Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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Importance of This Play When First Produced and Why It's Still Dynamic Today

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When Look Back in Anger opened in 1956 it brought a new force to the English theatre. It was written in the prevailing form of a three-act well-made realistic play, a form that had existed for at least eighty years. The fact that the play was somewhat clumsy in its construction and needed editing was not lost on the critics, even those who championed the play as a major breakthrough in English drama and a new hope for English theatre. Not only that, but Look Back in Anger has received many revivals and has continued to speak to audiences, to hold their attention, and even to shock them. Although the form was not innovative, this clearly is no ordinary play.

The subject matter of twentieth-century English theatre until 1956 had been polite, perhaps witty, and even elegant and glittering in the use of language; however, it did not speak to the concerns of the nation, either young or old. It was a theatre of diversion, a theatre careful not to upset the illusions of its middle-class audience, a theatre that had lost all relevance to life as it was in fact being lived in post-World War II England. John Osborne changed that. As Kenneth Tynan said in the Observer on December 19, 1959: "Good taste, reticence and middle-class understatement were convicted of hypocrisy and jettisoned on the spot." They were not jettisoned in polite, or even comedic, political or social analysis; they were jettisoned by an articulate, educated, furious young man who pointed out what his contemporary world was really like. It was not the world of egalitarianism and idealism that had been envisioned by the socialist intellectuals. It was a dreary world in which, as Jimmy says,"There aren't any good, brave causes left."

In spite of the broadening of opportunities for university education, the old power structure based on "the old boy" network of school and family connections was still very much in place. The old power
structure was cynical and bent on its own perpetuation. The Church of England was as much a part of the Establishment as the politicians and also seemed out of touch with the everyday realities of the people. For Jimmy, and for Osborne, the answers provided by the Church were a simple bromide that prevented people from looking at their lives and their society honestly. The "Bishop of Bromley" who is quoted by Jimmy may be a fictional person, but his call for Christians to help develop the H-Bomb was not fictional. John Osborne found a form that captured the unformed mood and discontent of the audience in 1956 England and gave it voice. Once the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) had shown a twenty-five minute segment of the play, that broad audience responded with letters asking to see the whole play.

It is not enough simply to point out that people, especially young people, are discontent. The theatre must bring that reality to life in a memorable way. Jimmy Porter is a magnificent character, and the power of his invective is certainly memorable.

John Osborne said many times that his aim was not to analyze and write about social ills but rather to make people feel. Jimmy Porter is not a political activist: he is a man living day-to-day in a world in which feelings and imaginative response to others has been deadened by convention. Jimmy's attacks are not against abstract ideas. He realizes what this world of dead ideas and moribund custom is doing to him and to those he loves. It is his desire to awaken them to feelings, to being truly and vibrantly alive, that drives Jimmy Porter. Look Back in Anger is a deeply felt drama of personal relationships, and it is because of that personal element that the play remains not only valid but also vivid to audiences today.

Jimmy's main conflict is with Alison. While the marriage is a misalliance, it is not just that of a Colonel's daughter marrying the rough-hewn commoner; it is the misalliance of someone who is alive and suffering to one who shuts off all suffering and sensitivity to the suffering of others to avoid the pain of life. They have been married for three years and their own routine has become deadening.

Jimmy's first direct attack on Alison comes barely a minute into the play when he says, "She hasn't had a thought in years! Have you?" Shortly after, he says, "'All this time [have been married to this woman, this monument of non-attachment," and calls her "The Lady Pusillanimous." Alison's cool remoteness extends even to their lovemaking. Jimmy says, "Do you know I have never known the great pleasure of lovemaking when I didn't desire it myself.... She has the passion of a python." He wants to awaken her to life, with all its pain. That his passion and despair lead him to excess is undeniable: he wishes her to have a child and to have that child die. He says, "If only I could watch you face that, I wonder if you might even become a recognizable human being yourself." He later says he wants to watch her grovel in the mud. "I want to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing."

To be alive is to feel pain. Certainly, the notion that suffering validates human existence is an idea that runs through world drama from the time of Sophocles. Moreover, Jimmy recognizes that Alison's lack of emotional commitment to anything is draining him of his own zest for life. He tells of Alison's mother doing all she could to prevent the marriage, "All so that I shouldn't carry off her daughter on that old charger of mine, all tricked out and caparisoned in discredited passions and ideals! The old grey mare actually once led the charge against the old order—well, she certainly ain't what she used to be. It was all she could do to carry me, but your weight was too much for her. She just dropped dead on the way.'' Jimmy is fighting for his love and for his own inner life. He needs to break down Alison's neutrality,

It was Jimmy's vibrant life that attracted Alison to him in the first place. In Act II, scene 1, she describes to Helena the time she first met Jimmy: "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 filled with the sun." In Act II, scene 2, she also shows insight when she tells her father why she married Jimmy: "I'd lived a happy, uncomplicated life, and suddenly, this—this spiritual barbarian—throws down the gauntlet at me. Perhaps only another woman could understand what a challenge like that means...."

Alison does suffer the loss of her unborn child and she does return to Jimmy richer in the humility and pain of living. At the end of the play they have entered into their game of "bears and squirrels," which Alison explained earlier was a place where "[w]e could become little furry creatures with little furry brains. Full of dumb, uncomplicated affection for each other. A silly symphony for people who couldn't bear the pain of being human beings any longer." It seems doubtful that such a withdrawal from the world is likely to last, and it is likely that Osborne recognized the irony of the ending of the play when he wrote it. Jimmy's anger is deep and it is not new or brought on by current circumstances, either in his domestic life or society at large.

At the age of ten, Jimmy watched his idealistic father dying for twelve months, and "I was the only one who cared'" He says, "You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless. And I can never forget it." Jimmy's source of pain and anger seem to come from the same source as that of John Osborne who, at an early age, watched his own father die of tuberculosis.

"Good plays change their meaning with time," said critic Michael Billmgton in the Guardian after seeing the 1989 revival of Look Back in Anger. It is a measure of its worth that even forty-two years after it premiered, the play still rings true and excites as the emphasis moves from the social comment to the personal angst that was propelling it from the first.

Source: Terry W. Browne, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998

Browne holds a Ph.D. in theatre and is the author of the book Playwrights' Theatre, which is a study of the company that first produced Look Back in Anger.

Review of Look Back in Anger (1957) in On Stage Selected Reviews From the New York Times, 1920-1970

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To see Look Back in Anger at the Lyceum, where it opened last evening, is to agree with the British who saw the original performance. John Osborne has written the most vivid British play of the decade.

Since we have had angry young men writing bitter plays for a quarter of a century, Look Back in Anger will not be the landmark here that it is already in London. But Mr. Osborne is a fiery writer with a sharp point of view and a sense of theatre. Under the direction of Tony Richardson, five British actors give his savage morality drama the blessing of a brilliant performance.

Mr. Osborne is in blind revolt against the England of his time. In a squalid attic somewhere in the Midlands three young people are railing against the world. They are Jimmy Porter, a tornado of venomous phrases; his wife, who is crushed by the barrenness of their life and the wildness of her husband's vocabulary, and Cliff Lewis, an unattached young man who is the friend of both.

Being in a state of rebellion, neither Mr. Osborne nor his chief character has a program or a reasonable approach to life. From any civilized point of view, they are both impossible. But Mr. Osborne has one great asset. He can write. The words come bursting out of him in a flood of satire and invective. They are cruel, they are unfair, and they leave nothing but desolation as they sweep along.

But they are vibrant and colorful; they sting the secondary characters in the play, to say nothing of the audience. You know that something is going on in the theatre, and that the British drama has for once said a long farewell to the drawing-room, the bookshelves, the fireplace and the stairway. If Mr. Osborne is disgusted with England today, he is also disgusted with the pallor of British drama.

Not that he does not have trouble with the form. After inveighing against everyone and his wife for two acts with a certain malevolent though tolerable logic, he switches to the craft of writing a play. At the curtain of the second act Helena, a girl who despises Jimmy and is despised by him and who has persuaded his wife to go back home to escape further torture, becomes his mistress, and takes over where the beaten wife leaves off. When the curtain goes up on the third act Helena is at the ironing-board, as the wife was in the first act. Everything has been turned upside down.

This is a bit too pat. During the first scene of the third act, Mr. Osborne finds himself more preoccupied with the job of keeping a play in motion than with hurling words at the world. But in the last scene he is in control again. He is hack in top form— twisting and turning, sulking and groaning, turning civil morality inside out and doing other things he hadn't oughter. He is not the man for temperate statements.

If Look Back in Anger recovers its stride in the last scene, it is partly because the performance has so much pressure and passion. The acting is superb; it makes its points accurately with no waste motion.
As Jimmy, Kenneth Haigh absorbs Mr. Osborne's furious literary style in an enormously skillful performance that expresses undertones of despair and frustration and gives the character a basis in humanity. This wild man is no impostor.

As the tormented wife, Mary Ure succeeds in retaining the pride of an intelligent young woman by filling her silences with unspoken vitality, by being alive and by glowing with youth in every sequence. Alan Bates gives a vigorous performance in a more fluid style as the mutual friend. Vivienne Drummond plays the more ambiguous part of the intruding female with charm and guile.

Everything occurs inside a cheerless, slatternly attic room well designed by Alan Tagg. Miserable though it is, it is sturdy enough to withstand Mr. Osborne's thunderbolts. With the lightning that goes with them, they shake quite a lot of complacency out of the theatre.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, review of Look Back in Anger (1957) in On Stage Selected Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973 , pp 388-89.

Review of Look Back in Anger

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John Osborne, an actor still in his twenties, wrote a play two or three years ago, Look Back In Anger (Lyceum), which has also knocked at the door—this time at the door of British drama. The knock reverberated momentously through the English theatre, and its echo, slightly muted by its ocean passage, may now be heard on our Broadway shore.

I saw the play at its opening in London, where it was received by the leading critics with an excited gratitude which astonished as much as it pleased me. What the play represented to its English audience was the first resounding expression in the theatre not only of troubled youth but of the tensions within large segments of the middle class m England today. The play is contemporary in a way in which Rattigan on the one hand or Eliot and Fry on the other are not.

The play brings before us two young men of working-class origin in the English midlands who have a candy stand concession in a local cinema. One of them—Jimmy Porter—has had a university education and acts as a serf-appointed protector to his Welsh buddy, an uncomplicated person happily free of metaphysical anguish,

Jimmy is married to a pretty girl whom he feels he almost had to steal away from her family, the kind of family whose strength and graces were grounded on England's 1914 Empire. Jimmy not only resents his wife's family and all the institutions that bred them because they led to nothing but the dust and ashes of 1945; he also berates her for having lost the stamina presumed to be characteristic of her background, without having replaced it with any new values of her own—even romantically negative ones like his.

A fourth character, a young actress, represents that middle class which obstinately holds on to its customary traditions, and there is also the wan figure of Jimmy's father-in-law, bewildered and impotent in an England he no longer recognizes.

Jimmy Porter then is the angry one. What is he angry about? It is a little difficult at first for an American to understand. The English understand, not because it is ever explicitly stated, but because the jitters which wrack Jimmy, though out of proportion to the facts within the play, are in the very air the Englishman breathes. 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 lacklustre security. He has been promoted into a moral and social vacuum. He fumes, rages, nags at a world which promised much and has led to a dreary plain where there is no fibre or substance, but only fear of scientific destruction and the minor comforts of "American" mechanics. His wife comments to the effect that "my father is sad because everything has changed, Jimmy is sad because nothing has.'' In the meantime Jimmy seeks solace and blows defiance through the symbolic jazz of his trumpet, while his working-class pal, though he adores Jimmy and his wife, wisely leaves the emotionally messy premises.

Immanent reality plus a gift for stinging and witty rhetoric are what give the play its importance. It is not realism of the Odets or Williams kind nor yet poetry, although it has some kinship to both. It adds up to a theatrical stylization of ideas about reality in which a perceptive journalism is made to flash on the stage by a talent for histrionic gesture and vivid elocution. While the end product possesses a certain nervous force and genuineness of feeling it is also sentimental, for it still lacks the quality of an experience digested, controlled or wholly understood.

Someone asked me if I didn't believe the play might achieve greater dimensions if American actors were to play it in a manner now associated with the generation influenced by the Group Theatre. The question reveals a misunderstanding of the play's nature. It calls for the verbal brio and discreet indication of feeling which it receives from the uniformly excellent, attractive English cast—Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure, Allan Bates, Vivienne Drummond.

Jimmy Porter, "deepened" in another vein, would prove an intolerable nuisance, a self-pitying, verbose, sadistic jackanapes. He is a sign, not a character. We accept him because in the final count he is more amusing than real. We can look beyond him and the flimsy structure of the fable in which he is involved and surmise some of the living sources in the civilization from which he issues.

That John Osborne is attached and attuned to those sources is the virtue and hope of his talent. It may take ten years for him to achieve what most people have declared he already has.

Source: Harold Clurman, review of Look Back in Anger in Has, Nation, Volume 185, no. 12, October 19, 1957, p 272.

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Critical Overview