Look Back in Anger Questions and Answers by John Osborne
1. Theme of the Play
[Q. What themes of the play are represented by Osborne’s meticulous description of the Porter’s attic apartment?
Q. What is the relationship between Violence and Power in John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger?
Q. What are the major significant themes in Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger? Discuss.
Q. Comment on the theme of Look Back in Anger. Analysis of the theme, critical items.]
Look Back in Anger is called a significant play owing to the fact that it can be considered as a moment of change and also a reaction. Because, since the end of World War II British theatre was believed to have been in rapid decline. Audiences were falling off and theatres were closing all over the country. Some of the theatre companies were restaging Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw plays and Restoration comedies.
Most of the companies were trying to restore Elizabethan theatre by restaging Shakespeare plays over and over. Two of the most successful dramatists in Britain of the time were Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan but unfortunately their celebrated plays dated back to the 1930s, so they could hardly be regarded as rising new and young talents.
Loss of Childhood
A theme that impacts the characters of Jimmy and Alison Porter is the idea of a lost childhood. Osborne uses specific examples – the death of Jimmy’s father when Jimmy was only ten, and how he was forced to watch the physical and mental demise of the man to demonstrate the way in which Jimmy is forced to deal with suffering from an early age. Alison’s loss of childhood is best seen in the way that she was forced to grow up too fast by marrying Jimmy. Her youth is wasted in the anger and abuse that her husband levels upon her.
Osborne suggests that a generation of British youth has experienced this same loss of childhood innocence. Osborne uses the examples of World War, the development of the atomic bomb, and the decline of the British Empire to show how an entire culture has lost the innocence that other generations were able to maintain.
Alienation and Loneliness
Jimmy Porter spoke for a large segment of the British population in 1956 when he ranted about his alienation from a society in which he was denied any meaningful role. Although he was educated at a “white-tile” university, a reference to the newest and least prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, the real power and opportunities were reserved for the children of the Establishment, those born to privilege, family connections, and entree to the “right” schools.
Part of the “code” of the Establishment was the “stiff upper lip,” that reticence to show or even to feel strong emotions. Jimmy’s alienation from Alison comes precisely because he cannot break through her “cool,” her unwillingness to feel deeply even during sexual intercourse with her husband. He berates her in a coarse attempt to get her to strike out at him, to stop “sitting on the fence” and make a full commitment to her real emotions; he wants to force her to feel and to have a vital life.
He calls her “Lady Pusillanimous” because he sees her as too cowardly to commit to anything. Jimmy is anxious to give a great deal and is deeply angry because no one seems interested enough to take from him, including his wife. He says, “My heart is so full, I feel ill-and she wants peace!”
Anger and Hatred vs. Complacency
Jimmy Porter operates out of a deep well of anger. His anger is directed at those he loves because they refuse to have strong feelings, at a society that did not fulfill promises of opportunity, and at those who smugly assume their places in the social and power structure and who do not care for others. He lashes out in anger because of his deeply felt helplessness.
When he was ten years old he watched his idealist father dying for a year from wounds received fighting for democracy in the Spanish Civil War, his father talking for hours, “pouring out all that was left of his life to one bewildered little boy.” 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.”
Suffering and anger are highly associated with lower class-ness in the play, and complacency with upper class-ness. Jimmy believes that lower class people, who have suffered as he has, have an insight on the world that upper class people lack. He berates Alison for lacking “enthusiasm” and “curiosity.
” He suggests that her complacency makes her less human, less connected to life than he is. He sees this suffering and anger as an important part of his identity. At a climactic moment in the play, Alison says of Jimmy, “don’t try and take his suffering away from him-he’d be lost without it.”
In the end, Alison finally experiences the suffering that Jimmy thinks she has been lacking: she loses their child to a miscarriage. This, she believes, forces her to experience the fire of emotion that Jimmy had always wished she had. But the play leaves us unsure whether their suffering will actually lead to any redemptive knowledge. The circular structure of the play-the beginning of the first and third acts mirror each other-undermines the sense that Jimmy’s life is really as dynamic as he suggests that it is.
He seems to be stuck in a routine. Osborne’s voice in the play, seen in his stage directions, also tells us that Jimmy’s fiery energy can be selfdefeating. In his first stage direction describing Jimmy, Osborne writes, “to be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.” When Alison finally breaks down and tells him that she wants to be “corrupt and futile,” Jimmy can only “watch her helplessly.”
The play ultimately suggests that Jimmy’s anger is an expression of his social discontentment and suffering, but not an answer to his problems. He doesn’t channel it in any political direction, joining a party or holding meetings or organizing his similarly angry friends, or even conceive of any way that it can be channeled. Though it springs from a moral fervor, it dissolves into a diffuse attack on many fronts, rather than pointedly targeting and taking down any oppressive systems.
Class Conflict and Education
Look Back in Anger was published in the post World War II period in England, in 1956. In 1944, The British Mass Education Act had made secondary education free for everyone in the country. This meant that whole new swaths of British society were now equipped to write about their lives. John Osborne was one of these.
His play broke into a world of British theater that had previously been a polite, upper class environment, and brought a new angry energy and previously unencountered pointof-view to the stage that startled some theatergoers. We see evidence of that new class mobility, and the new reality it created, in the play. Jimmy Porter comes from a working class background, but has been highly educated.
He went to a university (though not one of Britain’s finest- his upper class wife, Alison, notes that it was he not even red brick, but white tile.”) And though Jimmy went to a university, he is still stuck running a sweet stall. He has in some ways left his background behind, but also doesn’t feel fully comfortable and hasn’t been accepted into the upper classes. He uses big words and reads the newspaper, but he sometimes has to look those words up in a dictionary, and he says that the Sunday papers make him feel ignorant.
Alison and Jimmy’s relationship is the main place where class tension unfolds. Alison comes from an upper class background very different from Jimmy’s. Both portray the struggle between the classes in military terms, focusing on the ways that these two sectors of society fail to blend. Jimmy and his friend Hugh see her as a “hostage,” and they spend time in the early years of Alison and Jimmy’s marriage going to upper class parties to “plunder” food and drink.
Though Alison and Jimmy try to make their relationship work in the end, we get the sense that it’s built on shaky ground, and that they might fall back into the cycle of anger and fighting that they enact throughout the play. Alison and Jimmy may make their relationship work for now, but the divisions between them run too deep to ever fully heal. In Look Back in Anger, truces across class boundaries are ultimately brief and inadequate.
Jimmy comes from the working class and although some of his mother’s relatives are “pretty posh,” Cliff tells Alison that Jimmy hates them as much as he hates her family. It is the class system, with its built-in preferential treatment for those at the top and exclusion from all power for those at the bottom, that makes Jimmy’s existence seem so meaningless. He has a university degree, but it is not from the “right” university.
It is Nigel, the “straight-backed, chinless wonder” who went to Sandhurst, who is stupid and insensitive to the needs of others, who has no beliefs of his own, who is already a Member of Parliament, who will make it to the top.” Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, is not shown unsympathetically, but her mother is portrayed as a class-conscious monster who used every tactic she could to prevent Alison from marrying Jimmy. The only person for whom Jimmy’s love is apparent is Hugh’s working-class mother. Jimmy likes Cliff because, as Cliff himself says, “I’m common.”
Apathy and Passivity
Although Alison is the direct target of Jimmy’s invective, her apathy and passivity are merely the immediate representation of the attitudes that Jimmy sees as undermining the whole of society. It is the complacent blandness of society that infuriates Jimmy. When speaking of Alison’s brother Nigel, he says, “You’ve never heard so many well-bred commonplaces coming from beneath the same bowler hat.”
The Church, too, comes under attack in part because it has lost relevance to contemporary life. For Helena it spells a safe habit, one that defines right and wrong for her-although she seems perfectly willing to ignore its strictures against adultery when it suits her. Jimmy sees the Church as providing an easy escape from facing the pain of living in the here and now-and thus precluding any real redemption.
Of course, Jimmy has also slipped into a world of sameness as illustrated by the three Sunday evenings spent reading the newspapers and even the direct replacement of Alison at the ironing board with Helena. Deadly habit is portrayed as insidious.
Disillusionment and Nostalgia
Look Back in Anger is the archetypical play of the “angry young men” movement in British theater, which was marked by working class authors writing plays about their disillusionment with British society. In Osborne’s play, we see this in Jimmy’s sense of political emptiness. Jimmy complains that, in the Britain of the 1950s, “there aren’t any good, brave causes left.”
Helena observes that he was born in the wrong time “he thinks he’s still in the middle of the French Revolution.” Jimmy’s angry fervor is out of place in modern society, and this leaves him feeling useless and adrift. Other characters also feel a sense of nostalgia for the past, but for different reasons: they long for an era characterized by a leisurely life for rich Britons and greater worldwide power for the British Empire.
Many of these themes of nostalgia revolve around Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, who had served in the British army in colonial India. Jimmy says that Colonel Redfern is nostalgic for the “Edwardian” past – early 20th century England, before World War I, when things were supposedly simpler and more peaceful.
In the end, the play argues that the characters’ disillusionment is legitimate. Postwar Britain was marked by a stagnant economy and declining world power, partly due to the fact that it no longer had many lucrative colonies around the world (India, where Colonel Redfern served, gained its independence in 1947). The play argues that these factors have left the country’s young people adrift and disempowered. Jimmy’s anger is therefore justified. Both Jimmy and Colonel Redfern, from their different places in society, have nostalgia for a time when Britain was more powerful on the world stage.
The passing away of Britain’s imperial power is thus painted in a negative light-and though Look Back in Anger voices a revolutionary social critique of class conditions in England, it stops short of criticizing Britain’s exploitation of its colonies. Instead, it argues that the decline of the empire has led to the disenfranchisement of the men of Osborne’s generation, and gives those disenfranchised citizens a strong and angry voice in Jimmy Porter.
While Jimmy harangues everyone around him to open themselves to honest feeling, he is trapped in his own problems of social identity. He doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. As Colonel Redfern points out, operating a sweet-stall seems an odd occupation for an educated young man. Jimmy sees suffering the pain of life as the only way to find, or “earn,” one’s true identity.
Alison does finally suffer the immeasurable loss of her unborn child and comes back to Jimmy, who seems to embrace her. Helena discovers that she can be happy only if she lives according to her perceived principles of right and wrong. Colonel Redfern is caught out of his time.
The England he left as a young army officer no longer exists. Jimmy calls him “just one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can’t understand why the sun isn’t shining anymore,” and the Colonel agrees. Cliff does seem to have a strong sense of who he is, accepts that, and will move on with his life.
Love and Innocence
Jimmy believes that love is pain. He scorns Cliff and Alison’s love for each other, which is a gentle sort of fondness that doesn’t correspond to his own brand of passionate, angry feeling. When Helena decides, suddenly, to leave him at the end of the play, Jimmy reacts with scorn and derision. Love, he says, takes strength and guts. It’s not soft and gentle.
To some extent, Jimmy’s definition of love has to do with the class tensions between Jimmy and Alison. Alison tells her father that Jimmy married her out of a sense of revenge against the upper classes. In asking her to leave her background, he laid out a challenge for her to rise to, and their passion was partly based on that sense of competition between classes. This subverts a traditional love story-Jimmy’s anger at society overshadowed his feelings for Alison, at least in her eyes.
It’s clear that Jimmy and Alison’s relationship isn’t characterized by much tenderness. However, the two do manage to find some when they play their animal game. Jimmy and Alison as the bear and squirrel are able to express more simple affection for each other, but only in a dehumanized state, when they leave their intellects behind.
In the final scene, Jimmy describes their game as a retreat from organized society. They’ll be “together in our bear’s cave, or our squirrel’s drey.” Jimmy and Alison are not able to enjoy love as a simple human pleasure. Their relationship is buffeted by class struggle, anger, and suffering. Only when they remove class markers and withdraw from society in their animal game are they able to reach some level of innocence.
This reflects a broader loss of innocence in a generation of post-war Britons that had seen the hydrogen bomb dropped on Japan and 80 million soldiers and civilians die during World War II. Their parents and grandparents were able to grow up with some measure of peace of mind, but these characters (and the real Britons of their generation) cannot.
This affects them even in fundamental parts of their domestic lives, like love and marriage. They have trouble experiencing these things as simple pleasures, because the world surrounding them is so difficult and complex. Only by leaving their society, their human-ness, behind, can they find the innocence to enjoy simple love.
A contemporary reading of Look Back in Anger contains inherent assumptions of sexism. Jimmy Porter seems to many to be a misogamist and Alison a mere cipher struggling to view the world through Jimmy’s eyes. During World War II, many British women had stepped into new roles in the labor force. After the war ended, most were expected to move back into their traditional roles in the household, but many still held jobs outside the home.
The play takes a conflicted view of gender that parallels these shifting dynamics. On the one hand, Jimmy’s angry, destructive, and typically masculine energy drives much of the action and dialogue. On the other hand, women are given agency, and female characters act in their own interests, independently of men (most notably, both Alison and Helena leave Jimmy).
Femininity in the play is highly associated with upper class-ness, and masculinity with lower class-ness. This leads to clashes between the genders that also have an economic dimension. Sticking to conventional gender roles means sticking to the propriety and politeness of British society (which also means acting along with your class rol For example, in stealing Alison away from her family to marry her, Jimmy took on the traditional male role of a “knight in shining armor.”
But, Alison says that “his armor didn’t really shine much,” subverting this traditional gender role by adding a class dimension to it. Jimmy was almost heroic, but not quite. There is clearly something attractive in Jimmy’s virile, lower class masculinity, as first Alison and then Helena are drawn to him sexually. Yet there is something destructive in it as well, as both also end up leaving him. Further complicating the gender dynamics, women, too, are portrayed as having a destructive power over men.
Jimmy says he’s thankful that there aren’t more female surgeons, because they’d flip men’s guts out of their bodies as carelessly as they toss their makeup instruments down on the table. He likens Alison’s sexual passion to a python that eats its prey whole. At the end of the play, he says that he and Cliff will both inevitably be “butchered by women.”
The muddled gender roles in the play add to the sense of realism that made it such a sensation when it was first performed. Characters defy social convention. Alison disobeys her parents to marry Jimmy. Helena slaps Jimmy at the very start of their affair, and later walks out on him. An unmarried man (Cliff) lives with a married couple. He flirts with Alison, but Jimmy doesn’t particularly mind. The fluid and shifting gender roles in the play reflect the more fluid realities of post-War British society, portrayed for the first time in the traditionally staid and upper-class medium of theater.
2. The Significance of the Title
[Q. Comment on the significance of the title of ‘Look Back in Anger’.
Q. Explain the significance of the play’s title ‘look back in anger’.
Q. Why did John Osborne title his play “Look Back in Anger”?
Q. In what ways is the title of the play “Look Back in Anger” meaningful to you? In what ways is the title of the play “Look Back in Anger” meaningful to you?
Osborne’s play was the first to explore the theme of the “Angry Young Man.” This term describes a generation of post-World War II artists and working class men who generally ascribed to leftist, sometimes anarchist, politics and social views. According to cultural critics, these young men were not a part of any organized movement but were, Instead, individuals angry at a post-Victorian Britain that refused to acknowledge their social and class alienation.
Jimmy Porter is often considered to be literature’s seminal example of the angry young man. Jimmy is angry at the social and political structures that he believes has kept him from achieving his dreams and aspirations. He directs this anger towards his friends and, most notably, his wife Alison.
‘Look back in anger’ is a suitable title for the play.It has two parts-look back andin anger.certainly there is enough anger in the play. Its hero Jimmy Porter, is an angry youngman.As one critic puts it he is furious with life. The title of the play is apt and appropriate.It is significant and suggestive.
It hints the theme of the play .the story of the play moves around the play. In the play Osborne has depicted the mood of despair,anger, and frustration of the postwar generation. It is study of class conflict and frustration caused by it. The title of the play indicate it.Seeing the title reader comes to know what the play is about.
The title of John Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger” is very much with the flow of the theme of the play. The entire play experiences the tremors of Jimmy’s violently angry tirades directed at his fellow inhabitants in the play. Jimmy’s anger is one of the predominant theme of the play affecting all those characters related to him.
Another recurrent motive is Looking Back as most of the characters including Alison, Helena and Coln Redfern reassess the past as they remember it. Unlike Jimmy who isn’t able to transcend bygone sufferings, the others acknowledge their previous mistakes and express regret or repentance.
Hence the title not only signifies the emotional and psychological condition of the characters, it also stands representative for that age of the disgruntled young men of England without employment, opportunity and hope. The people found anger and directionless disillusionment following their every step.
Look Back In Anger received an overwhelming response from the audience when it was first produced. It appealed to the audience because of the realistic subjectmatter. Through the character of the protagonist, Osborne revealed his feeling for the contemporary scene and the frustration and the temperament of post war Britain found expression through the speeches of Jimmy. The use of contemporary idiom the sharp comments on matters ranging from posh Sunday newspaper and while tile universities to the bishop and the hydrogen bomb.
Jimmy’s anger seems to be deep rooted. For him the misery of the world is misery and will not then rest. He suffers for others and likes other people’s lives. As a young boy he watched his dying father and learned more about love-death and betrayal than people like Helena would know all their lives. He recalls the experience with bitterness and says that every time he had sat near his father’s bed and listened to his father’s talk he had to fight back his tears.
He says he had become a veteran after his experience of remaining by his father’s bed side for twelve months. He also suffers for Mrs. Tanner, Augh’s mother who according to him went through the sordid process of dying.
Social disparity between his working class origin and the upper middle class to which his wife belongs is also a reason for Jimmy’s anger. He wages an unending battle against the upper middle class whom he holds in contempt and treats Alison as a hostage. He constantly bullies his wife and provokes her to retaliate Alison’s silence, her withdrawal into detached indifference makes communication between him and herself impossible. That girl there can twist your arm off with her silence, he comments.
What is immediately apparent about the title Look Back in Anger is that it reads like an injunction telling one to perform a particular action that of looking back. Whether this command is directed towards the audience/readers, the characters, or indeed even towards the play as a whole, remains unclear. At the same time, it is possible to read the title as descriptive, as telling us what the play actually does, or at least sets out to do.
A third way of studying the title is to divide our attention between the two themes embodied in it, the action of looking back’, and the emotion of ‘anger’. The latter has been dealt with in the previous unit, so I will here concentrate on the former aspect, that of a vision or a gaze that is retrospective. Such a gaze usually has implicit connotations of objectivity and of clear judgement made possible through the perspective brought by time.
Yet here it is allied with an intensely subjective emotion – can looking back in anger ever mean looking back objectively ? Unlikely though it sounds, I think that this is precisely what Osborne is suggesting through the play’s title. We are here meant to see that, contrary to the usual belief, it is a strong feeling that makes for clear vision and understanding. The play goes on to show that there are numerous areas of private and public life that are inexplicable or hidden to reason, but that remain accessible to emotion.
The next question that arises is what exactly is to be looked back at. One possible answer points to the time immediately preceding that of the play – the war years as well as the early post-war period. Everyone in the play does some amount of looking back at these years, whether on a personal or a public level. Of these, Jimmy’s gaze is the most apparently angry and resentful, both against the older social system and at the (as he sees them) half-hearted attempts at reform.
Colonel Redfern looks at the same period with nostalgia and a sense of loss. In fact, the nostalgic vision is itself a minor theme in the play, and attention is paid to its power to beautify and transform the past at the same time that it is seen as creating an essentially false picture. This comes across strongly in the following passage: The old Edwardian brigade do make their brief little world look pretty tempting.
All home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms. Always the same picture: high summer, the long days in die sun, slim volumes of verse, crisp linen, the smell of starch. What a romantic picture. Phoney too, of course. It must have rained sometimes. Still, even I regret it somehow, phoney or not.”
Alison also looks back at her past, at the years of her marriage to Jimmy, usually with regret, or with a longing for missed happiness but most of all with a sense of clarity at being able to see things now that she could not earlier. She spends a good deal of time recounting these memories to Cliff and Helena (this serves to provide lot of relevant information to the audience) and in the process, revealing her present state of mind : “I keep looking back, as far as I remember, and I can’t think what it was to feel young, really young.”
Another characteristic of a retrospective vision is that it is explanatory, it provides (as well as seeks) answers of one sort or another, though they need not be satisfactory ones. The play doesn’t actually offer any solutions to the personal misery of the characters except the retreat into a game for Jimmy and Alison, and even here, we are left wondering how long it will last.
Cliff and Helena simply leave and are more or less already forgotten by the time die play ends. I would then see the title as referring not so much to any particular period of time as, in a general sense, to the nature of the past and to what people make of it through memory, or to be more specific, through the acts of remembering and forgetting.
3 .Q. What does the setting of the play Look Back in Anger signify? Discuss illustratively.
structure and setting of the play.] The three-act play takes place in a one-bedroom flat in the Midlands. Jimmy Porter, lower middle-class, university-educated, lives with his wife Alison, the daughter of a retired Colonel in the British Army in India. His friend Cliff Lewis, who helps Jimmy run a sweet stall, lives with them. Jimmy, intellectually restless and thwarted, reads the papers, argues and taunts his friends over their acceptance of the world around them.
He rages to the point of violence, reserving much of his bile for Alison’s friends and family. The situation is exacerbated by the arrival of Helena, an actress friend of Alison’s from school. Appalled at what she finds, Helena calls Alison’s father to take her away from the flat. He arrives while Jimmy is visiting the mother of a friend and takes Alison away. As soon as she has gone, Helena moves in with Jimmy. Alison returns to visit, having lost Jimmy’s baby. Helena can no longer stand living with Jimmy and leaves. Finally Alison returns to Jimmy and his angry life.
The problem, which even a fine revival like this production has, is with the melodramatic qualities of the narrative. Osborne’s script became almost a template for the new school of writers, and it is difficult to present his work without being aware that there is a faint whiff of formula about it. But despite the plot’s shortcomings (which were recognised even by such a fierce admirer as Tynan), it still has the power to startle.
There was an audible intake of breath from the audience when Jimmy fell into Helena’s arms. Thanks to a fine performance from William Gaunt the sympathy felt by Colonel Redfern, Alison’s father, for Jimmy came as a revelation, but still totally understandable within the framework of the play.
The language, too, still has the power to shock, such as when Jimmy, unaware of Alison’s pregnancy, says to her: “If only something-something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! If you could have a child, and it would die. Let it grow, let a recognisable human face emerge from that little mass of India rubber and wrinkles. Please-if only I could watch you face that. I wonder if you might even become a recognisable human being yourself. But I doubt it.”
It is a tribute to Gregory Hersov’s direction and Michael Sheen’s performance as Jimmy that this does not seem overblown or ridiculous.
Some of the imagery and language doesn’t travel too well historically and reflects only the preoccupations of the era. It is difficult, for example, to imagine jazz being quite as exotic as it is for Jimmy. Or to understand the intellectual courage of saying about a gay man, “He’s like a man with a strawberry mark-he keeps thrusting it in your face because he can’t believe it doesn’t interest or horrify you particularly. As if I give a damn which way he likes his meat served up”. At the time homosexuality was still illegal in Britain.
The production stays close to Osborne’s original stage-image. This enables it to show the play as standing at a crossroads both of the British stage and also of political and historical epochs. Before the show, the title is projected onto the curtains like a jazz album cover. Between scenes, wreaths of cigarette smoke rise up the curtains. An era is evoked. Matilda Ziegler’s Helena also captures a lost period of weekly repertory theatre, of companies travelling the country with precisely the sort of play that Look Back in Anger was attacking; a world evoked with such nostalgia in The Dresser.
It was a time when actors auditioned in suits or the sort of starched twin-pieces that Helena wears before she moves in with Jimmy. The admiration of William Gaunt’s Colonel Redfern for Jimmy’s principles and his amusement at Jimmy’s description of Mrs Redfern as “an overfed, overprivileged old bitch”, are set against his total lack of comprehension of what Jimmy’s life actually means.
Alison says to him “You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it. Something’s gone wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?” Or as it was put in a Daily Express article from December 1959 which is quoted in the programme: “Out of this decade has come the Illusion of Comfort, and we have lost the sense of life’s difficulty”.
It is clear from Osborne’s script that there was no lack of a sense of life’s difficulties around at the time. But the emphasis had shifted from the martyred expressions of the British ruling class and their “white man’s burden”, as represented in Colonel Redfern, to a more serious appraisal of life for those outside that ruling
Emma Fielding does a good job playing Alison, who has grown up with the one dass attitude but has been forced by her situation into the other. Fielding gives a good as the woman who tolerates Jimmy’s invective, living constantly with the performance threat of something erupting in front of her. Helena on the other hand ultimately cannot stay with Jimmy precisely because of the destruction of all her old certainties.
Perhaps the only truly sympathetic character in the play is Cliff, here excellently played by Jason Hughes. From his role as Jimmy’s foil in the early exchanges, to appearing as Alison’s real friend, to the point when he decides that he does not want to stay in the flat, Hughes gives a magnificent portrayal of solidness. Whilst Alison forced to accept Jimmy’s rages because her family background has robbed her of any other viable option, Hughes shows us Cliff as someone who is keeping the peace by hiding his real character-by playing along with all the games.
In Jimmy Porter, Osborne created what came to be seen as a model of the “angry man”-railing at the lack of passion of his age, entreating Alison and Cliff to young show some enthusiasm. He is marvellously, unreasonably idealistic in a wildly unfocussed way. Kenneth Tynan, who described Jimmy as “the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet”, criticised those who attacked the recklessness of Jimmy’s attacks.
“Is Jimmy’s anger justified? Why doesn’t he do something? These questions might be relevant if the character had failed to come to life; in the presence of such evident and blazing vitality, I marvel at the pedantry that could ask them. Why don’t Chekhov’s people do something? Is the sun justified in scorching US?”
It is just this “evident and blazing vitality” that Michael Sheen represents so well. Spluttering with indignation, retreating into his pseudo-literary takes on vaudeville, firing off his vindictive gags almost because he can do nothing else. Osborne, throughout his work, was fascinated by end-of-pier music hall and vaudeville.
In The Entertainer, one year later, he used vaudeville and its washed-up performer Archie Rice in a brilliant take on the crisis in post-war British society. Here he has Jimmy and Cliff perform a variety-style number, “Don’t be afraid to sleep with your sweetheart just because she’s better than you”, as well as trading cheap cracks in true hackneyed music hall style.
More than any other writer of his generation, Osborne was fascinated by the tragedy lurking at the heart of the light entertainment performance. Michael Sheen adds another layer to this in his spluttering soliloquies, carrying with them an echo of Tony Hancock’s ridiculous suburban pretensions.
It is a fascinating comparison: Hancock, the parodist of lower-middle-class aspirations, and Jimmy Porter, the raging expression of the frustrations of the lower middle class. Sheen has a lightness of touch that suits Jimmy’s failed jokes and misplaced comments, as well as his more furious denunciations of the absence of passion.
The impact Osborne had on British theatre is incalculable. With Look Back in Anger ,he brought class as an issue before British audiences. Under Hersov’s direction, Sheen articulates the realisation of a man who has reached the limits of the possibilities open to him but is struggling to retain his dignity. “Why don’t we have a little game?” he asks. “Let’s pretend that we’re human beings, and that we’re actually alive”. Sheen gives a marvellous performance of a man running in circles trying to find way out.
Osborne has often been criticised for not seeing a way out, and not explaining more carefully the crisis in which Jimmy finds himself. Robert Wright, reviewing the first production in the Star, wrote “He obviously wants to shake us into thinking but we are never quite clear what it is he wants us to think about. Is it the Class Struggle or simply sex?” This incoherence in Jimmy’s rage is both strength and a limitation to the play.
It is apparent from the text that Osborne recognised this limitation, even tacitly. Helena criticises Jimmy, saying, “There’s no place for people like that any longerin sex, or politics, or anything. That’s why he’s so futile…. He doesn’t know where he is, or where he’s going. He’ll never do anything, and he’ll never amount to anything.
” It seems almost a recognition that within his own work there are insufficient answers. This goes hand-in-hand with Jimmy’s statement that “people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer…. There aren’t any good, brave causes left.”
Such a statement could be read as the voice of pessimistic nihilism. Writing about Celine’s novel Journey to the End of Night, Trotsky described it as “a book dictated by terror in the face of life, and weariness of it, rather than by indignation. Active indignation is linked up with hope. In Celine’s book there is no hope.
” That is clearly not the case here. Jimmy yearns for passion, and clings to the idea of it. When Alison returns to him he tells her “I may be a lost cause, but I thought if you loved me, it needn’t matter.” There is a vision, however confused, of the possibilities of human existence. What makes Jimmy’s statement so interesting is precisely the historical context in which it occurs.
Kenneth Tynan, who referred to the play’s “instinctive leftishness” in his Observer review, wrote in a piece on “The Angry Young Movement” that Jimmy Porter “represented the dismay of many young Britons. who came of age under a Socialist government, yet found, when they went out into the world, that the class system was still mysteriously intact.”
It is the mistaken association of the post-war Labour government with the failure of socialism per se that accounts for Porter’s frustration. Osborne, active in various protests at the time, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, articulated his own sentiments through his lead character. In this respect, it is possible to see in the play expressions of the political impasse that had been reached in Britain during the 1950s, as a result of the domination of intellectual life by Stalinism and social democracy.
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