Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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Act 1 Summary

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Last Updated on November 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662

The curtain rises, revealing the connected living room and kitchen of a 1950s-era flat somewhere in the Midlands region of England. Two young men sit in armchairs, concealed by newspapers, while a woman irons in the kitchen area.

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Jimmy, the taller of the two men, begins to complain about the quality of the newspaper. This quickly escalates into a tirade; as the others bicker with him, he becomes increasingly volatile and verbally abusive toward them. He accuses his wife, Alison, the woman at the ironing board, of being oblivious and indifferent. He calls Cliff, the man in the other chair, an ignorant peasant. With practiced resignation that suggests this is a regular feature of life with Jimmy, Alison and Cliff attempt to deflect and de-escalate Jimmy’s ire. Soon, all three of them are upset and arguing.

Just as quickly as the argument started, the mood in the room shifts again as Cliff starts doting on Alison. The two are very physically affectionate with each other, and Cliff kisses Alison’s hand and briefly puts her finger in his mouth before he is pulled back into a political argument with Jimmy. Jimmy derides a pundit he thinks is subjugating the working class, joking that the author might be Alison’s father writing under a pseudonym and reflecting on her father’s time working in colonial India.

The three continue to bicker about minutiae, their friends, and prior relationships, and the conversational tone swings back and forth from friendly to hostile. Jimmy tells Alison, with clear malice, how much more interesting, animated, and interesting his ex-lover Madeline was than she is. He continues to rant about perceived slights big and small, and his eventual monologue becomes a running analysis of the failures and inadequacies of everyone in his life.

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The three finally settle down to listen to a concert on the radio, but Jimmy is soon upset yet again: Alison is ironing his clothes “too loudly,” and Jimmy sets off on another rant about how women are too loud. This escalates into another argument among the three of them, and Alison is burned when the ironing board is toppled in the fray. Jimmy starts to apologize to Alison, but she yells at him to get out of her sight. He leaves.

As Cliff tends Alison’s burn, she reveals that she is pregnant but is afraid to tell Jimmy. The two discuss the complexities and volatility of the relationship between the married couple, and Cliff asks euphemistically if it’s too late for an abortion. Alison confirms that it is. The two share a kiss, and then Jimmy enters, sits down, and picks his newspaper back up. He asks Alison about her burn, then tells them they look ridiculous “slobbering over each other.”

Cliff exits, and the conversation between Jimmy and Alison becomes affectionate and playful. Jimmy tells Alison she’s like a beautiful squirrel, and she tells him he’s a jolly bear. She starts saying she has something to tell him but is interrupted by Cliff at the door. There’s a phone call for Alison, he announces, someone named Helena.

As Alison leaves to take the call, Jimmy tells Cliff how much he dislikes Helena and how she can’t possibly be calling for any pleasant reason. This leads to another rant about their other friends, during which Jimmy starts rifling through Alison’s handbag. Alison enters before he can read a letter he’s found and announces that Helena is at the nearby train station and is coming to the house. She is performing at a nearby venue for the week and has nowhere to stay, so she’ll stay in the spare room downstairs.

Jimmy, displeased, tells Alison how naive she is and says that he wishes something bad would happen to her so she could get some perspective. As an example, he suggests she could have a baby and the baby might die. Alison, shocked, says nothing.

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Act 2, Scene 1 Summary