By Dr Oliver Tearle
Looking back at Look Back in Anger, we are likely to gauge and analyse John Osborne’s approach to masculinity and relationships differently from the way original theatregoers and critics did (such as Kenneth Tynan, who enthusiastically promoted the play). The play was the inspiration for not one but two important new phrases in the English language to describe British post-war theatre: the phrase ‘angry young men’ was coined to refer to a group of British writers of the 1950s who shared Osborne’s desire to rail against the Establishment, while the term ‘kitchen-sink drama’ also has its roots in Look Back in Anger. The play also inspired the title of an Oasis single ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. The play’s influence, it would seem, has spread all over the place. But why is it worth reviving, studying, analysing, discussing, and revisiting?
The circumstances surrounding the writing and staging of the play are as dramatic and interesting as the plot of the play itself. John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger pretty quickly, in just 17 days, while sitting in a deckchair on Morecambe Pier. At this stage of his life, Osborne was living in a tiny flat in Derby with his wife, the actress Pamela Lane.
The marriage was not especially happy by this point, and the home life of Jimmy and Alison Porter in Look Back in Anger sprang from Osborne’s own wedded misery. (Pamela was also having an affair with a dentist, getting more than her teeth seen to, one suspects. Ironically, Osborne, who was an actor as well as a playwright, had recently played a dentist in a production of a George Bernard Shaw play.)
Osborne and Lane would later divorce, with Osborne starting a relationship with the actress who played Alison Porter in the original production of Look Back in Anger.
Look Back in Anger: summary
But what does actually happen in the play? A brief plot summary may help before proceeding any further. We are presented with an everyday domestic scene: Jimmy Porter is at home on Sunday in his tiny one-bedroom flat, reading newspapers and chatting with his friend Cliff. Jimmy’s wife Alison is doing the ironing.
Jimmy is from a working-class background (he owns a stall selling sweets), while Alison is from an upper-class family – and Jimmy hates her for this. Jimmy and Cliff play-fight and knock over the ironing board, leading Alison’s arm to get burnt by the iron.
Jimmy goes out and Cliff stays to comfort Alison. Alison confides that she is pregnant but is scared to tell the mercurial Jimmy. Jimmy comes home and he and Alison make up, playing a game they call ‘bears and squirrels’.
A friend of Alison’s named Helena rings, and Alison invites Helena to come and stay with them, which angers Jimmy so much that he says he longs for something to wrench his wife out of her ‘beauty sleep’ – even the death of her own child (remember that he’s unaware at this stage that she is actually pregnant).
When Helena comes to stay, Jimmy is rude to both her and to his wife (again). Jimmy receives news that his friend’s mother is dying, he asks Alison to go with him to London to visit her. Alison says no.
Jimmy goes to London on his own, and when he gets back his wife is away. Helena is still there, and the two of them have a row, before Helena seduces Jimmy. Helena hands Jimmy a note from Alison informing him that she is pregnant with his child.
We then move forward several months. Once more, it’s a Sunday. The scene is much the same as it was at the beginning of the play, except this time it’s Helena doing the ironing. Alison turns up, and while Jimmy is out of the room, she reveals that she lost the baby.
Helena breaks up with Jimmy, and Jimmy and Alison are reconciled once more. The play ends with them playing another round of ‘bears and squirrels’.
Look Back in Anger: analysis
A troubling play, this. As Michael Patterson remarks in The Oxford Guide to Plays (Oxford Quick Reference), Jimmy Porter no longer strikes us as the bold anti-Establishment figure telling it like it is and standing up for the working class. He comes across as boorish, self-centred, misogynistic in his treatment of both Alison and Helena, and in desperate need of some anger-management therapy. It’s difficult to feel much sympathy towards him or see him as the spokesman for a generation.
Look Back in Anger is as likely to remind us of the other side to the 1950s, if anything – reminding us that post-war life was pretty wretched for many women in the years before the arrival of the permissive society in the late 1960s, and that the ‘kitchen sink’ and the ironing board were seen as their rightful place by many men (and many women, too, we daresay). Thankfully times have changed since then, but where does that leave us when analysing the significance of Look Back in Anger? Was it a play merely ‘of its time’ and is now more valuable as a historical curiosity than as a timeless masterpiece of the theatre?
Perhaps it’s not entirely either. For one, Osborne’s opening stage directions acknowledge that to some people, Jimmy Porter is simply ‘a loudmouth’. And as Stephen Unwin and Carole Woddis note in their fascinating resource A Pocket Guide to Twentieth-Century Drama, there is a sense of shared despair between Jimmy and Alison at the end of the play. Men and women, bears and squirrels, were both doomed.
Or perhaps the key to understanding Look Back in Anger is not in the ‘angry’ or ‘man’ part, but the ‘young’. In a telling remark, Alison chides Jimmy for being like a child. Her and Jimmy’s fondness for playing ‘bears and squirrels’ with their cuddly toys suggests a desire to retreat into a world of child’s play, to insulate one in a safe, innocent world that is free from the gritty realities of post-war Britain, but also from the adult pressures (and adult knowledge) of the class system, the need to earn a living, the sense of time slipping by unused (to borrow a Larkinesque turn of phrase) as the characters drift ever more quickly and inexorably towards middle age.
It might also be analysed as significant, in this connection, that Jimmy Porter runs a sweet stall – more child’s play.
It seems that Look Back in Anger arrived like a hand grenade in British theatres, blowing apart old attitudes: as Kenneth Tynan observed upon seeing the play, it was ‘a minor miracle’ to see ‘qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage’. Tynan’s praise of the play transformed its fortunes. Many of the initial reviews of Osborne’s play were negative, but after Tynan announced his love for what Osborne was doing, people’s interest was piqued.
Whatever its ultimate value, Look Back in Anger deserves continued critical attention for bringing about a miniature revolution in British theatre, precisely at the point when it most needed it. Osborne was the angry man of the hour: his was the right play at the right time.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.