Places Discussed

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*English Midlands

*English Midlands. Central region of England in which the play is set. Midlands counties contain the country’s major industrial cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Leeds. Factories dominate their urban landscapes, and their residents are largely working-class. Historically, the Midlands have often been viewed with condescension by more cosmopolitan residents of London, Oxford, and Cambridge. Relatively few literary works prior to the 1950’s were set in the Midlands, and the distinctive northern accent was rarely heard on stage.

Porters’ flat

Porters’ flat. Described as “a fairly large attic room, at the top of a large Victorian house,” the one-room apartment of Jimmy and Alison Porter is an example of the trend derided as “kitchen-sink realism” by some critics during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In stark contrast to the stylish and elegant upper-and middle-class settings of then-popular plays by Noël Coward and others, Osborne’s setting is economically downscale. Its furniture is “simple and rather old,” including two “shabby” armchairs. A double bed takes up much of the space along the back wall.

As in plays by Tennessee Williams, the mere presence of the young married couple’s bed on stage connotes a certain frankness about sexuality that was considered daring for its time—as does Alison’s being seen wearing only a slip during the second act. Books crowd the shelves and cover the chest of drawers, indicating that Jimmy Porter, though of working-class background, is educated, in contrast to virtually all working-class characters depicted in literature earlier. The fact that on Sundays he reads the “only two posh papers,” which are strewn about the room, also indicates his level of intelligence and interest in the larger world, though he complains that the London-based book reviews all sound the same. The ironing-board symbolizes Alison’s unfortunate status in the marriage and the domestic subordination of women in the 1950’s, though her parents are more middle-class than her husband’s.


University. Unnamed institution of higher learning that Jimmy apparently attended but left early. He alludes to a university that is “not even red brick, but white tile.” In contrast to Oxford and Cambridge, where England’s social and intellectual elites are educated amid buildings of centuries-old gray stone, “red brick” universities were primarily twentieth century institutions that were more accessible to the public. White tiles are associated with public toilets.

Historical Context

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By 1956 the British Empire had been shrinking for decades. With the granting of independence to India in 1947 after Gandhi's thirty years of struggle and the loss of African colonies and the near independence of the Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the British Empire was all but gone. The Suez crises in 1956, in which Egypt refused to renew the British-owned Suez Canal Company's concession and which resulted in a disastrous and humiliating intervention by England, simply emphasized the lack of power wielded by Britain in the Post World War II world.

There had also been incursions into the power structure since early Victorian times, with the ruling classes resisting every inch of the way. In 1945, the Labour Party won an impressive victory over the Tories, thus turning the war-time hero Winston Churchill out of office. This was a mandate for the welfare state and the end of the class system. Prosperity for all was the hope of the people. Nationalized medicine became a reality and a social welfare system was constructed. In the words of Harold Ferrar, "an era of affluence was predicted, and a meritocracy that would supersede the reign of old school ties." The new "red-brick" universities were built and greatly expanded educational opportunities, but the old power structure did not simply hand over the reins of control. Price controls and other austerity measures were imposed. By 1951 it was apparent that the land of milk-and-honey had not arrived. Winston Churchill was again voted into office.

The Church of England, too, was out of contact with the daily lives of most Englishmen. The Church is not simply a spiritual leader but also owner of vast properties and thus a member of the landholding class. The Church is attacked by Osborne when he has Jimmy quote the fictional Bishop of Bromley as saying that he is upset because someone has suggested that he supports the rich against the poor. He denies class distinctions and says, "The idea has been persistently and wickedly fostered by—the working classes!"

The international scene was also fraught with dangers The Berlin crisis in 1948-1949 clearly pointed out that the peace following World War II was fragile. The Boer and Irish risings and the Palestine question further reminded the English that this new hard-won peace was not going to be easy or complete. Everyone lived under threat of instantaneous annihilation from the A-bomb. Jimmy says, "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-noting-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus." Less than two weeks after Look Back in Anger opened the first airborne hydrogen bomb was exploded. In October, 1956, England's first full scale use of nuclear fuel to produce electricity went into effect at Calder Hall. The facility also manufactured plutonium for military use in developing their own H-bomb. That same year there were uprisings in Hungary and Poland and the Soviet Union put them down with military force.

In the United States following World War II there was a period of general and unprecedented prosperity. However, opportunity was "deferred" for some, especially blacks, the rural poor, and women. Movements to challenge the status quo of exclusion were beginning. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a boycott of Montgomery, Alabama, public transportation as a protest against discrimination. The Supreme Court had issued an historic desegregation ruling in 1954 and in 1956 a bloc of Southern Congressmen issued a manifest pledging to use "all lawful means" to upset that ruling.

Among the best selling books in 1956 was the nonfiction The Organization Man by William Hollingsworth Whyte, Jr., who argued that a new collective ethic has arisen from the bureaucratization of society. "Belongingness" rather than personal fulfillment has become the ultimate need of the individual, said Whyte.

My Fair Lady opened in New York. The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion in which a working-class Cockney flower girl who, after learning the language and manners of upper-class society, is able to "pass" as one of them.

London theatre at the time has been described as "a vast desert;" "only interested in innocuous little plays which would provide a vehicle for a star to achieve a long and tedious run;" "fairly frivolous." The Arts Council of Great Britain had been formed after World War II to support the arts nationwide, but it had severely limited funds. London theatre in 1955 was commercial theatre. The most decisive success on every level was Enid Bagnold's glittering and artificial high comedy-mystery The Chalk Garden, a play that could have been written any time since Oscar Wilde. Terence Rattigan was represented with his plays The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables. Most plays were light comedies, farces, and mysteries—including Agatha Christie's The Mouse Trap, which has continued to enjoy successful productions. The musicals included the contemporary Salad Days and The Boyfriend, frothy pieces set in what seemed to be an idealized Edwardian England. There were fourteen American shows of one kind of another and six imports from Paris playing in the West End. London theatre remained a middle-class, middle-aged theatre. The fare was dictated by the public and that particular public liked what was given to them. They wanted something "safe."

Literary Style

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The play takes place in the Porters' one-room flat, a fairly large attic room. The furniture is simple and rather old: a double bed, dressing table, book shelves, chest of drawers, dining table, and three chairs, two shabby leather arm chairs. The drab setting of the play emphasizes the contrast between the idealistic Jimmy and the dull reality of the world surrounding him.

The construction of Look Back in Anger is that of an old-fashioned well-made play in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, or most of Osborne's contemporary commercial playwrights. There is one plot developed over three acts (the expected number in 1956), and the basic plot device is ancient: misalliance in marriage compounded by a love triangle. There is some exposition that has been characterized as clumsy, such as when Jimmy tells Alison, to whom he has been married three years, how his business had been financed. Some plot devices stand out as the author's contrivances, such as Cliffs exit in Act I to buy cigarettes, and his unconvincing reasons for returning a couple of minutes later just as Alison is about to tell Jimmy that she is pregnant; the telephone call from Helena prepares for the Act I curtain and a phone call saying Hugh's mother is dying prepares the Act II, Scene 1 curtain. The end of Act II, Scene 2, with the two women left looking at each other, has been viewed as artificial. Osborne's innovations were not in form but rather in character, language, and passion which, for the most part mask the clumsy mechanics when the play is being acted.

Two sound images from off-stage are used very effectively in Look Back in Anger: the church bells and Jimmy's jazz trumpet. The church bells invade the small living space and serve as a reminder of the power of the established church, and also that it doesn't care at all for their domestic peace. The jazz trumpet allows Jimmy's presence to dominate the stage even when he is not there, and it also serves as his anti-Establishment "raspberry."

Osborne's use of language is basically in the realistic tradition. The characters' speech and rhythms reflect their class and education. Helena is very proper and conventional and so is her speech. Cliff is humble, Colonel Redfern is calm and reflective, Alison is proper and non-judgmental and noncommittal. Jimmy Porter, though, broke with tradition. Working class characters were not new to the English stage, but previously they had been comic figures who were usually inarticulate, or even angry figures who were inarticulate and thus held back by their class and lack of language skills and could thus be pitied. Jimmy is extremely articulate and self-confident. Whatever one thinks of Jimmy, it is not going to be pity. His passion is overwhelming and he has the language to overwhelm others with that passion. His language is not polite, though one suspects it would be a great deal more impolite if theatre censorship had not been in effect when it was written. Jimmy can also be very humorous and even poetic, as when he describes Colonel Redfern as a "sturdy old plant left over from the Edwardian Wilderness." Indeed, the powerful use of language seems almost to be a second form of structure for the whole play, one that covers various other faults.

Compare and Contrast

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1956: The welfare state was in place in England with public ownership of the main public utilities, such as the telephone, gas, and electric production, national health was in place, and a national welfare system that provided at least minimal economic security for nearly the whole population.

Today: The public utilities have been privatized, and there have been broad reductions in public programs, including national health.

1956: The European Common Market was still an idea and movement across national boundaries was strictly controlled.

Today: The European Common Market is firmly in place, Europe is on the brink of having a common currency, and borders between countries are practically open.

1956: The Cold War between blocks of nations led by two superpowers was in full effect and nuclear annihilation was felt as a constant possibility.

Today: With the collapse of the Soviet Union the Cold War was effectively won by the West and the threat of nuclear annihilation reduced; however, there are more nations with nuclear weapons ability and the threat of annihilation is still real if not popularly perceived as such.

1956: Rock and roll music was just starting in the United States and was hardly known in England

Today: Rock and roll music has gone through many stages, with many of the most influential strains originating in England, and is the popular music of youth, as well as a powerful means of rebellion.

1956: Radio and television was provided by the state-financed British Broadcasting Corporation, which produced most of what was broadcast.

Today: Commercial radio and television compete with the BBC, satellite transmission and home satellite reception provide an immense choice of popular fare, and the major centers of production are in the United States.

1956: The newly-founded English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre provided the only major outlet for contemporary relevant drama of doubtful commercial value in London

Today: The Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company both provide major outlets for relevant contemporary drama, and there are dozens of "fringe" theatres—the equivalent of New York's Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway—that produce new plays.

Media Adaptations

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Look Back in Anger was adapted in 1958 as a film by John Osborne and Nigel Kneale. It was produced by Woodfall Films, a company formed by John Osborne and Tony Richardson. It was directed by Tony Richardson, and stared Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. Available on video.

A second film as made in 1980, directed by Lindsay Anderson (a former artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre). It stared Malcolm McDowell and Lisa Banes. Available on video.

The 1989 revival directed Judi Dench for a very limited run in Belfast was filmed for Thames Television. The television version was directed by David Jones and stared Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Available on video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Athanason, Arthur Nicholas "John Osborne," in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 7 Writers After World War ll, 1945-1960, Gale, 1992, pp 231-54.

Barker, John A review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Express, May 9,1956.

Bilbngton, Michael A review of Look Back in Anger in Guardian, June 8,1989.

Carter, Alan John Osborne, Oliver & Boyd, 1969, pp. 1-4,22

Coveney, Michael A review of Look Back in Anger in Financial Times, June 13,1989.

Elsom, John Post-War British Theatre, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, pp. 72-87

Elsom, John Post-War British Theatre Criticism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 74-80

Ferrar, Harold John Osborne, Columbia University Press, 1973, pp 3-12,46.

Hobson, Harold A review of Look Back in Anger in Sunday Times, May 13,1956.

Hope-Wallace Philip A review of Look Back in Anger in Manchester Guardian, May 10,1956.

Osborne, John Look Back in Anger, Penguin, 1982.

Page, Malcolm File on Osborne, Methuen, 1988, pp 11-17.

Paton, Maureen A review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Express, June 8,1989.

Shulman, Milton A review of Look Back in Anger in Evening Standard, May 9, 1956.

Smyth, Darman A review of Look Back in Anger in Independent, June 10,1989.

Tynan, Kenneth A review of Look Back in Anger in Observer, May, 13,1956.

Wilson, Cecil, A review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Mail, May 9,1956.

Further Reading
Browne, Terry W Playwrights' Theatre, The English Stage Company at the Royal Court, Pitman, 1975.
This book details the first production of Look Back in Anger and gives a broad view of theatre conditions, including censorship, both before and after the production.

Rusinko, Susan British Drama, 1950 to The Present, Twayne, 1989.
This book offers a concise view of developments in British both leading up to and after Look Back in Anger.

Taylor, John Russell The Angry Theatre, Hill and Wang, 1969.
Taylor deals with the movement m theatre from the production of Look Back in Anger to 1968 and examines playwnghts who were encouraged and influenced by Osborne.

Trussler, Simon The Cambridge Illustrated History of British Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1994
An illustrated volume that places the period of Look Back in Anger in a broad context of theatre. It also includes pictures of the Royal Court Theatre and productions of Look Back in Anger.


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Carter, Alan. John Osborne. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1969. The chapter on Look Back in Anger is a good starting point for study of the play. Discusses critical and popular reception and explains its importance in theatrical history.

Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976. Compares Osborne with other writers of the period. Affirms that, though hardly the proletarian war cry some have supposed, Look Back in Anger inspired other dramatists, particularly through its vivid characterization and riveting dialogue.

Hayman, Ronald. John Osborne. London: Heinemann, 1968. Argues that Osborne’s characters are not in fact representatives of a class or a point of view, but rebels dominated by their own egomania. A readable and persuasive analysis.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. John Osborne. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A balanced and detailed work, tracing the action of Osborne’s plays in each scene and suggesting various interpretations. Also contains an extended and thoughtful discussion of Osborne’s politics.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide