meaning of life!33

Osborne must have been struck by the interesting parallel Bainton draws between Dürer's engraving and Martin's predicament for this passage brings inescapably to mind a similar idea and picture in the play. Martin encounters a child, dirty, half-naked, and playing intently by himself, on the steps of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. It is the year 1517 and Martin is just about to nail up his 95 theses on the Castle Church door, that legendary action that was to propel him into the vortex of international conflict and ultimately bring about overwhelming repercussions for the whole of the western world. Martin ‘puts out his hand to the child, who looks at it gravely and deliberately, then slowly, not rudely, but naturally, gets up and skips away sadly out of sight’ (Act 2, Sc. 3, p. 61).

Bainton also prints a reproduction of a drawing of Christ the Judge sitting upon a rainbow with a lily protruding from one ear and a sword piercing the other. Beneath him on one side there are figures being lifted up to heaven, and on the opposite side there are others being dragged down to hell. Bainton comments that the:

Christ upon the rainbow with the lily and the sword was a most familiar figure in illustrated books of the period. Luther had seen pictures such as these and testified that he was utterly terror-stricken at the sight of Christ the Judge.34

In the play Luther is haunted by this particular image of Christ on a rainbow judging the world. Just before he is about to celebrate his first Mass, he falls to his knees crying out in desperation:

Oh Mary, dear Mary, all I can see of Christ is a flame and raging on a rainbow. Pray to your Son, and ask Him to still His anger for I can't raise my eyes to look at Him.

(Act 1, Sc. 2, p. 30)

This strongly suggests that Osborne used Bainton, since he picks on the very drawing that Bainton chooses to illustrate exactly the same point.

Then again, Osborne's representation of Pope Leo X relates directly to Bainton's delineation of him:

The pontiff at the moment was Leo X, of the house of the Medici, as elegant and as indolent as a Persian cat. His chief preeminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling and the chase. The duties of his Holy Office were seldom suffered to interfere with the sport. He wore hunting boots which impeded the kissing of his toe.35

This figure springs to life in Osborne's play. He enters ‘with a HUNTSMAN, dogs and DOMINICANS’. He is indolent, cultured, intelligent, extremely restless, and well able to assimilate the essence of anything before anyone else. As Miltitz kneels to kiss his toe, he dismisses him impatiently, ‘I should forget it. I've got my boots on. Well? get on with it. We're missing the good weather.’ On receiving Martin's final appeal to the Church, he reads the young monk's plea for judgement and correction of his views as mere attitudinizing, and lets loose the full weight of his secular and ecclesiastical powers. His attitude is cold and unequivocal: ‘There's a wild pig in our vineyard, and it must be hunted down and shot’ (Act 2, Sc. 5, pp. 75-8).

The episodes in the play involving the Pope and Tetzel, the notorious seller of indulgences, come over as caricature with their broad but incisive lines of depiction. For these public figures, Osborne creates the effect of a caught attitude or impression, very much in the style of satirical cartoons of the period of which Bainton provides many examples.36 It is intriguing to find Osborne making rich dramatic use of the source material supplied by this whole tradition of popular criticism in the form of polemical woodcuts, drawings, engravings and cartoons that flourished in the period.

There are other indications that Osborne drew inspiration from Bainton's account. In the early half of the play, Luther's conversations with Staupitz show the older man coping with the young man's importunate questionings, and gently reproving him for his obsession with various mortifications: ‘All these trials and temptations you go through, they're meat and drink to you’ (Act 2, Sc. 2, p. 53). There is a distinct parallel in Bainton who gives accounts of such theological discussions, with Luther beside himself when Staupitz failed to understand his torment:

Was then, Luther the only one in the world who had been so plagued? Had Staupitz himself never experienced such trials? ‘No,’ said he, ‘but I think they are your meat and drink.’ Evidently he suspected Luther of thriving on his disturbances. The only word of reassurance he could give was a reminder that the blood of Christ was shed for the remission of sins. But Luther was too obsessed with the picture of Christ the avenger to be consoled with the picture of Christ the redeemer.37

Osborne similarly uses Staupitz as the voice of sanity and reason in the play. His balance and moderation serve as a foil to Martin's inordinacy and obsession.

Bainton emphasizes the fact that Luther was assailed by doubt all his life. ‘This man who so undergirded others with faith had for himself a perpetual battle for faith.’ The content of his ‘depressions was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me. After the frightful Anfechtung of 1527 Luther wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.” His agony in the later years was all the more intense because he was a physician of souls, and if the medicine which he had prescribed for himself and for them was actually poison, how frightful was his responsibility.’

Luther held that the way of man with God cannot be tranquil: ‘David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experienced great assaults.’ Bainton comments that:

Luther verged on saying that an excessive emotional sensibility is a mode of revelation … Luther felt that his depressions were necessary. At the same time they were dreadful and by all means and in every way to be avoided and overcome. His whole life was a struggle against them, a fight for faith.38

Osborne takes precisely this angle in the play, presenting Luther equivocally as a man of extraordinary spiritual vision yet a man who is also continually ‘struggling for certainty, struggling insanely like a man in a fit, an animal trapped to the bone with doubt’ (Act 2, Scene 4, p. 73).

In the second half of the play the accent is on the public figure rather than the private individual. The fast-moving episodic scenes provide sweeping cinematic flashes, a telescopic view of the personalities involved. John Tetzel cuts a flamboyant figure. The actor is required to have a commanding voice and presence for he has to hold the stage in a scene that is pure monologue. Tetzel's arrival is a spectacle in itself. To the accompaniment of loud music, bells, singing, and the smoke of incense from lighted tapers, a slow-moving procession makes its way to the centre of the market-place at Juterbög. Behind the Pontiff's bull of grace carried on a cushion and cloth of gold, and the arms of the Pope and the Medici, comes the focus of the procession, John Tetzel, Dominican, inquisitor and the most famous indulgence vendor of his day. With the rhetorical flourish and histrionic flair of the born salesman, he comes into his own as lord of the market-place:

… won't you for as little as one quarter of a florin, my friend; buy yourself one of these letters, so that in the hour of death, the gate through which sinners can enter the world of torment shall be closed against you, and the gate leading to the joy of paradise be flung open for you? And, remember this, these letters aren't just for the living but for the dead too. … It isn't even necessary to repent. So don't hold back, come forward, think of your dear ones, think of yourselves! … For remember: As soon as your money rattles in the box and the cash bell rings, the soul flies out of purgatory and sings!

The speech ends with Tetzel flinging a large coin into the open strong box, where it rattles furiously. There follows the sound of coins clattering like rain into a great coffer as the light fades (Act 2, Sc. 1, pp. 47-50). In production this was one of the most arresting scenes of the play. Tetzel was played by Peter Bull who turned this speech into ‘a juicy theatrical turn’.39 ‘Corpulent under his mitre and hawking indulgences to a rattle of tambourine and drums’, he spoke with a ‘jolly, sleazy mission-week intimacy’ that was ‘lovely caricature’.40 This meretricious display of pomp and rhetoric provoked a spontaneous round of applause. Gaudy spectacle and sensation are used with a serious purpose here to convey the prostitution of the Church—the corruption of the truth for cheap commercial ends. The vulgar bigotry of Tetzel is contrasted with the vision and sophistication of Cajetan, ‘Cardinal of San Sisto, General of the Dominican Order, as well as its most distinguished theologian, papal legate, Rome's highest representative in Germany.’ Urbane, subtle, the practised diplomat, Cajetan puts forward the strongest arguments for the Church. In an interview with Martin he makes an eloquent plea for its authority and unity. If these are destroyed he predicts a time of great social disquiet when there will be ‘frontiers, frontiers of all kinds—between men—and there'll be no end to them’. ‘How will men find God if they are left to themselves each man abandoned and only known to himself?’ (Act 2, Sc. 4, p. 74).

Cajetan's anticipation of what will ensue from the kicking away of traditional supports prefigures the state of things to come—the disintegration of the Church and the gradual dissolution of all real order and cohesion in Western society with the lack of an all-embracing structure to provide anchorage and direction. The Church and the world rent by schism is precisely the opposite of what the historical Luther intended, and Osborne's inclusion of a forward perspective here adds dramatic weight and edge to the discussion. As Katharine Worth points out, the trial scene in Shaw's Saint Joan ‘must surely have been in Osborne's mind when he constructed the argument between Luther and Cajetan’. ‘Like Cauchon, Cajetan argues with moderation, civilized wit and understanding’, warning Luther of the ‘far-reaching consequences of his “heresy,” consequences which Luther himself, like Saint Joan in her play, has not envisaged’.41

At the Diet of Worms, Martin finally takes an irrevocable stand which is also a personal expression of identity and freedom:

Unless I am shown by the testimony of the Scriptures—for I don't believe in popes or councils—unless I am refuted by Scripture and my conscience is captured by God's own word, I cannot and will not recant, since to act against one's conscience is neither safe nor honest. Here I stand; God help me; I can do no more.

(Act 3, Sc. 1, p. 85)

Like Bolt, Osborne places stress on the self as the ultimate point of reference. Thus Martin admits later, with reference to this critical moment: ‘I listened for God's voice but all I could hear was my own’ (Act 3, Sc. 3, p. 101). This harmonizes with the fact that the historical Luther made the subjective element overt and central in the question of faith, taking religion away from the monopoly of Church or institution.

From this bold heroic moment at Worms, there is a sudden dismaying shift of mood and perspective as we are confronted with the uprising of the peasants in 1525 and its ruthless suppression. The shock of this transition came through with ironic impact through its staging in the original production:

Mr Finney stands there in the foreground against a rich tapestry, proudly holding aloft one of the books he has refused to disown as a glowing light irradiates him. Then a light comes up in the background making the tapestry transparent and showing the peasants with their tattered banners marching to the fray. It is as if hero and anti-hero were revealed in a flash to be one, like Luther's strength and weakness.42

A Knight steps out from among the carnage. He fiercely upbraids Luther for his failure to support the peasants he roused to rebellion by letting loose the floodwaters of change, that now threaten to sweep everything away, including what Luther upholds himself. He stands accused from all sides:

The princes blame me, you blame me and the peasants blame me—
You put the water in the wine didn't you?

The Knight places his hand deliberately, ritually, on the lifeless body of a peasant and smears Martin with the blood. ‘You're all ready now,’ he says, ‘You even look like a butcher—’ Martin cries out in despair, ‘God is the butcher—’ (Act 3, Sc. 3, pp. 88-9).

Martin attempts to reconcile his faith with the reality of the catastrophic suffering around him. Preaching a sermon with enormous effort, he relates the story of Abraham's obedience in the face of God's command to sacrifice Isaac, his son, another spiritual dilemma which involves a morally dubious decision:

Never, save in Christ, was there such obedience as in that moment, and, if God had blinked, the boy would have died then, but the Angel intervened, and the boy was released, and Abraham took him up in his arms again. In the teeth of life we seem to die, but God says no—in the teeth of death we live. If He butchers us, He makes us live.

(Act 3, Sc. 2, p. 92)

Martin can only suggest blind faith in God's ultimate redeeming purpose, in the face of the horrific violence and suffering that follow as part of the consequence of his actions.

In depicting Luther as clinging to the Bible for strength and solace, Osborne was almost certainly influenced by Bainton who asserts that:

The Scriptures assumed for Luther an overwhelming importance, not primarily as a source book for antipapal polemic, but as the one ground of certainty. He had rejected the authority of popes and councils, and could not make a beginning from within as did the prophets of the inward word. The core of his quarrel with them was that in moments of despondency he could find nothing within but utter blackness. He was completely lost unless he could find something without on which to lay hold. And this he found in the Scriptures. He approached them uncritically, from our point of view, but not with credulity. Nothing so amazed him as the faith of the participants: that Mary credited the annunciation of the angel Gabriel; that Joseph gave credence to the dream which allays his misgivings … that the Wise Men were ready to go to Bethlehem at the word of the prophet.

To illustrate Luther's feelings of wonder at such faith, Bainton quotes from one of Luther's sermons in which he narrates the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham:

The father raised his knife. The boy bared his throat. If God had slept an instant, the lad would have been dead. I could not have watched. I am not able in my thoughts to follow. The lad was as a sheep for the slaughter. Never in history was there such obedience, save in Christ. But God was watching and all the angels. The father raised his knife; the boy did not wince. The angel cried, “Abraham, Abraham!” See how divine majesty is at hand in the hour of death. We say, “In the midst of life we die.” God answers, “Nay in the midst of death we live.”43

Osborne uses precisely the portion of this particular sermon of Luther's which Bainton quotes. He modifies the language a little to blend in with his own modern prose style, but keeps close to the essential spirit and simple vigour of the original.

The final scene of the play again clearly derives its tone and shape from Bainton, who relates how Luther, grown famous and rather imperious in later years (having angered Henry VIII, infuriated Duke George and estranged Erasmus) was concerned that perhaps he had also hurt Staupitz who had not written for some time. Bainton quotes Staupitz's reply to Luther's letter of inquiry:

My love for you is unchanged, passing the love of women … but you seem to me to condemn many external things which do not affect justification. Why is the cowl a stench in your nostrils when many in it have lived holy lives? There is nothing without abuse. My dear friend, I beseech you to remember the weak. Do not denounce points of indifference which can be held in sincerity, though in matters of faith be never silent. We owe much to you, Martin. You have taken us from the pigsty to the pasture of life … I hope you will have good fruit at Wittenberg. My prayers are with you.

Shortly after he had received this letter news reached Luther that Staupitz was dead.44 Staupitz's fatherly attachment to Luther, his wise advice, and the note of nostalgia, sadness and gentle reproach struck in this letter, characterizes his role in the final scene of the play. Osborne resurrects Staupitz (who actually had died many years before this time) and has him return in 1530 to the monastery which is now Martin's household. He is the same benevolent spirit, but grown tired and old. As Martin begins to dogmatize in his usual strident fashion, Staupitz gets up to retire:

I'd better get off to bed.
They're trying to turn me into a fixed star, Father, but I'm a shifting planet. You're leaving me.
I'm not leaving you, Martin. I love you. I love you as much as any man has ever loved most women. But we're not two protected monks under a pear tree in a garden any longer. The world's changed. … You've taken Christ away from the low mumblings and soft voices and jewelled gowns and the tiaras and put Him back where He belongs. In each man's soul. We owe so much to you. All I beg of you is not to be too violent. In spite of everything you've said and shown us, there were men, some men who did live holy lives here once. Don't—don't believe you, only you are right.

(Act 3, Sc. 3, p. 100)

Staupitz does not deny Luther's crucial contribution to a vital reformulation of faith, but his warning is against Luther's setting himself up as an infallible authority, against the dangers of intransigence.

Staupitz in a way puts forward the Christian's only viable position in a new world perspective. His world deprived of firm lineaments, man walks uneasily with a sense of shifting footholds; thus God is groped for through a nightmare of uncertainty. The contemporary wisdom now lies in openness, toleration, flexibility. In the play, doubt and deep questioning are ultimately affirmed as a means to truth. The play ends quietly. Martin is shown speaking to his sleeping child: ‘A little while, and you shall see me. Christ said that, my son. I hope that'll be the way of it again. I hope so. Let's just hope so, eh?’ With the child asleep in his arms, Martin walks off slowly (Act 3, Sc. 3, p. 102). We are left on this pregnant note of mixed hope and doubt.

Thus, like Bolt and Shaffer, Osborne is drawn to a historical subject for its religious interest, but treats it with far greater depth and force of imagination. He firmly grounds his play on documentary evidence, but at the same time he is experimental in a vital individual way, combining his gift for rhetoric with vivid aural, visual and physical elements to convey both an inner state of tension and unrest, and an outer state of public conflict and debate. Music was richly employed to define the mood in the original production, becoming monastic or primitive by turn in the first half of the play, and public and strident in the second. The historical Luther's grand hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress’, was movingly introduced at key points, at first ‘whispered to a lone drum beat’, then sung out triumphantly.45

The bold use of dialogue, ritual, expressionistic settings, striking visual and physical effects, all point to a more poetic dynamic form of theatre. Running through the play is a chain of subconscious images drawn from memories, dreams, nightmares such as the lost body of a child, the monstrous rat assailant, the goat drinking blood, and the people reduced to their clothes all ‘neatly pressed and folded on the ground’. This is in keeping with the play's emphasis on a condition of spiritual anxiety, fracture and uncertainty. These images are rationally placed to fit in with a picture of a personal and collective neurosis.

From Luther, with its roots in psychoanalysis, Edward Bond's Early Morning seems an almost inevitable next step. It is a powerful surrealistic drama where rationality in artistic form is denied, and dreams intrude fantastically into waking life to depict a world of political madness.


  1. See K. Tynan, Tynan Right and Left, pp. 180-1. Richard Findlater, Banned! a Review of Theatrical Censorship in Britain (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967) pp. 186-7.

  2. Caryl Brahms, ‘Man Bites Dogma’, Plays and Players, 8, no. 12 (Sept. 1961) p. 11.

  3. ‘Best Guarantee Yet of Mr Osborne's Stamina’, The Times, 28/7/61.

  4. Tynan Right and Left, p. 78.

  5. John McClain, ‘Brilliantly Acted Historical Drama’, Journal American, 26/9/63. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 24, no. 22 (1963) p. 277.

  6. […]

  7. Norman Nadel, ‘Osborne's Overpowering Luther’, New York World-Telegram and The Sun, 26/9/63. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 24, no. 22 (1963) p. 277.

  8. Richard Watts Jr, ‘Luther in a Memorable Portrayal’, New York Post, 26/9/63. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 24, no. 22 (1963) p. 276.

  9. ‘Kerr on Luther at the St James’, New York Herald Tribune 26/9/63. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 24, no. 22 (1963) p. 278.

  10. ‘That Awful Museum’, Twentieth Century, 69 (Jan. - Mar. 1961) p. 216.

  11. Anger and After: a Guide to the New British Drama (London: Methuen, 1962) p. 55.

  12. The Plays of John Osborne: an Assessment (London: Victor Gollancz, 1969) p. 105. John Osborne (Essex: Longmans, Green, 1969) p. 18.

  13. Drama in the Sixties: Form and Interpretation (London: Faber & Faber, 1966) p. 187.

  14. John Osborne (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969) p. 87.

  15. Contemporary Playwrights: John Osborne (London: Heinemann, 1968) p. 46.

  16. ‘They call it Cricket’ in T. Maschler (ed.), Declaration (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1957) p. 105.

  17. Young Man Luther (London: Faber & Faber, 1959) p. 7.

  18. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. by Alexander Dru (London: Oxford University Press, 1938) p. 508.

  19. A Better Class of Person: an Autobiography 1929-1956 (London: Oxford University Press, 1981) p. 508.

  20. ‘Osborne's Overpowering Luther’, New York World-Telegram and The Sun, 26/9/63.

  21. Young Man Luther, p. 115.

  22. Ibid., pp. 247, 95, 16.

  23. Ibid., p. 37.

  24. The Plays of John Osborne: an Assessment, p. 105.

  25. Contemporary Playwrights: John Osborne, p. 51.

  26. It was subsequently published under the title, ‘Luther and Mr Osborne’ in The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 1 (1965-66).

  27. ‘Luther and Mr Osborne’ in The Cambridge Quarterly, 1 (Winter 1965-66) pp. 28-30.

  28. Ibid., pp. 30, 42.

  29. Ibid., pp. 32-3.

  30. Ibid., pp. 34-7.

  31. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther (New York and Scarborough, Ontario: The New American Library, 1950) p. 281.

  32. Erikson, Young Man Luther, p. 20.

  33. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther, p. 100.

  34. Ibid., pp. 22-3.

  35. Ibid., p. 56.

  36. See for example, Here I Stand, pp. 160, 240-1.

  37. Ibid., p. 44.

  38. Ibid., pp. 281-3.

  39. Harold Taubman, ‘Luther stars Albert Finney’, The New York Times, 26/9/63. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, 24, no. 22 (1963) p. 280.

  40. Walter Kerr, ‘Kerr on Luther at the St James,’ New York Herald Tribune, 26/9/63. See also John McClain, ‘Brilliantly Acted Historical Drama’, Journal American, 26/9/63.

  41. ‘Shaw and John Osborne’, The Shavian, 2 (Oct. 1964) p. 31.

  42. Harold Taubman, ‘Luther stars Albert Finney’, in The New York Times, 26/9/63.

  43. Here I Stand, pp. 288-90.

  44. Ibid., p. 198.

  45. See John McClain, ‘Brilliantly Acted Historical Drama’, Journal American, 26/9/63. Norman Nadel, ‘Osborne's Luther’, New York World-Telegram and The Sun, 26/9/63.

Robert G. Egan (essay date September 1989)

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SOURCE: Egan, Robert G. “Anger and the Actor: Another Look Back.” Modern Drama 32, no. 3 (September 1989): 413-24.

[In the following essay, Egan considers the enduring appeal of Look Back in Anger, focusing on the character of Jimmy Porter.]


If we are reluctant to let go of 1956 as a convenient watershed point in the history of British theatre, we no longer tend to regard Look Back in Anger as a one-play revolution. John Osborne himself long ago pronounced it “a formal, rather old-fashioned play,”1 and with the virtue of hindsight we can identify its technical affinities with the earlier dramatists whose theatre it was once thought to have obliterated: the aphoristic turns of Coward, the set-piece speechifying of Shaw, even the sentimental studies of Rattigan. Yet Look Back remains a unique play. The major revivals that have occurred repeatedly over the thirty years since its première have demonstrated that, removed from its early avatar as cultural rallying point, it has not lost its special energies as a theatre event.

That those energies derive in large part from the play's exploitation of its looming central character has been clear from the start. But it no longer suffices, I think, to term the play, as Simon Trussler did in his excellent early study of Osborne, “a well-made problem play of considerable psychological insight” focusing on a “special case” individual.2 Jimmy Porter may well be a suitable case for treatment; yet he commands our attention in the theatre not as a case study but as a dynamic source of energy and utterance. The role is a bravura one, and to find its equivalents we must refer to other, more frankly declamatory traditions than either the well-made play or psychological realism. Hamlet and Alceste come to mind, the former closest to Jimmy's self-image, the latter to his nature. All three plays are dramas of the unrealized self, all three characters inveterate self-dramatisers; and all three call forth an actor's most overtly theatrical, self-displaying capacities.

Several critics have pointed out that his inherently histrionic nature has much to do with Jimmy Porter's dynamism, making Look Back in Anger, in Michael Billington's words, “every inch an actor's play.”3 Certainly, although he is not an actor by trade, Jimmy is every inch a performer. It is not only difficult to picture him at work in his sweet-stall (an occupation Osborne seems to have chosen for its very peripherality, its inessential quality as work or worldly action of any sort); it is difficult to imagine him anywhere but onstage. In fact, he is rarely elsewhere, and then frequently asserting his presence by his unruly trumpet. On the few occasions when he is entirely absent, the play noticeably shifts gears as the other characters engage in low-key dialogue and exposition almost exclusively about the phenomenon of Jimmy. They await his re-entrance as we do, and with it the resumption of the play's proper action.

I want to examine that action, not simply to point out its high incidence of histrionic concerns but to explore the inseparability of such concerns from the play's method of meaning. Building upon what Billington, Michael Anderson, and others have observed—that Look Back is suffused with the sensibilities of a young actor/author for whom the theatre was a sphere of existence before it was a writer's medium—I am going to suggest that the transaction of histrionic performance is in Osborne's work not merely a conduit through which other meanings can flow, but an object of concern and source of meaning in and of itself. What the actor does, in short, is the central matter of the dramatic fiction as well as the means of bringing it to life. This proximity of medium to message is, I believe, a key to the special intensities of experience which impressed the first audiences of Look Back as revolutionary, and which the play continues to generate today.


One facet of Look Back in Anger that must have struck its early spectators as unprecedented is the extraordinary degree of dramatic energy Osborne manages to channel through a minimal situation. Act One contains very little plot per se: a young man, his friend and his wife are together in a room, the wife ironing, the men reading newspapers and talking. Eventually, after a physical tussle, Jimmy deliberately pushes Cliff into Alison, causing her arm to be burned. Jimmy leaves the stage, whereupon we learn that Alison is pregnant. He returns and is reconciled with her, until the imminent arrival of Helena sends him storming out again. That is all that literally “happens” in plot terms, which in no way account for the scene's power to involve us in its momentous interplay of forces. Jimmy, of course, is the motive force, and the key to his actions lies in a particular conjunction of character psychology and acting dynamics. In large measure, Jimmy's concerns and objectives as a character are parallel to those of the actor playing Jimmy, in that each is attempting to provoke an audience response through increasingly energetic and elaborate acts of performance.

Of course, the actor playing Jimmy seeks our silent attention and involvement, our occasional laughter and our eventual applause, whereas Jimmy himself is after a more complex response from Cliff and Alison, one that involves both the focused apprehension of a theatre audience and the verbal and physical response of fellow players. Bored and claustrophobic from the stale rituals of another Sunday, immobilized by a sense of futility which will expand as the scene develops, Jimmy turns to Cliff and Alison for very proof that he exists:

You two will drive me round the bend soon—I know it, as sure as I'm sitting here. I know you're going to drive me mad. 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! (He bangs his breast theatrically.) Hallelujah! I'm alive! I've an idea. Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings, and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say? Let's pretend we're human. (He looks from one to the other.) Oh, brother, it's such a long time since I was with anyone who got enthusiastic about anything.4

The comic exaggeration here disguises the serious need beneath his invitation. As will become clear, Jimmy has no other source of self-affirmation, no real means of pretending that he is “human” and “actually alive,” outside the currents of energy given and received which bind him to the other two. Therefore he thrusts toward them in a series of verbal and emotional displays. Yet for the most part, both Cliff and Alison deny him the response he seeks, refusing to join in his “little game”. Cliff plays along in the scene's earlier moments, but eventually withdraws from Jimmy both as listener and interlocutor. Alison refuses from the outset either to engage in the direct dialogue or to afford the attentive audience Jimmy requires. Especially where she is concerned, the game Jimmy offers to play involves unremitting antagonism. Brawling, as he says, “is the only thing left I'm any good at” (p. 53). Refusing to be his gladitorial partner, she responds to his challenges with passive and deliberate silence.

So the scene develops in a dangerous spiral, Jimmy bidding for attention with an escalating series of jokes, demands, insults and oratory, yet repeatedly balked by the non-responses of the other two. Osborne plots his mounting frustration in a series of stage directions:

He looks up at both of them for reaction, but Cliff is reading, and Alison is intent on her ironing.

(p. 14)

He looks up sharply for a response, but there isn't any.

(p. 14)

He's been cheated out of his response, but he's got to draw blood somehow.

(p. 21)

She is used to these carefully rehearsed attacks, and it doesn't look as though he will get his triumph tonight.

(p. 22)

The only substantial response he can provoke is through the physical violence of the ironing-board incident, but the brief explosion this triggers in Alison only clears the air temporarily, and the cycle soon begins again. It is a no-win situation for all three of them. Alison and Cliff are caught between the choices of being Jimmy's antagonists and so fueling his anger, or neglecting him and suffering his consequent wrath. Since they choose the latter option, Jimmy finds himself performing in a void: launching ever more extensive, formal and “carefully rehearsed” rhetorical tirades and failing to receive the validating response he seeks.

An interesting theatrical mechanism at work here (and throughout the play) is that, as Jimmy's performance progressively fails, that of the actor playing Jimmy progressively succeeds. More and more, we become the proper audience to Jimmy's tirades, affording them much of the response they are denied by Cliff and Alison—naturally enough, since only in the theatre is Jimmy's histrionic mode of action accorded full validity. Anywhere else, such incessant outpourings of words and feeling, accompanied by demands for undivided attention and response, are either suppressed or ignored. Yet we find Jimmy's behavior fascinating and richly worth attention. After all, indulgence in language, emotion, and imagination separate from any practical activity is literally what we have come to see; we regard it as the actor's proper and “real” mode of action. Sartre observes that the actor “unrealizes” his own being in service of his character's fictional being.5 Jimmy Porter represents an intriguing inversion of this principle: engaging in actions that are almost exclusively histrionic, he unrealizes himself as a person in the play's world and is simultaneously realized as a dynamic presence, a brilliant theatrical artifact in ours.


Thus the play steadily shifts from its basis in realism toward a more presentational mode. Jimmy's many rhetorical set-pieces and our responses to them constitute self-contained theatrical events, recalling earlier, non-realistic conventions of actor-audience communication. If they echo Shaw's use of rhetoric, they lack his argumentative consistency and dialectical intent. As dramatic poetry they are much closer to the Senecan set speech and its descendants: the Elizabethan blank-verse monologue and Racinean tirade. Michael Goldman's remarks on that tradition are useful here:

The Senecan contribution was a rhetoric that made suffering action, or rather pushed suffering toward dramatic action by making it aggression. It allowed psychic states to come thrusting out at the audience. The expansion, intensification, and elaboration typical of Senecan rhetoric allows the audience to be caught up in that familiar Elizabethan grip of half-insane agitation, of an ego enlarging itself through and beyond the largest available objects of desire or destructive will. Its related achievement is to connect this intensity to a large world by sweep of reference, that geographical and cosmological reach which is not exclusively Senecan but can only be used effectively in stage speech when it can be attached to the thrust of an actor's personality.6

Just so, Jimmy's tirades convert states of mind into dramatic action, at the same time affording a series of windows both outward on a particular “large world” and inward on the enlarged, agitated ego responding to that world. Each speech has its own set topic and its inner structure of rhythm, build, and climax. All are effective, entertaining performance pieces, characterized by richness of imagery, of language, and of wit. And each is an act of aggression, aimed at a particular target of the speaker's anger. Indeed, taken together their topics constitute a catalogue of all that Jimmy finds unacceptable in his world: “The American Age” (p. 17), “Brother Nigel” (pp. 20-21), “Pusillanimous,” (pp. 21-22), “The Eternal, Flaming Racket of the Female,” (pp. 24-25), and so on.

In this respect, the tirades also indicate why Jimmy is incapable of any effective action outside of the histrionic, for if they place him in a concrete world—Britain of the mid-fifties—they also delineate clearly his separation from that world, mapping out a reality in which Jimmy finds no acceptable means of self-definition, no coherent structure of belief or meaning which might make possible his commitment to action. An Englishman in the American Age, he sees no historical direction to look save backwards, to the era of a lost empire the history of which he holds in contempt while envying its settled, Edwardian world-view, having no world of his own. His sense of class identity is shot through with ambivalence and dislocation. Intensely nostalgic for the working-class origins of his father and Hugh's mother, he is separated from that heritage by his mother's middle-class connections, his university education and his marriage to Alison, whose suburban background both repels and attracts him. Even religion provokes a divided response in him. Militantly atheist and “satanic,” he is also fascinated and troubled by Christianity, whether the mass enthusiasm of converts at an American revivalist's meeting or the single-minded purposefulness of Helena's Anglicanism. His elaborate sneers betray his insecurity:

Do you think that some of this spiritual beefcake would make a man of me? Should I go in for this moral weight lifting and get myself some over-developed muscle? I was a liberal skinny weakling. I too was afraid to strip down to my soul, but now everyone looks at my superb physique in envy.

(p. 79)

Unable to bang his breast and shout “Hallelujah, I'm alive,” Jimmy is forced to envy the spiritual beefcake of those who can.

Jimmy's sexuality reflects another version of indeterminate selfhood. He loves and desires his wife, yet he manifests a visceral hatred of her femaleness, indeed of all things female. He envies the revolutionary possibilities of “old Gide and the Greek Chorus boys” (p. 35) and recognizes a kindred spirit in Alison's homosexual friend Webster. Indeed, latent impulses in that direction are evident in the successive triangular relationships he and Alison have shared with Cliff and, before him, Hugh. Yet even as he declares his dissatisfaction with heterosexuality, with equal emphasis Jimmy rejects homosexuality as a personal option.

Here we seem to verge on the psychological case-study which Trussler sees in the play. I would suggest, however, that Jimmy's various forms of ambivalence and non-commitment are less important as symptoms to be analyzed than as features of a character incapable of action in any sphere other than the histrionic. In fact, much of Jimmy's brilliance as a performer lies in his ability to play artfully with his many obstacles to self-realization, making them mirror, interweave with, and metaphorically reflect one another. His refusal of homosexuality is especially adroit in this respect:

No, as far as the Michaelangelo Brigade's concerned, I must be a sort of right-wing deviationist. If the Revolution ever comes, I'll be the first to be put up against the wall with all the other poor old liberals.

(p. 36)

Wittily, Jimmy casts his sexual ambivalence in a metaphor drawn from leftist politics; yet leftist politics are an equally pertinent and troubling topic for Jimmy. Politically, he is “a sort of right-wing deviationist,” uncommitted yet guiltily yearning for the heroic militancy of his father, fatally wounded in Spain. Thus the conceit might as easily be reversed, and Jimmy's sexuality employed as metaphor for his politics, his divergence from the Michaelangelo Brigade figuring his disloyalty to the International Brigades.

This artful conflation of personal confusions climbs to a tour de force level as Jimmy begins to improvise on the word “pusillanimous,” which he intends as an elaborate insult to Alison:

Pusillanimous! It sounds like some fleshy Roman matron, doesn't it? The Lady Pusillanimous seen here with her husband Sextus, on their way to the Games.
 looks troubled, and glances uneasily at Alison.
Poor old Sextus! If he were put into a Hollywood film, he's so unimpressive, they'd make some poor British actor play the part. He doesn't know it, but those beefcake Christians will make off with his wife in the wonder of stereophonic sound before the picture's over.
 leans against the board, and closes her eyes.
The Lady Pusillanimous has been promised a brighter easier world than old Sextus can ever offer her. Hi, Pusey! What say we get the hell down to the Arena, and maybe feed ourselves to a couple of lions, huh?

(pp. 21-22)

Jimmy's creative performance here—the instant, transforming leaps from word to image to enacted parody (complete with an American dialect) of a Hollywood epic, is as theatrically gratifying to us as it is painfully uncomfortable to Cliff and Alison, who must go to extreme lengths trying to ignore it. And though he claims otherwise, the speech expresses Jimmy himself far more than it “sums up” (p. 21) Alison. His sense of futility as an Englishman in the American age merges with his sexual uncertainty and fear of inadequacy, all finding their comic embodiment in the figure of the “poor British actor” forced to appear in a trashy American spectacle. And these connotations of national and sexual impotence segue to his corresponding obsession with religion: the Americans who make off with poor old Sextus's wife are “beefcake Christians,” recurrent bugbears, as we know, to the “liberal skinny weakling” Jimmy.

My point is that the formidable energies of Jimmy's tirades derive from the critical mass of his fused insecurities. Their rhetoric vividly engages the manifold reality of his world only to reject it unequivocally. Thus their force as histrionic action—their creative power and theatrical impact on us—is inseparable from their denial of any cohesive self, hence any practical action, on Jimmy's part. Repeatedly, we encounter an inverse proportion between his performative power and his efficacy as a person.


In effect, the entire plot of Look Back in Anger can be read as a series of variations on this paradox of histrionic power and personal powerlessness, exploring and applying it in the context of two sexual relationships. Alison, we have seen, refuses to join willingly in Jimmy's “game” of being human, as its rules require her to stand in for a world the reality of which he rejects and rages at. But she does join him in another performative sphere, the dramatic game of “Squirrels and Bears,” which defines itself as refuge from “the pain of being human beings.” Essential to their sexuality, “Squirrels and Bears” affords them the benefit of Jimmy's fictive imagination and language disentangled from his anger, since it posits an entirely created world, a “cozy zoo for two,” in which union between Jimmy and Alison is possible not in their human selves but in the artificial identities of two “little furry creatures with little furry brains” (p. 47). A fragile refuge at best, “Squirrels and Bears” is placed potentially out of reach by Alison's pregnancy. The birth of a child, after all, would constitute an unbreakable link with reality, rendering impossible the illusion of other-than-human identities in an other-than-real world. This, I think, is the essential logic in Alison's decision to leave Jimmy, as well as in her miscarriage and return to him. Her loss of the child fulfills Jimmy's wish as expressed in the curtain speech that ends Act One:

Oh, my dear wife, you've got so much to learn. I only hope you learn it one day. If only something—something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! (Coming in close to her.) If you could have a child, and it would die. Let it grow, let a recognisable human face emerge from that little mass of indiarubber and wrinkles. (She retreats away from him.) Please—if only I could watch you face that. I wonder if you might even become a recognisable human being yourself. But I doubt it.
She moves away, stunned, and leans on the gas stove down L. He stands rather helplessly on his own.
Do you know I have never known the great pleasure of lovemaking when I didn't desire it myself. Oh, it's not that she hasn't her own kind of passion. She has the passion of a python. She just devours me whole every time, as if I were some over-large rabbit. That's me. That bulge around her navel—if you're wondering what it is—it's me. Me, buried alive down there, and going mad, smothered in that peaceful looking coil. Not a sound, not a flicker from her—she doesn't even rumble a little. You'd think that this indigestible mess would stir up some kind of tremor in those distended, overfed tripes—but not her!
Crosses up to the door.
She'll go on sleeping and devouring until there's nothing left of me.

(pp. 37-38)

The self-canceling paradox of Jimmy's histrionic power is here set forth in its most frightening form; for the speech is a creative act the main thrust of which is a denial of creation. The image of a life, an evolving self, in the “recognizable human face” is called into being for the sole purpose of wishing it dead. We know, of course, that just such a face is gathering within Alison at the moment, giving Jimmy's words the weight of a curse. Then, in a grotesque progression of images combining his sexual fear of Alison with his Oedipal need of her, he figures himself in her belly, a rabbit in the entrails of a python. Mother and child become predator and victim; pregnancy becomes digestion. A consummate act of self-expression, the piece denies all possibility of a realized self to Jimmy or to anyone else.

Alison is willed away by Jimmy, then, because she literally contains too much of reality, constituting a bridge to the unacceptable world beyond the boundaries of his performative powers. Helena, on the other hand, while she seems at first to embody all the bourgeois conventions most repellent to Jimmy, proves in fact to be an ally in disguise. The logic of their rapid involvement lies in her profession as an actress. Her essential source of energy and power, like his, is histrionic, and her ability to meet him on that plane characterizes every phase of their relationship. From the start, she affords him in full measure what Alison has refused him throughout Act One: a direct and enthusiastically antagonistic response to his tirades. But Helena seeks a closer tie than the understanding of antagonists, and sets about manipulating the scenario accordingly. It is ironically appropriate that her excuse to Alison for staying on in the garret is a potential acting engagement for which she has been sent a script; for her pursuit of Jimmy is indeed the pursuit of a new script and a new role. Jimmy, on reading Alison's farewell note, asks Helena if it is “a line from one of those plays you've been in.” His subsequent tirade concludes with a thundering finale: “Well, the performance is over. Now leave me alone and get out, you evil-minded little virgin.” The performance, however, is anything but over:

She slaps his face savagely. An expression of horror and disbelief floods his face. But it drains away, and all that is left is pain. His hand goes up to his head, and a muffled cry of despair escapes him. Helena tears his hand away, and kisses him passionately, drawing him down beside her.

(pp. 73-4)

If there is a strong tinge of the formulaic in this one-two punch of violence and sexuality, such are simply conventions of the theatre in which Helena (like the actor John Osborne) has worked. She is, after all, a professional: she knows how a sensational curtain moment is created.

Thus Jimmy acquires not only a new mistress but an adept co-performer, one who—far from shunning his histrionic displays—enters into his performance sphere with skill and energy. That is especially evident in Act Three, scene one. Despite the opening sight-gag of Helena ironing in Jimmy's shirt while he and Cliff read the Sunday papers, there is an evident difference between this triangle and that which opened the play. From the outset, Jimmy is no longer orating in a void of non-response. His set-pieces now have the ensemble support of both Helena and Cliff, who echo and amplify his increasingly humorous rhetoric, contributing the right feeds for his punch lines. His one genuine attack on Helena is parried with relative ease and good humor, and he immediately announces “a new song,” suggesting that they “work it into the act” (p. 79) whereupon the three of them proceed to perform a well-rehearsed music hall sequence, including a comic sketch and a song-and-dance. Helena enters the routine unsure “if this is really her cue” (p. 81), but her professional experience does not fail her. “T. S. Eliot and Pam” is indeed “a good double” (p. 86), and we experience its vitality directly. Jimmy, Cliff, and Helena play at being on a stage, positioning themselves before an imaginary audience to whom they refer directly (“Can't you see I'm trying to entertain these ladies and gentlemen?” [p. 80]). Their game, of course, is our reality. For a few moments, we play the role of an imagined audience within the play's fictive world, while conversely, the three characters pursue an objective identical to that of the three actors playing them—performing consciously in our presence and for our pleasure. We are indeed entertained, our enjoyment of the scene heightened by our appreciation of the theatrical joke.

Helena's histrionic presence, then, serves as catalyst for Jimmy's most exuberant and elaborate moments of performance. Yet for Jimmy, this is not enough. As he tells her, he is “heartily sick … tired out, hungry and dry” (p. 86); and he confides to Cliff that he wants from Helena “something I know in my heart she is incapable of giving” (p. 84). He never quite articulates what that “something” is, but we might surmise that for Jimmy Helena's limitations are indivisible from her strengths. If Alison had too much of the real world about her and within her, Helena has about her too much of the theatre's artificial world. “T. S. Eliot and Pam” is certainly an act of greater theatrical dynamism than “Squirrels and Bears,” but it is no less detached from reality. Its created, music hall sphere is purely self-referential (unlike the music hall in which Osborne's Archie Rice will later perform). Nor does Helena bring to Jimmy any more effective model of self-realization than he has previously known. Adept as a role-player, she gives no strong evidence of a recognizable self behind her shifting masks. Indeed, the character she plays to perfection in the music hall sketch is “Nobody” (p. 81).

Jimmy's dissatisfaction with Helena, then, is equivalent to his dissatisfaction with histrionic performance as an end in itself. She has, perhaps, afforded him too complete a withdrawal into dramatic fiction. Her reasons for leaving him upon Alison's return center upon her unwillingness to share Jimmy's vulnerability to reality, her refusal to “take part—in all this suffering” (p. 93). And Alison, now returning on the heels of a miscarriage, shows no reticence where suffering is concerned. Thus she brings back into the garret the uncontrollable reality which Jimmy rejected in her. Yet one crucial aspect has altered: she has fulfilled Jimmy's curse by enduring the loss not only of her child but of her ability to have any other children. Sterile, she no longer carries the possibility of irreversible engagement with the world.

Thus Alison is now able to share Jimmy's pained, ambivalent condition. Yet the conflicting terms of that condition are in no way reconciled. He greets her with a set piece eulogizing his lonely, estranged ego crying out in vain for fulfillment:

Was I really wrong to believe that there's a—a kind of—burning virility of mind and spirit that looks for something as powerful as itself? The heaviest, strongest creatures in this world seem to be the loneliest. Like the old bear, following his own breath in the dark forest. There's no warm pack, no herd to comfort him. That voice that cries out doesn't have to be a weakling's, does it?

(p. 94)

The momentum of the rhetoric nearly carries us past its self-canceling nature. But Jimmy's “virility of mind and spirit” exists exclusively within the sphere of performance. His identity as an “old bear” is valid in the heart's forest of imagination where “Squirrels and Bears” can be played, but not beyond its enchanted boundaries, where the voice that cries out is, in fact, “a weakling's.”

Nothing is new here. What is surprising is that Alison, for the first time in the play, responds to this speech of Jimmy's with a full-dress tirade of her own in an emotional rhetoric as lavish as his. Her ordeal-by-sterility has given her the performing ability to enter Jimmy's proper sphere completely, raising her cry alongside him: “I want to be a lost cause. I want to be corrupt and futile!” (p. 95) They renew their marriage on the sacred ground of their shared fictive world—not Jimmy and Alison but the Bear and his Squirrel:

We'll be together in our bear's cave, and our squirrel's drey, and we'll live on honey, and nuts—lots and lots of nuts. And we'll sing songs about ourselves—about warm trees and snug caves, and lying in the sun. And you'll keep those big eyes on my fur, and help me keep my claws in order, because I'm a bit of a soppy, scruffy sort of a bear. And I'll see that you keep that sleek, bushy tail glistening as it should, because you're a very beautiful squirrel, but you're none too bright either, so we've got to be careful. There are cruel steel traps lying about everywhere, just waiting for rather mad, slightly satanic, and very timid little animals. Right?

(p. 96)

The speech effects a close to the play at once moving and unsettling. Its odd musical power derives partly from its echo of King Lear's “Come, let's away to prison” speech to Cordelia, another lyrical vision of escape from the world's cruel steel traps. But the allusion points up an essential difference. Jimmy and Alison are not tragic figures on the verge of immolation. The two timid little animals may sing and tell each other tales, but only “about ourselves,” for they have achieved no vision of the world from which their “silly symphony” (p. 47) protects them. For the final time, Jimmy has conjured up through performance a fiction powerful enough to proclaim disengagement from his world and so negate his complex humanity.


The dynamics of Look Back in Anger, then, are intriguingly paradoxical. They are inseparable from one character's histrionic power. Yet the very exercise of his power denies and demolishes any powerful projection of self on that character's part. What are we to make of such contradictions, beyond noting the prodigious theatrical energies they give off?

“Why,” asks John Russell Taylor of Jimmy, “should someone so forceful remain so impotent?” and he finds the answer in “the deficiencies of the modern world.”7 I would argue rather that the play's inner logic locates the cause of Jimmy's powerlessness not in his world but in the nature of the histrionic impulse itself. It may help to return to Sartre's comments on the actor as one who unrealizes his own being in the service of fiction, allowing the substance of his self to be “devoured by the imaginary.”8 The root assumption here is that effective histrionic performance and efficacious self are polar opposites. Dramatically and philosophically, Sartre explored the histrionic tendency in much human activity toward unreality and self-negation. Indeed, the theatre of Sartre's discovery Jean Genet mirrored the world as little other than an arena of such tendencies. In The Balcony, closely contemporary to Look Back, the energies of the revolution aspire toward their own neutralizing in the histrionic scenarios of the bordello, and ultimately in the iconic dramaturgy of the tomb. Look Back in Anger might be regarded as Osborne's exploration of parallel issues in the context of his own national moment. In the sterile performance space of Jimmy Porter's garret, as in that of Mme Irma's Grand Balcon, acting negates action, and the histrionic undoes the essential. These are not premises with which Osborne remained content. The Entertainer, his next play, posits successful performance and realized self not as opposites but direct counterparts to one another, through the figure of a professional performer failing at both. Yet Look Back in Anger remains very much with us—an extraordinary force field between whose poles of identity and performance the phenomenon of Jimmy Porter's character is suspended, a kind of dramatic Escher drawing, perpetually making and unmaking itself.


  1. John Osborne, “That Awful Museum,” in John Russell Taylor, John Osborne, Look Back in Anger: A Casebook (London, 1968), p. 66.

  2. Simon Trussler, The Plays of John Osborne (London, 1969), pp. 54, 51.

  3. Michael Billington, The Modern Actor (London, 1973), p. 167.

  4. John Osborne, Look Back in Anger (London, 1957), p. 15. Further reference to the text is cited parenthetically.

  5. Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre on Theatre, ed. Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, tr. Frank Jellinek (New York, 1976), pp. 158-70.

  6. Michael Goldman, The Actor's Freedom (New York, 1975), p. 98.

  7. John Russell Taylor, Anger and After (rev. ed., London, 1969), p. 45.

  8. Sartre, p. 162.

George Watson (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Watson, George. “Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard.” In British Literature since 1945, pp. 145-74. Houndmills, England: Macmillan Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Watson asserts that Look Back in Anger played a seminal role in the revival of British theater in the mid-1950s.]

The story of London theatre, by common consent, divides at 1956, when John Osborne's Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre.

May 1956 was a moment of change, even revolutionary change; and like many revolutions, it was also a reaction. Before it, a more formal theoretical tradition had tried to restore an Elizabethan sense of poetry to audiences hungry for colour and style. The post-war verse plays of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry were born of austerity: in Eliot's case they were an attempt, partly successful, to reach audiences larger than his poetry was ever likely to enjoy; in Fry's, to remind a public battered by war and its aftermath that there is life and joy in the ceremonies of language, at least, if not in daily life itself. The mood was nostalgic, and verse marked a return in many senses. It was a return to the roots of English drama, in Shakespeare; to the roots of English social tradition, too, since it proclaimed the permanence in national life of dignity, ceremony and rank. There was little enough of any of those ancient virtues in Attlee's Britain, but they flourished briefly in London theatre, like exotic plants in a conservatory, with Eliot's Cocktail Party (1949) and Fry's Venus Observed (1950). Along with bitter-sweet plays by such survivors of pre-war theatre as Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, they answered to a desperate hope that, in spite of appearances, nothing essential had changed.

The trouble was that something had. It was not, on the whole, a change wrought by politicians, and extensions to a welfare state founded as long ago as 1908 have little to do with the matter. Change is natural to human society, and Britain by the 1950s was new in ways that novelists and dramatists, among others, found puzzling to account for. The war had not abolished social differences, merely entered some new players and shifted some of the rules of the game. Britain was not egalitarian, and it was already clear that it did not seriously want to be. If the young were openly impatient with the old, it was an impatience the old understandably found unspecific, nebulous and ultimately enigmatic. There was a stir in the air, but it was hard to say who was stirring, or why. Osborne's Look Back recorded that mixed mood of puzzlement, alarm and hope. Something was afoot, no doubt of it, and audiences were suddenly in a mind less for assurances than for explanations.

The revival of realism in British theatre was slightly, but only slightly, belated. Look Back follows the first published novels of Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch by only two or three years, and it may have owed less to them than to the groping intuition of a young actor—Osborne was twenty-seven at the time—who had sniffed a mood in the air rather than from the pages of books. Where Eliot and Fry had written about unchanging human verities, Osborne strove to chronicle the urgent moment, and events conspired to help. May 1956, midway in Sir Anthony Eden's short premiership, was not a critical month at home or abroad; but five months later, in October, there were the twin crises of Suez and Hungary, and the reckless young dramatist had proved himself an efficient prophet of doom. The Osborne revolution in British theatre was remarkably swift and apparently effortless, in the event, and in retrospect it is hard to see how it could have failed.

The theatre that welcomed it was and is ample in its provision. It includes nearly fifty commercial theatres in London, along with state-subsidised theatres eventually numbering five—three in the National Theatre that opened in its permanent home on the South Bank in 1976, and two belonging to the Royal Shakespeare Company; and, in addition, a shifting host of fringe theatres, some of them in improbable makeshift surroundings. As a concentration of legitimate theatre, then, London may be more or less unique: between fifty and a hundred performances within two miles of Piccadilly Circus on any weekday of the year, since there is no Sunday theatre except in private clubs; and unlike Paris, they stay open in summer. The proportion devoted to new drama, however, is hard to estimate. Some theatres, it is certain, will be playing revivals; others musicals; others, especially at Christmas, pantomimes. And not all new plays are British. None the less, the choice of new and native plays is wide, though subject to unaccountable periods of lassitude when even respectable dramatists deliver nothing but translations of foreign plays or adaptations of well-known novels, and there is probably nothing like it in the world, at least for a world language.

That, in itself, is a reversal. In the years that followed the peace of 1945, Paris and New York surpassed London in theatrical excitement, and the centre of gravity did not decisively shift till the mid 1950s. Since then Broadway has struggled against high and ever higher production costs, and Paris has been struck by a subtler malaise known as NED or Not Enough Dramatists. The rivals, for whatever reason, have fallen back, and since the 1960s the British have had it mostly their own way in the theatres of the West. The English dramatist, backed by the bravura of the English actor, has been the playman of the Western world: for theatre there is nothing like London.

Beneath the creative tip of that glittering theatrical iceberg lies an enormous and invisible base of the untried and unperformed. About a thousand playscripts a year, for example, are reported to reach the Royal Court Theatre, where Look Back opened in May 1956, or several on any average working day; not one per cent of them, it is reasonable to suppose, being performed at the Court or anywhere else. On the other hand the Court has over thirty playwrights under commission, and is said to accept perhaps one uncommissioned play a year. Outside live theatre, what is more, the scale of creativity is a marvel. BBC television, for example, broadcasts some four hundred plays a year: some newly commissioned, others adapted from plays and novels already in print; and it is reported to receive some eight thousand unsolicited play-scripts every year, of which it accepts perhaps two or three.1 The survival rate, then, is rather like that of some highly endangered species in a murderous environment, and the modern dramatist works at high risk; or would do so, were it not that he contrives to survive on grants, odd jobs and loans. But however one interprets the figures, one is left dazzled at the thought of so much creative effort, and the sound of all those clacking typewriters is enough to frighten the birds.


What sort of being is the new London dramatist?

He is not, or not usually, a man of letters in any traditional sense of the term. Shaw, Pinero, Galsworthy and Somerset Maugham were men of letters; the postwar dramatist, on the other hand, has more often been a man of the theatre and little else, and his training is most characteristically an actor's. Osborne and Pinter both trod the boards before they wrote plays; so did Alan Ayckbourn (b.1939), an actor and stage-manager in repertory theatre, and a BBC radio drama producer (1964-70), before he settled in Scarborough as a prolific writer of comedies and artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round. Tom Stoppard, exceptionally, was a journalist; and Simon Gray—a plainer counter-instance—an academic: a profession that admittedly finds its uses for the histrionic, however, and he enjoyed a theatrical time as a Cambridge undergraduate before settling in London to lecture. There are odder routes to fame than these. Joe Orton trained as an actor and learned to write plays by typing out a friend's and realising he could do it better: to be murdered by his room-mate in 1967, out of jealousy, at the age of thirty-four. Christopher Marlowe too came to a violent end when young, killed before he was thirty; and it is tempting to call Orton the Marlowe of the British dramatic revival, were it not that he wrote farces and never a tragedy. And there are other dramatists like Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker who emerged out of student theatricals and seem to have a flow of actor-ready language in their veins.

The flourishing of theatre since the 1950s has been firmly based on a familiarity with theatre itself, then, rather than on the printed word. All this was unpredictable in 1956; it was genuinely surprising. In the exhausted atmosphere of post-war London theatre, few if any would have foreseen that London would shortly make of itself the theatrical capital of the Western world; fewer still that an actor could write a better play than a writer. But it is the actor, whether professional or amateur, who in the event has conquered. As Shakespeare and Ben Jonson in the 1590s replaced the University Wits, who were bookish men, so a new breed of performers suddenly replaced the literary world of Shaw, Priestley and Eliot. They may sometimes need to be taught to spell, but they do not need to be taught theatre: they have known it, one feels, as long as they have known anything. Though they may occasionally preach from their stages, they are not, like Shaw or Eliot, primarily there to edify and convert, and their ultimate loyalty is not to dogma but to theatricality itself. They know the ropes, and do not need to be reminded of Harley Granville-Barker's celebrated dictum that drama is an art, but theatre is an industry. They are part of the industry. Many of them started in it at the bottom, and like strolling players anywhere they are by nature adaptable. One of them, Harold Pinter, may be the supreme instance on earth of a dramatic factotum: he can act, direct and write, whether for live theatre, cinema or television; while Stoppard's comedies are theatrical tours-de-force based on a technical originality he has learned from watching, it must be supposed, and from reading. Shakespeare and Jonson began as actors, too, and the parallel with another Elizabethan golden age is richly tempting. These are playwrights who, whatever their training, write speeches that actors can speak, not sermons for moralists to spout. As Shakespeare himself would have said, they are sharp and sententious.

To have worked in theatre, sometimes as a menial, is to take a briskly professional view of what theatre can and cannot do. That, to be sure, is not the only possible view, and an Alternative Theatre still survives as a link with an older man-of-letters concept of what plays are for. Nothing, usually, is more antique than an avant-garde, and it is in Alternative Theatre since the 1960s that ancient values have been mainly cherished: Victorian social criticism, a Shavian view of the playwright as a moralist and a preacher, and a sense of theatrical contrivance that Noël Coward in his younger days would have thought old-fashioned. Intellectuals are backward-looking, by temperament; and to be experimental, in that world, can easily mean imitating the theatrical techniques of the Weimar Republic or critical theories fashionable in Paris a generation and more ago. Commercial theatre, by contrast, tends to be experimental and unconventional. As Bertolt Brecht once pertinently remarked, capitalism is naturally radical, and the money-making theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue are in practice more innovative, both in technique and in ideas, than semi-amateur happenings in half-converted pubs in Islington or Notting Hill. In fact the assumption that commercial theatre, realistic or other, is intellectually or politically cosy could only survive in wilful ignorance of what it habitually does. There is nothing inherently conservative, in any case, about realism, since it is by picturing a real world, as Osborne did, that the playwright seeks to change it; and commercial theatre, in any case, is only sometimes realistic. What sells in West End theatre is no one thing but a swift succession of different things, and the huge success of musicals like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats (1981), a work daringly based on T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, is hard to reconcile with the view that in London it is only drawing-room comedies with French windows that the wider public will buy or that promoters will back.

Such innovation is intellectual as well as technical. In fact the intellectual innovation of much commercial theatre since 1956 might have been designed to illustrate Brecht's truth that capitalism is naturally radical in its social effects: that the profit-motive is more likely to transform a society, and faster, than the urge to preach at it or to regulate it. It is the avant-garde that has proved itself politically old-hat, trapped as it is in the clichés of Victorian socialism, and playgoers have understandably tired of plays with titles like Maydays or Not Quite Jerusalem that deal, more in sorrow than in anger, with the predictable failures of the Old Left and the New. That failure, as they know, is largely unsurprising, and they are sophisticated enough not to wish to be told once again that women are often as good as men or that South African apartheid is wicked. Twenty years after his success with Look Back at the Royal Court, John Osborne publicly complained that the atmosphere of the theatre, when he re-enters it, depresses him with the fug of old left-wingery and battles long ago. An audience naturally seeks to be stirred and amused, and it will only fitfully tolerate the assumption that theatre-going is a moral duty.

Realism, in some qualified sense—and realism is always qualified—lies at the heart of much, though never all, of London legitimate theatre since 1956, whether kitchen-sink realism or not. The new drama was above all a social drama; and like most things characteristically British in the arts, strongest in the field of the comic. Even its tragedies have tended to be funny. That is not an original paradox, if a paradox at all. Hamlet, after all, is a comic play, among other things, and its language sparkles with fun; even the Oresteia of Aeschylus, that foundation-stone of European tragedy, has its amusing moments; and only a year before Osborne's Look Back, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot had opened in London at the Arts Theatre. It was directed by Peter Hall, some twenty years later the first director of the National Theatre, and it is a sparkling tragedy where the cause of the helpless and the hopeless never looked more amusing, written in two languages as if to show that the paradox of the tragi-comic is not exclusively English and that the Irish have always known about it. One may indeed joke about despair; in fact it may be quite the best thing to do about it.


Realism, if the word implies a touch of squalor, was a conscious and deliberate choice of the new dramatists, and their immediate predecessors had not in that sense been realists. The ten years of London theatre that followed 1945 had been years of multiple revivalism, but not of squalor. There had been Chekovian plays set in comfortable sitting-rooms, French windows and all, where gentlefolk bemoaned the rigours of austerity in a tone quietly (and rightly) confident that good times would come again. The poetic dramas of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, again, where poetic prose, from the spectator's point of view, merged imperceptibly into dramatic verse, were faintly allusive of the world about them, but more concerned with eternal moral verities than the state of England. Only an abiding emphasis on the comic, though it grows thin at times, is a continuum in this tradition. Eliot's Cocktail Party, which opened at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1949, was teasingly subtitled ‘a comedy’; its successor, The Confidential Clerk, which opened there four years later, was more cautiously subtitled ‘a play’; and both were imbued with a spirit of devout resignation, only faintly whimsical, at the spectacle of a fading culture and a world almost too bad to be borne. Fry's plays are less extreme in their assumptions, and more playful. A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946), for example, based on an ancient myth, dealt gaily with the classic infidelity of womankind; The Lady's Not for Burning (1949) and Venus Observed (1950) startled audiences with their sustained verbal prettiness in an age starved by war and rationing for verve and style.

That rococo mood did not last, and by the late 1950s it had been sternly abolished by a younger breed of playwright concerned, as they claimed, not with nostalgia but with the here-and-now. In a boom world like the post-war years, Now can turn into Then rather quickly, and it must be admitted that the kitchen-sink school was touched by a spirit of nostalgia from the start. The hero of Look Back worships the memory of a father who died of wounds received in the Spanish Civil War; his father-in-law, a dignified relic of British India, is shown as amiable and worthy, according to his lights. Basement or attic poverty was after all a vanishing phenomenon when Osborne and Pinter flattered London audiences in the late 1950s with images of life by the ironing board or the kitchen sink. But the reaction of ageing opinion was gratifyingly sharp. ‘The health I have,’ wrote a retired Eton schoolmaster, praising the adrenalin-flow that only hostility can give, ‘is largely due to Leavis and Amis and Osborne and the New Statesman, and the umpire who gave me out in a critical school-match at Eton.’2 Hating can be fun, and the new theatrical realism throve on it. It can also lead to sudden panic. Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan, both doughty survivors of the witty chandelier-style comedies of the 1930s, fled London in despair as far as Jamaica or Hollywood, outraged by what they had seen across the footlights of West End theatres: dirty kitchens and ironing boards, draughty attics and a bucket in the middle of the room to catch the leak. All that put paid, too, and with dramatic suddenness, to the poetic revival of Eliot and Fry, which had evidently belonged to a mood too delicate and tangential to last. It was as if literature and life had suddenly and startlingly joined hands.

As myths turned real, the new spirit of theatre socialised all it touched. If, as Brecht once satirically remarked, the Germans can make an abstraction even of materialism, then the English can make even the most abstract thought concrete. In Osborne's hands a forgotten Spanish Faust play by Lope de Vega turned into A Bond Honoured (1966), where the hero is no longer a sinner in the hands of God but an ordinary Londoner with a lower-class accent and manners to match. All that can be fuelled by personal resentments, as in Arnold Wesker's Roots trilogy (1961), which was based on memories of an impoverished childhood in Stepney and rural Norfolk, and resentment can make the choice of realism look natural, even inevitable, though such social origins are no humbler than Noël Coward's. Osborne was a Londoner born in 1929, his father a commercial artist and his mother a former barmaid; and in his autobiography, A Better Class of Person (1981) he has cheerfully described the social embarrassments of an infancy passed between two contrasting worlds, one middle-class and one lower. Such playwrights exorcise a sense of early social deprivation, seldom exceptional as it is, by mythologising it for the public stage, and Wesker's Chicken Soup and Osborne's Look Back in Anger are purgative acts in which early humiliations are located, analysed and placed beyond the reach of hurt.

The problems raised in such plays, and only partly overcome, lie not in their dedication to realism but in their noisy commitment to dogmas that fail to fit. The new drama is realistic, and that is its strength. It is also, less happily, a world of easy theorising, of general notions quickly adopted and as quickly abandoned, and that is its weakness. It amply exemplifies Iris Murdoch's philosophical stricture that all theory ultimately falsifies and distorts. In the second play of his trilogy, for example, which is Roots (1959), Wesker invites his audience to believe that popular songs are composed out of a sense of contempt for mass audiences by the moguls who cynically control the media. But the song he invents to illustrate that proposition, ‘I'll wait for you in heaven's blue’, shows that it is harder to write good or even passable pop than he imagines, and 1959 was only a year or two before the advent of the Beatles. The masses allegedly conditioned out of their minds by the consumer societies of Western capitalism may not have been as gullible as he thinks; and the final enlightenment of his heroine, Beatie Bryant, from the mass-produced and the third-rate on which the play ends—‘I'm talking. … I'm not quoting any more’—calls for more faith than many in the audience can bring to it. John Arden's Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, in the same year, asks its audience to believe that the failure of a group of deserters to convert a Victorian mining town to pacifism is a convincing symbol of the high-minded endeavours of the modern Left. That, in a way, is all too true. The play attempts ballad theatre in the manner of Brecht, but its irrealism of form is no greater than its irrealism of content, and the notion that all wars are forced on decent peace-loving folk by sinister Establishments is too silly to be swallowed for an instant, especially by a people that had just defeated Hitler. The drab wings of History, Marxist-style, beat earnestly behind some of these early attempts to characterise the realities of a post-war world; and the first act of Osborne's Look Back offers a surprisingly old-fashioned defence of the fading doctrine of class-war. There was no class-war happening outside the Royal Court Theatre when it opened there in May 1956, and there has been none since: what the play enacts, when it stops preaching and starts showing, is not a struggle between classes but between generations. It is not about upper and lower but old and young: a social civil war lived out in words, one way or another, and sometimes bitter words, behind a good half of the house-fronts in the land.

It was the creative mistake of the new drama, at the start, to misdescribe a conflict between youth and age as a war between a bourgeoisie and a proletariat. It may be worth asking why that mistake was ever made. A school of literature, after all, does not need a theory of history at all. But theory has the advantage of being brief, modish and portable, and it can seduce for a time. ‘We all stand at an open door,’ Doris Lessing wrote in Declaration (1957), a collection of essays by new and emerging writers edited by Tom Maschler, rhapsodising over ‘a new man about to be born, who has never been twisted by drudgery.’ The remark is breathtakingly naive. But then a kitten will dart at anything that moves, and the revolutionary dogmas of that age looked as if they were in motion. Marxism was thought to be creative and socialism the way the world was going. Events have long since discredited all that. They have also illustrated that the literary mind is easily deceived into supposing a century-old doctrine to be the latest thing. When Kenneth Tynan, on seeing Brecht's Mutter Courage in 1957, told his wife it had made him a Marxist, he had not bothered to discover that the play had been written in 1941 by a German communist during the Nazi-Soviet pact to assist Hitler's war effort. Intellectual addictions to theory can be glib and shallow: ignorant of sources and historical context, and complacently content to remain so.

To dramatise a generation-struggle between the energy of youth and the apathy of parenthood is none the less a potent theatrical idea. Look Back was less a political programme, in the end, than a cry for enthusiasm—any enthusiasm. ‘There aren't any good, brave causes left,’ its hero cries, remembering a father who had died of wounds received in Spain. Jimmy Porter tries to enthuse the shabby attic he shares with a wife, a lodger and eventually a mistress, and his rhetoric is hard-hitting:

Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm. Just another Sunday evening,

and he uses first abuse, then infidelity, to break his wife's will—submissive and unshrewish as she is—and bring her into loving subjection. The play has been charged with providing no sufficient cause for anger, and the reasons Jimmy gives are plainly not those he feels, which belong less to politics than to the marriage-bed. Anger can easily misdescribe itself and mistake its own source, and the chip on Jimmy's shoulder is not an education outside Oxford and Cambridge or even the older civic universities—‘not redbrick but white tile’—or the self-imposed humiliation of running a sweet-stall for a living. It is a sheer excess of spirit: an excess emotionally satisfied, for a time, by his wife's best friend. Tynan greeted the play in a generous hyperbole when he called Jimmy ‘the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’;3 and Hamlet, too, has been plausibly charged with missing the point of his own confusions of mind. The marriage at the heart of the play has to be destroyed by a vital excess of passion before it can be restored. Kitchen Sink was always more than a realism of stage-sets. At its best, it was a realism of the heart, where the dream-figures that had inhabited the verse-dramas of Eliot and Fry have yielded place to beings that give back to audiences a telling reflection of their own anxieties and unspoken longings.


Tynan's famous hyperbole about Look Back and Hamlet, however, is only part true of the revival of a tradition, and Osborne's real sources were not Shakespeare but something much nearer his own time.

If the traditional strength of British fiction is comic realism, then Look Back is a traditional play, and its real sources are in Sheridan, Wilde and Coward. For two centuries and more there has been an unappeasable need for prose comedies on the London stage, new or revived, and no verse drama can satisfy that hunger. Political radicalism is not the point. Real people talk prose, and one likes to laugh at oneself and one's own. Osborne, in any case, was to turn conservative at an accelerating pace in the 1960s, when a new wave of youthful radicalism rapidly threatened his own. Radical noises in those days were supposed to be for the young, and the long diatribe against youth in Inadmissible Evidence (1965), which followed Look Back by less than a decade, suggests that public affairs always concerned the dramatist less as a programme than as an area of debate in which to strike attitudes that define, to others and to oneself, one's own place in the world:

Nothing, certainly not your swinging distaste, can match what I feel for you. … There is no lather or fear in you, all cool, dreamy, young, cool and not a proper blemish, forthright, unimpressed, contemptuous of ambition but good and pushy all the same. You've no shame of what you are … No one before has been able to do such things with such charm, such ease, such frozen innocence as all of you seem to have, to me …

That sounds like the envy of those who have suffered for a generation which, as they suppose, has not. It is a fervent case for the bad old days: a new-found conservatism extended, as a case, in West of Suez (1971), which comments on the decolonisation of Africa and the West Indies only a decade after it happened. The hero of that play is not a youth like Jimmy Porter but an elderly author called Wyatt Gillman, a creature wholly British in being at once absurd and wittily conscious of his own absurdity: a hero of disillusion who utters scathingly conservative views about the world around him. The play broke new ground, among writers freshly minted since the war, in suggesting subversively that it might be possible to be conservative and intelligent at the same time—a hypothesis as disturbing to theatre audiences as anything anywhere proposed in Look Back. When Gillman is summarily killed at the end of the play by local nationalists, someone exclaims ‘My God, they've shot the fox!’, and the symbolism is blunt. That old quarry for radicals known as the British Empire, happily hunted for as long as anyone could remember, was suddenly noticed to be dead, and progressives felt suddenly naked in the need for a better argument. They had lost their best game. Their fox was dead: killed off, in the worst of bad form, around 1960 by a Conservative government.


Osborne's theatrical realism was never wholly political; and it was impelled from the start, like Amis's fiction, by a passion for social manners and a fascination with social taboos. The hero of Look Back had been an implacable critic of word, gesture and conduct—a carping conoisseur of everyone's behaviour except his own. A stage-direction speaks of his ‘blistering honesty or apparent honesty’ and of his tenderness and freebooting cruelty, which suggests that, like Hamlet, he embraces opposites. The play is not just a tract in support of his case. It excites pity as well as assent. The first act, by far the best, is a scintillating diatribe against the manners and morals of the age, and it marks a theatrical return. After the brief digression of poetic drama, British theatre reverts here to a tradition a century and more old, and the mid-century Kitchen Sink school can plausibly claim a dramatic ancestry that is continuously longer than any other. An emphasis on abuse, contention and social banter in dramatic dialogue is the tradition of Shakespeare's Much Ado, after all, and of Congreve, Sheridan and Shaw. It is a tradition of theatre that cannot easily die, since it gratifies audiences with the sight and sound of a world they intimately know.

The limitations remain. A master of mannerism, Osborne was never a master of construction, and knew it. Look Back had fumbled for an ending; and the end it gets, fiercely anti-feminine in an age between feminisms, shows a returned wife grovelling for forgiveness and nestling in her husband's arms in a childish whimsy about squirrels and bears. That has nothing to do with class-war or generation-war, and it is a highly wishful contribution to the literary battle of the sexes. But then starting one play and ending another is the characteristic mode of this playwright, and his plots are often a mass of loose ends, committing such outrageously deliberate mistakes, at times, as forgetting a character after the first act or creating an expectancy for one that never appears. Osborne's disdain for construction is candid. ‘If I would never make it as a theatrical draughtsman,’ he remarks in his memoir, on reading Pinero in youth, ‘I could never be so dull either,’ recalling his contempt on hearing an agent recommend ‘the Newtonian principle of theatre’ embodied in Rattigan's Winslow Boy. All that suggests an open defiance of the Well-Made Play, even a defiant proclamation of the Ill-Made Play. Coward on Construction, he decided when young, looked ‘pretty wobbly’. All of which is as presumptuous as Jimmy Porter, since the Kitchen Sink owed more to Coward and his kind than it was ever ready to confess. Above all, it owed the concept of the dramatic quartet.

The dramatic quartet is a foursome of lovers who change partners, whether temporarily or permanently, like the four lovers in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or the two married couples in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915). Coward deftly re-adapted it to comic theatre in Private Lives (1930), where the crisscross of married couples is completed, one is meant to guess, shortly after the end of the play: as Elyot and Amanda steal off to resume their interrupted marriage, their second spouses, deserted on their wedding-nights, fall into that irritable quarrelling which in Coward betokens love. Look Back is a kitchen-sink version of Private Lives—a broken marriage resumed after a bout of bickering and adultery—though here the crisscross is unmatched by any rival pair. It is no blunter than Coward, who was also a master of verbal abuse. It is Coward in the attic.

Coward's plays, at their best, were nothing like wobbly in construction. They were to be revived shortly before his death in 1973, when a fashion for theatrical squalor was replaced, in its turn, by a revived taste for elegance and wit. Since then he has grown in stature both as a dramatist and a song-writer, and it is hard to think of any other playwright of the century who has left four comedies—the last of the four, Present Laughter, appeared in 1942—that are forever revivable. His post-war achievements in theatre were admittedly anti-climactic, but the Kitchen Sink owed him more than it was ever ready to concede; more, too, than he, in his horror of the new style, would ever have wished to acknowledge. Even their faults resemble his. Coward could write brittle dialogue, Osborne brittle diatribe, till the cows come home, and both were good haters. What they lack, and what their successors Pinter and Stoppard often lack, is the supreme dramatic talent of making things happen on stage: happen, as opposed to being recollected, explained or foretold. Their inventive powers lie with words rather than with events, and their plays sometimes show the strain of too large a dependence on sheer talk. Stoppard once remarked in a lecture: ‘I know what I want to say—the problem is: who says it?’, adding that characters can all too easily be walking statements: ‘I like stereotypes, and would like to write a play of nothing but.’ Flesh and blood does not come naturally to this school of dramatists. Coward's usual device for stretching the action had been to compose a comic cameo for a menial, like the breakfast-serving French maid in the last act of Private Lives. In Osborne and in his successors, much of the action occurs offstage, to be described in long retrospective speeches. Simon Gray's The Common Pursuit (1984) is an extreme instance of that awkward theatrical device. The new dramatist is undeniably a master of language, and he has chosen drama rather than fiction, it may be supposed, because he loves theatre and above all dialogue. But he is less clearly a master of action, and the two-hour traffic of the stage is sometimes visibly too long for him.


  1. Shaun Sutton, The Largest Theatre in the World: thirty years of television drama (London: BBC, 1982).

  2. George Lyttleton to Rupert Hart-Davis (25 June 1959), in The Lyttleton-Hart-Davis Letters (London, 1982), IV.86.

  3. Kenneth Tynan, Curtains (London, 1961), p. 130.

Graham A. Dixon (essay date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: Dixon, Graham A. “Still Looking Back: The Deconstruction of the Angry Young Man in Look Back in Anger and Déjàvu.Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (fall 1994): 521-29.

[In the following essay, Dixon maintains that Osborne's later play Déjàvu provides insight into Jimmy Porter's powerlessness in Look Back in Anger.]

To “deconstruct” would be to think—in the most faithful interior way—in the concepts of a discipline, but at the same time to determine—from a certain exterior that is unqualifiable or unnameable by (that discipline)—what … it has been able to dissimulate or forbid.1

Why don't you shut up? My mother liked the play. Both my grandmothers are alive. One saw it on television. I think she liked it.2

Next time he will let us know what he is angry about … Pretty déjàvu. I'd say. You're still a cunt.3

Robert Egan locates the cause of Jimmy Porter's powerlessness in “the nature of the histrionic impulse,”4 offering an alternative to John Russell Taylor's traditional assertion that his impotence lies in “the deficiencies of the modern world.”5 I suggest a third alternative: Jimmy Porter, and through him, the playwright John Osborne, deconstructs both his interior and exterior worlds. In Look Back in Anger Osborne places Porter outside the world and yet within it. Porter sees the limitations of playing a “normal,” active role in the world and launches vicious but essentially ineffective attacks upon this world from his ironically passive position as sweet-seller. The paradoxical mixture of verbal power and practical impotence has troubled critics since the play's inception; but the recent appearance of Déjàvu offers a unique opportunity to consider questions of Jimmy's powerlessness in the mirror of what Osborne has called Look Back II. As Jimmy Porter deconstructs the role he sets for himself, and as Osborne deconstructs the whole play, so Déjàvu casts an ironic light upon and, perhaps, deconstructs the whole mythos of the Angry Young Man that the Osborne/Porter amalgam first provoked.

While Look Back in Anger is no longer regarded as an utterly revolutionary and epoch-making play, one of the most common initial reactions has remained stubbornly alive: the vision of Jimmy Porter as the quintessential Angry Young Man. As a review of the original production suggests, “you are expected to believe that two women love this volcano of ceaseless, sputtering venom … you believe it, the truth about this conscienceless sadist is that he is absolutely alive!”6 But “alive” in what sense? Ironically, Jimmy is most effective within his world, and thus most “alive” in an active sense, not during his well-rehearsed tirades against Mother, Brother Nigel, or Pusillanimous, but rather in the quieter moments when his Anger is replaced by vulnerability. Consider the scene after the accidental burning:

How's it feeling?
Fine. It wasn't anything.
All this fooling about can get a bit dangerous.
He sits on the edge of the table, holding her hand.
I'm sorry.
I know.
I mean it.
There's no need.

The scene continues:

…Trouble is—Trouble is you get used to people. Even their trivialities become indispensable to you. Indispensable, and a little mysterious.
He slides his head forward, against her, trying to catch his thoughts.
I think … I must have a lot of—old stock … Nobody wants it. …
He puts his face against her belly. She goes on stroking his head, still on guard a little. Then he lifts his head, and they kiss passionately.
What are we going to do tonight?(7)

Jimmy deconstructs his previous Anger in a number of ways in such scenes. Jimmy Porter the “real” man provides a contrast to his previous performative self. At these moments he illustrates what he has been able to dissimulate and forbid through his performative discipline. In his tirades he dissimulates the “strength” of the Angry Young Man while forbidding the conclusions of his actual weakness. On a verbal level, the very simplicity, brevity, and hesitancy of his language strongly contrast with the pompous eloquence of his set-piece attacks. Jimmy is not attacking outside targets here, he is considering inner sensibilities: matters which cannot be easily defined and vilified but which remain “mysterious.” His verbal vulnerability is mirrored by his physical actions, he holds Alison's hand and she strokes his head as though he were a child. His effectiveness here pointedly illustrates the ineffectualness of his Angry self. This is a paradoxical situation: what appears to be a position of strength is in fact weak, and what appears to be weak is in fact a position of strength.

At times the Angry and the Vulnerable selves become mixed, and confusion follows:

… If only something—something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! (Coming in close to her.) If you could have a child, and it would die. Let it grow, let a recognizable human face emerge from that little mass of indiarubber and wrinkles. (She retreats away from him.) Please—if only I could watch you face that. I wonder if you might even become a recognizable human being yourself. But I doubt it.
She moves away, stunned, and leans on the gas stove. … He stands rather helplessly on his own.


When his anger drives Alison away he is left helpless; it is this helplessness which so effectively deconstructs the image of the one-dimensionally “strong” Angry Young Man. At one of the most poignant moments in the play Jimmy admits that the two emotions are undeniably connected in him:

… You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless. And I can never forget it.

(58; my emphasis)

He is angry at his own sense of helplessness and helpless because of the distance caused by his anger. The paradox produces the kind of physical and psychical stasis within which Jimmy exists, and which all the other characters periodically seek to leave, only to be drawn back. Here is the “inescapable melancholy” which Osborne suggests was at the heart of the original Jimmy Porter, “a man of gentle susceptibilities.”8

At the beginning of Déjàvu this gentle man appears on a more luxurious set, but he is once again reading the Sunday newspapers with his friend Cliff, and Alison is once again ironing behind them. Apart from material success, has anything changed? The first hint of change is found before anything is said, in the ‘I am Scum’ which emblazons the front of Alison's T-shirt. Osborne succinctly illustrates how the “brave causes” of contemporary Angry Young Men (and Women) tend to be reduced to what can be easily written on a T-shirt. The T-shirt also relates to Somerset Maugham's famous comment on the author and leading character of the earlier play; indeed, one cannot understand the full ironic and comic effect of the T-shirt without a knowledge of Look Back in Anger. The word “Scum,” intended as an insult in the 1950s, is now a somewhat dubious badge of honor in Osborne's eyes.9 Alison, Jimmy's daughter and the sole example of young rebellion (save for J.P.'s absent son), merely puts on her Sony Walkman when J.P.'s tirades become too tiresome. Here is the sum total of the rebellious nature in Jimmy Porter's offspring. While Alison is tiresome, the ease with which she avoids J.P.'s attacks (merely slipping on a pair of headphones) illustrates how ineffectual such verbosity can be in the modern world. None of the characters in Look Back in Anger could avoid Jimmy's invective, now a simple piece of technology simultaneously isolates and protects the young girl. Near the end of the play Helena wears a T-shirt with the words J.P. is Scum, OK: women were merely receptacles for Jimmy's scorn in 1956, now they are billboards for an ironic contemplation of the inanities of postmodern rebellion.

J.P.'s anger seems to have vanished in a wash of fine wine and financially secure middle age:

A non-poly-saturated diet must be imposed by the process of education and, if necessary, by statute and, ultimately, other means. A national campaign must explain to the public the causes and dangers of buttered toast and the horrifying spectacle of the incest crisis about to shatter our English obsession with class. It cannot be too strongly repeated for the benefit of those young people unable to read the instructions on a used condom, that it cannot be caught by sharing a National Health dildo, inhuman cuts all absolutely no fear at all, as widely believed by the unteachable supine victims of a thousand unnatural governments that it cannot be passed by contact with a raised lavatory seat or any other infrastructure of a male-dominated political system or multiculture crisis situation.


If Jimmy's tirades were a form of spiritual and emotional rape both of characters and audience, J.P. offers a form of mutual verbal masturbation. His ramblings are self-satisfied, highly skilful parodies of current verbal materialism. While the original Jimmy Porter was clearly leaning towards the Left politically, he has developed into a Right-wing Tory. But the most important facet is that which remains the same: the character is attacking the currently popular political vogue. He defines his political philosophy through adopting unpopular ideas. He seems to attack for the sake of attack in a form of Sophistic Luddism: he doesn't care about any of the supposed rights or wrongs of the situation. The style of attack has clearly changed: the middle-aged J.P. fairly wallows in his self-confidence. Over the course of the first act J.P.'s insults are not specifically aimed at his obvious target, Alison, but rather at the iniquities of the world in general. The set-piece, consciously performative attacks against “Mother,” “Nigel,” etc., are replaced with a swathe against everything. J.P.'s tactics are less ferocious onslaught than a steady war of attrition.

This attrition is exemplified through the fact that the characters “do nothing” in the course of the play. It is the “doing nothing” of the green room after a successful performance, except in this case the actors have been waiting for thirty-six years. J.P. is still looking back, but now with a kind of humorous melancholy and poignance. J.P. deconstructs Jimmy with a nonchalant ease. If Jimmy was aware of himself as a performative figure, one pretending he is a human being for pretence is all he has left, J.P. takes this one step further. While the play is nominally realistic in character, J.P. constantly alludes to his earlier self as though he is aware he was merely part of a play, a theatrical construct:

Scarcely surprising. I may not be an identifiable or believable member of the public but at least I don't put my postcode on my writing paper.


Good. I don't want to be summed up or identified. When I ran a sweet stall nobody believed that. Why should they believe me now?


Well, people used to get mighty hot over bears and squirrels—if they were exposed to that needless whimsy.


… I thought ironing boards were out of fashion when my first wife racketed about on them. Porter, J., on trumpet. Alison Porter on prayer book and ironing board.


These are examples from the first forty minutes of a play that runs nearly three hours. The first two illustrate a particular type of reference—J.P. wistfully looking back upon the misconceptions people came to about his previous self. On another level this is Osborne none-too-subtly lecturing the “dubious and partisan academics” who continue to proliferate “Wearisome theories about J.P.'s sadism, anti-feminism, even closet homosexuality.”10 Indeed, playwright and character echo one another so closely it is difficult to distinguish between dramatic speech and metatheatrical commentary:

You know what you two sound like? A pair of lovers. Befuddled old lovers.
Yes, it was always a commonplace assumption. Especially among women and Americanos …


This self-referentiality only succeeds because it exists within an essentially undramatic structure. Ironically, this structure is highly provocative: J.P. takes on the clichéd characteristics of the Satisfied Middle-aged European White Male much as his younger self both defined and was defined by the Angry Young Man. Each takes on the superficial skin of his role, but challenges the assumptions through breaking out of this skin. I have identified the quiet, gentle, conservative, and wistfully vulnerable Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger, and we may find an equally surprising figure in Déjàvu. In the midst of his sardonic, apparently utterly secure banter comes a moment in which the “real” J.P. is revealed:

(Softly) … Anger is not hatred, which is what I see in all your faces. Anger is slow, gentle, not vindictive or full of spite. Also it comes into the world in grief not grievance.
Couldn't hear you, old cock. Nobody wants to hear you!
(ALISON “waves,” dancing to the sound in her ears. Coherence has begun to desert J.P., but he struggles to retain it.)
(Still softly) “What's he angry about?” they used to ask. Anger is not about … It is mourning the unknown, the loss of what went before without you, it's the love another time but not this might have sprung on you, and greatest loss of all, the deprivation of what, even as a child, seemed to be irrevocably your own, your birthplace, that, at least, is as tangible as death.


At such moments Déjàvu combines Osborne's undeniable ability for dramatic intensity with the Brechtian intimacy of alienation. Alison sways back and forth to music that neither we nor J.P. can hear. It is the music of easy rebellion, of the trite endless signification of I am Scum. The Alison/T-shirt amalgam hovers, much as the iron above the ironing board, giving off “the whiff of burnt ironies” (91-92); it taunts J.P. with its apparent proximity and actual distance. The easy classification and definition both of Anger and the Angry Young Man is challenged by J.P.'s careful consideration of the dominant emotion of his life. His consideration of “anger” is not merely a matter of semantic manipulation, but of spirited redefinition. As we saw in the earlier play, Jimmy/J.P. is often at his most vulnerable when he considers inner truths rather than outer parodies. Here he speaks quietly, softly, and dangerously near to the truth. His normal eloquence is there, but he begins to lose coherence because of the proximity to the “real” J.P. In a sense, J.P.'s consideration of “anger” and the resulting challenge to the performative function both of his present and past selves threatens his viability as a unified personality. Taken to a logical conclusion, J.P. would deconstruct himself out of existence.

His honesty threatens to destroy him, but at the very end of the play, after nearly three hours of inaction and verbosity, he falls back on a mixture of self-parody and disgust:

(Rattles off) … Finally: I still am, after thirty years, a churlish, grating note, a spokesman for no one but myself; with deadening effect, cruelly abusive, unable to be coherent about my despair; uncomfortable and awkward. His only response a cynical guffaw. No real motivation, lashing out wildly in all directions, never identifying the shadows he is attacking. We are left to work out our own causes; futility is our only clue. Is this ugly, cheerless world supposed to be typical? By no means an artistic success despite some violent knockabout here and there. But, my friends, finally, finally and in the last examination, the total—
—gesture is—
J.P. and Cliff (Together)
Altogether Inadequate.
And has remained so for thirty years. Perhaps, wait for it, next time—
Next time he will let us know what he is angry about … Pretty déjàvu. I'd say. You're still a cunt …


J.P. moves from speaking in the first person through a montage of criticism of the first play onto third-person commentary. He speaks of himself as another character, deconstructing himself and yet always leaving an outside self safely isolated. He does not come near to breaking down here, he does not lose his coherence; for there is safety in parodying critical and audience opinion. Oddly, it is as though Osborne himself is sticking two fingers up at the audience, as though the previous three hours has been an elaborate piece of trickery. Many who came to see the play at its London premiere in the summer of 1992 (including myself) came with a sense of eager anticipation: we would find out the secrets of Jimmy Porter's character through seeing how he has developed over thirty-six years. But Osborne does not let us know what J.P. is angry about in a direct sense, except through the searingly honest moment I have already identified. “Anger is not about,” J.P. says, and the whole play makes it clear that rather than being directed towards anything in particular, this anger is (in its most pure form) a state of being, a state of Durkheimian anomie which renders the character powerless.

Soon after the Totally Inadequate statement J.P. confides, in one of the many metatheatric one-liners which litter the play, that he is “insufficiently motivated” (98). Initial reaction to the play seemed to agree: Déjàvu received at best respectful reviews and at worst scathing attacks worthy of J.P.'s invective. Jack Pitman accused Osborne of creating a “plotless” play redolent of a “self-indulgent talkathon” and suggests that it is “almost embarrassingly tiresome.”11 The play is only plotless in the sense that Waiting for Godot is plotless: the stasis of the personalities is a profound form of action, even if their characters do not progress or develop in any classical sense. J.P. is caught between the painful loss of a past which he readily admits probably never existed and a future which offers little but the same:

Think of the torpor we endured in them sweet-stall days. No 1992 round the corner, the twenty-first century all but half a century away. A lifetime before the race to run. Look forward, beyond yourself. Don't look down, but above all, not back.


He looks back upon J.P.'s role as “Jimmy Porter” and the “Angry Young Man” (and on his own role as J.P.'s foil—an extension of J.P.) with distaste; he is forced to deconstruct them and thus to diffuse the tendency for seductive nostalgia. Perhaps Osborne is similarly situated: nearing the end of a fascinating if varied career, he is forced to Look Back upon the figure which made him an instant legend. He looks back, deconstructs, and essentially destroys the mythos which he accidentally engendered. So is Déjàvu simply what its title says it is? To answer we may compare the plays' endings.

In Look Back in Anger we have

… There are cruel steel traps lying about everywhere, just waiting for rather mad, slightly satanic, and very timid little animals. Right?
Alison nods.
(pathetically). Poor squirrels!
(with the same comic emphasis)
Poor bears!
She laughs a little. Then looks at him very tenderly, and adds very, very softly.)
Oh, poor, poor bears!
Slides her arms around him.


Déjàvu ends with

(To Teddy … ) 
I should settle down if I were you. Pretend it isn't happening. You're a lucky fellow. Mediocrity is a great comforter, my furry little ursine friend. And very democratic. It's all yours. Oh, lucky bears!
(J.P. turns on the tape recorder. Champagne Aria. This time perhaps to a genuine recording. Eberhard Wechter. Or maybe just the orchestra. Whichever works best. Anyway, J.P. mimes to it, in his most ebullient fashion. At the end of it, he exits with a grand operatic flourish, the most upward theatrical inflexion he can muster. CLIFF lies asleep beneath the newspaper.)

At the end of the original play Jimmy and Alison are at least superficially reunited; while the marriage is clearly on a shaky foundation (a foundation which soon crumbled, as we discover in Déjàvu), there is a sense of mutual experience and empathy. But this empathy is based upon delusion. In the face of the fact that they are indeed “poor bears,” unable to face reality, Jimmy and Alison fall back on their childlike games. They perform for one another, adopt a mask and thus avoid the harsh truths of their situation. But in Déjàvu the playing of squirrels and bears is not an escape, it is ruthlessly deconstructed in the form of the “character” Teddy (in reality merely a Teddy Bear), who is constantly addressed by J.P. and Cliff. Teddy is used as a mental punch-bag: he is the perfect target for J.P.'s current invective, he is an inanimate object who never answers back. J.P. is now aware that no possibility for genuine human contact exists. He does not adopt a mask of security but rather parodies that mask, saying how “lucky” they are. Just as his daughter Alison ignored J.P. as he spoke from the heart, so Cliff is asleep as J.P. makes his final exit. In a similar manner, while Look Back in Anger provoked a storm of comment, Déjàvu received a respectable breeze of applause. Osborne, the frighteningly Angry Young Man of the 1950s, is transformed into the eccentric, harmless, loveable rebel/bulwark of the Theater Establishment.

Robert Egan suggests that “Jimmy Porter's character is suspended, a kind of dramatic Escher drawing, perpetually making and unmaking itself.”12 Perhaps we may update the metaphor: Jimmy Porter/J.P. possesses the constantly changing fascination of a fractal diagram, a form which is from moment to moment constantly different and yet constantly the same. Both John Osborne and Jimmy Porter exist in a room walled with mirrors: when they attack what they believe to be the outside world they are in fact attacking themselves. In 1956 Osborne/Jimmy Porter were unaware of this; in 1992 they are frighteningly aware of the true paradox of their situation. Here is the supreme irony of Look Back in Anger and Déjàvu: the most powerful deconstruction is accidental deconstruction—it is an irony J.P. might appreciate himself.


  1. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago, 1981), 58.

  2. Quoted in Ronald Hayman, John Osborne (New York, 1972), 18.

  3. John Osborne, Déjàvu (London, 1991), 98.

  4. Robert Egan, “Anger and the Actor: Another Look Back,” Modern Drama 32 (1989), 423.

  5. John Russell Taylor, Anger and After, 2nd ed. (London, 1969), 45.

  6. New York Herald Tribune review quoted on back cover of Bantam edition of Look Back in Anger (London, 1957).

  7. John Osborne, Look Back in Anger (London, 1957), 32-33. Further references to the text are cited parenthetically.

  8. Déjàvu, intro., viii.

  9. After seeing Look Back in Anger (according to Ronald Hayman in John Osborne), Somerset Maugham stated that John Osborne, his character Jimmy Porter, and “scholarship boys” in general were “scum.”

  10. Déjàvu, viii.

  11. Variety, April 1992.

  12. Egan, 424.

Aleks Sierz (essay date May 1996)

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SOURCE: Sierz, Aleks. “John Osborne and the Myth of Anger.” New Theatre Quarterly 12, no. 46 (May 1996): 136-46.

[In the following essay, Sierz investigates how Look Back in Anger became an iconic work.]

The people I should like to contact—if I knew how—aren't likely to be reading this book anyway. If they have ever heard of me, it is only as a rather odd-looking ‘angry young man’.

—John Osborne, “They Call It Cricket”

When John Osborne died on Christmas Eve 1994, The Guardian, along with other newspapers, reported the event on its front page. Under the headline ‘John Osborne, founding “angry young man”, dies aged 65’, the report emphasized the two things that readers were expected to know about Osborne: that he was ‘the original angry young man’ and that he was ‘best known for Look Back in Anger, the original kitchen sink drama’.1 Osborne remains an iconic figure, as much a cultural symbol of the 1950s as James Dean or Marlon Brando.

Our perception of 1956, the year Look Back in Anger was first produced, has been completely colonized by the myth of anger, though few people much under the age of sixty can have a first hand memory of the event. As early as 1958, Kenneth Allsop had already rushed into print with The Angry Decade, though a more accurate title would have been ‘The Angry Eighteen Months’.

By 1969, the extent to which Osborne's first success had become a potent symbol was underlined by Simon Trussler. In The Plays of John Osborne, he opens the chapter on Look Back in Anger by saying that it is ‘at once a play and a myth’. Pointing out that ‘its name and its supposed theme are recognized instantly by many more people than have ever seen a production or read a script’, Trussler observes that ‘it is not altogether possible or even desirable to separate the resultant myth from the reality. A good play, like any major work of art, accretes associations and spawns its own canon of critical commonplaces’.2

But what does it mean for a cultural artefact thus to have become a myth? There are two ways of looking at modern myth: the mythophobic and the mythophilic. The first uses the debunking approach, usually seeing myth as a ‘media event’. In Harry Ritchie's account, for example, the Angry Young Men were a hype ‘invented by the media’, which grew as ‘the great publicity of the myth of the Angry Young Men actually created the reality the writers were supposed to be reflecting’.

For mythophobes, myth and reality don't mix. Ritchie's strength lies in his meticulous account of what happened; his weakness is his superficial understanding of how myth works. Much of the fuss about anger, he claims, ‘could have been avoided if Osborne had chosen a different title for his play’.3 But, as the title page of the manuscript clearly shows, out of the seven titles that Osborne wrote down, six are variations on the theme of anger: Farewell to Anger, Angry Man, Man in a Rage, Close the Cage Behind You, My Blood Is a Mile High—and Look Back in Anger. For its author, the play's theme was anger. Remembering that the Christian apologist Leslie Paul had used Angry Young Man as the title of his autobiography in 1951, it is clear that the idea of anger was not Osborne's alone—it was in the air, a sign of the times.4

The other way of looking at myth is mythophilic, the pleasure being to tease out meaning from cultural icons. In Robert Hewison's approach, for example, ‘myths are imaginative versions of truth’—cultural myth a ‘combination of historical truths and popular distortion’. What matters is not the literal truth, but the symbolic resonance. For Hewison, 1956 was the ‘first moment of history after the Second World War about which there is anything like a persistent myth’.

But why do myths persist? Hewison sees how they play a vital social role: in his description of the discontented intellectuals of the mid-1950s, he says, ‘What was needed was a myth, and in 1956 there appeared the myth of the Angry Young Man’.5 If the strength of the mythophilic school is that it shows how myth answers a social need, its weakness is that it tends to accept a myth's politics at face value.

And while the mythophobes point out that the opening night of Look Back in Anger on 8 May 1956 was a rather dull evening, the myth-makers see it as an historic moment. For example, in Anger and After, the first standard text about the new wave in postwar British theatre, John Russell Taylor turns a quiet night at the theatre into an explosive occasion: ‘If ever a revolution began with one explosion it was this.’


Taylor's enthusiasm, expressed through an insistent use of the metaphor of revolution, reminds us that myths answer emotional needs. While those who were undoubtedly there remember the opening night as quiet, the many hundreds who claim to have attended describe it as a momentous occasion.6 Yet few have asked the question: why was the metaphor of revolution such a vital ingredient in the myth of anger?

Whether mythophobe or mythophile, all commentators look back to the first production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court as the cauldron in which the myth of anger was cooked up. From the brash imperative of its title to the symbolism of its ironing board and jazz trumpet, it is a play teeming with ingredients for myth-making. What holds them all together is the play's emotionality. Categorized at the time by Allsop as an ‘emotionalist’, Osborne not only explored feelings—he flung them at the audience. Lord Harewood, a member of the Royal Court board, remembers lending the play's text to a friend who protested: ‘People won't stand for being shouted at like that, it's not what they go to the theatre for.’

While this may have been perfectly true of Aunt Edna's audiences, the English Stage Company's George Devine was counting on a different public—one for whom Jimmy Porter's in-your-face emotionality struck an immediate chord. On the first night, Kenneth Tynan recognized in the play's lead character a representative of all those who ‘deplore the tyranny of “good taste” and refuse to accept “emotional” as a term of abuse’. And by January 1957, Osborne was making the link between emotion and protest explicit when he mocked the ‘emotion snobs who believe that protest is vulgar’.7 Though derided by some critics as incoherent, Jimmy's emotionality was one of the play's strengths. In terms of myth, it sent a signal from the stage to the gallery.

Emotionality in Look Back in Anger is mainly expressed through Jimmy's tirades. In ‘language riding on a high emotional charge’, Osborne created a myth of authentic feeling. Undergraduate in style, aggressively witty, revelling in their wordiness, repetition and exaggeration, Jimmy's fulminations are symbolic of the wider cultural conflict between idealized passion and repressive conformity. Often on ‘the point of breaking into a public rhetorical speech’, his eloquence also represents a fiction of the authentic spoken vernacular. But, contrary to received wisdom, it is ‘the voice of the rebel middle class for all its plebeian pretensions’.8

While no one in real life speaks like Jimmy does, his language works at the level of fantasy: ‘Thousands of people wanted to feel that, like Jimmy, they were full of febrile energy and immune to endemic complacency.’ To an audience conscious of stultifying conventions, Jimmy says out loud what Everyman secretly longs to tell his wife or mother-in-law. Thus, Osborne's oft-quoted intention of giving ‘lessons in feeling’ relies on the therapeutic device of wish-fulfilment.

An apocryphal story emphasizes this point: ‘A young Australian painter brought up in a remote mining community tells me that Porter's sardonic quotations from the Sunday papers at the start of the play gripped his attention instantly, because they expressed feelings which he had long been disturbed by himself. … What he found in Osborne was a kind of safety valve.’ Allsop goes further. Because many of us secretly share Jimmy's sadism, self-righteousness, and sentimentality,

it was a great conscience-spree to see them acted out before our eyes in the most tearaway fashion imaginable. … With Jimmy up there on stage saying and doing it all for us, we all came away feeling winged-ankled, purged of a great ballast of guilt.9

What enables the myth of anger to come alive is the audience's profound need for it.


It is the job of the cult anti-hero not only to express social anxieties but to cure them at the level of fiction. And so, while Osborne claimed that his play was not a vehicle for a message, it is clear that Jimmy is the message. What spectators take away from the play is not its literary allusions, but the image of Jimmy, whether ranting or reading, playing the fool or stricken with pain. Those who identified with him, loved the play; those who didn't, hated it.

Compared to theatrical heroes such as Terence Rattigan's tight-lipped Freddy, John Whiting's Rupert Forster, or T. S. Eliot's spiritually challenged Lord Monchensey, Jimmy is down-to-earth, angry, and alienated. Central to his persona is the ‘unexamined assumption that working-class people are more real than others because they suffer more’. Though capable of flights of eloquence, it was thus Jimmy who first ‘broke up the death mask of loftiness with which previous writers had attempted to disguise their emotions’.10

Whether Jimmy is labelled a hero, antihero, or folk hero doesn't matter. What is important for the growth of myth is not just that Jimmy mirrors what his audiences were, but that he suggests so forcefully what they might wish to become. Myth not only expresses needs—it also articulates aspirations.

Most good plays embody more than one myth. Though Jimmy's alienation—his feeling of being out of place, his idealizing of the past, his use of memory as a defence against meaninglessness—drives the play along, none of this happens in a vacuum. What gives Osborne's portrait of the individual its power is that it also portrays a national malaise. Jimmy's personal way of looking back is congruent with his country's way of looking back. Both share assumptions about explaining current woes by contrasting them with an idealized past. And not only is the play's essential Englishness implicit in the structure of its main situations, it is also explicit in its basic belief that literature can change the world. Look Back in Anger became the most symbolic play of its decade not because it was the profoundest, but because it was the most English.

This quality, which George Steiner called ‘deliberate parochialism’, was remarked by foreign critics. Thus, Harold Clurman thought Americans might find Jimmy's anger ‘a little difficult to understand’, while Guy Dumur, commenting on the 1958 French version, asked whether ‘the boredom of the English Sunday, the colonel back from India, and so on—can they be translated into French?’

If the play's themes are English, so too is its idiom—especially its concern with registers of class. Clurman pointed out that the English understand the anger ‘because the jitters which rack Jimmy, though out of proportion to the facts within the play, are in the very air the Englishman breathes’.11 Or in the very myths the English believe in.

What Osborne typically does is to oppose the dominant myths of his day with their repressed opposites. Compared to Colonel Redfern's idea of two people marrying for love—which assumes love is an altruistic emotion—Jimmy embodies the idea that marriage is a battle between two animals, which assumes that you can only be honest by being hurtful. Both myths are romantic. And, as in the sex war, so in the class struggle, Look Back in Anger pits the idea of commitment—which assumes society can be changed by doing something—against the feeling of disillusionment, which provides an alibi for doing nothing.

Two other images pervade the play: one is Alison silently ironing (she is made to find meaning through humiliation); the other is Jimmy talking himself into a corner (he is made to seek truth through masochism). Within a paradigm defined by the tension between conformity and transgression, no solutions are offered. The play is fertile ground for myth because it is fuelled by this tension between opposites.

As well as thematic tensions, Look Back in Anger also has a circularity of plot. If, in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, nothing happens twice, ‘then in Look Back in Anger nothing can be said to happen three times’.12 Unable to do anything about their lives, the characters constantly complain about the boredom of a life in which nothing changes.

Ironically, it may be this absence of a myth of change at the heart of the play which allowed it to be seen less as a story about a troubled marriage and more as a play about society. The politics implied by this ‘original kitchen sink drama’ centre not only on its gestures of negation, but are also implied by its pervasive sense of powerlessness. With an ending that emphasizes irresolution and illusion, the play both reflected and legitimated the political contradictions of its admirers.

The much-vaunted realism of Look Back in Anger has less to do with its set—it is typical of myth that the ‘original kitchen sink drama’ takes place in an attic without a sink—and more with the fact that audiences were prepared to recognize Jimmy as a real person. The first sign of the play's escape from the confines of fiction and into the bracing air of cultural mythology was Ken Tynan's Observer review. Though Harold Hobson's review in the Sunday Times was more perceptive about the play, Tynan's was a much better myth-making exercise.


Using a barrage of rhetorical devices, Tynan gives Jimmy opinions about flogging, lynching, and colonialism—subjects that don't appear in the play. And, after savaging those who doubted its excellence, he turns Jimmy's ambiguities into his own point of view, praising the ‘drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of “official” attitudes, the surreal sense of humour … the casual promiscuity’.13

There is no better list of what liberal intellectuals wanted from a radical play in the mid-1950s. The need to see Look Back in Anger in these terms blinded many not only to its traditional character, but to the fact that one of its main subjects is a marriage. Instead, the play grows rapidly as a myth—mainly because Osborne and Jimmy, author and creation, soon became one in the public mind.

The ‘sense of naked honesty that came from the identification between author and protagonist’ gave a powerful boost to the image of authenticity at the heart of the play.14 This image gained further strength from its associations in English culture. Since JO and JP are both truth-tellers, they remind us of other artists of authenticity, such as F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence. Myth thus unites an idealized tradition with a new icon of rebellion, the Angry Young Man.

Whether or not it was George Fearon, the Royal Court's press officer, who, in despair at publicizing the play, coined the phrase ‘Angry Young Man’ does not matter. The significant thing is that Osborne was not only identified with an anti-heroic persona, but was also lumped together with other ‘dissentient’ writers, such as Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and Colin Wilson, to form a composite character. Such apparently casual mixing produced a compelling myth, whose most surprising asset was Osborne himself. His idea of the authentic artist was a man who spouted aggressive opinions on every subject under the sun—an early example of the rentaquote personality.


As a potent symbol, the figure of the Angry Young Man spoke volumes about popular culture. Its connotations are fertile with meaning. Anger, at a time of buttoned-up emotions and stiff upper lips, meant losing your cool. A very non-U feeling, anger signified behaving badly, scandal, foreignness, threat: in a word, otherness. As English culture's repressed Other, anger was seen as provincial rather than metropolitan, rough rather than well-spoken, predatory rather than safe— nd dissatisfied rather than complacent.

What does the Young in AYM connote? At a time when sociology was coming up with new ways of discussing the youth question, the AYM became a potent metaphor for youth. Just as critics were divided on Jimmy's character—whether it personified deviance or hope—so what you felt about the AYM depended on what you felt about youth. In the 1950s, the quarrel between generations was widely seen as newly nihilistic. In George Steiner's words: ‘The mumble of the drop-out, the “fuck-off” of the beatnik, the silence of the teenager in the enemy house of his parents, are meant to destroy.’

Newly visible, the teenager was both a problem and a market opportunity—anything that was sold as ‘new’ had now to be dressed up as ‘young’. And by 1959 Colin MacInnes had glimpsed a changed social landscape:

The ‘two nations’ of our society may perhaps no longer be those of the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ (or, to use old-fashioned terms, the ‘upper’ and ‘working’ classes), but those of teenagers on the one hand and, on the other, all those who have assumed the burdens of adult responsibility.15

Though no longer teenagers, the Jimmy Porters and Lucky Jims were symbols of negative youth. Often they were equated with the teddy boys. Typical of such assumptions was Tynan's equation of youth and radicalism—he believed that everyone between the ages of 20 and 30 would like Look Back in Anger.

What does the Man in AYM connote? At a time when women (and Alison is a good example) were often metaphors for suffering and symbols of victimization, men were perceived as active subjects—even if the activity led nowhere. Masculinity equalled freedom and mobility. For men, sex meant aggressive conquest rather than pleasurable languor. It was also a method of social climbing: Look Back in Anger is typical of its decade in that the class war was fought in the bedroom—an example of what Anthony Burgess called ‘hypergamy’, meaning marriage by a man into a social class higher than his own.

It is also significant that the play's classic ‘There aren't any good, brave causes left’ speech begins: ‘Why, why, why, why do we let these women bleed us to death?’ First seen as an attack on society, the play's plot is actually based on the degradation of women. As far as Osborne is concerned, his bad boy image at the time of Suez had less to do with politics than with misogyny—in the Daily Mail, for example, he blustered: ‘What's gone wrong with Women?’16 Whether Osborne's misogyny was due to homosexual ambivalence, or to a wider anxiety about maleness in a society where roles were starting to be questioned, is immaterial. Anger remained man's business.

Although the Angry Young Man was partly a media hype, he was mainly a much-needed myth who both summed up a problematic present and suggested ways of dealing with it. He could both attack society and prove that you could succeed in it. He was both English and anti-English. As the ‘educated thug’, he had to resolve the tension between the image of success held out to the majority and the actual attainment of success by a mere minority—he had to personify not only the scholarship boy, but other youth as well.

Allegedly a product of the 1944 Education Act, the AYM exemplified the growing vogue for sociological explanation. Vaguely lower class, he represented social mobility; vaguely lefty, he promised change. A rebel without a cause, he implied that to be politically aware meant being politically disengaged. More than the sum of his parts, the AYM gave the impression that individuals could be part of a movement for change simply by being honest. It was the job of the myth of anger to resolve such contradictions.


Because myth answers contradictory needs, it is rarely coherent. While the Angry Young Man was rather apolitical, he has become associated in our cultural memory with changes that were highly politicized. He was both an icon of nihilism and part of a project of constructive reform. As such, he needed the metaphor of revolution.

John Russell Taylor may have described the new wave drama as a revolution more insistently than others, but his was by no means a lone voice. In January 1957, Tynan claimed he heard ‘the distinct sound of barricades’ being erected at the Royal Court. In 1958 Allsop called Osborne, Amis, and Wilson ‘The Three Musketeers of the revolutionary army’. Just a year later, Lindsay Anderson was agreeing with Osborne that a ‘revolution’ in drama had taken place, and Hobson was equally hyperbolic: Look Back in Anger was ‘praised as a call to something like revolution, and the overthrow of all accepted values’. Even those who, like Christopher Booker, looked askance at the changes, agreed they were a ‘revolution’.17

Of course, the idea of revolution takes many shapes. For Martin Banham, Look Back in Anger, the ‘first manifestation of a dramatic revolution’, was ‘not a revolution in form but rather one of content’. Like Taylor, Ronald Hayman notes that, though sudden, ‘it obviously wasn't a revolution that happened overnight’. For Booker, there was irony in the fact that ‘the “revolution for which Tynan, Anderson, and so many of the New Oxford Group had eagerly been waiting, was now taking place almost faster than they could take it in’.18 Although the metaphor of revolution is a figure of speech and thus not to be taken literally, it all powerfully conditions the way we think about what happened in 1956.

Calling Look Back in Anger a revolution implies it was a sudden overnight success that changed everything. As John Russell Taylor announced: ‘Then, on 8 May 1956, came the revolution.’19 Actually the play took months to become a success. That doesn't mean that a cultural revolution didn't happen, but it does show how a metaphor both expresses wishful thinking and smuggles in often unwarranted assumptions under the cloak of the self-evident. When the metaphor of revolution is linked with natural phenomena such as an eruption, earthquake, explosion, or new wave, a social event is legitimated by being characterized as natural.

To call a cultural event a revolution is to give it various moral connotations. Psychologically, revolution implies decisive rupture, a point of no return. By assuming that revolutionaries are better people and have a truer picture of reality, it suggests that good triumphs over evil. Politically, a just revolution is left-wing, with the assumption that what went before was a corrupt ancien régime which could not be reformed but which had to be swept away.

When revolutions are seen as natural they are not only good but necessary: is Crane Brinton's classic study (which incidentally mentions Colin Wilson's The Outside in its preface), revolution is a ‘fever’ which ‘burns up wicked germs’.20 The myth of cultural revolution thus both expresses a longing for a moral utopia and obscures the messy reality of what actually happened.

Perhaps the most confusing illusion in the myth of anger was the claim that changes in theatre had working-class support. For Tynan, Jimmy was ‘a working-class hero’. In 1969, Hayman imagined that ‘the working-classes that had been banging at the door [of British theatre] for so long have been let in’. Being working class was assumed to guarantee both personal authenticity and artistic integrity. ‘Osborne’, as Mary McCarthy observed, ‘is a socialist who prefers working-class people to people who have never seen a flat with an outside toilet’ because ‘they are more real’.21

Often patronising, such commonplaces gave a moral value to being ‘working class’ which obscured the true nature of cultural change. Using strong metaphors such as revolution may have resulted from the justifiable desire to equate what happens in culture with what happens in politics, but it sometimes confused the Royal Court with the Winter Palace.


Just as the rhetoric of 1956 involved necessary simplifications—by means of which the winners in a cultural struggle colonized our perception of events—so the metaphor of revolution was usually embedded in a narrative which gave a structure to the myth of anger. Three of these stories are worth considering.

The first is the narrative of the three-pronged attack. Here the Loamshire play comes under assault from three directions: from Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and Brecht's Berliner Ensemble (a necessary continental ally). When the dust settles, good theatre is seen as composed of three camps: Angry (young working-class rebels finding their voices in naturalistic settings); Absurd (underdog characters in empty landscapes making sense of a Godless world); and Brechtian (didactic dramas using alienation effects to teach us how to take sides).

Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, and John Arden are conscripted into these respective categories; then David Mercer, Tom Stoppard and Edward Bond. In some versions, the ‘three-pronged suburban assault’ is geographic rather than stylistic, coming from the west (Royal Court), the City (Bernard Miles's recently opened Mermaid), and the east (Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in Stratford).22

The second narrative is that of the revolution betrayed. Exiled by the Stalins of subsidy, the Trotskys represent the true radicals. Here Littlewood's Theatre Workshop is cast as the socialists who stayed in touch with the people. Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney, and the group project Oh What a Lovely War! rewrite the theatrical agenda. Marginalized by a compromised mainstream, this camp is swelled by renegades such as Arden and John McGrath. Though starved of resources, the true revolutionaries retain a purity of practice.

The third narrative is that of the revolution recuperated. This claims that very little was changed by the revolt. Most people found out about kitchen-sink dramas and characters living in dustbins by hearsay, through cartoons and clichés in the media. For this mass audience, what mattered was the ability of ‘middle-class’ domestic comedy to absorb elements of radical theatre. Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, and Michael Frayn acclimatized mainstream audiences to new ideas.

And so Anger comes to mean star actors wrestling with their consciences (Albert Finney in Osborne's Luther); alienation effects turn into ironic narrators (Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons), and epic into lavish spectacle (Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun). What ‘finally managed to make sense of all that Beckettian dustbin business’ turns out to be Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.23

None of these narratives is wrong, but each is a myth which depends on all sorts of unarticulated assumptions. They are important not only because they condense many meanings into a memorable story, but also because they express a profound desire for change. And since changes in British theatre were neither as rapid nor as complete as many radicals wanted, it was often easier to elaborate on the myth than to alter the theatre system further.

It would be wrong to assume that the myth of a revolution in drama went completely unchallenged. In 1960 Ronald Duncan wrote, ‘It is true that proletarian drama is now more fashionable, but a change in fashion should not be confused with a revolution in taste.’ Looking back on 1958, Charles Marowitz says, ‘I accepted the fictitious “war situation” between the Angries and the Establishment and didn't realise until much later that each was as unreal as the other’.

Yet in Encore magazine ‘readers were constantly being urged to run to the barricades, store up ammunition, invade enemy territory’. And, for some, such symbolic images have exerted their spell for almost forty years: Keith Baxter still remembers how, in the late 1950s, ‘British theatre was in revolution. If critic Kenneth Tynan was its bugle, the centre of operations was in Sloane Square where director George Devine was summoning up the tumbrels.’24

Revolutions need manifestos, and the nearest thing to a manifesto for anger was Declaration, which was published in 1957 and includes essays by Osborne, Tynan, and Anderson. Within three months, it had sold 25,000 copies. Clearly a new audience was buying into the myth of anger. And what was important about them was not their youth, class, nor education—what distinguished them was their style consciousness. The first beneficiaries of the post-war boom, they began to assert their identity not only through what they wore (teddy boy or beatnik clothes) but through the culture they consumed.

Theatre in the late 1950s became important because it offered such social groups a series of exciting images of revolt. In fact, the success of Look Back in Anger owed everything to a new audience—one which hadn't heard about the play by reading Tynan's ecstatic review, but which bought tickets only after an extract had been broadcast on television.

Anecdotal evidence of these changes includes Michael Halifax's memory of the Royal Court's ‘completely new audience’: ‘After the TV extract, all these people started arriving. People you never see in theatres.’ Other observers offer glimpses of their cultural style. Derek Granger saw them as ‘fisher-sweatered noctambules from Espressoland’, while George Melly remembers ‘Fair Isle-jerseyed suburbanites and battle-dressed art students’. And, in warmer weather, they struck Tynan as ‘young people in flimsy dresses and open-necked shirts’ who spoke ‘a vivid vernacular made up of Hollywood, space fiction, and local dialect’.25


Just as style is an outer badge of identity, so myth is an inner token of esteem. Whatever its intellectual inconsistencies, the myth of anger helped place all who believed in it.

First, it located them in their decade. ‘Not one of us’, says Jeff Nuttall, ‘had any serious political preoccupation’, but all had a ‘crackling certainty of Now’.26 After the misery of post-war austerity, the idea of anger offered the excitement of risk. In a Now where the new heaven of consumer pleasure clashed with the new hell of atomic warfare, English angst stressed both fear and anger. Of the two, anger helped establish identity—it made people take sides.

In class terms, anger appealed less to secure social groups and more to the newly mobilized lower-middle class, unsure of its bearings. Osborne's autobiography is a good example of the uncertainties experienced in an age of rapid social change. Upward mobility needed cultural lodestars. Anger focused resentment not on class society as such but on some of its ‘phoney’ values.

Attacks on old-fashioned mores could go hand-in-hand with sympathy for upper middle-class individuals—such as Look Back in Anger's Colonel Redfern. Thus, Osborne's nostalgia for the Edwardian age arose because the past represented stability, while the 1950s felt insecure. Like the Movement poets before them, the angries suffered ‘an uneasy combination of class-consciousness and acceptance of class division’. For some, ‘the anger of the fifties was as often a rage of frustration at the lack of access to a limited number of privileges, as passionate moral outrage at the caution and spiritlessness of the age’. Wesker puts it more strongly: ‘I was never an angry young man. … We were all very happy young men and women. … Discovered, paid, applauded, made internationally famous overnight!’27

In cultural terms, then, anger offered an alternative to modernism, which was often seen as elitist, foreign, difficult, or amoral. Despite the strong presence of continental drama on the margins, it was anger—expressed through naturalism—that won the mainstream. For audiences, one way of developing a secure identity was to value ‘kitchen-sink’ realism and to reject upper-class aloofness, avant-garde modernism, and homosexual sensibility.

Not only was naturalism populist, it also allowed a minority interest—theatre—to join hands with television, films, and novels. One result was the pose of the ‘intellectual teddy boy’—philistine, provincial, provocative. Could Osborne's misogyny also be interpreted as an aspect of this anti-Establishment posture?28 In political terms, anger was negative, representing more a coming to terms with the Butskellite era than a coherent project of change. The ‘dissentience’ of the 1950s wanted ‘not so much to rebel against the old order of authority and standards, but to refuse to vote for it’.

If the myth of anger expressed the moment between the conformism of the early 1950s and the commitment of the late 1950s, it was a time when the absence of ‘good, brave causes’ didn't prevent you being self-righteous. As David Marquand records,

Look Back in Anger’, one prominent university left-winger shouted at me recently, his voice almost shaking with passion, ‘is a more important political document than anything the Labour Party has said since 1951.’29

But what made anger so memorable was that gradual cultural change collided with two external events that suddenly aroused political passions: Suez and Hungary.


Despite the mythophobes, ‘May 1956 has become a moment of mythic significance’.30 What Osborne's writing expressed about the 1950s was the decade's contradictory mix of discontent and nostalgia. Happy to promote the image of the angry young artist, he became one of the first literary pop stars—and, despite his disclaimers about media hype, he loved it. With a talent to accuse and arouse, he pushed theatre into the spotlight of cultural myth-making.

Seen today, Look Back in Anger seems more long-winded and less radical than its reputation suggests. More than ever prone to be a one-man show, the irony is that the more charismatic the lead actor, the more unbalanced the play. Another irony is that, having successfully changed public taste, Osborne's Jimmy is today more than ever likely to appear self-indulgent and melodramatic.

A further consequence of the success of the myth of anger was that it narrowed the options for the actor playing the lead. In a note to Déjàvu (his play of 1991 that in true postmodern fashion revisits the original Look Back in Anger), Osborne complained that incarnations of Jimmy were ‘often strident and frequently dull’. Only Kenneth Branagh's mild delivery satisfied his own requirement that Jimmy be a ‘comic character’ with an ‘inescapable melancholy’.31

The closer you look at the class politics of the myth of anger, the shakier its underlying assumptions are. Already, in 1957, David Watt saw through the prole cred of Look Back in Anger: ‘The ordinary working man was just as likely to want to take a strap to Jimmy Porter as any retired Brigadier.’ Osborne, realized Allsop, tended to be ‘romantic and sentimental about Ordinary People’.

At worst, says John McGrath, the new drama was ‘no more than the elaboration of a theatrical technique for turning authentic working-class experience into satisfying thrills for the bourgeoisie’—and he notes that in a competitive profession people used any means, even ‘pretending to be more working class than they really were’, to get to the top. Above all, Wesker questions a central tenet of received wisdom about anger: ‘I remember writing fairly early on articles saying that this was not a theatrical revolution.’32

Perhaps the most damning criticism of all appeared in the Parisian magazine Internationale Situationniste in 1958. Just as Allsop was describing how the ‘old class system’ was simply ‘under new management’, the situationists pointed out that English culture was thirty years behind the times, condemning the Angry Young Men as ‘particularly reactionary in their attribution of a privileged, redemptive value to the practice of literature’.33 Thus the French radicals attacked one of the central assumptions on which the myth of anger thrived—that culture could be as radical as politics.

The audience for the new drama is usually characterized as being young, lower middle-class, and left-liberal. For this group, the myth of anger offered a radical identity which helped them cope with the insecurity of rapid social change. It glamorized the politics of negation and provided a new role model. It united on a symbolic level what reality kept apart: left-liberals might never meet a teddy boy, but a myth could bring them together on the level of fiction. The myth of anger offered both the hope of change and the consolation of a secure identity. Myth explained chaotic events, gave heart to confrontation, and legitimized new feelings. Its function was partly to acclimatize people to social change and partly to push for more.

But the most insidious trap for radical theatre was ‘a tendency to attract like-minded audiences, who instead of being challenged were able to congratulate themselves’. While Stuart Hall and Wesker debated whether the ‘new spirit’ of commitment after Suez was just a ‘literary and aesthetic experience’, a fad, it remained easier to change cultural style than to alter social conditions.34 Audiences might flatter themselves by thinking that ‘working-class’ drama could help change society, but all it did was change drama. Cultural images of the working class were a place where the middle class worked out its ideas. On the other side of town, working-class life followed completely different agendas.

If we cannot avoid using myth when we look at the past, we can at least be conscious of what a myth means—and what its hidden assumptions are. The myth of anger is now central to the way we remember the 1950s, not only because it gives a vivid image of the origins of post-war culture but because it also provides a blueprint for change. If, in the end, such change was mainly a matter of style, then perhaps style too has a role to play in altering social conditions.


  1. Lawrence Donegan, The Guardian, 27 December 1994, p. 1.

  2. Simon Trussler, The Plays of John Osborne: an Assessment (Gollancz, 1969), p. 40.

  3. Harry Ritchie, Success Stories: Literature and the Media in England 1950-59 (Faber, 1988), p. 207-8, 205, 211, see also p. 31-2.

  4. Kenneth Allsop makes a similar point: ‘It would have been surprising if such an obvious grouping of ordinary words had not been used before 8 May 1956.’ See The Angry Decade: a Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the 1950s (Peter Owen, 1958), p. 11. For the play's title page see John Osborne, Almost a Gentleman: an Autobiography, Vol. II, 1955-66 (Faber, 1991), Illustration 2.

  5. Robert Hewison, In Anger: Culture in the Cold War (Methuen, 1988), p. 151, 148, xv-xvi. The 1950s were a good time for mythographers: Claude Lévi-Strauss's essay on ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ was published in 1955 and Roland Barthes's Mythologies in 1956.

  6. John Russell Taylor, Anger and After: a Guide to the New British Drama (Eyre Methuen, 1969), p. 9, 14, 17, 28, 33; Ritchie, Success Stories, p. 126; Osborne, Almost a Gentleman, p. 20.

  7. Harewood, quoted in Irving Wardle, The Theatres of George Devine (Eyre Methuen, 1978), p. 180; Kenneth Tynan, A View of the English Stage 1944-65 (Methuen, 1975); p. 178; Osborne, quoted in Martin Banham, Osborne (Oliver and Boyd, 1969), p. 8.

  8. Laurence Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama (Faber, 1962), p. 30; Gareth Lloyd Evans, The Language of Modern Drama (Dent, 1977), p. 106-7; Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (Paladin, 1970), p. 43.

  9. Ronald Hayman, British Theatre since 1955: a Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 10; John Osborne, ‘Some Call It Cricket’, in Tom Maschler, ed., Declaration (MacGibbon and Kee), 1957), p. 65; Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama, p. 101; Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 111.

  10. Gãmini Salgãdo, English Drama: a Critical Introduction (Edward Arnold, 1980), p. 193; John Elsom, Post-War British Theatre (Routledge, 1979), p. 74, 80.

  11. Quoted in John Russell Taylor, ed., John Osborne,Look Back in Anger: a Casebook’ (Macmillan, 1968), p. 186, 47, 169-70, 174.

  12. John Bull, Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre (Macmillan, 1994), p. 50.

  13. Tynan, View, p. 178, 199, 271.

  14. Christopher Innes, Modern British Drama 1890-1990 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 103.

  15. Steiner, in notes to Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim: with an Introduction by the Author (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990), p. 225; Colin MacInnes, ‘A Taste of Reality’, Encounter, No. 67 (April 1959), p. 66.

  16. Burgess, in Amis, Lucky Jim, p. 218; Osborne, in Ritchie, Success Stories, p. 128.

  17. Tynan, View, p. 199; Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 8; Anderson, quoted in Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama, p. 176; Harold Hobson, Theatre in Britain: a Personal View (Phaidon, 1984), p. 188; Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs: the Revolution in English Life in the Fifties and Sixties (Pimlico, 1992), p. 43, 80, and passim.

  18. Banham, Osborne, p. 1, 10, 104; Hayman, John Osborne (Heineman, 1969), p. 3; Booker, Neophiliacs, p. 122, 98.

  19. Taylor, Anger and After, p. 28.

  20. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (Vintage, 1965, preface 1956), p. 16-20.

  21. Tynan, View, p. 271; Hayman, Osborne, p. 1; Mary McCarthy, Sights and Spectacles 1937-58 (Heinemann, 1959), p. 196.

  22. Martin Priestman, ‘A Critical Stage: Drama in the 1960s’, in Bart Moore-Gilbert and John Seed, eds., Cultural Revolution? The Challenge of the Arts in the 1960s (Routledge, 1992), p. 118-20; Tynan, View, p. 252, 255-6.

  23. Priestman, ‘Critical Stage’, p. 120.

  24. Duncan, in Taylor, Casebook, p. 192; Charles Marowitz, Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic: a London Theatre Notebook 1958-71 (Eyre Methuen, 1973), p. 45; Charles Marowitz et al., eds., The Encore Reader: a Chronicle of the New Drama (Methuen, 1965), p. 39; Baxter, in the Daily Telegraph, 29 October 1994.

  25. Halifax, quoted in Wardle, Devine, p. 185; Granger, quoted in Hewison, In Anger, p. 170; George Melly, Revolt into Style: the Pop Arts in the Fifties and Sixties (Oxford, 1989), p. 31; Tynan, View, p. 272, and in Maschler, Declaration, p. 128.

  26. Nuttall, Bomb Culture, p. 24.

  27. Blake Morrison, The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s (Methuen, 1980), p. 74-5; Hewison, In Anger, p. xi; Arnold Wesker, As Much As I Dare: an Autobiography 1932-59 (Century, 1994), p. 7.

  28. Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain (Blackwell, 1989), p. 81.

  29. Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 9; Marquand, quoted in Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals after Stalin (Lawrence and Wishart, 1995), p. 99.

  30. Bernard Bergonzi, Wartime and Aftermath: English Literature and Its Background 1939-60 (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 153.

  31. Lloyd-Evans, Language, p. 108-9; John Osborne, Déjàvu (Faber, 1991), p. vii.

  32. Watt, in Encore Reader, p. 59; Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 99; John McGrath, A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre: Audience, Class, and Form (Methuen, 1981), p. 1-13; Wesker, in The Big Issue, 30 Jan.-5 Feb. 1995.

  33. Internationale Situationniste 1953-69 (Champs Libre, Paris, reprint 1975), p. 5.

  34. Alan Sinfield, ‘Theatre and Its Audiences’, in his Society and Literature 1945-70 (Holmes and Meier, 1983), p. 181; Sinfield, Literature, Politics, and Culture, p. 260, 153, 81; Encore Reader, p. 111.

Larry L. Langford (essay date May 1997)

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SOURCE: Langford, Larry L. “The Unsocial Socialism of John Osborne.” English Studies 78, no. 3 (May 1997): 237-57.

[In the following essay, Langford contends that critical opinions of Osborne’s plays were often intertwined with opinions of his political intentions and integrity.]

‘Socialism is an intellectual Proteus’.

(H. G. Wells, The New Machiavelli)

For a playwright so often recognized as important, and perhaps great, John Osborne suffered particularly harsh criticism concerning his dramatic competency and his political integrity. To be sure, he has his defenders who see in his work ‘a theatrical vitality which … makes much adverse criticism seem petty and pedantic’, but his plays often met with sharply negative reactions that at times had a particularly bitter edge, as though his failure to fulfill certain expectations constituted a kind of betrayal.1 In the enthusiasm that greeted the first production of Look Back in Anger, many saw in Osborne's work a new force they hoped would revitalize the British theatre and enable it to act as a ‘harbinger of the New Left’.2 Today, many believe this potential went largely unfulfilled and that the theatrical and political sharpness Osborne honed with Jimmy Porter quickly dulled and became ineffectual.

Such disappointment has a number of causes, not the least of which was Osborne's consistent, and sometimes sarcastic, criticism of the British Left. His assertions, such as ‘I really don't have political affiliations, although I suppose I once did believe I must be a socialist’, cause some to believe that the development of his political beliefs mirrors that of Kingsley Amis.3 This conclusion, however, entails a misunderstanding both of Osborne and of the particular character of British socialism. If we put Osborne's work within the context of the history of socialism in Britain, and compare him to openly committed socialist writers such as Brecht and Shaw, we can better appreciate how his drama powerfully expresses anger not only at what Britain has become, but more specifically, at what it never became. For Osborne, that lost potentiality is tied to socialism as much as to anything else.

Engels observed that socialists in Britain regard their theory as a ‘credo and not a guide to action’,4 meaning their belief in such principles as class warfare and the redistribution of wealth rarely led to any revolutionary activities. This reluctance to participate in acts of violence or in any act that would immediately threaten the rule of capital became an increasingly prominent aspect of socialism in Britain, from the primarily ethical concerns of Morris and other late nineteenth-century socialists, through the Webbs and the Fabian policy of permeation, to the mid twentieth-century ascendency of the Labour party, when Herbert Morrison could confidently proclaim, ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’.5

Ambivalence towards the idea of revolution and disagreement over how to define socialism have made the socialist tradition in Britain a diverse one, and it is within this tradition that Osborne finds a place. If it seems inaccurate to label him a socialist writer, he nonetheless showed a lasting concern for the possibility of socialism in Britain. In addition, if Osborne's socialism seems idiosyncratic, the British socialist movement itself has struggled with questions of self-definition for over a century and the political dimensions of Osborne's drama reflect the dynamics of that struggle.

In such a political environment, it sometimes becomes problematic to determine who qualifies as a socialist writer. Lukács brushed aside the whole question by asserting that regardless of an author's subjective intention, ‘any accurate account of reality is a contribution … to the Marxist critique of capitalism, and is a blow in the cause of socialism’.6 This politically ecumenical attitude offers only one criterion for defining socialist literature—the assumption that the contradictions within capitalism cannot stand exposure. Whether or not this criterion is sufficient, it has the virtue of shifting literary discussion away from an author's political commitment onto that of a work's compatibility with socialist tenets. In the case of Osborne, it also helps clarify how his work, with its apparent political ambiguity, compares with that of socialist writers such as Shaw and Brecht.

Osborne always resisted comparisons between himself and Brecht, seeing in the latter's work a type of theatre not readily amenable to the needs of the British stage. ‘The Brechtian bulldozer may not be our answer. We need to invent a machine of our own’.7 At one time, he also held Shaw's achievement as a dramatist in low esteem, calling him ‘the most fraudulent, inept writer of Victorian melodramas ever to dull a timid critic or fool a dull public’, though he later significantly revised this assessment.8 Osborne's antipathy to both playwrights, however, should not blind us to how he reconciles their differences.

Brecht never maintained that the alienation effect requires a playwright to thwart every theatrical expectation held by an audience. For example, he wrote that a dramatist best influences his public by smuggling ideas into his plays along with fully-developed characters, thereby incorporating them ‘into the instincts of the spectator, flooding through his veins like blood in a transfusion’.9 This idea differentiates Brecht from Shaw just as it aligns him with Osborne. Whereas Shaw reasoned and debated with his audience, Osborne proclaimed his wish ‘to make them feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards’.10 As he understood his own work, its purpose was not to analyze social realities but to allow the audience access to the experience of living within them, with all of the anger, delusion, and false consciousness that often entails. In other words, like Osborne, Brecht saw the efficacy of encouraging an audience to feel before demanding it to think. They should feel, however, a certain unnaturalness in what they are viewing, a sense that disrupts the complacency which unquestioningly accepts what is presented.

According to Brecht, ‘What is “natural” must have the force of what is startling’.11 In one sense, epic theatre must present what the audience expects to see. Yet in another sense, the fulfillment of that expectation must in some way startle us into awareness. The success of Look Back in Anger, for example, has been explained by the fact ‘that people were prepared to accept Osborne's fiction as real’,12 but he explicitly warned against this type of response. Not only did he describe his technique in The Entertainer as one which ‘cuts right across the restrictions of the so-called naturalistic stage’, he also wrote that to see the language of Look Back as naturalistic is to miss the point of the play because the ‘language of “everyday life” is almost incommunicable for the very good reason that it is restricted, inarticulate, dull and boring’. Instead, Osborne saw the Jimmy Porter of both Look Back and Déjàvu in operatic rather than naturalistic terms and admonished actors that Jimmy's ‘inaccurately named “tirades” should be approached as arias’, with all the adroitness, invention, and timing such a performance requires.13 To approach them as such is to transcend the expectations of the naturalistic stage and to remind the audience they are watching a performance, not simply witnessing an individual's private despair.

What mattered to Osborne, as it did to Brecht, is not the detailed presentation of historical analysis on stage but the rearrangement of material ‘so as to allow the story-teller's ideas about men's life to find expression’. Even in Osborne's history plays, Luther, A Patriot for Me, and A Subject of Scandal and Concern, the focus on particular individuals acting in particular contexts does not, as some have charged, present only a vague or shallow historical understanding but one such as that advocated by Brecht, in which the ‘mysterious Powers’ at work in historical conditions can be seen as ‘created and maintained by men’.14

This emphasis on the individual is the key to understanding the place of socialism in Osborne's drama. The operative paradox in the work of both Shaw and Osborne is that even though neither wished to write the drama of the individual, each wrote plays with vividly-realized characters whose apparent reality makes strong demands on the audience's empathy. Through such characters, however, they both contend that whatever social and political forces may be brought to bear on the individual, he or she remains subject to them only to the degree that these forces are not resisted. Even something as impersonal and historically transcendent as the Life Force depends upon the active cooperation of certain individuals to achieve its end.

Unlike Shaw, Osborne had no use for the optimism afforded by a belief in the Life Force or by the commitment to a specific agenda for a socialist restructuring of Britain, which makes his work a negative image, as it were, of the Shavian theatre. The nostalgia which tinges the despair of so many of Osborne's characters harkens back to a Britain which no longer exists, but empire and Edwardian sunsets constitute only a small part of this longing. Instead, the old socialist dream of a truly free and egalitarian Britain drifts through these plays, never fully articulated, but never far from the surface either. The angry invective and cynicism of Osborne's work has its origin in the sense of something that has been lost and cannot be regained, or more accurately, a sense of having never really possessed what now has been lost. This something means one thing if we read the plays only in terms of their psychopathology of personal relationships. However, if we adopt the kind of perspective on character and event that Shaw and Brecht advocated, it becomes possible to bring the political concerns of Osborne's work into proper focus.

Those who take issue with Osborne over the supposed Tory politics of his drama misunderstand that the anger of his work is not only a rejection of things as they are but an expression of bitter disappointment over how they have never been. A policeman says of Coriolanus, ‘No one can hate so spectacularly without being tied up by love somewhere’,15 and so it is with many of Osborne's characters.

As Jimmy Porter looks back over his life, he confirms that his anger, all anger, originates in a sense of loss. Anger does not arise from spite or a desire for vengeance; it ‘comes into the world in grief not grievance’. To ask what anger is about, he continues, is to miss the point:

It is mourning the unknown, the loss of what went before without you, it's the love another time but not this might have sprung on you, and greatest of all, the deprivation of what, even as a child, seemed to be irrevocably your own.16

His anger does not come from having lost what he once possessed but from having never possessed what he intuitively feels should have been his, and in a sense, his particular kind of loss holds true for Britain as well.

Osborne claimed he was ‘more concerned with private grief than public sorrow’,17 but his focus on the one does not preclude the importance of the other. However engulfed in their private griefs his characters may be, they stand in the shadow of that larger public sorrow over the unfulfilled promise of a particularly British tradition of socialist thought.


Osborne always actively refused the label of political writer and maintained from the beginning of his career that he held no theory or dogma;18 nevertheless, he was often vociferous in his condemnations of the Conservative and Labour parties. He described Tories as ‘always detestable’ and as being a party of those who ‘wield enormous power without responsibility to anyone but themselves’.19 If these statements seem sharply partisan, then consider his response to the Conservative government's decision, with Labour's connivance, to develop a nuclear arsenal for Britain: ‘There is murder in my brain, and I carry a knife in my heart for every one of you. Macmillan, and you Gaitskell, you particularly’.20

Whatever the depth of his disdain for the Tories, this pointed invective against Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell shows the real focus of Osborne's political anger. His point is not the simplistic one that Labour can act as despicably as the Tories, but that in some ways it has acted even more so. In their unimaginative selfishness, the Tories have at least been consistent with their principles. To Osborne, however, Labour had abandoned its own principles and thereby betrayed those whom it should have most ardently defended. If the working people of Britain supported the Conservatives during the Suez crisis, he wrote, they did so because ‘after fifty years of talking cant about brotherhood and ethics, the Labour Party still had not managed to tell anyone what Socialism meant’. And what does it mean? According to Osborne, ‘Socialism is about people, and the Labour Party has forgotten it’.21

This definition may be rather vague, but it goes to the heart of how the British Left has struggled to define itself and its principles. Osborne's derision of the Labour party for talking cant does not cast aspersions on concepts such as brotherhood and ethics but on their emptiness as terminology in Labour's rhetoric. These terms are vital to his own conception of socialism, as they have been to British socialists since the mid-nineteenth century. At that time, what Stanley Pierson has termed ‘ethical socialism’ predominated in Britain and sought to oppose capitalism by means of an often vaguely defined humane social structure.22 Though later supplanted by the Fabians, and in turn by the Labour party, ethical socialism has exerted an influence on all subsequent socialist movements in Britain, even the Communist Party. It can be seen today in the principles of the New Left and, as Julian Barnes notes, even in the political agenda of Labour leader Tony Blair.23 But it can also be seen in the drama of Osborne.

The tradition of ethical socialism sees itself as more than just a political option and more than just a blueprint for restructuring society, which is precisely the attitude Osborne took in defining his own political stance. ‘I am not going to define my own socialism’, he wrote:

Socialism is an experimental idea, not a dogma; an attitude to truth and liberty, the way people should live and treat each other. Individual definitions are unimportant. The difference between Socialist and Tory values should have been made clear enough by this time. I am a writer and my own contribution to a socialist society is to demonstrate those values in my own medium, not to discover the best ways to implement them.24

Osborne here distances himself from Shaw, but beyond that, his definition of socialism as an experimental idea establishes it as an organic process rooted in the priority of individual initiative and experience, not as a structure to be erected or implemented.

Shaw writes, ‘Socialism is from beginning to end a matter of law’,25 but for him and many others, it was more than this and entailed, as it later would for Osborne, certain intangibles vital to a socialist state which cannot be legislated into existence. In fact, the individualist tradition in British socialism has always shown a fear of regimentation by the power of the state, even a socialist one. This fear denotes a particular characteristic of British socialist thought from its beginnings to the present day: the desire to balance the political need for collectivization with a commitment to the moral priority of the individual.26

In the late nineteenth-century, liberal ideals of individualism found apparent affirmation in the philosophy of vitalism. In the work of Nietzsche and Bergson, socialists and non-socialists alike sought confirmation that freedom and creativity were the defining characteristics of human existence. My point is not that Nietzsche and Bergson in particular were of importance to socialism but that they were representative of generally held views of human nature and experience that found their way into socialist thought.27 In other words, Bergson and Nietzsche each expressed the general philosophical optimism of his time, with the result that socialists such as Shaw could readily adapt the principle of creative freedom to the socialist dream of human emancipation.

If this Bergsonian and Nietzschean vitalist tradition remains marginal in the overall history of British socialism, it is central to Osborne's drama. He read widely as a youth, but of the socialist writers he read, he emphasizes only three—Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells—and although this might seem a rather unusual grouping of socialists, it directly evokes the vitalist tradition and indicates that Osborne's socialism has an aesthetic as much as a political origin.

In his autobiography, Osborne recounts his grandfather's condemnation of Wilde's immoral behavior, yet when he later read The Soul of Man for himself, that work struck him as ‘surprising and intriguing and seemed to contradict the flabby voluptuousness of the fairy tales or my grandfather's judgement of his life’. As a youth, he considered Shaw's novels dull, but he ‘enjoyed the Prefaces to the plays almost more than the plays themselves. They were both frowned upon, unread, by most adults which made them essential reading’. He also enjoyed Wells's novels and histories, though in other ways considered him to be ‘too much like a scrimping schoolteacher’.28 Despite their many differences, the particular importance of these writers to Osborne's socialist attitudes is their implicit conviction that only a vitalist collectivism could break the chains of capitalist exploitation and make the socialist dream a reality.

Shaw always had an ambiguous faith concerning the potential of socialism to meet its goals. Although until the end of his life, he presented detailed arguments in support of socialist government, he remained impatient with the slow and methodical political work needed to achieve that goal, instead pinning his hopes on the concept of Creative Evolution and its principle agent, the Superman. Shaw's belief in collective order and organization constantly struggled with his skepticism concerning those concepts and with his conviction that only the efforts of the individual can save humanity.

The Bergsonian and Nietzschean roots of the Shavian Superman and its implications for socialism have been extensively studied. Less noted, however, are its parallels in the work of Wilde. Wilde might seem somewhat out of place among socialist writers, for as Richard Ellmann notes, socialism for him ‘did not mean any specific variety, but a general hatred of tyranny’,29 an attitude quite common among ethical socialists of his day. In effect, Wilde advocates a socialism similar to that of Shaw, one that has its basis in a special type of individual who lives without the benefit of illusions and without a fear of honest self-understanding.

Wilde, like Osborne, shows no interest in the details of social administration but advocates a socialism that would make it possible for individuals to ‘realize sympathy and exercise it freely and spontaneously’. The solution to the problem of private property is not ‘Authoritarian Socialism’ or ‘an industrial-barrack system’ but one that establishes individualism as its preeminent value, which in part explains why the figure of Christ epitomizes the highest human aspirations for Wilde. As with Morris, Ruskin, and so many of the Christian and ethical socialists of his day, Wilde's Christ ‘had no patience with dull lifeless mechanical systems that treat people as if they were things, and so treat everybody alike: for him there were no laws’.30 Rather than a restructuring of the state, socialism would alleviate the very need for laws because one of its effects would be the creation of a race of such Christs.

Although he apparently never read Nietzsche or Bergson, Wilde's aestheticized Christ clearly combines the most attractive elements in the writings of both as the way to achieve a socialism defined by creativity rather than by structure.31 Even more so than Shaw, he saw collective organization as only part of the answer to the problem of human misery. With the advent of Wilde's Christ, as with Shaw's Superman, state-administered programs must give way to a world of individuals who can sustain each other by the power of their own self-sufficiency.

The importance of Wells to an understanding of Osborne's work is his lingering sense of futility at the prospects for a successful transition to socialism. Whatever political optimism Wells may display in his essays and utopian novels, in the scientific romances he downplays the possibility that humanity can find the means to bridge the abyss that separates this world from a socialist millennium, a sense of futile longing which also characterizes so much of Osborne's work.

The conclusion of The Food of the Gods illustrates the problem Wells could never fully resolve. As the giant children build their fortifications, Redwood despairingly cries, ‘What else indeed was life but that—always to be a prisoner locked in! This was the culmination and end of his dream’. In contrast, one of the giants exhorts his comrades, ‘We fight not for ourselves but for growth, growth that goes on forever. Tomorrow, whether we live or die, growth will conquer through us’.32 V. S. Pritchett notes that Osborne's work reflects the Wellsian comedy of limitations and condition of England novel, for like Wells, he uses limitations, whether self-imposed or not, as a metaphor for the state of the nation.33 The difference between them is that despite such misgivings, Wells nonetheless wants to believe in the hope of the young giant, just as Shaw and Wilde place their hopes in the Superman or the aesthetic Christ. But Osborne found it harder to blunt his pessimism and in many of his plays implicitly sides with Redwood by presenting a world where the giants, such as they are in modern Britain, can do little but berate others from within the prison-house of their despair. In effect, many of Osborne's characters are ghosts of a socialist past Britain has largely abandoned, and as such, they seem to have rejected all forms of collectivism in favor of a destructive individualism.

We should remember, however, that Osborne's socialism, like vitalistic, ethical, and even Christian socialism, begins with individual autonomy rather than collective action. The pessimism of Osborne's work may differentiate his sense of history from various types of Marxist and socialist historicism, and may even lead him to reject the idea that ‘human history is in harmony with a progressive improvement of human existence’.34 It does not, however, lead him to reject the idea of historical progress itself or even of progress through revolutionary change, a fact which becomes clear in a comparison of his three history plays, Luther,A Patriot for Me, and A Subject of Scandal and Concern.

Osborne asserted that in Luther he was not attempting to take sides in regard to the Reformation but to treat it as ‘an historical fact’ which ‘has no external dialectic imposed upon it’,35 a strategy he also adopted in the other two plays. This refusal to present any historical dialectic necessarily gives his plays a narrow focus which some have interpreted as a proclivity to blame society ‘without taking the trouble to look at it’.36 Society, however, is not the historical focus of his drama. Rather, he looks at history as the culminative effect of individual experiences and tries to present them to us as a material reality.

As we saw, Brecht warned against presenting historical conditions as mysterious powers, explaining that it is ‘the actions taking place before us that allow us to see what they are’.37 Osborne's emphasis on the individual affords just such a perspective on history, one that pulls him away from Shaw even as it draws him nearer to Brecht. Julius Caesar may be assassinated and Saint Joan burned at the stake, but for Shaw their individual fates are irrelevant to the larger scheme in which they participate. Osborne saw no larger scheme, only individuals struggling against their historical conditions, and only through these singular struggles can such conditions be understood. As a result, these plays present a pessimistic socialist vitalism, though not a cynical one, for in them he shows why that vitalism often fails and why it occasionally succeeds.

In A Subject, dramatic convention could well have turned historical fact into a sentimental appeal for the audience to identify with George Holyoake. Instead, Osborne sidesteps sentimentality and presents only emotionally subdued scenes which offer little melodramatic potential. He does not dramatize events such as the death of Holyoake's young daughter or his abuse at the hands of prison officials but merely reports them, while devoting most of the play to speeches, court testimony, legal opinion, theological discussions, and the narrator's exposition. Rather than presenting Holyoake's story as primarily a conflict among individuals, Osborne presents it as a demonstration of how the various aspects of the nation's superstructure, working through specific individuals, coordinate to meet any challenge to its power, even one as trivial as Holyoake's.

It should not be forgotten that though Holyoake stands trial for blasphemy, his socialism is the unspoken charge the state brings against him. As he tells the court, his prosecution ‘is no more than the poor rags of former persecutions’,38 insofar as socialism can now be suppressed under the guise of suppressing religious dissent. Perhaps more than anything else, Osborne's treatment of this story makes clear the obfuscation of the fact that behind the ideological rhetoric of law and religion lies a more fundamental ideology, an intolerance toward even the most benign expressions of socialist thought and a willingness to stamp them out whenever possible. The play's framing device of the narrator as lawyer, visiting a prison and in the presence of the police, only underscores the fact that of the many things Holyoake represents, his socialism is first among them, and that perhaps Britain is not quite as accepting of it as many would like to believe.

A Subject demonstrates the limits of vitalistic socialism, showing the ineffectiveness of individual resistance without the supporting efforts of a collectivity. Holyoake's isolation may not have been his fault, but it remains the principal reason for his weakness. This isolation, however, also provides an explanation as to why he fails in his opposition to civil and religious authority whereas Martin Luther succeeds.

Osborne's approach to history in Luther differs markedly from A Subject in that he heightens the emotional pitch and utilizes fewer documentary-type scenes. Osborne characterized Holyoake in a very ‘public’ manner so that we know him primarily through his speeches, testimony, and interviews with officials.39 In Luther, he takes the opposite approach and uses Luther's private agony as the prism through which we view his public struggles. The significance of this difference is in its implicit definition of the driving force of history. A Subject makes the point that without collectivism, the individual can make little revolutionary headway against the hegemony of the ruling classes. Luther makes essentially the same point, but it also emphasizes that the existence of collectivism is a consequence, and not the cause, of individual initiative and assertion. In Osborne's historical view, the Reformation would never have occurred without a Luther to forge it.

A Patriot for Me might also seem to have little to say about socialism, but it shows the maturing political stance Osborne will take in his plays about contemporary Britain. A Subject deals directly with the socialist as moral hero and warns that the nation ignores, at its own peril, his message and his fate. Luther dispenses with warnings and shows how an individual, no matter how doubt-stricken or limited he may be, can create the historical circumstances that make revolution possible. Both Holyoake and Luther recognize the moral choice that confronts them and act upon it, regardless of the personal consequences. A Patriot, however, presents a more common theme in Osborne's work, the individual who, because of cynicism, self-interest, or fear, will not or cannot act in a politically consequential manner. These individuals hate the social and political systems which enmesh them, but their resistance can only express itself in morally and physically destructive ways.

Redl in A Patriot is similar to Coriolanus in A Place Calling Itself Rome, Osborne's adaptation of Shakespeare's play, in that both are traitors because their respective countries cannot accommodate who they are. Coriolanus will not hide his contempt for the mob, whereas Redl wishes to keep his homosexuality hidden. Thus, one betrays his country out of spite, the other out of fear. Both men are destroyed, however, not so much because of their treason, but because of their isolation. Ultimately, each has no community to include and protect him. Menenius tells the Roman mob, ‘We must be a true community’,40 yet this ideal remains unrealized in both plays because neither man has Luther's ability to bring it into existence, and the communities which do exist have no use for any potential Luthers.

Luther feels he must assert himself against the world, and even against God, in order to preserve some sense of self-integrity. Many of Osborne's characters lack ‘the power to alter the scheme of things or even their own small part in that scheme, [so] they establish some kind of repetitive pattern in their lives, which in turn drives others away’,41 but Luther does not share this failing. His revolution literally changes the world by making collectivism possible rather than imprisoning himself and others in futile isolation. He would find Archie Rice's words, ‘We're all out for good old number one, / Number one's the only one for me!’ to be morally incomprehensible.42 If, as Osborne implies, Luther ultimately betrays this revolution, it is not in itself diminished. When the Knight confronts Luther over his betrayal of the peasants, he shows, by using the logic of the Reformation to condemn its founder, how successful Luther has actually been:

Don't hold your Bible to my head, piggy, there is enough revelation of my own in there for me, in what I see for myself from here! (Taps his forehead.)43

In short, Luther succeeds almost in spite of his limitations, whereas Redl fails because of them. His clandestine homosexuality isolates him within the heterosexual ethos of the Austro-Hungarian army; as the drag ball scene demonstrates, however, there are many homosexuals in the army, but their numbers afford him no protection. Redl belongs to a community that cannot collectively function, so he lives in isolation even though surrounded by individuals very much like himself.

The pessimism which so marks the historical perspective of A Patriot and A Place also defines Osborne's political stance in his plays about modern Britain. If Osborne's criticism of socialism in Britain has led to charges of his being ‘nostalgic, reactionary or blimpish’,44 it is from a failure to understand the tradition of British socialism his work reflects, a vitalism which remains skeptical of collective organization and sees the individual who can gain communal support as the ultimate solution to social and political ills. As Osborne seems to imply in Luther, a revolution that furthers the cause of human liberation requires the action of a vital individual at the right historical moment, but the pessimism of his plays of modern Britain also implies that such a juncture may not currently exist. Shaw's Supermen, Wells's giants, and Wilde's Christs all appear in these plays, but the vitalism that once made them seem real possibilities for the future of socialism has become the tormented isolation that so afflicts Redl and Coriolanus, and displays as much pathos as it does heroism.


By the mid-1950s, it had become evident that many of the hopes connected with Labour's victory in 1945 would go unfulfilled regardless of who held office, and that despite all the expectations raised by propagandistic appeals for national unity during the Second World War, ‘the effect of the war was not to sweep society on to a new course, but to hasten its progress along the old grooves’.45 For Osborne and others, this realization brought with it a sense of lost or aborted opportunities that in many ways left Britain the same as it had always been, and in other ways, had diminished it. With the election of Labour, said Osborne,

people like me thought the world was going to change, but instead it became more drear and austere. It was a dull time, joyless and timid. This was followed by the collapse of the Empire and the Suez Crisis. We became very disillusioned, and out of this feeling came our writing.46

Osborne's disillusionment originated, however, in the perceived failure of Attlee's government to follow through completely on the socialist reforms it initiated, and the persistent failure of subsequent Labour governments to develop them.

Osborne's themes of friendship, loyalty, and marriage lead some to defend him as ‘a poet rather than a committed political figure’, or to explain his work as an exploration of ‘social inequities in terms of personal relationships’.47 While not inaccurate, such analyses tend to reduce his work to the truism that the personal is an extended metaphor for the political, whereas for Osborne, as for the ethical socialists, no politics of any moral authority can fail to take the personal as its first priority and as the necessary prerequisite for political action. Many of his characters are ‘lapsed’ socialists, politically detached and discouraged but not converted to any conservative ideology because their discouragement stems from a faith in socialism which the politics of postwar Britain has betrayed.

This sense of failed expectations, on the part of Attlee's government and of British socialist policies in general, lies at the heart of the sometimes vociferous criticism and mockery of socialism that pepper Osborne's plays. He had no patience for a romantic socialism that would seek to liberate the down-trodden masses from their capitalist oppressors. He often portrayed the narrow-minded complacency of the lower and middle classes as one of the greatest barriers to progressive change in Britain, and the almost total absence of working class characters in his drama indicates his belief that the pervasiveness of bourgeois values has blurred, and thus diminished, the importance of class distinctions as a tool for social analysis. For example, the racist and xenophobic sentiments of the Rice family in The Entertainer; the violent, rural middle class in Watch It Come Down and Try a Little Tenderness; the reactionary rural folk and the repeatedly disparaged LMC (lower middle class) in Déjàvu; the islanders in West of Suez who commit the politically absurd act of murdering an aged British writer; and the middle-class jury in A Subject that sentences the harmless Holyoake to prison—all make clear that Osborne had no sentimental attachment to the idea of the lower and middle classes as simply innocent victims of an exploitative political and economic system.

Osborne's work, therefore, reflects the basic premises of ethical socialism, that political failure originates in the moral failings of groups and individuals. The masses slumber in self-satisfied and sometimes brutal complacency, while the individual with insight, passion, and, especially, imagination succumbs to a bitter despair which negates any promise he or she had. ‘Moral good’, wrote Osborne, ‘which is what Socialism is about, is club-footed without the imagination’, but an imaginative public policy depends upon the initiative of those individuals who can spark a wide-spread rethinking of the purpose of the state.48

We see an equivalent attitude in Morris's dislike of what he called artificial systems for regulation and control, in place of which he would substitute ‘a public conscience as a rule of action’, rather than the authority of state institutions.49 This attitude towards the state, however, lacks theoretical rigidity; therefore, it remains open to a wide range of possible interpretations. A politics that incorporates it must accept a certain ambiguity as to the determination of what constitutes socialist practice, an ambiguity which is both the great strength and the Achilles's heel of British socialism. Whereas it can aid in the resistance to authoritarianism, it can also lack the determination to restructure society decisively along egalitarian lines, and this lack, which seems to have been the particular dilemma of British socialism since the Second World War, provides the unifying theme for Osborne's work.

Perhaps surprisingly, his emphasis on the historical importance of the individual has an implicit parallel with Leninism. Lenin had no patience for Fabian efforts to help capitalism evolve into socialism. Instead, he felt the party must act as a catalyst for revolutionary change and seize power on behalf of the proletariat. Osborne's general disdain for the lower classes as possible instigators for revolution has led him to look for a moral elite to take up this responsibility, those modern Luthers who might make a difference. The Communist Party, in his view, had nothing to offer, and neither did the Conservatives, with their conviction that ‘human nature cannot be changed or improved beyond a material level’.50 Instead, Osborne looked to the country's intelligentsia, its writers, actors, journalists, film makers, college graduates, even lawyers and again finds little reason for hope. Osborne was an ethical socialist in search of a cadre that can take the initiative to transform British society, but he could not find one.

The British intelligentsia found itself in a peculiar state of inertia after the fall of the Attlee government. By the late 1950s, the nation had become ‘an archaic society trapped in past successes, [and] for the first time aware of its lassitude, but as yet unable to overcome it’, while the intelligentsia itself had largely become ‘parochial and quietist: adhering to the established political consensus without exercising itself greatly to construct or defend it’.51 Many of Osborne's characters fall into this category—Jimmy Porter, Ben and Sally Prosser, Pamela Orme, George Dillon, Archie Rice, Laurie—all who, in one way or another, hate the ruling political consensus in Britain but who cooperate with it insofar as they can conceive of no effective way to oppose it. They are fully conscious of their moral and political lassitude, however, and live in a state of ‘enlightened false consciousness—the endless self-ironizing or wide awake bad faith of a society which has seen through its own pretentious rationalizations’.52 They no longer believe in who they are, as individuals or as a society, but since they cannot believe in becoming anything else, they remain inert in their critical self-awareness.

Inadmissible Evidence marks a transition in Osborne's examination of this problem. His earlier plays of Britain sharply historicized the nation's dilemma in the 1950s of trying to bridge the gap between modern Britain and its idealized past, where imperial glory and military triumph supposedly contributed to a strong sense of national purpose. With Inadmissible Evidence, however, Osborne's plays of Britain turn sharply away from such historicizing and become more overtly metaphoric in their presentation. The settings of these plays are certainly recognizable as Britain of the 1960s and 1970s, but they are not as directly tied to historical specifics as his earlier work. Epitaph for George Dillon,Look Back, and The Entertainer all examine contemporary Britain's break with some of its political, cultural, and moral traditions, but the later plays concern themselves with what might be termed the spiritual mediocrity and aridity that results from this break. Although Archie Rice, Jimmy Porter, and George Dillon are certainly mediocre in their ways, theirs is the mediocrity of the failure and the outsider. However, in the later plays, this spiritual mediocrity emanates primarily from the most prominent and successful members of the British intelligentsia, which now prefers co-optation by the power establishment to angry resistance against it. In their enlightened false consciousness, they understand their predicament, and that of the nation, but in their cynicism and despair, they can do nothing about it.

The differences between Archie Rice and Bill Maitland clearly show Osborne's change of focus. Rice's struggle to preserve not only his livelihood but a way of life in the music hall has its tragically heroic aspects, despite his personal shortcomings. The world has changed and, as a result, pulled away from him, leaving him stranded and isolated in the past. Maitland is also isolated but only because he has pulled himself away from the world and into an alcoholic miasma of his own making. Osborne makes us aware of the depths of Maitland's anguish, but it does not come from having been swept aside by an historical process that renders him anachronistic. It comes from his having stood aside and abandoned his place in the world, as solicitor, father, husband, and, by implication, citizen.

Maitland also makes for a striking contrast with Luther. In Osborne's early plays, his protagonists all had been defeated, to some degree, by their circumstances. With Luther, Osborne shows that he does not see history merely as an arena of impersonal forces that sweep the individual along in their wake, but one in which an individual can harness them or change their course to a significant degree by forging a community committed to political action. When Osborne returns his focus to modern Britain, however, this tempered optimism completely vanishes, and he presents an individual who cannot maintain any communal bonds, either personal or professional. Maitland is the individual who has no ties to any collective entity, primarily because he chooses not to have them. He is the existential opposite of Luther, and as the opening dream sequence indicates, he is on trial for being so. His adaptation in his defense, however, of Harold Wilson's 1963 speech to the Labour Party Conference suggests that in addition to this one man, an entire political tradition may also be on trial, in Osborne's view, for its own form of moral disintegration.

As the opposite of Luther, therefore, Maitland is also the opposite of those Supermen, Christs, and giants that the vitalistic socialists once envisioned in their dreams of the coming socialist world. In effect, he severs all human ties, thus negating all his potential, but in this regard he differs only in degree from Osborne's later protagonists. If Maitland cannot or will not accommodate the world in any manner, the failure of these other protagonists is a willingness to accommodate in the wrong manner. If Luther's example seems an impossibility, and Maitland's despairing solipsism an unacceptability, then Osborne's characters choose a third way by accommodating themselves to a society they despise in exchange for the prestige and financial rewards it has to offer. As Osborne felt the Labour Party has done, they find a way to coexist with what they should oppose but at a tremendous price to themselves and the nation.

The measure of this price is closely associated with each protagonist's function in society. One important cultural development in the post-industrial capitalist states has been the increased identification of the intelligentsia with the media and entertainment industries and the mass culture they generate. His protagonists directly participate in these industries, and for the most part, do so quite successfully, for not only do they make comfortable incomes, many have also achieved a celebrity status. The failure of Archie Rice and Jimmy Porter in part results from their unwillingness or inability to market themselves and their ideas in a manner that would grant them these rewards. George Dillon almost makes the same mistake, until he puts aside his Shavian-like drama and writes more commercially viable works of lewd banality. Wyatt Gillman, Ben Prosser, Pamela Orme, Ted Shillings, Laurie and his companions, and even the middle-aged Jimmy Porter follow Dillon's example. Because they are not politicians, they do not formulate public policy, but as celebrities and artists within a mass culture, they do have an influence on the formation of popular opinion. They despise this mass culture and often voice their wish for something to supplant it, but the commodification of their ideas in the consumerism of this culture makes their discontent politically impotent and irrelevant. They support, and are supported by, what they hate because they cannot conceptualize an alternative, despite their talent, imagination, and access to the market of ideas.

The moral distaste they have for themselves and for Britain in part accounts for the occasional nostalgic tone of Osborne's work, which some have mistaken for the sort typical of conservative ideology. Ian Buruma describes the nostalgia of the Right as driven ‘by a fear of disorder, of change, of uncertainty’, with a longing for lost imperial glory and an authoritarian aristocratic rule.53 These fears certainly beset some of Osborne's characters as well, but the predominant tone in his work is not a reactionary retreat into an idealized past but a sad longing for a lost age that never really existed, as, for example, in Laurie's longing for some kind of transformation that will release him and his friends from K. L. and the world he represents. He imagines something akin to a socialist community as Morris might have envisioned it—a rural, non-industrial locale, where labor entails a sense of creativity and self-fulfilment—a utopian refuge where they could share a happy, communal existence that would include ‘People who would fit in with everyone’:

I would learn carpentry … And brick laying. I would work on the house. Gus knows all about electricity. Margaret could drive … Annie's the great horse expert. We could use them and maybe hunt if we got over our green belt liberal principles. And Dan could, well he could just paint.54

It is significant that in many ways these characters reflect the constituency of the New Left—educated, middle-class, and intolerant of anything that smacks of Stalinism or even trade union socialism. The New Left had little interest in socialism as political dogma or social science, and instead viewed it as a philosophy of humane and non-exploitative individualism, as did the ethical and vitalistic socialists. This similarity, however, means that New Left socialism shares the weakness of its predecessor, a theoretical flexibility that often undercuts its effectiveness as a weapon against capitalism. For example, its emphasis on racial and gender equality has been largely appropriated by the power structure of capital, once again turning an oppositional critique into a self-critique which modifies that structure without fundamentally altering it. As a result, class conflicts in society continue, though in an ideologically perverted form.

Osborne's recurrent use of the theme of civil war illustrates this point. The racism of the Rice family implicitly directs the violence of colonial wars against their fellow countrymen; Jimmy Porter facetiously imagines himself being put up against the wall and shot in the coming revolution; and, in Déjàvu, a local newspaper likens vandalism to an invasion ‘by a new model army intent on what must appear to us to be unmotivated reprisal on an innocent, law-abiding community’.55 Civil war becomes reality in Tenderness and Watch it, two plays whose endings echo that of Shaw's On the Rocks.

These two plays represent the two sides of the moral failure of the intelligentsia of modern Britain: a manipulative form of leadership which serves only its own selfish ends, and a willingness to stand passively by while society tears itself apart. Ted Shillings and Ben Prosser exhibit a milder form of the solipsism of Bill Maitland in that neither really cares for anything beyond the small confines of his private self. A politically active and imaginative collectivity is something neither can or wants to envision. As with Maitland, their political and moral isolation leads to personal relationships that mirror the destructiveness of their public activities and carries the theme of civil war into the private sphere.

This conjunction of the public and the private accounts for the Laurentian priority of the marriage relationship in Osborne's work. With perhaps two exceptions, The End of Me Old Cigar and Under Plain Cover, his entire body of work is devoid of marriages, or even relationships, that have the equilibrium we find in Lawrence. In Osborne's work, his characters' disappointment has given way to a psychological tearing and rending without mercy. Repeatedly, and usually in moments of exhaustion, these couples voice a nostalgia for what has never been and contemplate a different sort of relationship that would nurture rather than destroy the other, but then they fall back into the accepted reality of their lives and the pattern of destruction begins anew.

Always, however, the implication is that if one relationship could be set right before the damage becomes irreparable then, in effect, the world would change. That is, the achievement of a Laurentian equilibrium could well have a ripple effect on those around them. On this point, Osborne's work returns to the philosophical point from which it began, the importance of the individual to any possibility of improving the quality of human existence. As with the ethical and vitalistic socialists, all else follows from this belief. In their view, the purpose of socialism was to institute some form of humane co-existence between people that did not entail a forced collectivism, and as long as this goal was met and economic exploitation eradicated, they were not overly concerned with blueprints for a future socialist state.

And neither was Osborne. Instead, he repeatedly made the point that only the individual can be the catalyst for imaginative change. However, he also made clear, and perhaps never more clearly than in his last play, Déjàvu, his sense of the remote possibility of this change. His return to Jimmy Porter, now referred to simply as JP, brought Osborne's career full circle in more than one way, so it is instructive to compare his last condition of England drama with its predecessor.

If JP seems to have changed little in the intervening years, it is in part because neither has Britain. There are, of course, important differences between the Britain of the 1950s and the 1990s, but in both decades the nation was a liberal welfare state under Conservative rule, a combination guaranteed to keep reform in check and, under Thatcher, to roll it back significantly. In addition, from JP's point of view, both decades share a smug and intolerant complacency that makes them equally contemptible, though they express it in markedly different ways. One gauge of this difference can be seen in the respective Bishops of Bromley in each play. In Look Back, the Bishop appeals to all Christians to assist in the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb and believes the working classes have fomented the rumor he supports the rich against the poor. In Déjàvu, the newly installed Bishop, the Reverend Ted, prefers jeans and opennecked shirts to ecclesiastical garb, has written a theological book on teenage unemployment, and blames the Establishment for the plight of the inner cities.

Though JP despises both Bishops, of the two he finds the first preferable, but not because his politics are more palatable. Nor does he differentiate between them on the basis of their hypocrisy, since the first believes in both God and the hydrogen bomb, and the second believes in neither. In fact, despite their differences, both combine politics with religion and regard the poor as a threat to be dealt with, even if by different means. The first, however, has the advantage, from JP's perspective, of being an enemy one cannot possibly mistake for a friend. With regard to the working classes and whoever would fight on their behalf, he wore his ideological heart on his sleeve, and it had quite obviously never bled for them.

The Reverend Ted's concern for making religion less pompous and more humane might seem just what the Jimmy Porter of Look Back would have wanted from the church. It only deepens JP's anger, however, because he sees it as a betrayal that masquerades as deliverance. The issue is not simply one of church policy and doctrine. The Reverend Ted represents the pervasive condition of Britain as a whole. JP does not despise the new Bishop because of his support of liberal and socialist programs, but because he and those like him are willing to accept partial answers and call them whole and to deal only with problems that lend themselves to facile solutions. For JP, the Reverend Ted has a dishonesty more disgusting than the earlier Bishop's spiritual brutality, a dishonesty made all the worse because the current age shares it.

The dishonesty of this age, however, differs from that of the 1950s. In that decade, Jimmy Porter aimed his invectives at a nation determined to hang on to its imperial past and rest complacently on cherished certainties. By the 1990s, Britain has transformed itself but not, believes JP, to a degree that makes much difference. If he attacks various movements of social reform and protest, he does so not because he now believes, or because Osborne believes, in empire and aristocracy. He attacks them because these movements are only those of reform and protest and not the vehicles of revolution they presume to be. For Osborne, the Reverend Ted and those like him, both in and out of the church, fail where Luther succeeded because they tinker with an unjust system that was morally bankrupt thirty-five years ago and remains so today. They offer accommodation and call it liberation, thus leaving the fundamental causes of human unhappiness in place even as national leaders and the issues they attempt to address supersede one another.

JP would agree with the Reverend Ted that society does indeed suffer from spiritual and political failure, but in an ‘age of privatized selfishness’, he says, where the government ‘raises temples to the greater glory of greed and the sanctification of profitability’,56 a complacent intolerance that assumes the trappings of socialism might well be the worst response to post-industrial capitalism because it co-opts and neutralizes what Osborne saw as the best hope we have. Although, as happens in the play, vandalizing churches, naming a shopping district after Winnie Mandela, and smashing the memorial to a Victorian war hero might serve some political purpose, in themselves they are little more than trivialities that undermine the cause of socialism by claiming to be more than the revolutionary gestures they actually are.

Jimmy Porter and JP, therefore, stand as Osborne's great socialist spokesmen because they will not cheer on a revolution that fears its own potential and has settled into a complacent satisfaction over its accomplishments. In this refusal, the precepts of ethical and vitalistic socialism become particularly important. Any socialism that cannot be determinedly self-critical cannot fully liberate the individual because it will eventually solidify into collective dogmas and their accompanying bureaucracies that offer the security of structure in place of the responsibility of freedom. As Osborne intimated, Jimmy is a flawed character because he can find no common ground with other people. Though bad enough in itself, he nonetheless sees this failure as no worse than blindly insisting that only one form of common ground exists. To be able to say, as does JP, ‘I see the present paucity of my own motivation, my incomprehension of the future’,57 is to refuse the false comfort of rationalization and at least to make change possible, even though JP himself cannot achieve it.

If Jimmy Porter and JP are failed socialists who in other historical circumstances might have succeeded, the moral power they nonetheless exude comes from the reality of this potential. Even if they do not consider themselves to be socialists and will have nothing to do with any socialist politics, their commitment to this British tradition of individualism makes them implicit advocates of that parallel tradition of British socialism. Just as Lukács believed any writer who accurately describes the realities of capitalism contributes to the cause of socialism, so Sidney Webb felt ‘the progress of Socialism is to be sought mainly among those who are unconscious of their Socialism, many of whom, indeed, still proclaim their adherence to Individualism’,58 and the individualism of Jimmy Porter and JP is of a particularly uncompromising sort.

Once, Osborne's grandfather pointed out another man on the street and asked,

‘Do you know who that man is?’ ‘No’, I said. ‘That man is a Socialist. Do you know what a Socialist is?’ ‘No’. ‘Well, a Socialist is a man who never raises his cap to anyone’.59

Without regard to dogma, the refusal to raise one's cap marks the individual's resistance to those social forces which would demand such obeisance. As a dramatist, Osborne never gave it except to those who had the courage to doubt accepted certainties, and for him, any politics that would presume to deliver us from oppression must begin at this point, whether we recognize it as socialism or not.


  1. Michael Anderson, Anger and Detachment: A Study of Arden, Osborne, and Pinter (London, 1978), p. 23. See also Alison MacLeod, letter to Encore 34 (1961), 44-6; Benedict Nightingale, ‘Osborne's Old Times’, New Statesman 27 Aug. 1971, 277; File on Osborne, ed. Malcolm Page (London, 1988); Michael Billington, review of Watch It Come Down, The Manchester Guardian 15 Dec. 1973, 24; and Christopher Innes, Modern British Drama 1890-1990 (Cambridge, 1992).

  2. John Trussler, The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment (London, 1969), p. 55. See also John Peter, ‘Reviving the Domestic Drama’, Sunday Times 15 June 1986, 49.

  3. John Osborne, ‘Dear Diary …’ Spectator 20 June 1992, in Damn You, England: Collected Prose (London, 1994), p. 204.

  4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Correspondence 1846-1895, ed. Dora Torr (New York, 1942), p. 450.

  5. Quoted in Clive Ponting, Breach of Promise: Labour in Power 1964-1970 (London, 1989), p. 400.

  6. Georg Lukács, Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle, trans. John and Necke Mander (New York, 1964), p. 101.

  7. John Osborne, letter to the Sunday Times 30 Sept. 1956, in Damn You, England, p. 6 (author's emphasis). Osborne also denied any Brechtian influences in The Entertainer. A theatrical memory from childhood, he wrote, ‘was to nudge me towards The Entertainer; not, as I was told authoritatively by others, the influence of Bertolt Brecht’. See John Osborne, A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, Vol. I, 1929-1956 (London, 1981), p. 27. Innes makes a similar point, noting that the roots of the play lie in such works as the 1956 BBC radio series ‘The Boy in the Gallery’, J. B. Priestley's Lost Empires, and Shaw's Heartbreak House (p. 105).

  8. John Osborne, letter to the Guardian 23 June 1977, in Damn You, England, p. 52. After reading Holroyd's biography of Shaw, Osborne concluded that ‘what seemed to me examples of Shavian banalities and chilly posturing reveal themselves as the weapons of a lifelong struggle against loneliness and imperfection, of heroic persistence and courage’, and that he could now admire what he called ‘the G.B.S. trick of being a Puritan but not a prig’. See his review of Michael Holroyd's Bernard Shaw, Spectator 24 Sept. 1988, in Damn You, England, pp. 55 and 57.

  9. Quoted in Ronald Spiers, Bertolt Brecht (New York, 1987), p. 39.

  10. John Osborne, ‘They Call it Cricket’, Declaration, ed. Tom Maschler (New York, 1958), p. 47. Osborne later offered a characteristically severe judgment of this collection of essays. ‘Prophetic heroism’, he wrote, ‘proclaimed by self-educated lower-middle-class upstarts, pronounced in English and with dodgy Nietzschean flourishes, never stood a chance’. His own contribution, he believed, ‘deserves some if not most of the scorn heaped upon it’. See Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography, Vol. II, 1955-1966 (London, 1991), pp. 91-2.

  11. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (New York, 1964), p. 71.

  12. Robert Hewison, In Anger: British Culture in the Cold War 1945-60 (Oxford, 1981), p. 135.

  13. John Osborne, The Entertainer (London, 1958), p. 8; and John Osborne, ‘Introduction to Collected Plays’, in Damn You, England, pp. 46-7.

  14. Brecht, pp. 278 and 190. On a related point, Brecht writes that the epic theatre ‘uses the simplest possible groupings, such as express the event's overall sense’ (p. 58). In responding to a question as to whether his plays are conventional in form, though revolutionary in context, Osborne mentioned the criticism he received for having only five people on stage in Look Back, even though twenty-seven characters are mentioned in the course of the play. ‘It is a convention’, he said, ‘that hasn't been won in a way’. See Mark Amory, ‘Jester Flees the Court’, The New York Times Magazine 24 Nov. 1974, 34 and 36.

  15. John Osborne, A Place Calling Itself Rome (London, 1973), p. 40.

  16. John Osborne, Déjàvu (London, 1991), p. 36.

  17. Quoted in Polly Devlin, ‘John Osborne’, Vogue June 1964, 98-99, 152, and 160.

  18. See Richard Findlater, ‘The Angry Young Man’, The New York Times 29 Sept. 1957, II, 3.

  19. John Osborne, ‘The Socialist Once Angry’, Daily Herald 16 Mar. 1962, and ‘Fighting Talk’, Reynolds News 17 Feb. 1957, both in Damn You, England, pp. 195 and 188.

  20. John Osborne, ‘A Letter to My Fellow Countrymen’, Tribune 18 Aug. 1961, in Damn You, England, p. 194. Osborne later offered a harsh critique of this letter, calling its style ‘deliberately overheated’. ‘If this tone was misjudged’, he wrote, ‘it was because my soft-headed liberal analysis of the political realities of international Communism was pitifully naive’. See Almost a Gentleman, p. 210.

  21. John Osborne, ‘Fighting Talk’, p. 190

  22. Stanley Pierson, Marxims and the Origins of British Socialism: The Struggle for a New Consciousness (Ithaca, New York, 1973).

  23. Julian Barnes, ‘The Modernizer’, The New Yorker 22-29 Aug. 1994, 70.

  24. Osborne, ‘They Call it Cricket’, p. 65.

  25. Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism (Harmondsworth, 1955), p. 128.

  26. For example, see H. M. Hyndman, The Historical Basis of Socialism in England (London, 1883); Bernard Shaw, ed., Fabian Essays in Socialism (New York, n.d.); J. R. MacDonald, The Socialist Movement (London, 1911); and R. H. Tawney, The Acquisitive Society (New York, 1920).

  27. Shaw notes that the ideas of Nietzsche and others were part of ‘a world movement, and would have found expression’ even if each one ‘had perished in his cradle’. See Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (New York, 1957), p. 49n. Similarly, he writes that ‘Bergson and I would have written everything as we did, word for word, each if the other had never been born’. Quoted in Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw, 4 vols. (New York, 1989), II, p. 73. See also The Crisis in Modernism, eds. Fredrick Burwick and Paul Douglas (Cambridge, 1992); and Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983).

  28. Osborne, A Better Class of Person, pp. 82-3.

  29. Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde (New York, 1987), p. 121.

  30. Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man and Other Essays (Oxford, 1990), pp. 6, 33, and 122.

  31. See Epiphiano San Juan, Jr., The Art of Oscar Wilde (Westport, Connecticut, 1967); Katharine Worth, Oscar Wilde (New York, 1983); and Norbert Kohl, Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, trans. David Henry Wilson (Cambridge, 1989).

  32. H. G. Wells, The Food of the Gods (New York, 1925), pp. 304-5. On Wells's similarities with Nietzsche, see G. K. Chesterton, ‘Mr. Wells and the Giants’, H.G. Wells: The Critical Heritage, ed. Patrick Parrinder (London, 1972), pp. 103-9; H. L. Mencken, ‘The Late Mr. Wells’, Prejudices: First Series (New York, 1919), pp. 22-35; and John Reed, The Natural History of H. G. Wells (Athens, Ohio, 1982).

  33. V. S. Pritchett, ‘Getting Your Own Back’, The New Yorker 15 Mar. 1982, 139-143. Concerning A Better Class of Person, Pritchett writes that Osborne ‘has the wound-licking grin of the only child who has been through the class mill and is getting his own back—very much a comic Mr. Polly or a Kipps born in 1929, if less sunny and innocent than Wells was’ (136).

  34. Rudiger Ahrens, ‘History and the Dramatic Context: John Osborne's Historical Plays’, Fu Jen Studies 16 (1983), 49-75.

  35. Quoted in Stephen Watts, ‘Playwright John Osborne Looks Back—And Not in Anger’, The New York Times 22 Sept. 1963, II, 1.

  36. Ronald Hayman, John Osborne (New York, 1972), p. 94.

  37. Brecht, p. 190.

  38. John Osborne, A Subject of Scandal and Concern (London, 1961), p. 32.

  39. See Alan Carter, John Osborne, 2nd, ed. (New York, 1973) for an analysis of Osborne's work on the basis of its public and private aspects.

  40. Osborne, A Place Calling Itself Rome, p. 18 (author's emphasis).

  41. Carter, p. 47.

  42. Osborne, The Entertainer, p. 32.

  43. John Osborne, Luther (London, 1961), p. 90.

  44. Benedict Nightingale, ‘John Osborne's Hatred’, Encounter 58 (1982), 63-9.

  45. Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 (New York, 1969), p. 17.

  46. Quoted in W. J. Weatherby, ‘Middle Age of the Angry Young Men’, The Sunday Times Magazine 1 Mar. 1981, 30-42.

  47. Michael Billington, ‘A Patriot for Me at the Watford Palace’, The Manchester Guardian 15 Dec. 1973, 24; and Susan Rusinko, British Drama 1950 to the Present: A Critical History (Boston, 1989), p. 36.

  48. Osborne, ‘The Socialist Once Angry’, p. 195.

  49. Quoted in May Morris, William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (Oxford, 1936, reissue 1966), II, p. 96 (author's emphasis).

  50. Osborne, ‘Fighting Talk’, p. 189.

  51. Perry Anderson, English Questions (London, 1992), pp. 43 and 194.

  52. Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction (London, 1991), p. 39. The concept is derived from Paul Sloterdijk.

  53. Ian Buruma, ‘Action Anglaise’, The New York Review of Books 22 Sept. 1994, 71.

  54. John Osborne, Time Present and The Hotel in Amsterdam (London, 1968), p. 124.

  55. Osborne, Déjàvu, p. 43.

  56. ibid., pp. 15 and 17.

  57. ibid., p. 31.

  58. Sidney Webb, ‘Socialism in England’, British Socialism: Socialist Thought from the 1880s to 1960s, ed. Anthony Wright (London, 1983), p. 62.

  59. Osborne, A Better Class of Person, p. 45.

David Galef (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Galef, David. “Beyond Anger: Osborne's Wrestle with Language and Meaning.” In John Osborne: A Casebook, edited by Patricia D. Denison, pp. 21-33. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Galef analyzes the role of language and communication in Osborne's plays.]

When a character in an Osborne play tries to communicate to the audience that he cannot communicate—and this happens fairly regularly—it is generally assumed that he is on the wrong side of the cultural divide. The British Mass Education Act of 1944 produced an entire generation of graduates too educated for the working classes, yet not aristocratic enough for the upper crust: the Jimmy Porters, Jim Dixons, and Charles Lumleys of this era. But as Angela Hague has pointed out in “The Angry Young Novel” (209), not every voice from that era fits the stereotype, and many of the concerns are more philosophical and further-reaching. If T. S. Eliot in the 1940s complained of “the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings,” the generation of British writers in the '50s felt the dislocation even more keenly. As Osborne describes himself circa 1948 in his autobiography: “Existentialism was the macro-biotic food of the day and Mickey Wall and I were ‘into’ the impenetrable brown rice of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Jaspers and, of course, Sartre” (171). Wittgenstein and Beckett were also publishing some of their most important work, taking the categories of semantics and epistemology and dismantling them beyond recovery. Rebellion against language was part of the Zeitgeist.

The arc of Wittgenstein's own career suggests a rebellious turn. Having taken the limits of language as far as they would go in the Tractatus, he ended on a note of silence and began to regroup in what would eventually result in his Philosophical Investigations. In the Tractatus, he states, “The limits of my language mean the limit of my world” (149). But as Allen Thiher has noted in his work on Beckett and Wittgenstein, “Much of modern language theory is concerned with setting the bounds of the sayable,” while many postmodern writers such as Beckett are simultaneously exploring and denying those bounds (80). Osborne, with his protagonists continually trying to say what they mean, closely fits this pattern.

In the Investigations and work published posthumously, Wittgenstein posits three steps in the unraveling of language. The first involves recognizing the arbitrariness of ordinary meaning: “When we say: ‘Every word in language signifies something’ we have so far said nothing whatever …” (Invest. 7). The second is questioning whether one can share meaning with others, in Wittgenstein's arguments about private language and experience: “The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else” (95). The third and final step is wondering whether even one's own meanings can remain consistent to oneself: “Imagine a person whose memory could not retain what the word ‘pain’ meant—so that he constantly called different things by that name—but nevertheless used the word in a way fitting in with the usual symptoms and presuppositions of ‘pain’—in short he uses it as we all do” (95). While some of Osborne's characters remain occupied with the first step of deconstructing meaning, the majority are painfully involved in trying to communicate the meaning of their experience, and a rare few break through to the final uncertainty of meaning in themselves. The plays, as Georg Henrik von Wright said of Wittgenstein's writings, are a “Form der Batruchtung” (216).1

So many of the situations in Osborne's plays reflect a semantic gap. The opening of Look Back in Anger, significantly, shows a jungle of newspapers and weeklies, a cover of ostensible meaning, hiding two characters. For Jimmy Porter, the senseless conflation of meaning in society has become a point of contention. As he remarks of what he is reading, “Different books—same reviews,” and the clergyman's address he looks at next amounts to “Dumdidumdidumdidum” (10, 13). Concomitantly, words in themselves become objects of curiosity, such as pusillanimous: “one of those words I've never been quite sure of, but always thought I knew” (21).

Spurning conventional meaning, Jimmy is naturally prey to worries about communicating. Helena's father, Colonel Redfern, oddly sympathetic, remarks, “As for Jimmy, he just speaks a different language from any of us” (64). Or, as Alison earlier says to Jimmy about his acquaintance Webster: “I thought you said he was the only person who spoke your language”—with an unintentional pun on the Webster of lexicography. Jimmy's reply, “So he is. Different dialect but same language” (18), does not conceal the real gap between them, and he eventually admits that Webster does not get along with him. In fact, Jimmy speaks in what Wittgenstein termed private language: “The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language” (Invest. 88-89). The alienation effect, in other words, is far more than a cultural phenomenon; it is intrinsic to the individual.

Osborne has said that he does not consider himself a social critic. He maintains that his primary concern is “how people relate to each other and to themselves” (Wager 84, 75)—which in Osborne's work means how they fail to relate. Peculiarly Wittgensteinian or, to coin a term, Osbornean, is the extension of noncommunication back into the individual: a whole that finds it doesn't agree even with itself. On the simplest level, this is simply a contrariety of parts, as with Jimmy's “disconcerting mixture” of personality traits (10). But the disjunctions go deeper, part of a real epistemological fissure. As Cliff says of Jimmy: “Don't think he knows himself half the time” (78). Critics have for so long seen Jimmy as a creature of intense conviction that this uncertainty may come as a surprise.2 The unsureness again reflects a universal rather than idiosyncratic tendency, as Wittgenstein proposes in a paradigm that has become famous: every time one feels a certain sensation, one jots down an “E” to record it, but how can one ever be sure that one “E” is the same as another? (Invest. 92-93).

The struggle with the self can be maddening. No wonder Jimmy questions whether he or Alison is crazy, exclaiming, “Is it me, standing here like an hysterical girl, hardly able to get my words out?” (59).3 This is not just impotent rage but also a difficulty in thinking univocally. As Wittgenstein remarks wistfully, “I never more than half succeed in expressing what I want to express” (Culture 18). Intention and expectation are also problematic in their attempts to connect thought and reality (see Zettel 10-12). The problem is inextricably bound up with the unreliable self. Similarly, when Jimmy tells Helena that he may write a book about his suffering “Written in flames a mile high,” he claims, “It's all here” and slaps his forehead (54). The wrestle with meaning, to put something into words, begins—and sometimes dies—in the mind.4

In his study of Osborne, Simon Trussler has noted that Jimmy is neither adjusted to his era nor a spokesman for it (11). The angry young voice rants against language while using the selfsame tool of expression to do so. This is Beckett's territory, as Thiher has observed: the postmodern protest against a self limited by language, a voice that ironically affirms what it speaks against (90). Though one should take care not to conflate Osborne and his protagonist, Jimmy's concerns about language seem as much the playwright's as the Unnamable echoes Beckett's frustrations. Curiously, there is no solution suggested, no program for relief. As von Wright described Wittgenstein, his attitude toward language was fighting but not reformist (208), and this description seems to fit Osborne as well.

The plays immediately following Look Back in Anger continue this theme passim, specifically the impossibility of shared meaning. In The Entertainer, Archie Rice and his family are astride a generational divide, but the rift at times seems more universal, tracing the limits of what one can know about others' experience. One of Wittgenstein's most noted examples is that of a person suffering from a toothache—how can it be compared to the sensation of someone else's toothache? (Lectures 17). Similarly, as Archie claims, he can connect with no other's experience “Simply because we're not like anybody who ever lived” (54). Of his daughter Jean's mother, he says, “I was in love with her, whatever that may mean. I don't know” (70). Jean herself is a good deal more vocal on the subject, having just broken up with her boyfriend Graham:

You know, I hadn't realized—it just hadn't occurred to me that you could love somebody, that you could want them twenty-four hours of the day and then suddenly find that you're neither of you even living in the same world. I don't understand that. I just don't understand that. I wish I could understand that. It's frightening.


One simply (or complexly) cannot know what another is feeling: we live in a world where such presumed connection has been proven to be an illusion. Osborne is all too aware of this, writing in his notebook for 1955: “He suffers the realization: that there is no real communication with those we love most” (Better Class 272). In a more general vein, Archie tells Jean, “My dear, nobody can tell you what they mean” (51).

If these problems in meaning were simply Osborne's perception of post-World War II England, his history plays should preclude these concerns. But semantic slippage and faulty communication are, for Osborne, part of the human condition, and so the past is simply a paradigm for the present and the future. In Luther, for example, Martin Luther lives along the same isolating continuum as Jimmy Porter. He begins with the same questioning of accepted vocabulary and ritual, in this era specifically religious. Quibbling with Brother Weinand over confession, he continually nudges: “What do you mean?” “How do you know?” “Tell me what you meant” (26). His precarious state of mind stems partly from trying to pin down the interpretation of a verse from Proverbs: “It's the single words that trouble me” (27). He is approaching apodictic doubt. As Wittgenstein writes: “If you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either” (Certainty 17).

Cardinal Cajetan says that Martin's sermons imply “a man struggling for certainty, struggling insanely like a man in a fit, an animal trapped to the bone with doubt” (73). But, as one individual cannot exactly interpret another's experience, Cajetan has misconstrued Martin's doctrinal doubt as spiritual doubt. Martin's quarrel is not so much with the Word as with words.5 He tells Vicar General Staupitz: “only you could live your life” (58). Unable to communicate his experience, Martin turns inward and there finds his own instability. As he says to Staupitz later, “They're trying to turn me into a fixed star, father, but I'm a shifting planet” (99). This is akin to the most unsettling prospect of Wittgenstein's tenets taken to its logical conclusion: that man is an unstable amalgam. Martin begins with the statement “I am alone. I am alone and against myself” (20). By the end of the play, despite his doctrinal victories, he has mostly confirmed this status.

In A Subject of Scandal and Concern, Osborne shifts from sixteenth-century Germany to nineteenth-century England. Concerning the last man in England to be jailed for blasphemy, in 1842, the play is naturally concerned with the slippery implications of words and their consequences. The protagonist, Holyoake, attacked ceaselessly for his beliefs when the quibble is really about the words he said, finally answers the magistrate: “I don't know, sir. I did not know before and I do not know now. But I do think that I am alone in this matter and will remain so” (24). The protest is similar to that of Osborne's Martin Luther: both have questioned established meaning only to find that the questioning does not simply stop there.

Is the zetetic enterprise fulfilling? It leads inevitably to disquieting conclusions. It is even somewhat teleological, since the search for meaningful distinctions eventually distinguishes oneself in a meaningful way, not shared by others. As Katharine J. Worth notes in “The Angry Young Men”: “Imaginative suffering is a profoundly solitary experience” (Taylor 105). In Osborne's A Patriot for Me, Alfred Redl's alienation eventually leads him to become a double agent and sexual adventurer extraordinaire. But as the Countess Sophia presciently tells him, “You'll always be alone” (60). Speaking more ex cathedra, Osborne himself has broadened this statement to apply to everyone, including as the audience: “The inexorable process of fragmentation is inimical to all public assumptions or indeed ultimately to anything shared at all. A theatre audience is no longer linked by anything but the climate of disassociation in which it tries to live out its baffled lives” (“Thesis” 20). This is partly a legacy from modernist alienation—T. S. Eliot's Waste Land fragments—intensified by postmodern currents washing even those shards away.

All of these concerns come to a head in what is perhaps Osborne's most tortured play, Inadmissible Evidence. In making the main character, Bill Maitland, a solicitor, Osborne has shifted significantly from those who question the law to those who oversee it on a daily basis. But as a philandering lawyer who handles adultery cases, Bill has sadly, ironically, become involved in the very situations he prosecutes. As his private experience subsumes his professional public life, he becomes a character whose semantic and epistemological distinctions are caving in on him.

From the outset, Bill has the dimensions of a Beckettian figure, down to the rambling “can't go on” diction of the unnamable: “Still, I'm pretty strong. I must be. Otherwise, I couldn't take it. That is, if I can take it. I can't, I'm sorry, I can't find my pills” (14). Meaning has begun to disintegrate on a double level, since the lexis of words is related to the lex of law. When the judge in the opening dream scene questions the use of the word objects, Bill answers, “I think that's what I meant to be saying” (11). He tells the judge twice, “I seem to have lost my drift” (17, 18). As semantic clarity eludes him, so do thought and reality itself. He complains continually that he wishes he could see more clearly (11, 93, 115). Again and again, he confesses, “I don't know” (44, 46, 93). On the phone with his wife, he claims: “I don't know yet. … I simply don't know. … I don't know now. …” (43). These statements do not show ignorance or elusiveness so much as an epistemological slippage.6

At the center of Bill's misery is the Wittgensteinian realization that he cannot share what is happening to him any more than he can share the headaches that now plague him. All that he experiences is, in effect, inadmissible evidence. “If you knew me, if you knew me …” (15), he tells the judge in his dream. If the judge functions as a superego, a common oneiric metaphor, then Bill does not even know himself: the third Wittgensteinian disjunction. His chief clerk Hudson offers the consolation, “Well, we all have our different methods, as I say. Different ways of looking at things” (26). As a descriptive statement of affairs, this may be more isolating than comforting. In any event, just as Martin Luther and Archie Rice with both pride and pain claim the uniqueness of their lives, Bill tells Hudson, “I don't want to live anyone's life, not anyone's” (31).

As the play progresses, Bill moves toward what Wittgenstein terms “disintegration of the sense” (Invest. 175). Since Bill cannot be sure of which words have what emotional affects, he does not properly feel; since he does not recall much, he cannot correlate his experiences with others' or even his own. In such a situation, chance comments acquire an echolalic resonance. He complains repeatedly that he seems to retain very little (18, 40-41, 92). When his mistress Liz jokingly calls him catatonic, Bill explains to his secretary Joy, “That's her way of saying I don't seem to be able to hold on, on to, to anything” (109). Throughout the play, the stage directions themselves collude with the blurring of memory, meaning, and acquired fact; and the isolation that accompanies it: Osborne mentions “the ambiguity of reality” (63) and “a feeling of doubt as to whether there is anyone to speak to at all” (59).

In such a blurred situation, references meant for the law segue into a deeper philosophical absence of rule. Trying to procure a witness, Bill claims, “All we want is one reliable person” (75). He even counsels a client to plead guilty because, as he says, “It has the advantage of certainty” (97). But there is no way out from this descent into solipsism because meaning is hermetic and words are arbitrary. Like Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the play ends where it has begun, with a repetition that precludes action: “I think I'll stay here. … I think I'll just stay here. … Goodbye” (115). The final word may be taken as the close of a phone conversation or a valediction.

In his later plays of the '60s, Osborne continues writing about these kinds of breakdowns, but with a different slant and lessened intensity. This is partly because he is now analyzing groups of individuals rather than focusing on the etiology of one mind thinking. The Hotel in Amsterdam, for instance, is not so taken up with the slide into semantic confusion as it is preoccupied with the private experience of emotions. The action is nonetheless mostly conversation among the three couples staying together at the hotel, with the scriptwriter Laurie as the Wittgensteinian self-reflexive type that questions the very questions he sets up. Ruminating on the wordage he manufactures out of chaos for his boss, K.L., he wonders whether it can be any good. “Should it not be, I ask myself? What do I ask myself, perhaps I shouldn't be rhetorical and clutter conversations with what-do-I-ask-myselfs?” (275). There is a shifting ground below what Laurie says, to the point where he gives accounts “with two versions to every story, one tragic and one comic, the tragic one always being comic and the comic one always tragic” (298). As it happens, this apposition neatly describes the situation among the six characters onstage and the one offstage. While the three couples are on holiday in Amsterdam in an escape from the magnate K.L., K.L., back in London, commits suicide. The relationship is somewhat like that of Beckett's underlings discussing Godot, or the sextet in Woolf's The Waves describing the absent Percival, but with a heavy degree of scorn.

As the character whose daily business is with words, Laurie should be surest of what he means, but there can be no such precision without accurate recollection. Like Osborne's earlier forgetful character Bill Maitland, he is enmeshed in a series of shifting affections: Margaret, his second wife; his new romantic interest, Gus's wife Annie; and the memory of his first wife. When Laurie and Annie talk about his previous marriage, the exchange shows the blurring of experience through repetition of relationships:

I don't think she likes me.
Why not?
I imagine I wasn't very kind to her.
Weren't you?
I don't know. I wish I could really remember. I try to. I hope not. But I'm sure I was.


The unreliability of semantic meaning has escalated to the complexities of human relationships, though the two remain connected through a solipsism that is a part of the human condition. After Laurie apologizes for bad-mouthing his pregnant wife Margaret, Dan the artist says, “Not your fault,” and Gus the film editor adds, “Not anybody's fault” (301). Unreliable recall steps in for Laurie's capper to the exchange: “As Beaudelaire [sic] said: can't remember now” (301). By the end of the play, when Dan wonders out loud if they'll ever come there again, Laurie answers: “I shouldn't think so. But I expect we might go somewhere else …” (311). The suggested shift in locale does little to mask the inevitable sameness and repetition, the source of both confusion and acedia.

This is not the first time Osborne has used a writer as a main character; in his early collaboration with Anthony Creighton, Epitaph for George Dillon, the protagonist is a budding playwright who calls the truth a caricature and gets as his comeuppance a caricature of an existence. But Osborne's protagonists seem to age along with him, and, in The Hotel in Amsterdam, the writer figure has become entangled and embittered. By the time of West of Suez, the writer is an older man named Wyatt Gillman, a patriarch more resigned to his fate.7 At the island villa of one of his four daughters, he is a cross between Prospero and Lear.

Significantly, much of the responsibility for any dialogue questioning semantics and epistemology has passed on to the younger generation, Wyatt's daughter Frederica and her pathologist husband Edward. Frederica banters with Edward in an almost Beckettian sequence, discarding semantic alternatives:

Don't spar with me.
I wouldn't dream of it. I haven't the equipment.
You haven't.
Or inclination.
Or energy.
Or stamina.
Or interest.
That either.


The two complete each other verbally as well as in personality: Osborne's probing of individual meaning has led to what individuals mean to each other. The philosophical problem of slippage in meaning has infected personal relations.

As in The Hotel in Amsterdam, talk is action, but of an evasive sort. “All art is organized evasion” as Osborne writes in “They Call It Cricket” (Declaration 69). What Edward and Frederica do is feint back and forth. When Edward starts off, “We can't be,” Frederica finishes, “Responsible for others” (14). On a surface level, she is simply being flip, but the words also suggest a minor paradox: Frederica is obviously taking responsibility for Edward's intended meaning, though the way she has completed his sentence suggests that no one can do this. In fact, as Edward states a moment later, “If I am unhappy, it is my own responsibility” (14). When Edward changes tack and tries to persuade Frederica that she produces effects in others “As if you were them. Or me,” she replies, “I'm afraid I don't understand that. And I shouldn't think you can” (19). Here is Wittgenstein's language and sensation argument personalized: no one can appreciate another's pain; no one can put him or herself in another's place. The argument is incontrovertible, and Edward is forced to agree: “No. Sometimes I don't feel I can understand a word of anything anyone says to me. As if they were as unclear as I am …” (19). The problem has reverted to the crux of language again.

Wyatt, the presumed master of language, is a nostalgist at heart. When Mrs. James, the interviewer from the local paper, asks him whether he believes words have any meaning, value, or validity, he replies, “I still cling pathetically to the old bardic belief that ‘words alone are certain good’” (61). But as Edward notes, “Those who make an ethic out of truthfulness do not incline to rhetoric” (10). Perhaps this is why Jed, an outraged American tourist, shouts at Wyatt, “—words, yes I mean words, even what I'm saying to you now, is going to be the first to go” (69). Wyatt the solipsist has retreated to an island, but his verbal edifice cannot defend him. In the end, Wyatt is shot by the anticolonial islanders, who have no use for his language.

In her essay “Verdict on Osborne,” Mary McCarthy notes: “Reiteration is the basic mode of the Osborne harangue, and repetition is the basic plot of the Osborne plays” (17). Osborne's repetition is in fact part of his message: that the same situations recur with dismal frequency because of universal states of affairs. Still, one cannot pound this sort of drum too long without growing sick of the same noise or else slightly deaf. Osborne's plays in the early '70s are mostly repetitions, amplifications of the earlier works.

In Very Like a Whale, whose title suggests the isolated perceptions of a Hamlet, Jock and Lady Mellor pursue the by now familiar conundrum of meaning, experience, and isolation. When Lady Mellor concludes a discussion of money with “If you know what I mean,” Jock replies, “No. I don't. I don't think you do. I think I know what perhaps you ought to mean.” She answers, “Complicated … I feel so alone …,” and Jock concludes, “One always does” (13). This is ground covered by Frederica and Edward in West of Suez, along with other couples in other Osborne plays. To some extent, it is the sheer audacity of presuming to know what another means that sets off Osborne's characters. When a lady journalist interviewing Jock happens to say, “You know what I mean,” Jock is savage: “I don't know what you mean. I don't know you for a start and I know less and less what anybody means” (16). This is retreatism without a sufficient struggle, and Jock's death and its aftermath reflect this fact. As his father watches the televised account of Jock's death, he responds about as much as the dog beside him.

A Sense of Detachment goes beyond even the attempt to make sense. Its aim seems to be to impose chaos on order, as the character simply listed as “Chap” declares (19). Osborne's earlier borrowings from Beckett are acknowledged yet derided with a chorus that includes the line, “Old Uncle Sammy Beckett and all” (25). The references to Arnold Wesker, David Storey, Edward Albee, and Edna O'Brien are equally gratuitous. Perhaps the most telling reference comes from the Interrupter, who mentions the Theatre Workshop and its improvisational experiments in the late '50s: “Joan Littlewood did this years ago” (28). The painful project of making sense is haplessly divided among a polyglot multitude. As the character called Girl says, “We are not language. We are lingua. … Oh yes: we talk. We have words, rather …” (58). The sense of detachment alluded to in the title is entirely deserved. Admittedly, some of the impatience with public meaning follows Osborne's political career from liberal to conservative, along with such contemporaries as Kingsley Amis and John Wain. The counter-argument Amis advances, with some validity, is that they haven't changed at all; society has (207-10).

The last play worth mentioning here is The End of Me Old Cigar because it suggests a specific qualification of the mind-language problem. As the two characters Len and Isobel lie fully clothed together on the bed, he says of his sex, “We are uncertain, undefined, perhaps unnecessary …” (42) and “I mean a chap must be utterly chaotic inside?” (48). Here is the muddle of meaning narrowed to the gender gap. In one way or another, Osborne has used this theme since Alison and Jimmy, who, for all his ranting, is surprisingly incommunicative at times. Perhaps for this reason the journalist Stella Shrift in The End of Me Old Cigar says of men, “They like the language of concealment. Not us” (25). This suggests an etiology that ought to be pursued further. Unfortunately, Osborne's misogyny undercuts most of the lines, so that the most one can say here is that Osborne, despite himself, occasionally registers a truly provocative observation instead of a merely provoking one.

There is, in fact, a quotation from Wittgenstein by Isobel in the second act (48): a translation of the famous last line from the Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, / Thereof one must be silent.” A comic response to Len's complaints about impotence, it nonetheless functions in much the same way as so many other of Osborne's shrugs over language and the inability to share experience. Impotence can apply to far more than just sexual expression. Whether this suggests a collective plan of action is another matter. Even if there exist hundreds of Lens—or Jimmy Porters—each is uniquely problematic, with a way of meaning that is no one else's. The most significant comment in this connection comes from Len, who says to Isobel, “The thing is to use your language and not someone else's” (49). The sense of this suggests a parallel with Sartre's existentialism, wherein the courageous gesture in the face of meaninglessness is to continue to mean something to oneself. Perseverance itself, on one's own terms, is a triumph of sorts.

More than twenty years ago, Osborne stated, “I have a great allegiance to words,” while all too aware of the “verbal breakdown” around him (“Osborne” interview 21). In other words, his view is Beckettian: language is a defective means of communication but the best we have. The difference between Beckett and Osborne is that Osborne's plays are more social documents, tied to a given era, but the underlying philosophies are akin. For Osborne, epistemology is a solitary pursuit. As the Narrator in A Subject for Scandal and Concern notes: “If it is meaning you are looking for, then you must start collecting for yourself” (46). In the end, Osborne's crippled heroes emerge with a pyrrhic victory, convictions that are bitter because they cannot be shared. Or, as Wittgenstein notes late in his career: “I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own” (Certainty 71).


  1. This deconstruction of meaning as an end in itself is amplified at far greater length by Harry Staten in Wittgenstein and Derrida.

  2. See, for example, the traditional responses in John Russell Taylors's John Osborne: “Look Back in Anger,” A Casebook. Herbert Goldstone's Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne is more to the point regarding ineffability, but deals mostly with emotional barriers.

  3. Significantly, the women often suffer the effects. While Jimmy is noisily wrestling with meaning, Alison and Helena cry out the identical line: “I can't think!” (11, 91).

  4. As Osborne writes of Tennessee Williams's work: “These are plays about failure. That is what makes human beings interesting” (“Sex and Failure” 317).

  5. It is worth noting that Wittgenstein did not at all deny spirituality. He did believe in something numinous, whose ineffability neatly fit in with his own philosophy. “Only the supernatural can express the Supernatural” (Culture 3).

  6. Despite the sheer repetition of words in Bill's speeches, one must take into account a subtle Wittgensteinian point, that repetition is never the same as the first time, if only because it is in relation to what has come before it. (See Invest. 86.)

  7. Osborne again uses a writer, the dying Jocelyn Broome, as the main character in The Gift of Friendship. The moribund progression seems to stop here.

Works Cited

Amis, Kingsley. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right.” What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 200-211.

Carter, Alan. John Osborne. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Goldstone, Herbert. Coping with Vulnerability: The Achievement of John Osborne. Washington, DC: UP of America, 1982.

Hague, Angela. “Picaresque Structure and the Angry Young Novel.” Twentieth Century Literature 32.2 (1986): 209-20.

McCarthy, Mary. “Verdict on Osborne.” The Observer [London] 4 July 1965: 17.

Osborne, John. A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1981.

———. A Better Class of Person and God Rot Tunbridge Wells. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.

———. The End of Me Old Cigar and Jill and Jack. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.

———. The Entertainer. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.

———. Epitaph for George Dillon [In collaboration with Anthony Creighton]. With Arnold Wesker, The Kitchen; and Bernard Kops, The Hamlet of Stepney Green. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

———. Four Plays: West of Suez; A Patriot for Me; Time Present; The Hotel in Amsterdam. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973.

———. The Gift of Friendship. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.

———. Inadmissible Evidence. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

———. Look Back in Anger. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

———. Luther. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

———. “On the Thesis Business and the Seekers after the Bare Approximate. …” The Times [London] 14 October 1967: 20.

———. “Osborne,” Interview with Kenneth Tynan. The Observer [London] 7 July 1968: 21.

———. A Patriot for Me. London: Faber and Faber, 1966.

———. A Sense of Detachment. London: Faber and Faber, 1973.

———. “Sex and Failure.” The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men. Eds. Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg. New York: Citadel P, 1958. 316-19.

———. A Subject for Scandal and Concern. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

———. “They Call It Cricket.” Declaration. Ed. Tom Maschler. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1959. 61-84.

———. Very Like a Whale. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

Staten, Harry. Wittgenstein and Derrida. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.

Taylor, John Russell, ed. John Osborne: “Look Back in Anger,” A Casebook. 1968. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Thiher, Allen. “Wittgenstein, Heidegger, The Unnamable, and Some Thoughts on the Status of Voice in Fiction.” Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives. Eds. Morris Beja, S. E. Gontarski, and Pierre Astier. Ohio: Ohio State UP, 1983. 80-90.

Trussler, Simon. John Osborne. Writers and Their Work: no. 213. Essex: Longmans, Green, 1969.

Wager, Walter, ed. “John Osborne.” The Playwrights Speak. London: Longmans, Green, 1967. 71-86.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. 2nd ed. Trans. Peter Winch. Eds. G. H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

———. Wittgenstein's Lectures, Cambridge, 1932-1935. Ed. Alice Ambrose. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

———. On Certainty. Trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe. Eds. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. 1969. New York: Harper, 1972.

———. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

———. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C. K. Ogden. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1933.

———. Zettel. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Eds. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967.

Wright, Georg Henrik von. Wittgenstein. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1982.

Austin E. Quigley (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Quigley, Austin E. “The Personal, the Political, and the Postmodern in Osborne's Look Back in Anger and Déjàvu.” In John Osborne: A Casebook, edited by Patricia D. Denison, pp. 35-59. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Quigley contends that Déjàvu offers some insight into why Look Back in Anger is “widely regarded as a very important but not very good play.”]

Forty years after it made its historic appearance on the London stage, Look Back in Anger is widely regarded as a very important but not very good play. A generation of British playwrights, including Brenton, Stoppard, and Hare, have acknowledged its importance to their subsequent careers, but most, including Osborne, who later described it as a “rather old-fashioned play,”1 now see its weaknesses as clearly as its strengths. Hare's recent praise of the play is characteristically qualified:

I think that all of us, people who write, we all want to write a play after which things will be seen differently. … And most of us are very jealous of Osborne because he pulled it off. … Whether you think it's a good play or a bad play, it was a rallying point.2

This apparent disjunction between the quality of the play and the scope of its impact remains something of a puzzle, but one whose nature becomes clearer in the light of the sequel, Déjàvu, that Osborne wrote in 1991.

Structurally, of course, Look Back in Anger does indeed seem a rather old-fashioned play, tracing the separation and reconciliation of Jimmy Porter and his wife, Alison, through a stagey three-act format that hinges on Alison's pregnancy and Jimmy's wrath. To describe the pattern of events in that way, however, is to draw attention to the fact that Jimmy's wrath has little to do with Alison's pregnancy and that the old-fashioned plot line of separation and reconciliation contributes more to the scaffolding than to the substance of the play. The difficulties that emerge between Jimmy and Alison are symptomatic of much wider problems that are neither fully summarized in nor adequately exemplified by the strains and stresses of that particular relationship. Indeed, one of the oddities of a play that focuses upon a single major relationship is that so many other characters who never appear are, in one way or another, caught up in the action. Besides Cliff, Helena, and Colonel Redfern, who appear in minor roles, the following never appear at all: Jimmy's best friend Hugh and his mother, Mrs. Tanner; Jimmy's ex-girlfriend, Madeline; his dying father and his disapproving mother; Alison's brother, Nigel; their ferocious mother; their outraged family friends; a gay radical; a rabid bishop; and sundry other people who earn a name but not a place in the story. As the action of the play demonstrates, however, neither a name nor a place in the story suffice to gain characters an influential voice, for Jimmy's voice dominates everyone else's throughout, and this serves to make even more visible the disjunction between the scope of the issues raised and the restricted nature of the central relationship within which they are dramatically explored.

The evident imbalance between Jimmy's role and everyone else's is widely regarded as the major structural fault of a play to which many other faults are attributed. The ending, with Jimmy and Alison playing at squirrels and bears, seems to lack the weight of an achieved conclusion; the death of their baby seems conventionally contrived and a fortuitous rather than organic means of reconciling the estranged couple; the readiness of Helena to oscillate between love and hate for Jimmy to suit the movement of the plot seems likewise rather contrived; and the central character, Jimmy himself, exhibits an unappealing mixture of cloying self pity, deep-seated prejudice, radical insensitivity, and rampant inconsistency. So widespread are these faults that it becomes evident why so many find it difficult to reconcile the play's structural limitations with its remarkable historical impact. But if we are to come to terms with the play, it must be by understanding the peculiar power of its odd structure, not by explaining its problems away. Indeed, there are few more remarkable things about this remarkable play than the famous description that Osborne offers in his initial stage directions of the limitations of the character who is, in effect, to carry the action of the whole play:

[Jimmy] is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loudmouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.3

The “disconcerting mixture” of traits exemplified by the play's central character is thus no accident, and Osborne anticipates the variety of responses Jimmy's behavior will provoke. His final sentence summarizes, in effect, a problem that seems central both to the character and to the play. Jimmy's aggressive rhetoric, which constitutes so much of the play's action, exhibits a savagery so widely deployed that it threatens to rob Jimmy of any clear point and the play of any clear goal.

To begin to make any sense of so peculiarly structured a play we need to come to terms not only with Jimmy's prominence and peculiarities but also with a further dimension of structural and tonal diversity: the one that generates Osborne's recurring insistence on the humor of a play that seems to have little to be humorous about. Jimmy's most famous remark, for example, that “There aren't any good, brave causes left” for his generation, is delivered not bitterly, as many might expect, but “In [Jimmy's] familiar, semiserious mood” (104). Jimmy's humor and the “cheerful malice” that Osborne refers to at the outset are interwoven with his anger and aggressiveness throughout the action, baffling everyone at one time or another, but particularly Helena during their brief romance:

Do I detect a growing, satanic glint in her eyes lately? Do you think it's living in sin with me that does it? (To Helena.) Do you feel very sinful my dear? Well? Do you?
She can hardly believe that this is an attack, and she can only look at him, uncertain of herself.
Do you feel sin crawling out of your ears, like stored up wax or something? Are you wondering whether I'm joking or not? Perhaps I ought to wear a red nose and a funny hat. I'm just curious, that's all.
She is shaken by the sudden coldness in his eyes, but before she has time to fully realise how hurt she is, he is smiling at her, and shouting cheerfully at Cliff.


These oscillations between humor and seriousness in Jimmy's behavior are exemplified most clearly in the newspaper rituals and music hall routines into which the characters are likely to lapse at any moment, but the humor has larger consequences than that of simply amusing the audience. The humor is characteristically an ironic humor that serves several purposes, not the least of which is that of saving the play from collapsing under the weight of Jimmy's self-pity and self-concern. Ironic humor provides distance, both for the audience from Jimmy and for Jimmy from his obsessive concerns. And this is of major importance in a play that is in many ways about the recurring problem the characters confront of relating their private lives to the urgent social issues Jimmy repeatedly raises. As Helena at one point exclaims in exasperation, “Jimmy, can we have one day, just one day, without tumbling over religion or politics?” (98). Jimmy's humor at his own, as well as everyone else's, expense prevents him from coming across as either an obsessive narcissist or an ideological fanatic. The humor serves, in effect, both to complicate his perspective and to establish a connection between the diverse issues that alternately command his attention. And this process of connecting diversity rather than converting it to uniformity is of both structural and thematic significance to a play that exhibits an innovative approach to some aggressively challenged conventions. But it is the nature of those conventions and the room they leave for establishing alternatives that helps us recognize what Osborne was trying to achieve by mixing rather than merging attitudes, aims, and anxieties.

When Alison abandons Jimmy midway through the play, she leaves him a note that concludes with “I shall always have a deep, loving need of you—Alison” (90). The rhetoric of the letter, as much as the decision to leave, makes Jimmy furious, and he denounces its civilized sentimentality as characteristic of a homogenizing way of life and of writing plays for which he has complete contempt. “Deep, loving need! I never thought she was capable of being as phoney as that! [To Helena.] What is that—a line from one of those plays you've been in?” (90). Jimmy would have much preferred, had Alison been intent on leaving, that she emphasize, rather than diminish, their differences by denouncing him as she feels he deserves: “Deep loving need! That makes me puke! … She couldn't say ‘You rotten bastard! I hate your guts, I'm clearing out, and I hope you rot!’ No, she has to make a polite, emotional mess out of it!” (90).

It is, of course, the kind of play that presents “a polite, emotional mess” that Osborne is trying very hard not to write. Both Jimmy's biting savagery and his ironic humor give this play a tonal range, and with it a range of implication, that lies beyond that characteristic of plays, particularly Rattigan's plays, that immediately preceded Osborne's on the London stage. The genteel delicacy and reserved nostalgia of the characters in Rattigan's Separate Tables (1954), for example, provide an illuminating contrast with what Osborne was trying to achieve with his oddly structured play. Whatever the virtues of Rattigan's plays (and there were many that Osborne overlooked), they often depicted characters whose determination to cope in difficult circumstances exemplified the civic virtues characteristic of a widely unified and steadily expanding country in which everyone was expected to do his/her social duty for the greater good of all. However, once English society, after World War II, began to lose both its sense of external destiny and its sense of internal unity, well-mannered acceptance of one's diminished lot seemed, to Jimmy, as to Osborne, a betrayal of social responsibility rather than a salutary example of it. The cheerful malice and savage humor of Jimmy Porter are thus Osborne's ways of widening the range of response of a country in increasing trouble and unable or unwilling to confront it. But this widening of the range of awareness of an increasingly divided society brings with it structural problems, not the least of which are those of focus and direction, that have left their mark on the play in general and upon Jimmy in particular.

One cannot, of course, deal with the structural imbalances of Look Back in Anger without relating them to the widespread acknowledgement that Osborne's plays are often “state of England” plays. While the thematic implications of that concern have been widely recognized, the structural implications have received much less attention. Yet Osborne's determination to grapple with the difficulties of writing a play about England at a time of radical national change is precisely what has precipitated the odd disjunction between the play's historical importance and its apparent structural infelicities. The key difficulty such a play confronts is that of preparing a canvas large enough to deal with the diversity of national themes without thereby losing the dramatic intensity generated by detailed attention to particular characters. The difficulty of reconciling individual and social concerns is thus an awkward issue both for characters seeking to impose some shape on their lives and for the author trying to establish an appropriate shape for the play. And it is only if we recognize the structural complexity of the situation Osborne was exploring that we will be able to make sense of the mixed moods, shifting contexts, and inconsistent arguments of a play that seeks to deal with a national situation by focussing the action primarily upon an idiosyncratic character whose voice is clearly not meant to function as a representative one.

To clarify the peculiar structural role of Jimmy in the play, we might consider again the structure of Rattigan's Separate Tables. In that double bill of one-act plays, Rattigan locates his characters in a state of England context by placing them in a residential hotel in the seaside resort of Bournemouth. The hotel location provides a convenient site of intersection for the lives and experiences of a variety of English people whose current interaction reveals both the diversity of their pasts and the common rules of social exchange that English society has taught them to observe. The key tensions in the two plays are generated directly from the gaps that open between the competing claims of the public and the private, the social and the individual, and the past and the present in a postwar England no longer able to sustain a narrative of national destiny that would serve to bridge its various social divisions.

Within the framework provided by a community rhetoric of “deep, loving need” and a shared set of rules for public decorum, the plays are beautifully structured, and they provide a painfully revealing exploration of the necessity for and inadequacy of self-sacrifice in a world in imminent decline. But, for Osborne, the plays lack the range and intensity of feeling that are needed to deal with an England whose decline should not be sadly recognized and nobly accepted but be angrily resisted with a range and intensity of response commensurate with the impending loss. And the outraged voice of protest is to be a means of registering not just a sense of personal deprivation, but also a sense of what becomes central to the play: intergenerational responsibility and betrayal.

When Jimmy looks back in anger, he is generationally situated as a voice of contemporary youth even as he is personally agonizing over the deaths of his father and his best friend's mother, struggling to come to terms with the hostility of his wife's father and mother, and grappling unsuccessfully with the implications of his and Alison's own imminent and aborted parenthood. To pursue the thematic implications of this generational approach to the state of England issue, we need to recognize how Osborne decided to deal with it structurally. Clearly it would have been possible for Osborne to follow Rattigan (and even Brecht) and widen the social canvas to give more time to opposing points of view and to include characters from a broader range of society. The danger would immediately be that the more characters and the more widely representative the characters the less room there would be for detailed presentation, in-depth exploration, and convincing dramatization of the complex authenticity of any individual character's response to England's changing world. What Osborne does instead, at great risk to the structure of his play, is to establish not one hotel room but one sensibility, that of Jimmy Porter, as the site upon which the generational crosscurrents of declining English society would be tracked. The gains would be the intensity of a detailed and lengthy personal response. The potential losses would be those of balance, representativeness, and persuasiveness. And it is precisely in terms of those apparent strengths and weaknesses that the play has widely been received. But if we are to do the play justice, we need to see clearly what Osborne managed to achieve by establishing a single idiosyncratic sensibility as his site of dramatic engagement with England's assorted and accumulating ills.

As we have noted, we will understand little of Jimmy's erratic and explosive behavior if we do not begin with a recognition that when critiquing the lives of other characters as well as himself, he is engaged as much with a national situation as with personal relationships. But he is no allegorical figure, and the play is not one of abstract analysis or general illustration. Osborne's effort throughout is to make Jimmy's response to the England invoked both idiosyncratically excessive and generally revealing. Jimmy functions in the play not by being balanced, authoritative, and right, but by raising in inflammatory ways questions that remain troubling even when the idiosyncracy of their formulation has been acknowledged. And this is, of course, the source of Jimmy's appeal even to those characters and members of the audience who are likely to find him the most objectionable.

Alison, Colonel Redfern, and Helena, in turn, acknowledge not that Jimmy is right but that some of his concerns should also be their concerns. In a manner doubtless calculated to outrage an audience, they all acknowledge, grudgingly or otherwise, that they have learnt something from him. Jimmy, however, is neither ideologue nor prophet. His generational claims to attention are that he is English and young, at a time when being young in England had acquired an historical and cultural resonance whose significance becomes clearer with each passing year. What was already evident in the '50s was that the naturally expanding contexts of youth were confronting the rapidly narrowing contexts of a country in decline.4 The general tendency for the ambitions of youth to exceed its grasp was thus given particular historical resonance by recurring reminders that, for many members of an earlier generation, England provided a much more advantageous situation in which to grow up. And the odd mixture of sympathy and savagery that characterizes Jimmy's attitude to Alison's father captures an ambivalence about intergenerational perspectives that becomes central to the play:

I hate to admit it, but I think I can understand how her Daddy must have felt when he came back from India, after all those years away. The old Edwardian brigade do make their brief little world look pretty tempting. All homemade cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms. Always the same picture: high summer, the long days in the sun, slim volumes of verse, crisp linen, the smell of starch. What a romantic picture. Phoney too, of course. It must have rained sometimes. Still, even I regret it somehow, phoney or not. If you've no world of your own, it's rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else's. I must be getting sentimental. But I must say it's pretty dreary living in the American Age—unless you're an American of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans. That's a thought isn't it?


It is only Jimmy's sustained irony that enables him to share the colonists' sense of loss without sharing their views on colonization, to sustain that sense of loss while suggesting that much of what was lost wasn't real in the first place, and to strike an international chord of disapproval of America's increasing prominence that continues to echo even as the envy generated by an England in decline is openly confessed. But the complex ironies that provide a degree of credibility to his vehement intergenerational judgments also serve to open a gap between Jimmy's passions and his actions that bears directly upon his odd role in the play.

Though Jimmy establishes the note of generational responsibility and generational change by holding his parents' generation responsible for losing its grasp on national destiny, for bequeathing to the next generation no world of its own, he appears to have no clear plans for doing something constructive about it. He is certainly prepared to denounce his own generation for getting too used too readily to a diminished role in the world, and one of his recurring gripes is that “Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm” (10). Indeed, Jimmy's attacks on Alison repeatedly focus on what he perceives as her lethargy, her timidity, and her readiness to accept whatever comes her way: “She's a great one for getting used to things. If she were to die, and wake up in paradise—after the first five minutes, she'd have got used to it” (10). This is a tendency widespread enough for Jimmy to recognize it in himself (33), but Jimmy's denunciations are usually strengthened rather than weakened by his recognition of dangers to which he too is subject. In his recurring bouts of condemnation, Jimmy exhibits more of an enthusiasm for thinking and caring about issues and people than for acting upon any beliefs and convictions that might significantly change people's lives or the historical direction of England. Though Jimmy is outraged when his friend Hugh decides to emigrate, he cannot produce for Hugh, any more than for himself, a promising English alternative. Jimmy's sense of national duty seems to require him to bear outraged witness to an unalterable national decline, but not necessarily to intervene. He has made no attempt to establish a career, join a political group, or become socially involved in any systematic way.

Jimmy's inability to do anything about the problems that concern him diminishes but does not destroy the credibility of his judgments and the persuasiveness of his enthusiasms, but more important is the light it sheds on the dramatic function of a character whose idiosyncratic sensibility provides the site of dramatization rather than the source of solution to the issues the play confronts. In effect, Jimmy serves more as a means of identifying and amplifying national problems than as a likely instrument of their solution. His role in the play is consequently not just that of a character with relationships to other characters on stage but also that of an historical voice seeking to relate events occurring here and now to those that occurred earlier or elsewhere. The large cast of characters who never appear thus serves as one of several means of broadening the implied context of a play whose implications become more extensive as the action progresses.

Across the stage of Jimmy's emotional outrage and rhetorical amplification run the assorted social ills of a difficult moment in English history that Jimmy, in effect, helps both to shape and define. It is a world in which disintegrating empire leaves the country with a sense of decline and guilt; one in which bewildered voters return to power (in 1951) the establishment party in place of the party of social reform; Christians trample upon each other to express their residual spiritual enthusiasms; bishops give speeches to support the manufacture of hydrogen bombs; literary critics squabble over historical trivia rather than cultural substance; and the young subside into resignation, alienation, or emigration. The picture presented is biased, distorted, and exaggerated, but sufficiently true to speak of a generation, though not necessarily for them. But this recognition returns us to one of the vexed problems presented by this putatively historical voice: while generationally engaged, it is not generationally well-situated, for it is neither internally consistent nor externally representative.

To criticize Osborne, however, for appointing the inconsistent Jimmy as the voice of a generation whose views he does not share is not yet to have come to terms with the precarious status of representative voices in a society that is increasingly divided. As a consequence of the discrediting of inherited narratives of national destiny, the world that Jimmy speaks in and for is one whose expectations of consensus foundered early on an increasing recognition of irreconcilable conflicts between people of different ages, classes, genders, education, wealth, religion, and politics. Jimmy himself both exhibits and amplifies some of those conflicts, alternately loving and despising women, attaching himself to Alison while rejecting her social origins, declaring affinity with gay rebels while anticipating that he will be a target of their wrath, trying to overcome the instant dislike Hugh and Alison have for each other, hoping to forge a bond between Alison and Mrs. Tanner, and sympathizing with Alison's father while savagely rejecting her brother:

Have you ever seen her brother? Brother Nigel? The straight-backed, chinless wonder from Sandhurst? … you've never heard so many well-bred commonplaces come from beneath the same bowler hat. The Platitude from Outer Space—that's brother Nigel. He'll end up in the Cabinet one day, make no mistake. But somewhere at the back of that mind is the vague knowledge that he and his pals have been plundering and fooling everybody for generations.


This is, of course, a very different view of England's military might and political establishment than that exhibited in his response to the career of Colonel Redfern. But Jimmy's inconsistencies are not mere inconsistencies. They are symptomatic of the divided perspectives that characterize both his function as an intergenerational historical voice and his function as a generationally situated character in the play.

The polyvalent Jimmy Porter voice that constantly threatens to drown out those of Alison, Cliff, and Helena is the voice of a larger than life character who functions for his own generation not as someone just like them or as someone completely remote from them, but as someone who seems something of a monster in their midst. They share his Englishness, his youth, and his concerns, but not the fury or the fatalism that give the country's problems for him such power, proportion, and preposterousness. But the odd dynamic of the interaction between Jimmy and the other characters, a dynamic described by Osborne as an “uneasy polyphony” (2), is characterized less by disagreements over substance than by disproportion of scale. Though Jimmy rails about politics and religion, he neither addresses nor offers arguments of political or religious scope. And a play that focusses extensively on issues related to empire and equity is also likely at any moment to deal with sweet stalls, tabloid gossip, and jazz bands. These oscillations between events of contrasting scale are partly the consequence of the ironic humor Jimmy adopts throughout the play, but they also prepare the way for a puzzlingly downbeat ending about stuffed squirrels and toy bears. Somewhere in this downbeat ending the concerns of Jimmy as divided historical voice and Jimmy as divided character merge, as personal, national, and cultural reasons for uncertainty and inaction lead inexorably toward issues of diminished scale.

From the outset, issues of historical change, social division, and diminished scale are given visual linkage in a stage setting that situates Jimmy and the other characters in a world of multiple transitions. The scene, we are told, is set in the present with Jimmy and Alison living in “a fairly large attic room, at the top of a large Victorian house” (1). The attic room is full of old furniture, some of it from the Victorian era, and its ceiling slopes down sharply to increase the sense of displacement, confinement, and constraint in an otherwise significant space. As Alison later on recalls the evenings she spent with Jimmy in this room, she describes them as “suspended and rather remote” (109). This constrained attic setting with its substantial Victorian foundations gives visual form to one of the unbridgeable and unacceptable historical divisions in Jimmy's life. Alison's and Helena's clothes, when the two are living with Jimmy, register similarly unbridgeable and unacceptable class divisions. Both wear an odd mixture of their own expensive clothes and Jimmy's more utilitarian ones. The Sunday ritual of reading the newspapers provides more examples of the social divisions that drive Jimmy to distraction, and his rhetorical question, “Why do I do this every Sunday?” (3), gives formal shape to a question generated by the whole set, by Jimmy's biting irony, and by much of the early action: why does Jimmy situate his personal life so insistently in the context of England's social history and social divisions?

It is central to the evolving relationship between Jimmy as intergenerational voice and Jimmy as generational character that we recognize that there are personal and not just historical reasons for Jimmy's insistence, in opposing Hugh's decision to emigrate and elsewhere, upon the importance of living nowhere else but England, even at a time when national issues generate more pain than pleasure. Jimmy has an evident personal need to maintain links with earlier generations of English people, whose strengths and weaknesses provide an inheritance with which he feels obliged to come to terms. And coming to terms with that inheritance involves the constant adjustments of scale that complicate Jimmy's life and the lives of everyone else who is haunted by issues of historical consequence and proportion.

The personal basis for Jimmy's intergenerational concerns can be traced back to the early death of his father, and to attend to that story is to encounter some of the reasons why Jimmy's anger is not matched by his actions, and to understand why the intensity of his concerns might captivate other members of his own generation who, though not sharing his anger, feel compelled to respect it. Jimmy had a father who believed there were still, even after the slaughter of the first World War, causes good enough to fight for and collective actions worthy of individual support. In the 1930s he joined in good faith the International Brigade that set out to rescue Spain from fascist domination. He returned, seriously wounded and defeated, to find that his idealistic efforts were greeted not with gratitude, but with doubt and suspicion. Jimmy then felt the full force of his father's disillusionment and defeat at an age when both were likely to make a large and lasting impression:

For twelve months, I watched my father dying—when I was ten years old. He'd come back from the war in Spain, you see. And certain god-fearing gentlemen there had made such a mess of him, he didn't have long left to live. Everyone knew it—even I knew it. … But … I was the only one who cared. (Turns to the window.) His family were embarrassed by the whole business. Embarrassed and irritated. … All that that feverish failure of a man had to listen to him was a small, frightened boy. I spent hour upon hour in that tiny bedroom. He would talk to me for hours, pouring out all that was left of his life to one, lonely, bewildered little boy, who could barely understand half of what he said. All he could feel was the despair and the bitterness, the sweet, sickly smell of a dying man. (He moves around the chair.) You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless. And I can never forget it. (Sits.) I knew more about—love … betrayal … and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know all your life.


Though Jimmy's recurring self-concern and self-pity are as evident here as elsewhere, they do not suffice to eradicate the impact of his experience on the dramatic situation emerging in the play. Jimmy as an individual character, as distinct from Jimmy as an amplifying voice, has personal as well as historical reasons for doubting the value of radical social intervention. His father's death provides the testimony of experience to oppose any testimony youth might offer that strenuous effort will produce its just reward or be its own reward. But worse than that, what the death of his father exemplifies is what the slaughter of world war had exemplified and would exemplify again: that the scale of the effort needed to produce significant change is not proportionate to the probability of success or to whatever might be conceived as constituting success. The death of Jimmy's father provided an early personal encounter with a widely resisted public recognition of the appalling individual costs involved in national responsibilities or national ambitions of imperial scale. And behind the issue of competing public and personal scales lurk questions both about the value of imperial victories so dearly bought and about the value of less visible achievements more locally situated and enjoyed. If no newly defined England could hope to match the scale of achievement that the efforts of earlier generations had, however ill advisedly, produced, what could or should serve, instead, to satisfy the youthful aspirations and ambitions of succeeding generations?

When Colonel Redfern left England in 1914 and returned in 1947, the dates mark key points in the national transition between counting gains and counting costs for large ambitions in the world. Colonel Redfern returns to an England widely regarded as “going to the dogs” (83) but unable to sustain by moral argument or force of arms the scale of its earlier achievements. It is this problem of historical transition and historical scale that makes the English condition in this moment difficult for the generation growing old to accept, but even more difficult, as we have noted, for the young to deal with.

Jimmy as historically situated character is most fully in tune with his own generation when he addresses the issue of being young in England in the period after the second World War. His early comment that their “youth is slipping away” (8) captures a feeling that all the younger characters, in different ways, share. When Alison tries to explain to Helena why she married Jimmy, she describes the youthful fire that seemed to emanate from him and elevate him beyond his much less historically aware peers:

It had been such a lovely day, and he'd been in the sun. Everything about him seemed to burn, his face, the edges of his hair glistened and seemed to spring off his head, and his eyes were so blue and full of the sun. He looked so young and frail, in spite of the tired line of his mouth. I knew I was taking on more than I was ever likely to be capable of bearing, but there never seemed to be any choice.


Later, alone with Cliff, pregnant, and near despair, she responds to Cliff's argument that she is “too young to start giving up” (26) with a despairing acknowledgement that youth has little purchase in a world of inherited decline:

I keep looking back, as far as I remember, and I can't think what it was to feel young, really young. Jimmy said the same thing to me the other day. I pretended not to be listening—because I knew that would hurt him, I suppose. And—of course—he got savage, like tonight. But I knew just what he meant.


The larger implications of Alison's “I knew just what he meant” help her understand his savagery and help bind all the younger characters to each other whatever their differences. To be young in an aging country is to lose too early the possibilities that youth might otherwise supply and to encounter too early losses that age more regularly supplies. As Jimmy puts it, “I seem to spend my life saying goodbye” (104). But this is a process Jimmy can neither escape nor accept, and his ill-focussed rage is often an expression of the conflict between acceptance of the necessity for change and intolerance of its implications. Alison first regards Jimmy as someone whose youthful vigor can transcend the problem, and then as someone whose mercurial behavior can at least authentically exhibit it, but eventually she comes to see him, as the action of the play suggests we see him, as someone whose idiosyncratic way of dealing with the problem raises further possibilities. And it is in defining the nature of these further possibilities and their relationship to problems of scale that the action of the play clarifies the representative status of Jimmy's otherwise unrepresentative voice.

Alison admires the rigor but is exhausted by the consequences of Jimmy's determination to resist false narratives of national destiny without opposing them with some new one of his own. Jimmy's “blistering honesty” is the honesty, however intemperate, of someone who refuses either to disguise or dismiss temporal and social divisions but seeks to affirm them and try to live through them. Just as he insists upon Alison denouncing him if she feels justified in leaving him, he wants all his relationships to work through their local complexities, rather than work around them in the false name of historically characterized romance or nationally defined destiny. This determination to confront local differences is not for Jimmy a means of destroying larger patterns, but the only means by which he can sustain the possibility that larger patterns might eventually emerge.

Discussing with Helena the rather visible affection she shares with Cliff, Alison tries to describe the relationship in Jimmy's terms:

It isn't easy to explain. It's what he would call a question of allegiances, and he expects you to be pretty literal about them. Not only about himself and all the things he believes in, his present and his future, but his past as well. All the people he admires and loves, and has loved. The friends he used to know, people I've never even known—and probably wouldn't have liked. His father, who died years ago. Even the other women he's loved.


Though Jimmy's self-concern often borders on the insufferable, it is not without its social implications. Relationships survive for Jimmy not on the basis of traditional rights that disguise differences of opinion and value but on the basis of shared achievements that provide bridges across persisting differences. And here Jimmy's attitude strikes Alison as both timely and persuasive:

Helena—even I gave up believing in the divine rights of marriage long ago. Even before I met Jimmy. They've got something different now—constitutional monarchy. You are where you are by consent.


Such consent does not constitute a permanent commitment, but a repeatedly renewable one, and the implications of that renewal raise in another context the issue of scale that recurs throughout the action. Jimmy wants relationships to be contingent and contractual, but also to exceed their local origins and endure. As Alison points out, Jimmy wants to hold onto everyone he has ever loved, even as he wants love to be based upon freedom, contingency, and ever-revisable consent. He wants relationships to dictate their own terms but also to achieve a depth of intensity and breadth of scale if they are to be significant to him. And startlingly, this peculiar conjunction of convictions results in Jimmy's wife and Jimmy's lover both characterizing the play's most iconoclastic figure as something of an anachronism:

He was born out of his time.
Yes. I know.
There's no place for people like that any longer—in sex, or politics, or anything. That's why he's so futile. Sometimes, when I listen to him, I feel he thinks he's still in the middle of the French Revolution. And that's where he ought to be, of course. He doesn't know where he is, or where he's going. He'll never do anything, and he'll never amount to anything.
I suppose he's what you'd call an Eminent Victorian. Slightly comic—in a way. …


Slightly comic, of course, not just because of his anachronistic status but also because his concern for historical scale impels him to live his personal life in impossibly public terms, because his uncompromising investment in generational responsibility sustains the very sense of Englishness that he seems otherwise to despise, and because his impossible demands are uttered with the self-deprecating irony of someone who recognizes that his determination to define himself as a lost cause is both a contemporary indulgence and a historical necessity.

Though Jimmy is, indeed, something of an anachronism, he manages not to be a mere anachronism. Somehow, his intergenerational concerns enable him to function simultaneously as a voice of outraged youth, a voice of semi-skeptical modern nostalgia, and a voice of imperious Victorian expectation. The divided voice is divided not just by differing values, but by differing senses of what suffices to constitute value. The differing value judgments of different eras, the differing expectations of what individual action can accomplish, and the differing scales for judging what gives an individual life sufficient shape and sufficient point make Jimmy's attempts to amalgamate them impossible. Such incompatibilities of both substance and scale are amplified by Jimmy's rhetoric and given visual and aural exemplification in the contrast established between the church bells, whose chimes drive Jimmy to distraction every Sunday, and the jazz trumpet that he plays to drown them out. In the differing balance they invoke between convention and innovation and in their significant differences of size and scale, the huge bells and the jazz trumpet offer very different possibilities for individual improvisation and control. And the comic contrast between these competing sounds returns us to the significance of the play's similarly comic ending in which toy squirrels and bears supply a complex context of diminished scale to earlier issues of much larger moment.

Helena is startled when she first encounters the stuffed teddy bear and squirrel in the Porter's flat, and even more startled when she learns that they have an established role in the Alison/Jimmy relationship. Alison explains it at first in terms of sheer escapism:

It started during those first months we had alone together—after Hugh went abroad. It was the one way of escaping from everything—a sort of unholy priest-hole of being animals to one another. We could become little furry creatures with little furry brains. Full of dumb, uncomplicated affection for each other. Playful, careless creatures in their own cosy zoo for two.


And it is in just these terms that we see Jimmy and Alison playing this game with each other early in the play. The localizing of context and concern is indeed a temporary means of escape from the brawling over large scale issues of politics and religion. When Jimmy and Alison return to the game at the play's conclusion, however, it is in the generational context of their lost child and recent separation. No longer a means of escaping their problems, the game becomes a means of renewing a relationship whose complexities have become more apparent to them both. The game is no longer a mere escape from the past or an avoidance of the present but a means of engaging the future through a painful but pleasurable “comic emphasis” (119) on the value of the divided perspectives that they both now ruefully acknowledge. Their mutual sympathy and individual differences are exhibited in the remarks “Poor squirrels” and “Poor bears” (119). Their reconciliation is one that takes as its point of departure a “mocking, tender irony” (119) that is less negative than Jimmy's earlier savage irony and more authentic than the simplistic platitudes of Nigel and his like. In its tender acknowledgement of difference, the reconciliation offers a means of accommodating without equating differing scales of value, expectation, and duration, of coping with local situations saturated with larger generational concerns, of resisting false optimism and premature despair, of deciding to build, with whatever difficulty, from here.

Whether we think that this registers for Jimmy a significant defeat or a significant victory depends on how we evaluate the anger and aggressiveness he was earlier seeking to validate. To be young and English in the 1950s was for him to be trapped, as the Victorian attic setting suggests, in the debris of a dying civilization that not only restricted one's present but nurtured and contaminated one's roots. To live in any way, it was necessary, as Jimmy intermittently recognized, to die in some way. And the transition Jimmy and Alison undergo in the play is one of lowering the scale of imperial expectations in order to sustain any expectations at all. Their adjustment is indeed to one of reconciliation with the smaller world to which Jimmy is initially so opposed, but what is at issue is the nature of the reconciliation that Jimmy had so far steadfastly resisted. For it is the assumption that reduction in scale must imply a reduction in substance that has made Jimmy so frantically determined to affirm both local authenticity and larger significance, with or without an accompanying irony. The most famous lines of the play address directly the shift of national scale and its personal implications, but as we noted earlier, they are spoken in Jimmy's “familiar, semi-serious mood”:

There aren't any good, brave causes left. 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-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.


The challenge for the Jimmy/Alison generation as it succeeded that of its parents is to find some point to a world no longer glorious, to find a way beyond demanding or denouncing glory on an imperial scale, to find some means of measuring value that does not reduce to triviality, or worse, whatever is available in contexts of diminished scale.

Jimmy's “semi-serious” speech on good, brave causes is, in fact, precipitated by his acknowledgement that he would be prepared to sacrifice his friendship with Cliff to any woman whose romantic potential might provide in the personal realm a scale of experience that earlier generations enjoyed in the public realm. Jimmy, in characteristic fashion, both affirms and denies the possibility:

It's a funny thing. You've been loyal, generous and a good friend. But I'm quite prepared to see you wander off, find a new home, and make out on your own. And all because of something I want from that girl downstairs, something I know in my heart she's incapable of giving. You're worth a half a dozen Helenas to me or to anyone. And, if you were in my place, you'd do the same thing. … Why, why, why, why do we let these women bleed us to death? … 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. (In his familiar, semi-serious mood.) There aren't any good, brave causes left … there's nothing left for it, me boy, but to let yourself be butchered by the women.


Jimmy's characteristic irony both elevates and deflates what romance so conceived has to offer, and his actions are likewise inconsistent. Within minutes he is planning to make a new start to his life with Helena (107), later accepting her departure with resignation, then trying to reestablish his relationship with Alison through the squirrel and bear routine. But there is much to suggest that both Jimmy and Alison have learned something in the process. The reconciliation is, in effect, one that takes as given what the squirrel and bear game suggests: the smaller scale, more local context, and less grandiose expectations of a life in which personal relationships are not to be measured primarily on an imperial scale of public achievement. But this adjustment to the smaller scale is no longer treated as a matter of temporary escapism or long-term defeat. This context is treated more as a point of departure than as a necessary destination. The shared irony at the end neither precludes nor predicts significant depth, devotion, or duration, but it clearly suggests that matters of personal scale need be dominated neither by the national narratives of earlier generations nor by the diminished contexts of this. Furthermore, in establishing the issue of diminished scale as central to the play's conclusion, Osborne made the personal concerns of Jimmy and the national concerns of England resonate with larger cultural concerns whose implications have become clearer with the passing of time, but particularly with the performance and publication of his final play, Déjàvu.

Dealing with life in intergenerational terms gives the Jimmy of 1956 many problems, not the least of which is an uncertainty over the scale of the picture he needs to draw to make sense of his own life. His efforts to think intergenerationally put him at odds with his own generation and its inclination to narrow its concerns to what it can actually control. Jimmy's idiosyncratic voice achieves a larger resonance by resisting, initially, the retreat to smaller pictures and smaller values and, subsequently, the equation of smaller pictures with smaller values. Look Back in Anger achieved its initial impact in part because the depiction of historically situated and idiosyncratically articulated youthful alienation was able to speak beyond its historical moment by being so thoroughly situated in its historical moment. The role of Jimmy as amplifying voice increased the impact of Jimmy the historically situated character by relating it to and giving it implications for other youthful moments. But Osborne had his finger on the pulse of history in more ways than one. In recognizing that the issue of changing scale was as important to Jimmy as any issue of substance (Jimmy juxtaposes “pointless and inglorious”), he was tracing a larger cultural shift from the large ambitions of both Victorians and modernists toward those lower-scale ambitions of the postmodernists that were to come. Jimmy, a threshold character, was caught in a dilemma that we are only now beginning to be able to articulate, but which we can see much more clearly because of Osborne's 1991 sequel to the play, Déjàvu.

Much of the discussion of postmodernism as a cultural category or historical moment has hinged upon a disagreement over the implications of the term itself. As many have pointed out, the sense of a new era is conveyed by the term “post,” but to describe the new era as “post” the one before is to anchor it to what it appears to transcend. This ambiguity in the term is further exacerbated by a famous argument from Jean-François Lyotard that postmodernism is not something that succeeds modernism but is, in fact, a recurring aspect of it.5 Whether postmodernism precedes, accompanies, or succeeds a modernism itself very difficult to define has thus become a major bone of contention, one that puts at particular risk those who seek to discuss postmodernism primarily in terms of documents with some new kind of style that have appeared only in recent years.

To avoid that limiting presupposition and to consider postmodernism continually in its relationship to modernism is to adopt precisely the kind of inter-era/intergenerational perspective that makes Jimmy Porter's voice so powerful, so inconsistent, and so surprisingly authentic in Look Back in Anger. Indeed, one of the early theorists of postmodernism, Ihab Hassan, argued, in a famous essay, both that postmodernism marks a decisive break with modernism and that, in spite of the radical nature of period transitions, we are all something of Victorians, modernists, and postmodernists at once.6

To take such a view is to recognize that the divided perspective and intergenerational concerns of Jimmy Porter capture not just something of the youth of a particular character or of a moment in the decline of a particular nation but also something of a moment of cultural transition, one that has resonance for everyone concerned with what comes after modernism as a cultural movement and with what should happen to the modernist social values that accompanied it. Osborne's peculiarly structured play, with its insistent focus upon the divided sensibility of a central character, achieved and retains its historical importance because of the resonance it establishes between personal, political, and cultural issues at a moment of triple transition. In each of the three spheres, relationships between successive generations, competing values, and shifting scales are of central importance. Indeed, the issue of contrasting scales, so evident in the play's concluding images of squirrels and bears, marks a key difference between the Victorian/modernism transition, where it was a less important issue, and the modernism/postmodernism transition where it becomes an obsessive concern. Much of Lyotard's famous argument hinges upon the lost credibility of large unifying community narratives and upon their replacement by local group commitments of limited scope and durability. Cultural change, so conceived, intersects with the trajectory of post-imperial England's social change to generate Jimmy's persistent anger about the (often unwitting) betrayal by the previous generation and about his own generation's acquiescence, timidity, and general lack of aggression and enthusiasm. In Déjàvu, written thirty-five years later, Osborne voices his worst fears of where things might be headed, rather than the qualified hopes exemplified in the final pages of Look Back in Anger.

In Déjàvu (1991) Jimmy Porter is thirty years older and has found a way of surviving, even of thriving, but in a characteristically idiosyncratic fashion, rather than one he might recommend to anyone else. Still a determinedly unrepresentative figure, he is, he argues, “a spokesman for no one but myself.”7 Jimmy's marriage to Alison has ended in divorce, and much of the action of the play is devoted to Jimmy directing at the children of his second marriage the same scathing, but not always unsympathetic, irony that he once inflicted upon his parent's generation. The toy bear, which had once suggested the positive possibilities of life at a reduced scale, now exhibits only the negative possibilities of narrowness, conformity, political correctness, and stunted growth. Though seriously interested in such things as “meaningful relationships” (11), Teddy has been encouraged to avoid unusual “forms of self-expression” (86), to indulge only in “safe sex” (12), to consider himself a likely victim of oppression (74), to seek redress in a “European Court of Teddy Rights” (85), to degenerate into a “cuddly conformist” (63), to aspire no higher than “mediocrity” (101), and, in effect, to exemplify what J.P. regards as the worst of the post-Jimmy generation:

Damn it, J.P., he's only human—
Damn you, that's just what he's not. It's what he's been told.


The usual layers of irony confirm that, from Jimmy's point of view, the possibility of building from the local something larger has collapsed into a collective myopia that diminishes both the scale and substance of the next generation's concerns. Oblivious to the potential virtues of the intergenerational perspective that has characterized, divided, and tormented his own life, the next generation deals with generational change, social diversity, and cultural transition by developing fashionable and fleeting means of unifying the otherwise un-unifiable. To Jimmy, the new generation seems determined to compromise its way into consensus, to become “unconnected to the past” (64) in general, and even to “erase the past” (83) whenever it suggests reasons for dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

The self-congratulatory disruption that Jimmy sought to impose upon his own quietly divided generation has little purchase on the next generation, which, to Jimmy's mind, has abandoned self-determination and individual responsibility for collective counselling, “sloppy fads” (57), mass opinion, “mob philanthropy” (75), and unearned European solidarity. The unifying imperial narrative of English destiny that pressured individuals to elevate their concerns to the rhetorical levels of the few born to lead have given way to random narratives that briefly unify otherwise disparate groups by appealing to the lowest common denominator, to the life of least disruption, to the path of least resistance. Jimmy's summarizing image is of mass attendance at a pop concert at which the audience members engage in a collective wave motion to exhibit the coherence and comfort of a “wave new world” (34). As church bells once more ring out in the background, Jimmy's critique of the succeeding generation echoes the one he had earlier made of the preceding generation: “against the noise and clamour of those who would impose their certainties upon us. God rot their certainties” (101).

Jimmy's daughter, Alison, spends much of the play at the ironing board once occupied by his first wife; she wears the ubiquitous earphones of a generation turned largely within rather than without, but attending within only to what has been collectively affirmed without. Jimmy's savage images of this generation, like his savage images of the preceding generation, are not without their justification, but, as the earphones suggest, his ability to attract attention has, like much else in the world, diminished sharply. To Alison, Jimmy is someone who has devoted himself to “a lifetime of useless snarling” (39), and it is evident in this play, as in Look Back in Anger, that Jimmy's function is to focus and amplify generational issues rather than to resolve them. And as in Look Back in Anger, Jimmy's idiosyncracy, inconsistency, and excess serve more to extend the play's range of awareness than to provide a model for others to follow.

Jimmy's mode of self-justification has, however, progressed one step further. The difficulty he encountered in the earlier play of affirming both the integrity of local events and the importance of imperial scale has been transformed from a baffling inconsistency into a paradoxical affirmation. In the face of a new generation's debilitating readiness to conform to fashionable narratives of many kinds, whether based upon nationality, class, gender, race, religion, or anything else, Jimmy preaches the virtues of the very inconsistency his intergenerational perspectives have repeatedly exhibited. Refusing to become anything so assimilable as “a member of the public” (9), the erstwhile jazz player argues in exasperation that “coherence isn't all,” that “coherence … conceals as much as is revealed to the lost like me who contemplate the wreckage” (51). Jimmy revels in the “mess” of “muddled enthusiasm” (94), in the “rowdy passion” that once typified English life, and in that splendidly “English virtue” of “irony” (81), an irony that multiplies perspectives so rapidly and unceasingly that any affirmation of it is itself rendered irreducibly and comically ironic:

(Very crisply, like battle commands.) Endow us with the courage of uncertainty. Accept an unruly but contrite heart. And in that frailty of disbelief we cannot overcome let us seek remedy from within ourselves and offer mercy that the world cannot give among the perils etcetera, etcetera.


Jimmy's contingent affirmation of contingency parodies the style and conviction of the fashionable preacher, “the Rev. Ron” who has joined the successor to the former play's Bishop of Bromley in establishing a “liturgical leisure centre” and “liturgical café” at which various kinds of “pop chat” reassure the masses that the responsibility for aberrant behavior lies not with the individual but the state (98, 45, 76). Jimmy supplements his own characteristically modernist irony with a characteristically postmodern investment in parody to challenge both the “dumb pieties” (63) of the next generation (34-36) and whatever platitudes he feels himself inclined to offer as a substitute (49-51). To Cliff's plea for “No more questions,” Jimmy retorts, “No more answers” (83), seeking always to situate himself intergenerationally between competing worlds. And to see Jimmy's divided sensibility as an exemplification of generational supplementation as opposed to generational supplantation is to recognize what Osborne was seeking to achieve by exploring cultural and national issues through the shifting sensibilities of an idiosyncratic and unrepresentative character. Strangely enough, it is Jimmy's very refusal to restrict his views to that of a single era, to unify his convictions into a single world view, or to align his actions with his assertions, that makes him serve as an unexpectedly successful site of dramatic engagement with the idiosyncratic shape of individual lives, the multilinear history of an evolving nation, and the contested development of a cultural process in a period of major transition.

Jimmy's inconsistency and excess mark him not as someone whose views we are expected to share, any more than the other characters share them, but as someone who provides, in spite of his many faults, a powerful and varied means of measuring those worlds that seek to exclude him. His excess, like Falstaff's in another era, prevents him from representing a world that any collectivity could occupy, but the vitality that accompanies it both measures and is measured by whatever seeks to oppose or ignore it. The “rowdy passion” that Jimmy both exemplifies and extols invokes a tradition of English irreverence that was already well established in the drama and poetry of medieval England and has persisted ever since.

Jimmy's divided sensibility provides a canvas wide enough to accommodate conflicting personal, national, and cultural issues. It shows how these issues can be mapped without being unified, can be related without being equated, can be measured without being standardized. Jimmy's determinedly intergenerational perspective exhibits inconsistencies whose virtues are clarified by an implied contrast with the costs—personal, social, and cultural—of any unified perspective, whether it be that of a generation, an era, a nation, a religion, a political philosophy, a cultural moment, or an aesthetic theory. What happens when a generation rejects too readily the voices of generations that have preceded or are succeeding it and settles for something currently fashionable is that the social divisions that generate future change are disguised rather than demolished, and a personal, national, and cultural resource is squandered. Jimmy, inconsistent and excessive, self-absorbed and generationally obsessed, seeks to be true to his own time by relating it continually and contentiously to the voices of other times. As inconsiderate of the pieties of one generation as of another, and of his own, Jimmy does, indeed, indulge in relentless “snarling,” but its value depends upon its capacity to persuade us of the falseness of the hope that peace can be born of coherence, consistency, or consensus.

Osborne, by ruthlessly cataloging Jimmy Porter's faults before the action of Look Back in Anger begins, challenges himself to find the means of making a disagreeable voice theatrically viable and an idiosyncratic personal voice nationally and culturally functional. The revolutionary play he was soon to describe as “rather old fashioned” mixed old and new in ways that captured a pivotal moment in the history of England and a pivotal moment in the development of modernism. The theatrical function of the main character is not to provide the audience with an example for admiration or emulation but to supply an idiosyncratic site of exploration for the issues that bind and divide citizens of a nation in flux. Like the jazz trumpet that selects from and recombines a history of possibility, Jimmy Porter finds his way beyond the homogenizing imperatives and linear expectations of imperial or post-imperial scale. His extravagant irony might indeed reduce his life to one of “useless snarling,” but his persistent search is for a “snatch of harmony” (51) that might, like the rhythms of the jazz trumpet and the games with squirrels and bears, resonate both at some smaller scale and at some larger level of social and cultural development, thereby suggesting larger human bonds and more complex historical patterns than any he can ever hope to summarize, circumscribe, or define:

(Softly.) … Anger is not hatred, which is what I see in all your faces. Anger is slow, gentle, not vindictive or full of spite. Also, it comes into the world in grief not grievance. … (Still softly.) “What's he angry about?” they used to ask. Anger is not about … It is mourning the unknown, the loss of what went before without you, it's the love another time but not this might have sprung on you, and greatest loss of all, the deprivation of what, even as a child, seemed to be irrevocably your own, your country, your birthplace, that, at least, is as tangible as death.
(ALISON “waves” defiantly. Deliberately, J.P. removes her headphones, picks up the attached instrument, drops it to the floor and steps on it. It crackles and breaks.)
(Presently.) Oh—well done, J.P.
I do try not to behave like the people I most despise.



  1. John Osborne, “That Awful Museum,” Twentieth Century 169 (1961): 216.

  2. David Hare, cited in “Introduction,” Hersh Zeifman and Cynthia Zimmerman, eds., Contemporary British Drama 1970-1990, (London: Macmillan, 1993) 2-3. See also Zeifman's accompanying discussion.

  3. John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, (New York: Bantam, 1971) 2. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

  4. See, in particular, Jimmy's remark, “Our youth is slipping away” (8), and Alison's, “I can't think what it was to feel young, really young” (26).

  5. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1984) 79-82.

  6. Ihab Hassan, “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism” in The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature, (Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1982) 259-71.

  7. John Osborne, Déjàvu, (London: Faber and Faber, 1991) 97. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

Richard Allen (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Allen, Richard. “A Post-Colonial World: Look Back in Anger and The Enigma of Arrival.” In Literature and Nation: Britain and India 1800-1990, edited by Richard Allen and Harish Trivedi, pp. 138-53. London: Routledge, 2000.

[In the following essay, Allen compares the treatment of British colonial culture in Look Back in Anger to V. S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival.]


In a famous speech delivered in Africa in 1958 the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared that a ‘wind of change’ was sweeping through the continent. Nationalism in the colonies was no longer something to be contested or absorbed but something to be recognized as simple political fact. For Britain and its colonies the post-colonial world had arrived. Consideration of events before and after 1958 suggests, however, that the adjective ‘post-colonial’ needs to be thought of as applying to a process happening over time rather than to a simple culture- or history-changing event. Those listening to Macmillan's speech, for example, could hardly forget the Suez crisis of barely two years before. In an almost Victorian imperialist gesture, Britain and France (with Israel) had invaded Egypt with the aim of seizing the Suez Canal. Twenty-six years later, as if to prove the empire were still a living thing, Britain sent not just a gunboat but an entire fleet to the South Atlantic to ‘reclaim’ the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

The Suez crisis is generally acknowledged to be a pivotal point in the remaking of British national identity. The events are described in all general histories of Britain covering this period: see, for example, Keith Robbins, The Eclipse of a Great Power: Modern Britain 1870-1992 (London: Longman, 1994). A more detailed study written closer to the time is Hugh Thomas, The Suez Affair: The Story of Suez (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967). Equally interesting are accounts by those involved, especially Anthony Nutting, No End of a Lesson (London: Constable, 1967), and Evelyn Shuckburgh, Descent to Suez: Diaries 1951-56, selected by John Charmley (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986). Two particular aspects of the affair are worth mentioning here. First, although the events of 1956 had their specific causes in 1956, there was inevitably an element of ‘looking back’ because of the symbolic resonances the Suez Canal and Egypt had carried for the British Empire. The opening of the canal had cut the travelling time to India dramatically, allowing for a closeness of access and control in government which were vital both to British rule there and to the ease of trade within the Anglophone areas on which the structure of the empire rested. Maintaining what was in effect a controlling interest in Egypt was—according to most historical accounts—a driving force in British policies during the dividing up of Africa amongst the colonial powers after 1880. President Nasser's nationalizing of the Suez Canal Company in 1956 was presented by some in the West at the time as a threat to the Western capitalist free world. The British and French invasion might, more cynically, be seen as an attempt to protect British and French property—by owning the Suez Canal Company, Britain and France owned a piece of Egypt just as much as Cecil Rhodes had owned Rhodesia. The invasion might also be seen as a final act of nostalgia for the empire in Britain and France.

The second aspect of the affair I want to refer to here is connected to the question of how far it was possible for this ‘nostalgia’ to be successfully turned into reality in the 1950s; this is to do with the power of the USA, and its willingness to exercise that power in the world. In the later part of the nineteenth century the European powers divided Africa and ruled the Indian subcontinent without any intervention from the USA beyond an occasional anti-imperialist protest. By 1956 the situation was quite different. Through the first half of the twentieth century the USA had become increasingly active politically and militarily outside its own borders. In the aftermath of the Second World War, furthermore, US economic power was so great that neither Britain, France nor Israel could ignore US policies. The British and French governments acted secretly in planning the invasion of Egypt, knowing that the American government would be hostile. Once the invasion began, the USA brought all influence to bear to stop it and—to put matters bluntly—two almost-failing imperial powers gave way to a new one.

That the ramifications of the Suez crisis and the ensuing crisis of identity for British ruling culture (and particularly the ruling Conservative Party) were not more extreme may as much as anything be due to the fact that elsewhere the empire did continue to exist. Decolonization was beginning, particularly in the Caribbean, but the British presence in East Africa, in Aden and in Cyprus was still strong. There were other counter-balancing events too, particularly associated with economic recovery in Britain. There had been rationing of almost all consumer goods during the war but these measures persisted long after as Britain attempted to recover from its victory. Food rationing was finally ended in 1954, a year after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Through all kinds of cultural events the new queen's reign was evoked as a return to the high success of the era of Elizabeth I, and the full panoply of colonial and Commonwealth allegiance was put on view to support the assertion of British importance in the world.

Many qualifications, needless to say, have to be added to this broad-brush account of the context for literature in Britain in the 1950s. It is axiomatic that such events are differently experienced according to class, gender, race and ethnicity. Equally, the effect of other cultures and economies beyond the empire needs to be taken into account. Some groups were clearly and dramatically influenced by events in the empire, notably those men and their families who had served in the Indian Civil Service or in the Indian Army. The repatriation and resettlement of these people after 1947 had quite a marked effect on the social structure of certain areas of southern and rural Britain. It impinges briefly but importantly in Look Back in Anger. In Act 2, Jimmy remembers Alison's father at their wedding, ‘upright and unafraid, dreaming of his days among the Indian Princes, and unable to believe he'd left his horsewhip at home’ (John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, London: Faber & Faber, 1996, pp. 55-6). Almost everyone in some way felt the effects of changes in the empire through, for example, the changing patterns of trade which affected manufacturing and consumption, and through what appeared in newsreels, on radio and on television. P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins speak of the effects of the empire (with the exception of India) being ‘reglued’ economically after the end of the war before becoming ‘unstuck’ again in the mid-1950s (British Imperialism: Crisis and Deconstruction 1914-1990, London: Longman, 1993 p. 285). A similar process can be said to have happened in other areas of life.

Equally, there were myriad differences within the newly decolonized states and between them. Of particular interest here, though a minor element in the whole picture, is the situation of those who had identified themselves with the colonizer, particularly through education and government service. Here V. S. Naipaul can stand as an example of the process and its intricacy. His family had arrived in Trinidad from India very much as servants of the empire, to work on the sugar plantations. Naipaul himself was born in 1932. Through his application at school he achieved the accolade of winning a scholarship to go from the ‘periphery’ to the ‘metropolitan centre’ of the empire to study English at Oxford University. This is a story of success for the colonial subject and for the colonizing power. An Oxford education opened the door to opportunity and prosperity for anyone from the colonies just as the evidence of the continuing pull of British culture testified to the continuing power of the colonial hegemony. But it is not a tale without ironies. First there is the near coincidence of Naipaul completing his studies at Oxford in 1954 and Trinidad becoming self-governing in political terms in 1956. Then there is a complication in this particular drama of colonial identity and belonging. Conventionally for someone moving to education in England there were competing answers to the question, ‘where are you at home?’. Perhaps ‘home’ involved going back—to your birthplace or your parents' house. But equally it might be to do with the culture into which you have been absorbed—the country whose culture produced the literature that filled your mind and conditioned your imagination.

For Naipaul, there was a third answer, which enabled him to break out of this dilemma and yet which fixed him still more firmly in the inheritance of imperialism. His father had been brought to Trinidad to work as an indentured labourer on the sugar plantations; by race, then, home was somehow neither Trinidad nor Britain but India. However, he can still stand as representative, this time of another process whereby cultural and political relationships have shifted from being a series of colonizer/colonized relationships to being a set of relationships between a number of different independent countries. It is almost certainly overly Anglocentric to see everything in the British colonial world—trade, politics, culture—as having been exclusively focused on London. But there is enough truth in the notion to make a contrast with what happened after colonies started to become more independent. Of course discrepancies of power persisted, keeping Britain in a favoured place economically and culturally, but there was a greater recognition of English as a language that could have distinct and valuable forms outside Britain and an increased rejection of the notion that certain cultures were inferior or primitive and hence rightly silenced. This process is parallel to the political one whereby under the Thatcher government of the 1980s it became customary for the Commonwealth meetings to speak of Britain as just another member of the group.


One possibility for this chapter would have been to explore how British writers (writers born in Britain or born in India in British families) wrote about India after 1947. Comparisons would have been made with the work of Kipling and Forster and continuities and discontinuities identified. We have chosen a different route from this one, but you may be interested to follow the British-India tradition yourself. If so, a straightforward way of doing this would be through analysis and exploration of the work of Paul Scott (1920-78). Though he lived for a relatively short time in India almost all of his fiction is set there, beginning with Johnnie Sahib (1952) and The Alien Sky (1953). His most famous work is the sequence of novels known as ‘the Raj Quartet’, which begins with The Jewel in the Crown (1966) and was adapted for television under that name in 1982. Scott's work is interestingly discussed in Margaret Scanlon, Traces of Another Time: History and Politics in Postwar British Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), and Michael Gorra, After Empire: Scott, Naipaul and Rushdie (London: University of Chicago Press, 1997). It also features in a longer time frame in Sujit Mukherjee, Forster and Further: The Tradition of Anglo-Indian Fiction (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1993). There are many other writers less well known (or pretty much forgotten) in Britain of whom I will mention just two. First—and in the ‘pretty much forgotten’ class—there is Christine Weston, who was born in India in 1904 and lived there until 1923 before moving to the USA. Weston published a number of novels, including Indigo (1943), and stories such as ‘A Game of Halma’ (1948) and ‘Be Still, She Sleeps’ (see Text 10.1). (This last might form an intriguing comparison with certain parts of The Enigma of Arrival since in both the search for identity is imagined through memory and a visit to an old house.) A second better-known writer is Ruskin Bond (b.1934), who is still publishing regularly in India; among the works that might seem particularly relevant here are stories such as ‘The Man Who Was Kipling’ and ‘The Last Time I Saw Delhi’ (see Texts 10.2 and 10.3).

Our decision, however, was to focus on Look Back in Anger and The Enigma of Arrival, and since this is the first time we have focused on two texts in a chapter a word of explanation as to our aims is in order. Both Look Back in Anger and The Enigma of Arrival can be said to have some link with our Literature and Nation: Britain and India theme. Osborne's play is generally recognized as part of the canon of English Literature and was written in a context of change after the Second World War and at a time of progressive decolonization; The Enigma of Arrival is by a writer of Indian descent whose life and work generally have been marked by colonial cultural processes. But each also offers something of a challenge.

Naipaul—Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth and education—has become what might be described as ‘international’ or perhaps ‘mixed-national’, a hybrid of Caribbean, English and Indian. Moreover, The Enigma of Arrival pretty much eschews mention of either the Caribbean or India. It is plainly very different from Kanthapura or Sunlight on a Broken Column, which are rooted in the cultures they depict and from which they emerge; it has little in common either with Midnight's Children, discussed in the next chapter. So part of the reason for including The Enigma of Arrival is to provide you with a different kind of opportunity to think again about the validity of the hypothesis put forward in Chapter 1, ‘if the particular text under discussion comes from a period of colonialism or decolonization, then it follows that the particular text must be marked in some way by colonialism or decolonization’ (p.11).

Look Back in Anger offers a more extreme test of the hypothesis. From its first production it has been read as primarily reacting to—and attempting to fracture—class attitudes in Britain. References to the overseas world do occur, but the whole play is severely fixed in one room in the Midlands in Britain. Maybe here you will feel the hypothesis does fail. If so, that would itself be provocative of thought. Is Look Back in Anger perhaps evidence of a kind of ghetto of ‘little England’ culture which turns inwards from the problems of decolonization? Or was the British Empire by the 1950s just no longer important in British culture?



Look Back in Anger was first performed on 8 May 1956 at the Royal Court Theatre, London. It was published by Faber & Faber in the following year; at the time of writing the current edition is John Osborne, Look Back in Anger (London: Faber & Faber, 1996). The play is also available in Plays One (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), one of a series of compendium volumes of Osborne's works. The most entertaining account of Osborne's life is his own, to be found in his two volumes of autobiography, A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography 1929-1956 and Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography 1955-1966 (London: Faber, 1981 and 1991). Also available is a collection of Osborne's prose writings, Damn You, England (London: Faber, 1994). Osborne's plays attracted considerable academic attention when they were first performed and some of these early books still offer a good introduction to his work at this time; see, for example, Martin Banham, John Osborne (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969), or Simon Trussler, The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment (London: Gollancz, 1969). Early assessments and reactions specifically to Look Back in Anger are collected in John Russell Taylor, John Osborne's ‘Look Back in Anger’: A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1975). A more recent general reference book is John Osborne: A Reference Guide, ed. by Cameron Northouse and Thomas P. Walsh (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1994).


Contemporary writers regularly credited Look Back in Anger with creating a new kind of drama on the English stage. The situation seemed a little akin to the way in which earlier in the century Modernism had supposedly made everything new and banished for ever the older ways of writing. In both cases, such evaluations seem in retrospect to tell us as much about the attitudes of those detecting a new world as they do about the works they wrote about. Was this new world identified as in any way post-colonial? Looking back to contemporary reactions to the play, it seems not. The emphasis was on matters of class and on the outraging of social and theatrical conventions. Critics compared Look Back in Anger with the contemporary commercial theatre, declaring that Osborne's play rendered more or less everything about the latter obsolete. In the comparison the old world was often taken to be represented by the plays of Terence Rattigan. Rattigan's first major success—French without Tears—dated back to 1936; in the 1950s he was one of the senior figures of British theatre, whose work was familiar to theatre audiences from well-dressed and well-spoken plays such as The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951) and films such as The Way to the Stars (1945). These were clearly serious works but they seemed resolutely middle-class. Particularly in the Second World War films scripted by Rattigan there was an assertion of a nation able to come together to defeat a common enemy and to stand for common decencies. In this world, the notion that seriousness might involve showing a woman ironing in a bedsit, as in Look Back in Anger, seemed unthinkable. In such a context Osborne's work could only seem avant-garde.

It is surely possible, however, to make a link with British imperial identity here, even though it seems sometimes as if the empire risks being written out of British imaginings in favour of the Second World War. Surely the kind of high seriousness that was portrayed by Rattigan as being at the heart of the British military victory was the same seriousness that imbued the ideology of imperial service, carrying the white man's burden and decent government across the globe. If so, then Osborne's avant-garde perspective declares that these values too lie in the past, that hope now lies with Jimmy Porter and not Arthur Winslow. However, one should perhaps not accept this assessment of Osborne and Rattigan too easily. Alongside the genuinely realistic elements in Look Back in Anger is there not a kind of emotional melodrama which seems much less radical? Rattigan's work has also been reassessed; his portrayals of moral dilemmas perhaps now seem as ‘modern’ as those presented by Osborne. Comparison of Look Back in Anger and Rattigan's ‘Table by the Window’, the first part of Separate Tables (1954; in The Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan, 4 vols, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953-78; III, 1964), for example, might produce a different result from that which has been conventionally accepted.

Look Back in Anger might also be set beside another icon of innovation in drama from the same period, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (first performed in French in Paris in 1953 and then in English in August 1955). In literary-historical accounts, as Osborne's play is representative of a new realism on the stage, so Beckett's is representative of the ‘theatre of the absurd’. Other names associated with this kind of drama are Arthur Adamov, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet and Harold Pinter. In a classic account of this movement—Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961; 3rd edn, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980)—the ‘absurd’ is described as follows:

In one of its aspects it castigates, satirically, the absurdity of lives lived unaware and unconscious of ultimate reality … In its second, more positive aspect, behind the satirical exposure of the absurdity of inauthentic ways of life, the Theatre of the Absurd is facing up to a deeper layer of absurdity—the absurdity of the human condition itself in a world where the decline of religious belief has deprived man of certainties. When it is no longer possible to accept complete closed systems of values and revelations of divine purpose, life must be faced in its ultimate, stark reality.

(pp. 400-01)

This seems to suggest again that we are dealing with another kind of literature which has little to do with politics or nation. The absurd can readily be described in the kind of almost metaphysical language used by Esslin, drawing, for example, on the idea that the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre is a key influence. (The possibility of a similar reading of Osborne's work is explored in E. G. Prater, An Existential View of John Osborne, Freeman, SD: Pine Hill, 1993.) But it can be argued that to read the absurd in this way involves largely rejecting the notion of the forming power of ‘context’. Taking that ‘context’ more into account can bring the movement closer to issues of literature and nation. For example, the absurd drama emerged as much as anywhere in France, that is, from a society marked by the liberation of 1945 but also by the continuing memory of the conflicts of the Vichy regime (Beckett himself had played a significant part in the Resistance in Paris). The year 1954 is, meanwhile, the date of the French defeat by the Vietnamese at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The battle marked the end of attempts to re-establish French colonial power in South East Asia after the defeat of the Japanese in 1945. It is also the start of the final phase of the struggle for independence in Algeria, France's nearest colonial possession. Maybe the more apt questions, then, are akin to ones raised already, namely, are we dealing here with literature that exists in a ghetto isolated from the questions of nation and identity that press outside, or is it that these issues are embedded in the texts but indirectly and in encoded ways?

In summary, I am aiming to suggest that it is possible to acknowledge the different styles of these writers—Rattigan's seriousness, Osborne's anger and Beckett's absurdity—while seeing all three as engaged within the same kind of matrix of ideological and historical issues. What then might we see as the particular inflection offered by Osborne's ‘anger’? An early discussion of this topic is Michael Anderson, Anger and Detachment: A Study of Arden, Osborne and Pinter (London: Pitman, 1976). More recently the issues have been explored by Aleks Sierz in ‘John Osborne and the Myth of Anger’ (New Theatre Quarterly, 12.46 (May 1996), pp. 136-46). Towards the end of the article, Sierz writes, ‘the audience for the new drama is usually characterised as being young, lower middle class, and left liberal. For this group, the myth of anger offered a radical identity which helped them cope with the insecurity of rapid social change’ (p. 145). Sierz then takes issue with this, suggesting that the drama remained the property of a more traditional middle-class audience: ‘audiences might flatter themselves by thinking that “working class” drama could help change society, but all it did was to change drama. Cultural images of the working class were a place where the middle class worked out its idea’ (p. 145; original italics).

That is to say, perhaps what we witness in Look Back in Anger is not so much an outbreak of working-class anger on the stage but, by a sleight of hand, an outburst of anger in the middle-class theatrical establishment that had produced the play and in the middle class that constituted the majority of its audience at the Royal Court. The anger was prompted by a sense of social crisis and change that was particularly relevant to the middle class—arising from the collapse of ideologies of imperial Britain, shifts in national identity, the growing assertiveness and economic power of the young—but which was then projected onto the working-class characters on the stage. It was all very different from the vision of social harmony and optimism that was central to the idea this was a new Elizabethan age.

Finally, you might wish to think about whether these possible readings and linkings are peculiar to the theatre. Critics of the novel in Britain in the 1950s regularly also make references to the development of a new realist style in that genre, so connections with ‘anger’ and Osborne seem possible there (see, for example, John Braine, Room at the Top, 1957, and Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958). But what of poetry? The 1950s saw the publication of, for example, Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (1955), Ted Hughes, Hawk in the Rain (1957), and Geoffrey Hill, For the Unfallen (1959). Decolonization and the changing nature of Britain's role in the world seem even less prominent here. Maybe it is just that poetry as a genre lacks an engagement with politics from that of prose or drama. But an alternative view is possible which would involve decoding apparently unpolitical language and metaphors to reveal political meanings. Maybe for example one could put the angry emotions that are often present in Hughes's poetry alongside the anger which is a keynote of Osborne's play and see both as responding to contemporary changes and events. In this way poetry could be seen to show signs of the same kind of link between politics and culture that we can see in prose and drama, contributing just as much to the development of new metaphors, new imaginings of community and new inventings of tradition to represent the British nation. In this latter context it might be interesting to follow up the emphasis on history in Geoffrey Hill's work, for example, or the new attention to the lower orders in Larkin, or—in all three poets—the way nature figures in their work.


In 1956 Look Back in Anger shocked London audiences not just through its presentation of lower-class life but also because of the sexual promiscuity that seemed to go on there. In all sorts of ways the Second World War had disrupted family life in Britain, and much public policy thereafter was dedicated to reassembling the family as a coherent form, by attempting to re-establish that the woman's place was in the home, for example. With hindsight it seems that Osborne is arguing quite accurately that this ideological endeavour would fail. (The 1999 National Theatre revival of the play brought this aspect of the play to the fore, suggesting that this was the element of the play that had survived best.) Through Alison he offers a highly critical account of the home-making woman. He also presents the ‘family’ as being anything but domestic through the sexual tension that runs through the play. Osborne has Alison say that Jimmy wants women to be ‘a kind of cross between a mother and a Greek courtesan, a henchwoman, a mixture of Cleopatra and Boswell’ (p. 97). The allusive language present here runs alongside the realistic dialogue throughout the play, and both warrant further study. The sexual radicalism in the play seems, however, distinctly heterosexual—an issue which has also provoked comment. In his biography of Terence Rattigan, Geoffrey Wansell suggests that there was a ‘distaste’ for Rattigan's work amongst the key members of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court because of his homosexuality and that this worked in favour of Look Back in Anger (Terence Rattigan: A Biography, London: Fourth Estate, 1996, p. 409). This might seem ironic given that some of the scenes between Jimmy and Cliff in Osborne's play have the potential to be played in a quite erotic way (but in a way which is very different from the covert and camp gay world associated with Rattigan). If the sexual radicalism of Look Back in Anger interests you, then you may be interested to compare this first-performed play of Osborne's with one produced when his reputation was assured and he was able to be freer, namely A Patriot for Me (1965). As written—it was censored for performance—this play presents homosexuality on stage far more radically and directly than heterosexuality is shown in Look Back in Anger; one scene opens with a younger man creeping from the bed of the older central character after what has obviously been a one-night stand.

Again, however, we need to come back to the question, why should these matters be of interest for our investigation of literature and nation? The most direct answer would be that Osborne and others writing in the 1950s offer representations of a changing aspect of the British nation, a step on the way from the ‘stiff upper lip’ of the British Empire to the post-colonial ‘swinging sixties’ perhaps. There might also be a connection to be made with the notion discussed in relation to A Passage to India above that writings about the empire had offered a place for the open expression of desires which it was taboo to connect with ‘home’. Other examples of this kind of writing are Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus (1938, filmed 1947), and John Masters, Bhowani Junction (1954, filmed 1955). Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), and Gail Ching-Liang Low, White Skins/Black Masks: Representation and Colonialism (London: Routledge, 1996), offer complementary accounts of the colonial experience in this context.



V. S. Naipaul began to write and to publish in the mid-1950s but his reputation was fully established by his fourth novel, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), which has rapidly acquired a canonical status and a place on school and college syllabuses. Naipaul's fiction has been honoured by the award of a conspicuously large number of literary prizes, including the Somerset Maugham Award in 1959 for Miguel Street, the W. H. Smith Award in 1968 for The Mimic Men, and the Booker Prize in 1971 for In a Free State. The Enigma of Arrival dates from 1987 (paperback edn, London: Penguin, 1987). Naipaul has also been a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines and has published a number of books of travel writings (see below for details of those about India). Naipaul himself has edited a collection of his letters to his father (V. S. Naipaul, Letters Between a Father and a Son, London: Little, Brown, 1999). Academic writing about Naipaul's work began to appear around 1971 with, for example, William Walsh, V. S. Naipaul (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1973), and Landeg White, V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1975). More recent general studies include three works all entitled simply V. S. Naipaul, by Bruce King (London: Macmillan, 1993), Fawzia Mustafa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Suman Gupta (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1999). Discussions of his work from a more specialized perspective include Selwyn Cudjoe, V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), and Rob Nixon, London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).


From the beginning, readers of The Enigma of Arrival are likely to feel surrounded by enigma and puzzle. Instinctively, perhaps they will feel that their key task is to solve that puzzle, to understand the novel's form (why it is so explicitly declared to be ‘A novel in five sections’), its meaning and its style. At the very beginning, for example, what are we to make of the way the first section begins? It seems unliterary, almost childlike. Yet a moment's reflection suggests the opposite may be the case and that the opening pages of The Enigma of Arrival carry echoes of two of the most literary of all novels. The preponderance of short sentences seems almost consciously to evoke the opening pages of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Compare for example the two paragraphs beginning ‘And then one afternoon it began to snow …’ (Enigma, p. 12) with those beginning ‘The wide playgrounds …’ (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 8). A little later in The Enigma of Arrival there is an allusion—which is, if anything, apparently more self-conscious—to the Swann's Way part of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. Naipaul's narrator refers to there being ‘two ways to the cottage’ (p. 13); paradoxically given that they go to the same place, for one he turns left from the road while for the other he turns right. Proust's narrator refers to ‘two “ways”’ both leading to a local village, ‘so diametrically opposed that we would leave the house by a different door according to the way we had chosen’ (Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, trans. by C.K. Scott-Moncrieff, London: Chatto & Windus, 1943, p. 182; here and later I quote from Moncrieff's classic translation completed by Stephen Hudson, as the one Naipaul himself is likely to have read, rather than from the more recent revised versions).

Then there is the puzzle of how to connect the parts. One of the threads seems to be Naipaul himself, but how are we to be sure the ‘I’ of the novel is really Naipaul? Such details as we have about Naipaul's life suggest that he has heavily adapted the reality for his fiction. However that may be, a good deal of the emotional seriousness of the novel rests with our involvement with the first-person narrator, as for example, in the following extract from the end of ‘Jack's Garden’:

I had thought that because of my insecure past—peasant India, colonial Trinidad, my own family circumstances, the colonial smallness that didn't consort with the grandeur of my ambition, my uprooting of myself for a writing career, my coming to England with so little, and the very little I had to fall back on—I had thought because of this I had been given an especially tender or raw sense of an unaccommodating world.

(p. 87)

The closeness of this account to the facts of Naipaul's life and the emotional rawness involved in ‘arrival’ at this point in the narrative are striking. How are we to reconcile them with the coolness of the title of the novel? Perhaps overall the prevailing mood is not this rawness but a mixture of emotion and detachment that is much closer to De Chirico's work (see p. 91 for the narrator's description of the particular painting).

Unravelling the relationship between the narrator and the fictional world he inhabits and creates is one of the most interesting projects so far as The Enigma of Arrival is concerned. Equally intriguing for me is the way the realist world of the novel (matters of geography and history, of facts and evidence) runs together with something different—a whole set of ideologies and metaphors that are embodied in the buildings and landscapes. Examples of what I mean occur throughout the novel, but you might look at the page or so following ‘The rutted droveway …’ in the ‘Ivy’ section (p. 169), or later in the same section the paragraphs beginning ‘The Manor …’ (p. 198). As the realistic details resonate with metaphorical implications, Hobsbawm's ‘invented tradition’ and Anderson's ‘imagined community’ (see Chapter 1, p. 14 above) persistently come to mind. So complete and compelling are both strands that eventually it is almost as if I am reading two novels at the same time; one in which the language appears transparently to record the everyday life of rural England, the other in which every detail can be read as carefully symbolic of post-colonial identity and culture and in which there is a continual harping on some of the most crucial images of past British culture. In the centre, holding them together, is the narrator ‘Naipaul’. The resulting style of writing, in its different way, seems to me every bit as complex as the magic realist style developed by Salman Rushdie which is discussed in the next chapter. In the way it manages to combine—both realistically and through allusions—different time frames The Enigma of Arrival might be interestingly compared with two of Tom Stoppard's plays, Arcadia (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), which deals with ideas of British identity, and Indian Ink, which deals directly with the British experience in India (see Text 10.4).

The way of writing I am describing here is discussed further in John Thieme, The Web of Tradition: Uses of Allusion in V. S. Naipaul's Fiction (London: Hansib, 1987). By way of a closer analysis of the style, consider the brief sentence early on when the narrator says of Jack, ‘I saw him as a remnant’ (p. 20). A ‘remnant’ may be a collective noun—we might speak of the remnant of the army—but it can also be singular—the final piece off a roll of cloth which is too small to be of any proper use. In the world of the 1980s it is, then, rather as if Britain has made up all the proper garments into the imperial culture; the job is finished, all that is left is something which is to be thrown away or perhaps used up for some odd purpose. The idea of Jack as a remnant also sets resonating cultural images that we can most obviously anchor in the poetry of Wordsworth. In Lyrical Ballads (1798), for example, Wordsworth gives a new value to the beggar or the old woman in the stark rural landscape, not just as a person but as a central point of value in the English Romantic tradition and in the English national identity (Naipaul refers specifically to Wordsworth on page 26 of the novel). Once established, this kind of detail becomes a source of further meanings later in the book. It lends a resonance, for example, to the details towards the end of the ‘Jack's Garden’ section, creating something of a parody of the Wordsworthian principle. After Jack's death, rather than his widow remaining enduring and alone in his cottage, with hardly a pause the building is dismantled and she leaves for the town: ‘For her, Jack's wife, the move away from the cottage had been good. She saw her life as a small success story. Father a forester, a gamekeeper of sorts; Jack the farm worker, the gardener; and now she half a townswoman’ (p. 88).

If you wish to explore a further example for yourself, I suggest you take the manor house at the centre of the story, the various descriptions of which seem to me particularly rich in possibilities for metaphorical reading. As I read, ‘The house was not old … but built to look old’ (p. 184), for example, I feel Naipaul has picked up on just that characteristic of British and imperial culture which is caught in the title of Francis Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence: British Imperialism in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967). Equally, reading about the manor my mind is carried back to the country-house gentry culture of Mansfield Park, by the twentieth century this world has become fragile indeed: ‘a boiler exploded in the manor one day; another time a bit of the roof was blown off’ (p. 235).


Putting The Enigma of Arrival alongside Naipaul's non-fiction writing can be as interesting as putting it alongside others of his novels. Chief among these non-fiction writings are the three books he has written about India—An Area of Darkness (1964; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990; London: Minerva, 1991). At first we seem to be dealing with contrasts; these books are closer to serious journalism and travel writing than fiction and they deal with India and not Britain. Just who is telling the story seems unproblematic since here we can be in no doubt that we are dealing with direct transcriptions of Naipaul's experiences. As soon as we start reading, however, connections emerge. Naipaul does not, for example, seem to me to think that different styles are required for fiction and non-fiction. Consider, for example, the two following paragraphs:

For the first four days it rained. I could hardly see where I was. Then it stopped raining and beyond the lawn and outbuildings in front of my cottage I saw fields with stripped trees on the boundaries of each field; and far away, depending on the light, glints of a little river, glints which sometimes appeared, oddly, to be above the level of the land.

(Enigma, p. 11)

Traffic into the city moved slowly because of the crowd. When at certain intersections the traffic was halted, by lights or by policemen or by the two together, the pavement seethed the more, and such a torrent of people swept across the road, in such a bouncing froth of light-coloured lightweight clothes, it seemed as if some invisible sluice gate had been opened …

(India: A Million Mutinies Now, p. 1)

The ‘torrent’ of people and the ‘light-coloured lightweight clothes’ give away that the second of these is about India. But in both there is the same combination of the very short simple sentence and the longer extended and quite highly wrought one, the same detached tone in the narration, and the same almost poetic elements in the description (‘stripped trees’, ‘bouncing froth’).

There are also thematic connections to be made. Once past the ‘Traveller's Prelude’ section of An Area of Darkness we find Naipaul writing that India is ‘the background of my childhood’ (p. 27), something that he describes in the evocative title of the section as ‘A resting place for the imagination’. India is Naipaul's racial home as England (through education and through his scholarship to Oxford) is his cultural and figurative home. In both respects ‘home’ and ‘identity’ are bound together. In An Area of Darkness Naipaul's journey to India seems to involve the kind of searching for an essential identity that Stuart Hall describes in the extract I analyse in Chapter 1 (see pp. 18-20); in the last chapter of An Area of Darkness Naipaul gets to his own ‘great aporia’ when he finally visits his ancestral village. The result is deeply dissatisfying for him. (For a further discussion of ‘home’ and identity in Naipaul, see Timothy Weiss, On the Margins: The Art of Exile in V. S. Naipaul, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.)

The first publication of An Area of Darkness provoked an outcry in India; readers there saw only hostility and an almost ultra-European fastidiousness in Naipaul's portrayal of people and customs. The shared feelings of independence and commonwealth between post-colonial peoples seemed not to have worked. Where there should have been concord and sympathy between colonial voices, all that we hear from Naipaul is mimicry of the old colonial world. It is sometimes suggested that there is a racial as well as a cultural element in Naipaul's work beyond The Enigma of Arrival that deserves investigation (for example in In a Free State and A Bend in the River), but questions should also perhaps be prompted about how, particularly in a post-colonial world, different inventions of the same culture can more easily be in play at the same time. A reference to The Enigma of Arrival seems possible here. British readers' reactions to Naipaul's imagined England are likely to be less stridently rejecting than the Indian readers of An Area of Darkness who found their country imagined as a place of dirt, inefficiency and trickery. But those who begin by seeing a nostalgic ‘National Trust’ world in The Enigma of Arrival are likely to end up thinking Naipaul breaks the fine china even while he fondles it.

I want to end this section by putting An Area of Darkness and The Enigma of Arrival together to suggest a line of thought relating to the last section of the novel. Schematically, during the period of colonialism literature works in the interest of the colonizing power and—as suggested in the title of Gauri Viswanathan's book on the topic, Masks of Conquest (London: Faber, 1990)—conceals that it does so. The remaking of traditions and histories is a silent process. Naipaul's relationship with India begins as an attempt to get past that process, but the result of his first endeavours is in fact a different kind of silence—in An Area of Darkness he writes, ‘I had learned my separateness from India, and was content to be a colonial, without a past, without ancestors’ (p. 252). At the risk of tidying Naipaul into a simple and coherent narrative, perhaps by the end of The Enigma of Arrival both the silencing of history and the denial of the past have been transmuted into something else. The book is bracketed by memorials; Naipaul's opening dedication is to the memory of his brother, Shiva Naipaul, and he ends the book with a recollection of a journey back to Trinidad for the funeral of his younger sister, Sati. He writes that ‘at her death there was … a wish for old [Hindu] rites, for things that were felt specifically to represent us and our past’ (p. 316). Here perhaps Naipaul is coming close to an unravelling of the enigma, a statement of what specifically represents him. After the ceremony an old man offers a different representation, a historical account of Trinidad which might be described as a pack of lies but which the narrator dignifies with the lightly ironic phrase ‘a composite history’, adding:

Men need history; it helps them to have an idea of who they are … we remade the world for ourselves; every generation does that, as when we came together for the death of this sister and felt the need to honour and remember.

(p. 318)

It seems now that to have a past is valuable and necessary but that the past is not a simple and static thing to be discovered but something to be ‘remade’. This seems a quite dynamic possibility, and the idea of remaking the world for ourselves, surely, has a clear post-colonial ring—a sense of the narrator taking charge. The novel continues towards its end in this vein with a strong forward movement as the narrator now lays ‘aside [his] drafts and hesitations’ to write his book (p. 318). But with the last words the enigma of arrival returns. Just what is the significance of this new project being the book we have just read? Perhaps we are left with the sense of the solving of the puzzle of meaning that has run through the sections. But equally, maybe we catch an echo of Proust here at the end to match that at the beginning. Towards the end of the final volume of the In Search of Lost Time sequence Proust's narrator writes, ‘I intended to start afresh from the next day to live in solitude but, this time, with a real object’, namely the writing of his book about time and memory (Marcel Proust, Time Regained, trans. by Stephen Hudson, London: Chatto & Windus, 1944, p. 359). If so, the message is that knowledge is a circling and circular process. Maybe the enigma is that both possibilities are true. We learn that literature can be a quest in which we remake ourselves, our history and our nation; simultaneously we learn that the journey is circular and self-consuming.


John Osborne World Literature Analysis


Osborne, John (Vol. 1)