Look Back in Anger

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Look Back in Anger
Written by John Osborne
Date premiered May 8, 1956
Place premiered

Royal Court Theatre
London

Director – Tony Richardson
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting The action throughout takes place in the Porters' one-room flat in the Midlands.

Look Back in Anger (1956) is a play by John Osborne. It concerns a love triangle involving an intelligent and educated but disaffected young man of working class origin (Jimmy Porter), his upper-middle-class, impassive wife (Alison), and her haughty best friend (Helena Charles). Cliff, an amiable Welsh lodger, attempts to keep the peace. The play was a success on the London stage, and spawned the term "angry young men" to describe Osborne and those of his generation who employed the harshness of realism in the theatre in contrast to the more escapist theatre that characterized the previous generation.

Background[edit]

Look Back in Anger was a strongly autobiographical piece based on Osborne's unhappy marriage to actress Pamela Lane and their life in cramped accommodation in Derby.[1] While Osborne aspired towards a career in theatre, Lane was of a more practical and materialistic persuasion, not taking Osborne's ambitions seriously while cuckolding him with a local dentist. It also contains much of Osborne's earlier life, the wrenching speech of seeing a loved one die being, for example, a replay of the death of Thomas, Osborne's father. What it is best remembered for, though, are Jimmy's tirades. Some of these are directed against generalised British middle-class smugness in the post-atomic world. Many are directed against the female characters, and this is a very distinct echo of the playwright's profoundly uneasy relations with women, starting with his mother Nellie Beatrice, described by Osborne in his autobiography A Better Class of Person as "hypocritical, self-absorbed, calculating and indifferent".[2] Madeline, the lost love Jimmy pines for, is based on Stella Linden, an older rep-company actress who first encouraged Osborne to write.[citation needed] After the first production in London, Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure, who played Alison, and divorced his wife to marry Ure in 1957.

Production[edit]

The play was premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre, on 8 May 1956 by the English Stage Company under the direction of Tony Richardson, setting by Alan Tagg, and music for songs by Tom Eastwood. The press release called the author an angry young man, a phrase that came to represent a new movement in 1950s British theatre. Legend has it that audiences gasped at the sight of an ironing board on a London stage. The cast was as follows: Kenneth Haigh (Jimmy), Alan Bates (Cliff), Mary Ure (Alison), Helena Hughes (Helena) and John Welsh (Colonel Redfern).

The following year, the production moved to Broadway under producer David Merrick and director Tony Richardson. Retaining the original cast but starring Vivienne Drummond as Helena, it would receive three Tony Award nominations including for Best Play and "Best Dramatic Actress" for Ure.

Setting[edit]

  • Time- The present, The action throughout takes place in the Porters' one-room flat in the Midlands.
  • Act I
    • Scene 1 – Early evening, April
  • Act II
    • Scene 1 – Two weeks later
    • Scene 2 – The following evening
  • Act III
    • Scene 1 – Several months later
    • Scene 2 – A few minutes later

Play synopsis[edit]

Act 1[edit]

Act 1 opens on a dismal Sunday afternoon in Jimmy and Alison's cramped attic in the Midlands. Jimmy and Cliff are attempting to read the Sunday papers, plus the radical weekly, "price ninepence, obtainable at any bookstall" as Jimmy snaps, claiming it from Cliff. This is a reference to the New Statesman, and in the context of the period would have instantly signalled the pair's political preference to the audience. Alison is attempting to do the week's ironing and is only half listening as Jimmy and Cliff engage in the expository dialogue.

It becomes apparent that there is a huge social gulf between Jimmy and Alison. Her family is upper-middle-class military, perhaps verging on upper class, while Jimmy is decidedly working class. He had to fight hard against her family's disapproval to win her. "Alison's mummy and I took one look at each other, and from then on the age of chivalry was dead", he explains. We also learn that the sole family income is derived from a sweet stall in the local market—an enterprise that is surely well beneath Jimmy's education, let alone Alison's "station in life".

As Act 1 progresses, Jimmy becomes more and more vituperative, transferring his contempt for Alison's family onto her personally, calling her "pusillanimous" and generally belittling her to Cliff. It is possible to play this scene as though Jimmy thinks everything is just a joke, but most actors opt for playing it as though he really is excoriating her.[3] The tirade ends with some physical horseplay, resulting in the ironing board overturning and Alison's arm getting a burn. Jimmy exits to play his trumpet off stage.

Alison and Cliff play a tender scene, during which she confides that she's accidentally pregnant and can't quite bring herself to tell Jimmy. Cliff urges her to tell him. When Jimmy returns, Alison announces that her actress friend Helena Charles is coming to stay, and it is entirely obvious that Jimmy despises Helena even more than Alison. He flies into a total rage, and conflict is inevitable.

Act 2[edit]

Act 2 opens on another Sunday afternoon, with Helena and Alison making lunch. In a two-handed scene, Alison gives a clue as to why she decided to take Jimmy on—her own minor rebellion against her upbringing plus her admiration of Jimmy's campaigns against the dereliction of English post-war, post-atom-bomb life. She describes Jimmy to Helena as a "knight in shining armour". Helena says, firmly, "You've got to fight him".

Jimmy enters, and the tirade continues. If his Act 1 material could be played as a joke, there's no doubt about the intentional viciousness of his attacks on Helena. When the women put on hats and declare that they are going to church, Jimmy's sense of betrayal peaks. When he leaves to take an urgent phone call, Helena announces that she has forced the issue. She has sent a telegram to Alison's parents asking them to come and "rescue" her. Alison is stunned but agrees that she will go.

After a scene break, we see Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, who has come to collect her to take her back to her family home. The playwright allows the Colonel to come across as quite a sympathetic character, albeit totally out of touch with the modern world (as he himself admits). "You're hurt because everything's changed", Alison tells him, "and Jimmy's hurt because everything's stayed the same".

Helena arrives to say goodbye, intending to leave very soon herself. Alison is surprised that Helena is staying on for another day, but she leaves, giving Cliff a note for Jimmy. Cliff in turn hands it to Helena and leaves, saying "I hope he rams it up your nostrils". Almost immediately, Jimmy bursts in. His contempt at finding a "goodbye" note makes him turn on Helena again, warning her to keep out of his way until she leaves. Helena tells him that Alison is expecting a baby, and Jimmy admits grudgingly that he's taken aback. However, his tirade continues. They first come to physical blows, and then as the Act 2 curtain falls, Jimmy and Helena are kissing passionately and falling on the bed.

Act 3[edit]

Act 3 opens as a deliberate replay of Act 1, but this time with Helena at the ironing-board wearing Jimmy's Act 1 red shirt. Months have passed. Jimmy is notably more pleasant to Helena than he was to Alison in Act 1. She actually laughs at his jokes, and the three of them (Jimmy, Cliff, and Helena) get into a music hall comedy routine that obviously is not improvised. Cliff announces that he's decided to strike out on his own. As Jimmy leaves the room to get ready for a final night out for the three of them, he opens the door to find Alison, looking like death. Instead of caring for her he snaps over his shoulder "Friend of yours to see you" and abruptly leaves.

After a scene break, Alison explains to Helena that she lost the baby—one of Jimmy's cruellest speeches in Act 1 expressed the wish that Alison would conceive a child and lose it—the two women reconcile but Helena realises that what she's done is immoral and she in turn decides to leave. She summons Jimmy to hear her decision and he lets her go with a sarcastic farewell.

The play ends with a sentimental reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison. They revive an old game they used to play, pretending to be bears and squirrels, and seem to be in a state of truce.

Critical reception[edit]

At the time of production reviews of Look Back in Anger were deeply negative. Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson were among the few critics to praise it, and are now regarded among the most influential critics of the time.

For example, on BBC Radio's The Critics, Ivor Brown began his review by describing the play's setting—a one-room flat in the Midlands—as "unspeakably dirty and squalid" such that it was difficult for him to "believe that a colonel's daughter, brought up with some standards", would have lived in it. He expressed anger at having watched something that "wasted [his] time". The Daily Mail's Cecil Wilson wrote that the beauty of Mary Ure was "frittered away" on a pathetic wife, who, "judging by the time she spends ironing, seems to have taken on the nation's laundry". Indeed, Alison, Ure's character, irons during Act One, makes lunch in Act Two, and leaves the ironing to her rival in Act Three.

On the other hand, Kenneth Tynan wrote that he "could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger", describing the play as a "minor miracle" containing "all the qualities...one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage—the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of "official" attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour (e.g., Jimmy describes an effeminate male friend as a 'female Emily Brontë'), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned." Harold Hobson was also quick to recognize the importance of the play "as a landmark of British theatre". He praised Osborne for the play, despite the fact that the "blinkers still obscure his vision".

Alan Sillitoe, author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (both of which are also part of the "angry young men" movement), wrote that Osborne "didn't contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up".

Film adaptations[edit]

References in popular culture[edit]

  • An episode of the BBC radio comedy series Hancock's Half Hour paid tribute to Osborne's play in "The East Cheam Drama Festival" (1958). The episode features the regular cast spoofing a number of theatrical genres, with Look Back in Anger recast as "Look Back in Hunger—a new play by the Hungry Young Man, Mr. John Eastbourne". Scriptwriters Alan Simpson and Ray Galton mimic several elements of Osborne's play, from Jimmy's railing against the iniquities of modern life to the values of middle-class bourgeois life.
  • "Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora," a 1994 documentary about the B-movie director released by Rhino Home Video. The cross-dressing Wood often wore an angora sweater and angora fabric is featured in many of his films.

In media[edit]

  • "Look Back in Anger" is a song by British singer David Bowie from his 1979 album Lodger.

Sources[edit]

  • Osborne, John (1982). A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929–56 (paperback edition). Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0-14-006288-5. 
  • Osborne, John (1991). Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography, 1955–66 (paperback edition). Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-16635-0. 

References[edit]

  1. ^ Osborne 1991, pp 1–4
  2. ^ Osborne 1982
  3. ^ See not only the original portrayal by Kenneth Haig but also the screen performances by Richard Burton and Kenneth Branagh

External links[edit]