Look Back In Anger, John Osborne’s seminal play, is a work whose impact is shaped by its context. You really had to be there, at the Royal Court Theatre in London on May 8th 1956, to experience the full weight of its combination of searing rhetoric and challenging subject matter.
Those of us who experienced the play in the following years may wonder why the play created such a stir, but such is the case with work which is ground-breaking in its time.
Within the traditional three-act structure, Osborne presents an explosive mix of ideas about class, religion, politics, power, society, relationships, love and suffering in a scattergun, sustained, magnificent attack by the ‘angry young man’ Jimmy Porter, the play’s working-class hero.
The play’s subject matter was like a slap in the face to audiences used to a safe kind of British drama, epitomised by drawing rooms, French windows and ‘Anyone for tennis?’ The first slap came with the ironing board, which has pride of place in the opening scene.
We are in the Midlands flat where Jimmy lives with his wife Alison and their friend Cliff. It’s Sunday and it’s raining. Alison is ironing. Jimmy and Cliff are reading the Sunday papers. Jimmy is on a roll, ranting about what he’s reading, verbally attacking Alison and Cliff, then getting into a physical ruck with Cliff which ends up with Alison burning her arm on the iron.
Modern audiences will find nothing remarkable about the set, but may be very exercised by the consistent attacks on Alison, in particular. Tony Richardson’s 1959 film of the play makes this the second scene, which means that you miss the immediate effect of the unsettling nature of the domestic interior, and also the theatrical impact of the beginning of the third act where the ironing board again features, with Alison’s mate Helena (oh sisterhood) having taken her place as consort of Jimmy and ironer-in-chief.
However, Richardson’s direction of the scene and of the blazing Richard Burton as Jimmy gives it a horrific intensity which is difficult for a present-day audience to watch without shouting out for Alison to leave him. It’s verbal abuse! It’s physical abuse! Misogynistic pig! Where’s the helpline number?
But to focus on ‘issues’ is to warp the nature of the play. There is a lot to exercise contemporary sensibilities. The gender politics really are dodgy. The portrayal of class distinctions seems ludicrous today — Alison’s mother hiring private detectives to expose Jimmy as a criminal, which, of course, every working-class university drop-out must be.
There are wistful nods to the Empire, in the person of Alison’s father, who loved his time as an army commander in India, leaving only when he had to in 1947 when India became independent. You might expect Jimmy to despise Colonel Redfern and all he stands for, but he feels affinity with and envy of his father-in-law, who believed in something, who had a cause which inspired him.
And that seems to be the driving force behind Jimmy’s pulsating monologues, or ‘arias’ as John Osborne called them. He despairs of the lack of enthusiasm and vitality in people and society, the timidity and small-mindedness which prevents real engagement and connectedness.
He wants a warm thrilling voice to cry out ‘Hallelujah. I’m alive!’ He channels his frustration and anger and discontent into barrages of vitriol and viciousness. Alison is the primary but by no means the only target of his rage. He tells her that she is mean-spirited and cowardly, a perfect example of someone who is ‘pusillanimous’ — not a word often heard in marital spats, one feels.
Jimmy’s passion and anger have nowhere to go. He masks his inner suffering and vulnerability with explosive rhetoric, and cushions the pain of being human, and the memory of watching his father die, by immersing himself and Alison in their private world of ‘bears and squirrels’. Like Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s 1955 play A View From The Bridge, he makes himself fully known. His angst is deeply personal, and its incoherence is part of its power.
Jimmy’s lament that there aren’t any ‘good, brave causes left’ may seem like a nostalgic hankering after a world he never knew. Both Alison and Helena think of him as being out of time. Helena sees him as stuck in the French Revolution; Alison thinks he is an ‘Eminent Victorian’.
Ahead of his time
But in a sense, Jimmy is just slightly before his time. He really is between causes. His tirades are unfocused attacks because the focal points which might engage him have not yet become part of the general consciousness of young people. Defining moments are still to come.
For example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded in 1957; the first Aldermaston March took place in 1958. The massacre at Sharpeville, which raised awareness of apartheid, occurred in 1960. The satire boom was a few years off — Private Eye magazine and the satirical nightclub The Establishment were founded in 1961. Actually, they were run by posh boys, so that wouldn’t do for Jimmy.
Fast-forward a few years from the play’s opening, and in certain circles, there are Jimmy Porters everywhere. They don’t wear the tweed jacket and flannels in which Osborne dressed his hero, more polo necks and corduroy. And possibly beards. You would find them in political groups and non-political groups, railing against the establishment and the bourgeoisie. They set up small presses and hand out leaflets. They march and rally. What we later came to call sexism is rife. But they espouse causes with passion, and would provide Jimmy with a home where his anger at, for example,’the built-in preferential treatment for those at the top and exclusion from all power for those at the bottom’, is shared by many.
And 62 years later, more than ever.