Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

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Last Updated November 8, 2022.

Look Back in Anger is a play by English playwright John Osborne, first performed in London in 1956.

Unfolding over a several-month span in the 1950s, the story focuses on a young married couple named Jimmy and Alison Porter and their friend and housemate, Cliff.

Throughout the narrative, Jimmy is incredibly cruel and abusive toward the others. His volatile behavior constitutes the central drama of the play, and its three acts depict Cliff, Alison, and Alison’s friend Helena attempting to negotiate their lives around his growing, unpredictable ire.

Jimmy’s anger manifests within the work as a deep, pervasive solipsism. He often begins with a small perceived indignity or slight, which he then escalates to an argument, which he then escalates to a grand statement about injustice and the many ways in which he and society have both been wronged. Those around him have contorted themselves to live comfortably in his wake, and it’s unclear how much of their characterization predates their involvement with him—Alison, his wife, is presented as almost pathologically passive, and her central character trait is exhaustion rather than anything suggesting interiority. Even in relative unhappiness, she initiates change for herself only when it is suggested by others that she do so.

Cliff, too, exists primarily as a presence for Jimmy to ricochet off of. He is Jimmy’s opposite in every way, both emotional and physical. He’s good-natured and kind where Jimmy is cruel and scathing, and he’s short and stout where Jimmy is tall and lean. He’s warm with Alison when Jimmy is cruel with her, often stepping in when Jimmy goes too far and acting as a buffer between them. Despite this, Osborne grants him very little initiative of his own, treating him instead like a shadow of his friend. He works where Jimmy works, lives where Jimmy lives, cares about the same woman Jimmy cares about, and argues when Jimmy wants to argue.

Helena, Alison’s friend, is given a little bit more substance. She is a performer, with a career of her own, and joins their household only because her work brings her into their proximity. But though she is initially the catalyst for Alison to recognize her unhappiness, allowing her to exit the relationship by forcing her to confront whether the relationship is serving her, she, too, is temporarily taken in by Jimmy. He and Helena maintain an intimate relationship until Alison eventually returns, and it’s only at that point that Helena realizes she doesn’t approve of her own actions.

The work typifies the cultural movement known as “kitchen sink realism,” a genre of British creative work dedicated to examining the quotidian grit of everyday life. Jimmy’s characterization is archetypal of a kitchen sink antihero, which itself is derived from social issues plaguing young British people in the 1950s and 60s: he is disaffected and aggrieved about injustice; he is full of directionless frustration and expressive anger; he is overeducated and underemployed.

Scholars have posited that the harsh tenor of kitchen sink realism is a direct response to the difficulty of living in post-war England, and Osborne’s work directly invokes this influence across two related axes. At multiple points throughout the text, Jimmy outwardly laments the horrors of war and the many ways in which it eviscerates the humanity of the combatants, both sympathizing with and vilifying those involved in equal measure. Though an exact cause of death is not cited, his father’s slow, painful death is attributed to his military service and is one of several catalysts for his reflection on combat.

Though Jimmy is too young to have served in the war,...

(This entire section contains 846 words.)

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he, too, is wracked with grief over his own losses. This unresolved grief significantly impacts and feeds his harsh temper, and, often, his long, discursive rants will circle around to the people he’s lost in his life. Anger is the only safe outlet he has to address his grief, and so that is how it manifests. While these terms aren’t used in the text itself, modern-day audiences might map these outbursts to what is now referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—an affliction often brought home from the battlefield and inadequately addressed by mental health services provided to those who have been at war.

Throughout the work, Osborne often writes stage direction in a voice that suggests Jimmy’s own perspective, mirroring his verbose, colorful phrasing and use of metaphor. This reiterates Jimmy’s solipsism throughout the work by implying that the neutral, omniscient authority may actually be the main character’s own voice. This is a wry nod to the reader of the text, effectively letting them in on a secret the viewing audience will never get.

Some readers may choose to interpret this narrative choice by viewing Jimmy as an analog for John Osborne himself. Just twenty-seven at the time of the play’s publication, it’s not especially presumptuous to assume that he might share some of the disillusionment he ascribes to his fictional demographic peers.