This Day In Literary History
On May 8th, 1956, Look Back in Anger, the classic first play by the famous English playwright John Osborne, opened in London at the Royal Court Theatre. It introduced a character whose volatile nature would define a generation in England.
Look Back in Anger opens in a grim and seedy one-bedroom flat in the Midlands where Jimmy Porter, his wife Alison, and their friend Cliff Lewis live. Although college educated, Jimmy lives a lower class existence where his only means of support is the candy counter that Cliff helps him run.
Jimmy's wife Alison comes from an upper-middle class family - more upper than middle class. Jimmy loathes them. When he's not reading the newspaper, he's ranting and raving about Alison's family and friends.
What really drives Jimmy's rage is Alison and Cliff's taciturn acceptance of their lot in life and the world around them. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West is at its apex.
British citizens are conditioned through right wing propaganda to be thankful for their so-called freedom, but Jimmy is anything but thankful for his lot in life. An intelligent university graduate, he sells candy for a living because that's best work he can get.
England's so called welfare program is a failure, thanks to the conservative government which primarily serves the interests of the rich. Unable to provide a better life for himself and his wife, Jimmy's rage has reached the boiling point.
Struggling to find meaning in a meaningless existence, at one point he says, "I've an idea. Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say?" When Alison becomes pregnant with their first child, she's terrified to tell Jimmy, who, not knowing she was pregnant, said 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 recognizable 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 recognizable human being yourself. But I doubt it.
Meanwhile, Jimmy flies into a rage when Alison announces that her snobbish best friend Helena is coming to visit. Helena, shocked by the squalid surroundings, calls Alison's father, a retired colonel, and urges him to take Alison away from the flat. Which he does - while Jimmy is visiting a friend's mother.
The Colonel is also distressed by his daughter's living conditions. She tells him "You're hurt because everything's changed, and Jimmy's hurt because everything's stayed the same." Although he's out of touch with the modern world, the Colonel becomes a sympathetic character - he feels sorry for Jimmy.
After Alison is taken away, Helena moves in with Jimmy and Cliff. She and Jimmy still despise each other and come to physical blows, but they ultimately become friends, and when the curtain falls on the second act, they end up kissing passionately and falling on the bed.
In the third act, Jimmy and Helena have another fight, and she decides to leave. Cliff also decides to get his own flat, so Jimmy plans a final night out for the three of them. That night, Alison shows up out of the blue. Jimmy dismisses her coldly at first, but then she tells him about her pregnancy - and that she lost their baby.
Ashamed of her affair with Jimmy, Helena reconciles with Alison. As the final curtain falls, Jimmy and Alison reconcile with each other, taking up an old game they used to play together.
Look Back in Anger received fiercely mixed reviews after its premiere in London. Some critics were shocked and appalled by the searing play's anti establishment themes and nihilism, while others recognized it for the breakthrough work it was. Critic Kenneth Tynan wrote the following in his rave review:
All the qualities are there, 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 (Jimmy describes a [gay male] friend as 'a female Emily Bronte'), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who does shall go unmourned...
...I agree that Look Back in Anger is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it as roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of 20 and 30. And this figure will doubtless be swelled by refugees from other age-groups who are curious to know precisely what the contemporary young pup is thinking and feeling. I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.
The hugely influential play would define an entire genre of anti establishment plays, novels, and films in 1950s and 60s England - the "angry young man" genre, named after the volatile character of Jimmy Porter. Look Back in Anger would be adapted in 1959 as an acclaimed feature film.
Directed by Tony Richardson and starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, the screenplay was written by John Osborne and Nigel Kneale. The film would earn four BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Awards) nominations.
John Osborne would write more classic plays, including The Entertainer (1957), Epitaph for George Dillon (1958), and Luther (1961). He died in 1994 at the age of 65.
Quote Of The Day
"I never deliberately set out to shock, but when people don't walk out of my plays I think there is something wrong." - John Osborne
Today's video features a complete live performance of Look Back in Anger. Enjoy!