on November 4, 1999
You'll never meet a more unique character than Jimmy Porter, a 20-something British Archie Bunker. He's filled with rage at the absence of ... something ... and spews forth venom, sarcasm and utter misery relentlessly. Sounds horrible, right? Well, it's fascinating. I couldn't put it down, and I'd like to see the current revival of the play in NYC. I've seen a few people like Jimmy Porter, people who have so much potential, energy and creativity, yet for one reason or another it's all squandered. They fail to surround themselves with people of equal passion, and the result is that they hurt the ones around them, who are more at peace with themselves. The question is, how does someone so young get this way?
on November 16, 2006
Writer John Osborne presents in Look Back in Anger an antithesis to the `drawing room dramas' of the period by writers such as Noel Coward which were popular in the 1950's. These dramas often featured polished and wealthy characters from the middle and upper classes, at their leisure within their homes and drawing rooms. Such plays fuelled what one newspaper reviewer from `The Express' termed as the `Illusion of Comfort' which pervaded the 50's.
After reading or watching Osborne's play no one can argue that he was under such an `illusion'. The play can be seen as a reaction both against the `drawing room' dramas and the general society which they represent. Rather than a drawing room with wealthy characters, Osborne selected as his setting a cramped and dismal one attic apartment and filled it with rough down and out lower class characters that were in so0me cases seen as uncivil for the theatre. Their language was coarse, their setting was harsh but worst of all to the original audience of this play (which no doubt had drawing rooms of their own) these characters presented to them a world which was uncomfortably realistic. It is this realism which may account for the fact that many viewers initially did not like Osborne's play as they did not like the world that it presented.
Jimmy Porter, the eternally angry young man who believes that he has life potential beyond being a sweets salesman is frustrated by the notion that he is never given the opportunity by society to fulfill this potential, he can never pull himself up from his social position, he is effectively `stuck.' The sense of being trapped in a monotonous cycle that he cannot break free of is reflected in the setting of the play, the fact the entirety of the action occurs within the small and confining attic/ apartment, and that each of the three scenes opens in an identical fashion further underlines the notion of monotony, of being static. Jimmy (like most of a whole generation) where raised on socialist principles yet when this generation emerged into the real world, they frustratingly discovered that the class system was still intact. Look Back in Anger explores this frustration, the agony of being promised potential (through things such as Jimmy's university education) and then to have that potential snuffed out by a society which is not yet ready to let go of its class hierarchy.
No doubt many readers will find this play disturbing or at the very least depressing, as the notion of being trapped in a dead end job or a situation where ones potential is not being fulfilled or even recognized is a common fear in modern society. Even though Look Back in Anger is very much so a play of its time, the themes that it traverses still has resonance in contemporary society, one only has to take note of the number of university educated waiters and barman to draw a modern analogy or parallel.
on July 20, 2006
"Look Back in Anger", first performed at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1956, is often cited as marking a theatrical revolution. The British theatre of the early fifties, dominated by playwrights like Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, was widely regarded as genteel, well-mannered and middle-class. John Osborne's play can be seen as a deliberate reaction against those values. Its plot is conventional enough. It centres around the stormy marriage of a young couple, Jimmy and Alison Porter, who separate after a series of quarrels. Unknown to Jimmy, Alison is pregnant at the time, and he starts a relationship with her best friend Helena, an actress. Six months later Alison, having lost her baby, returns, and Helena ends her affair with Jimmy so as to allow the couple to be reunited.
What was shocking about the play was its social setting and the attitudes displayed by the characters, especially Jimmy. He is from a working-class family and, although he has a university degree, has turned his back on the sort of well-paid white-collar job that such an educational background would normally have led to in the fifties, working as a trader in the local market, running a sweet stall with his friend Cliff. He and Alison, with Cliff as a lodger, live in a dingy bed-sit in a large Midlands town. Alison herself is from the wealthy upper middle classes (her father is a retired Indian Army officer) and her family resent her marriage to Jimmy.
It was in the late fifties that the term "Angry Young Man" was coined by the critics to describe not only writers such as Osborne, Kingsley Amis and John Braine, but also their characters such as Jimmy Porter and Amis's Lucky Jim, who were seen as the mouthpieces of their creators. Jimmy is, to borrow the title of a famous film of the period, a rebel without a cause.
In another Osborne play from around the same period, "An Epitaph for George Dillon", the hero, himself a playwright, is advised by his agent to cut out the long speeches from his latest play, which are seen as being "too Bernard Shaw". This is not advice which Osborne took himself, although the passionate, emotional "Look Back in Anger" is very different in style to Shaw's plays, which at times can read like extracts from the proceedings of a debating society. Jimmy gives vent to his feelings in a series of long, angry speeches. (As Osborne himself was to point out, there is something formal about these speeches, which he likened to operatic recitative).
In these speeches, Jimmy attacks the state of British society, and often takes the opportunity to have a go at Alison and her family (especially her mother) whom he sees as part of the traditional British ruling class. He is instinctively suspicious of any form of authority and of the establishment. He is hostile to religion and to the growing "never had it so good" conservatism of fifties Britain. He does not, however, himself really subscribe to any alternative system of values such as Communism or Socialism. A frequent theme of his complaints is that there are no longer any good causes to fight for; he envies his parents' generation who could fight the anti-fascist battles of the thirties and forties. (His father was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War).
Jimmy's relationship with Alison is a complex one, perhaps best expressed by the cliché that they can neither live with one another nor without one another. On the one hand, the differences in their personalities and their social backgrounds is the cause of constant friction between them. On the other, they have a deep emotional need for one another, shown by their game of "bears and squirrels". To an outsider such as Helena this is mere sentimental whimsy; to them, it is a way of expressing their mutual love.
One reviewer complains that Osborne had a "tin ear" for dialogue and quotes some of Helena's lines in support of this complaint. The problem lies not with the playwright's "tin ear" but rather with the fact that some people have tin voices. There are plenty of people in Britain, especially from Helena's upper-middle-class stratum of society who speak in precisely that stilted, formal tone of voice as a substitute for feeling. In the fifties there were probably even more.
Although it had enthusiastic supporters such as the critics Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, "Look Back" was highly controversial when it was first produced, being too shocking for many critics and theatregoers in the fifties. Today it has largely lost its power to shock, kitchen-sink realism, bad language and anti-establishment opinions having become commonplace in the theatre over the last fifty years. Nevertheless, when well produced its emotional power and sincerity mean that it can still be an impressively memorable experience in the theatre.
on March 16, 2015
A pioneering work that took English drama in a new direction; Osborne is Tennessee Williams in an English guise. Jimmy's virtual monologue from Act One is the longest in almost any play of that era; filled with vituperation and contempt for his wife, her father, his friends, almost everything. "Anger" is virtually forgotten today (look at the dates of the other reviews) but when I first read it as a young man it was a major breakthrough into social realism before British drama veered off into the Theater of the Absurd.
on March 12, 2016
I find a lot of the other British novels and stories from the "Angry Young Men" movement not very engaging, but this play has incredible energy. I enjoyed it very much. I'm not usually drawn into plays but was totally into *Look Back in Anger* from the first scene. This might be partly because of the wonderful prose-y stage directions that do a lot with the characters, but I think it's more about the dialogue. Osborne manages to make most of these characters both extensively, ironically self-reflective and mostly not tedious, which I find really impressive. Every scene brims with (surprise) anger, depression, and the crisis of masculinity in Post-War Britain.
on December 27, 2013
I have read Look Back in Anger at least 5 times in my life and each time I enjoy it as much as I did the first time. The plays depiction of youth in a pre-war era is right on point and is as true today and when John Osborne first penned this work.
on July 28, 2013
I purchased this book for a class. Look Back in Anger is a good play. The seller mailed an old hardback from a library. I like the latter, because it is easy to carry around in medium size purse. Also, the shipping time was reasonable.
on July 23, 2014
Sometimes it's useful to be reminded that our world is a place that more often than not doesn't make much sense. It's all too frequently a setting for the display of intimidating and triumphal cruelty that takes verbal forms we may not have anticipated but that we immediately recognize when we hear them. Some among us seem to be virtuosos when it comes to cynically devising and inflicting pain, most often on those we care for and who happen to be close by.
Jimmy, the demonstrably vicious protagonist of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger is just such an unrestrained linguistic thug. He inflicts the harshest indictments, the most injurious epithets, and the most painfully timed indifference on everyone he knows, and he does so for reasons that are never clear. In fact, he needs no immediate reason, wants no immediate reason, and offers no immediate reason.
Jimmy is the sort of unsolicited adversary who is at his best, his most inspired, his most whole, and his most creative when he's angriest. I've known people like Jimmy. Their anger may be signaled by a vaguely demonic smirk, nothing too obvious, but definitely there and bespeaking enjoyment. Though their rage is without discernible prompting or purpose, it fills them with self-righteousness that provides a kind of unspoken rationale. The fact that it's actually irrational doesn't in the least diminish their certitude. The intensity of their anger is too keen and all-consuming not to be justified, and not to justify inflicting derision, shame, humiliation, and undeserved suffering on others.
Though they have no immediate concrete excuses, the brutes I've known have long since put forth a false, flimsy, and far-fetched but insidiously plausible patch work of contextual explanations for any and all abusive excesses. Jimmy is sure that he's as smart and well educated as anyone, and he may be, but he attended a lesser university in the British academic status hierarchy, and he lives and makes a living as a member of the working class. He sees himself as a victim of the pernicious and pervasive class structure that organizes once proudly imperial Great Britain, and he takes pains to present himself as a rude, boisterous, ill-mannered lout, making the case that his oppressors and their hierarchical system are right. Ironically, however, he makes the case so well that its rectitude is suspect. Surely he's putting us on with his overblown caricature of a demonically worthless member of the lumpen proletariat.
In spite of his thoroughly objectionable behavior and mean-spirited character, however, Jimmy enjoys the undying love of his attractive, well-bred, middle class wife Alison. She married Jimmy over her parents' intensely bitter objections, and as his wife we see her standing at the ironing board, making tea, doing laundry, and absorbing punishment but not much else. What is there in this chronically contentious and demeaning relationship for her? We are given little or nothing to use in making even the most weakly informed guess. If I hadn't seen relationships such as this for myself, my parents were a case in point, I'd conclude that the marriage of Jimmy and Allison was too destructive and devoid of everyday comforts to be anything more than an unconvincing literary contrivance.
Jimmy and Alison live with Cliff, a man about Jimmy's age, in his middle twenties, and one of Jimmy's few friends. Though Cliff is relaxed and easy going, Jimmy snipes and jabs at him relentlessly. Cliff does what he must to retain his sanity, but one imagines that he stays with the couple out concern for Alison, and in spite of Jimmy's barbs and taunts. Oddly, Cliff and Allison are openly demonstrative in their affection for each other, hugging and occasionally kissing. Jimmy, contrary to expectations of one as prickly and easily offended as he has shown himself to be, makes nothing of it. Perhaps he thinks it can be based on nothing but friendship. After all, women don't leave men like Jimmy. He's no doubt convinced that along with his boorishness comes an irresistible animal magnetism peculiar to brutishly offensive males. Or something like that.
About half way through, a fourth character enters the play. Rather than going into details and telling the whole story, suffice it so say that Jimmy treats her even worse than he treats his wife. Again, we see the inexplicably senseless and often cruel and painful nature of the lives we sometimes live.
If there is an alternative or complementary theme in this, say class antagonism and its costs to the socially disadvantaged, it's not sufficiently well developed to be more than ancillary. But what we see and hear is thematically strong enough to make the play worthwhile. It's all too easy to lose sight of the fact that our damaging irrationality often assures that the most objectionable among us get the most love, devotion, and other micro-social payoffs. We do what we do, too often meaning victory for sharks and other predators in our vicinity.
Osborne, the great so-called radical, grew to be a reactionary, full of ideas about 'England' and her past glories. He aged into the image of what his protagonist Jimmy Porter ranted against. Should we be surprised, or was Jimmy Porter headed in this direction? Everyone, according to Jimmy, is a fake, but who would embody the real thing if he were to come along? When were things better, if today is so bloody awful? Playwright David Hare created a female version of this type of nasty negativity in his play "Plenty," about the sour ex-spy who couldn't adjust to post war life, also known as peace time. She had had the time of her life passing messages and getting knocked up on quick overnights to France. Too bad the war couldn't have been prolonged for her entertainment. Jimmy and Hare's Susan deserve each other. Most American parents have met this sort. At about 13 most kids get grouchy and start hating everything and everybody. It was brilliant of Osborne to have introduced the middle-aged tantrum-thrower to the theater, it must have been thrilling theater back in the day, but does it hold up? After five decades this sort of dim-witted, passive disgruntlement grows terribly stale. As for theater, my sense is that Noel Coward will fair better in the history books and, more importantly, on the stage. In fact, the sort of theater Osborne criticized has come back strong. The fact is that by growing into a caricature of himself, he only proved how witless and vapid his stage character has always been. He was a paralyzed blow-hard, a wind bag.
on February 15, 2009
Saw the branagh/thompson/dench DVD version of this play at 24, and again just now at 44. It has not lost any of it's brutality for me, but a 20 year separation has made a vast difference in my view of it. The first time I couldn't really understand why Jimmy was so brutal, or why Allison was so withdrawn and passive. As far as these two go, the play isn't so much about social classes per se, as the way social class distinctions can cut us off from the empathy that we need to be able to give and receive. Jimmy and Allison's problem(s) are exactly the same problem. The end of the play proves it for me, and I could see the light bulb go on for each of them.