Look Back in Anger Summary by John Osborne
An Introductory Note:
Look Back in Anger, a play in three acts by John Osborne, performed in 1956 and published in 1957. A published description of Osborne as an “angry young man” was extended to apply to an entire generation of disaffected young British writers who identified with the lower classes and viewed the upper classes and the established political institutions with disdain. Although the form of the play was not revolutionary, content was unexpected.
Onstage for the first time were the 20- to 30-year-olds of Great Britain who had not participated in World War II and who found its aftermath lacking in promise. The hero, Jimmy Porter, is the son of a worker. Through the state educational system, he has reached an uncomfortably marginal position on the border of the middle class, from which he can see the traditional possessors of privilege holding the better jobs and threatening his upward climb.
The play is about an angry young man, Jimmy Porter, who looks back because he upon has so little incentive to look ahead. The words pour out of him, a flood of satire and invective. The words are often cruel, but they are also vibrant and colorful. They sting the characters of the play and the audience, too. In Jimmy Porter’s boiling resentment at not being able to find himself in his own generation, he makes life impossible for those he most cherishes. Living with Jimmy in a poor attic apartment is his wife, Alison.
The critic Walter Kerr described her as “his bloodlessly patient wife, drained of all response, hopelessly unable to convey the inexplicable love she continues to feel-drawn in sure, plain, self pitying strokes.” A friend, Cliff, is a no-man’s land which some of their pain can be visited. Helena is a friend of Jimmy’s wife who, in an effort to help the wife escape this life, is herself caught in the same trap. Look Back in Anger is a play that revolves around Jimmy. Jiminy is a man who runs a small candy shop.
Furthermore, he is not happy with his job and believes that he deserves more. Jimmy has an angry nature and lashes out at his wife Alison. He has a habit of insulting his wife. Due to the urging of her friend Helena, Alison decides to leave Jimmy. Moreover, Jimmy decides to confront Helena after his wife leaves him. However, Jimmy and Helena become a couple and begin to live together. Look Back in Anger themes become complicated after Alison returns to Jimmy.
Most noteworthy, she returns after suffering a miscarriage. At this point, Helena reconciles with Alison. This was because Helena was feeling guilty. Towards the end of Look Back in Anger summary, Alison and Jimmy come back together. The couple decides to repair their marriage.
An Analytical Summary:
I. Act 1 opens on a dismal April Sunday afternoon in Jimmy and Alison’s cramped attic in the Midlands. Jimmy and Cliff are reading 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.
II. It becomes apparent that there is a huge social gulf between Jimmy and Alison. Her family is upper-middle-class military, while Jimmy belongs to the 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”.
III. 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. (Some actors play this scene as though Jimmy thinks everything is just a joke, while others play it as though he really is excoriating her.) The tirade ends with physical horseplay, resulting in the ironing board overturning and Alison’s arm getting burned. Jimmy exits to play his trumpet off stage.
IV. Alison, alone with Cliff, 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 Jimmy despises Helena even more than Alison. He flies into a rage.
V. Act 2 opens on another Sunday afternoon, with Helena and Alison making lunch. In a two-handed scene, Alison says that she decided to marry Jimmy because of her own minor rebellion against her upbringing and her admiration for Jimmy’s campaigns against the dereliction of life in postwar England. She describes Jimmy to Helena as a “knight in shining armour”. Helena says, firmly, “You’ve got to fight him”.
VI. 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.
VII. The next evening, Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, comes 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”.
VIII. 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.
IX. 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 and the three of them (Jimmy, Cliff, and Helena) get into a music hall comedy routine that obviously is not improvised. jokes,
X. 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. He snaps over his shoulder “Friend of yours to see you” and abruptly leaves.
XI. 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.
XII. 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.
Look Back in Anger refers to the complex emotional state of the play’s main character, Jimmy Porter. Educated, in his mid-20s, and married, but barely making ends meet, Jimmy is frustrated by the lack of future he sees in economically depressed England. He views the past and the old ways and ideas that brought about this environment with resentment and derision. He expresses outrage over the political and social conditions of post-World War II England, which to him are a great disappointment in terms of hope for the people.
Written in seventeen days in a deck chair on Morecambe pier where Osborne was performing in a creaky rep show called Seagulls over Sorrento, Look Back in Anger was largely autobiographical, based on his time living, and arguing, with Pamela Lane in cramped accommodation in Derby while she cuckolded him with a local dentist. It was submitted to agents all over London and returned with great rapidity. In his autobiography, Osborne writes:
“The speed with which it had been returned was not surprising, but its aggressive dispatch did give me a kind of relief. It was like being grasped at the upper arm by a testy policeman and told to move on”. Finally, it was sent to the newly-formed English Stage Company at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Formed by actor-manager and artistic director George Devine, the company had seen its first three productions flop and urgently needed a success if it was to survive.
Devine was prepared to gamble on this play because he saw in it a ferocious and scowling articulation of a new post-war spirit. Osborne was living on a leaky houseboat on the River Thames at the time with Creighton, stewing up nettles from the riverbank to eat. So keen was Divine to contact Osborne that he rowed out to the boat to tell him he would like to make the play the fourth production to enter repertory.
The play was directed by Tony Richardson and starred Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure and Alan Bates. It was George Fearon, a part-time press officer at the theatre, who invented the phrase “angry young man”. Fearon told Osborne that he disliked the play and feared it would be impossible to market. In 1993, a year before his death, Osborne wrote that the opening night was “an occasion I only partly remember, but certainly with more accuracy than those who subsequently claimed to have been present and, if they are to be believed, would have filled the theatre several times over”.
Reviews were mixed. Most of the critics who attended the first night felt it was a failure, and it looked as if the English Stage Company was going to go into liquidation. The Evening Standard, for example, called the play “a failure” and “a self-pitying snivel”. But the following Sunday, Kenneth Tynan of The Observer – the most influential critic of the age – praised it to the skies: ‘I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger,’ he wrote, “It is the best young play of its decade”. Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times called Osborne “a writer of outstanding promise”.
During production, the married Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure and would divorce his wife, Pamela Lane, to marry her in 1957. The play went on to be an enormous commercial success, transferring to the West End and to Broadway, touring to Moscow and in 1958 a film version was released with Richard Burton and Mary Ure in the leading roles. The play turned Osborne from a struggling playwright into a wealthy and famous angry young man and won him the Evening Standard Drama Award as the most promising playwright of the year.
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