The Immediacy of this Play’s
Subject-Matter in Relation to the Times
Soon after its first appearance on the stage, the hero of Look Back in Anger became a kind of folk-hero for a young generation puzzled by the Hungarian revolution, unhappy about Britain’s last imperialist fling at Suez, and determined to protest against the hydrogen bomb and about all kinds of political and social questions. The play became the centre of a lot of serious theorizing about the angry young man and his place in society.
The main reason for the great impact of this play was the immediacy of its subject-matter. Osborne displayed his feeling for the contemporary scene, and the temper of post-war youth, by his awareness of the contemporary idiom, and his sharp comments on matters ranging from “posh” Sunday newspapers and “white tile” universities to bishops and the hydrogen bomb.
An Expression of the Mood of the Angry Young Man
In the public mind, Look Back in Anger, together with The Entertainer by the same author, became related at the time to social and political topicalities—the unease, discontent, and frustration of English society in the backwash of the Suez war. The ranting Jimmy Porter of a working class origin became the spokesman of this mood, just as the Byronic hero or Hamlet, or Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, had been for similar moods in their times. It seemed natural to relate the vogue of anger to the emergence of a new educated class which felt itself denied the opportunities of the old. The preoccupations of Osborne were assimilated to those of Kingsley Amis or John Wain, or those of Arnold Wesker and Raymond Williams. In short, Look Back in Anger came to be regarded as the central and most immediately influential expression of the mood of its time, the mood of the angry young man.
Young People’s Dissatisfaction Despite the Reforms Introduced by the Labour Government in Britain
Look Back in Anger is, indeed, a key to the mood and temper of the postwar England (that is, England after the Second World War). Much of the emotional history of this period (between the end of the war in 1945 and the first production of Look Back in Anger in 1956) is suggested in an essay by Lindsay Anderson in which he mentions the celebration by British soldiers of the English Labour Party’s victory in the 1945 elections. These soldiers had nailed a red flag to the roof of the mess at the foot of Anand Parbat in Delhi. These soldiers believed that they were signalling the start of a new era. In the past was India, the raj, of the imperial tradition; in the future they anticipated a socialist paradise. But, of course, dreams are never translated into realities. After all the reforms which the British Labour Party, after coming into power, introduced in order to build up a welfare state in their country, young idealists were dissatisfied. All should have been well with the world, and yet it seemed to them that all was not well. In 1951 the English people celebrated their new artistic and technological achievements at the Festival of Britain, and in the midst of it all the Labour Government was defeated at the polls and the Conservatives were back at the helm of affairs. The manner in which the new Conservative Government functioned was a clear indication that there was hardly any difference between the aims of the two major political parties in Britain, and it seemed to the English people that it did not really make much difference which party they voted for. The people now found themselves in precisely the situation that Jimmy Porter describes in one of the most famous speeches from Look Back in Anger when he says that the people of his generation were not able to die for good causes any longer. “There are no good, brave causes left in the world,” says Jimmy Porter.
The Climate of Opinion in England in 1956
As has already been indicated above, 1956, the year of Look Back in Anger was rather rich in causes for agitation or disillusionment. In Hungary the people rebelled against their Russian—imposed Communist Government, and Russia crushed the revolt by armed might, while the rest of the world looked on and did nothing. In the Mediterranean, the Egyptian Government announced that it was taking over the Suez Canal which had till then been owned and run by Anglo-French interests. Britain and France sent their troops to protect their interests in the Suez area but had to suffer humiliation because the whole adventure only proved that the days of British imperial glory were over. Meanwhile in England itself protest was organizing itself round the question of nuclear disarmament. All these happenings contributed to the climate of opinion in which Look Back in Anger first appeared. The hero of this play was ideally constituted to be the all-purpose hero of the dissatisfied young people.
Jimmy Porter, the Spokesman for the
Younger Post-War Generation
Jimmy Porter, the hero, regards himself, and clearly is regarded by the author, as the spokesman for the younger post-war generation which looked round at the world and found nothing right with it. The public took Jimmy as representing a whole generation, as representing those who had nailed a red flag to the roof of a mess at the foot of Anand Parbat to celebrate the victory of the Labour Party in 1945 and then gradually became disillusioned when a brave new world failed to materialize. Most of the people who felt this way were inevitably in their middle thirties in 1956, but with Osborne as a figurehead they were all labelled “angry young men”, and Jimmy Porter was linked with Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim as the cult-figure of the younger generation.
The Characteristics of Post-War Youth
Look Back in Anger presents post-war youth as it really was. All the characteristics of post-war youth are to be found in Jimmy Porter. These characteristics are: the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive “leftishness”, the automatic rejection of the “official” attitude, the surrealist sense of humour, the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a noble cause worth fighting for, and underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned. Jimmy is, in short, the very embodiment of disillusionment and rebelliousness.
Jimmy Porter’s Dissatisfaction with
Wife, with Friend, and with Newspapers
No sooner does the play open than we find Jimmy speaking in a discontented, restless manner. He is discontented with the Sunday newspapers; he is discontented with his wife Alison; and he is dissatisfied with his friend Cliff. The Sunday newspapers, he complains, make one feel ignorant. His wife Alison, he complains, hardly listens to him but goes to sleep when he begins to speak. As for Cliff, he is too ignorant to understand what the newspapers have to say. Jimmy then goes on to make fun of the Bishop of Bromley and of the woman who in her religious fervour got four of her ribs broken and got kicked in the head at a religious assembly. He cynically declares that those who ostensibly make sacrifices—whether of their careers, their beliefs, or their sexual pleasures—never wanted those things in the first place. He condemns the so-called “posh” newspapers, whether Conservative or Liberal, for the kind of gossip and conjectures they publish such as the opinion that Shakespeare changed his sex when he was writing The Tempest. Jimmy also finds his wife and his friend lacking even in ordinary human enthusiasm.
Jimmy’s War against Class-Distinctions
Jimmy is also waging a war against class-distinctions. He himself comes from a working-class family, while his wife comes from the affluent middle class. Alison’s parents had opposed her marriage to Jimmy, and Jimmy has never been able to forget this fact even though four years have passed. He keeps criticizing not only Alison but Alison’s family also. He ridicules Alison’s father for living in the past. He describes Alison’s brother Nigel as “that straight-backed, chinless wonder from Sandhurst”. Nigel’s knowledge of life and ordinary human beings is, according to Jimmy, so vague and hazy that he should be rewarded with a medal for it. And the irony is that, despite such a glaring defect in him, Nigel will manage to become a Cabinet Minister. Alison’s mother is a “bitch” who should be dead and by eating whose flesh her worms in her grave will get indigestion. As for Alison herself, she is “Lady Pusillanimous” whose passion, however, is that of a python and who, because of that terrific passion, devours him every time she makes love to him.
Jimmy’s Criticism of Religious
Observances, of Women, of Cinema Audiences
Throughout the play we find Jimmy raging against things, persons, and institutions. The ringing of church bells annoys him because he is opposed to formal religion and its ritual. He feels very irritated with Alison when he learns that, under Helena’s influence, she is going to church. He scoffs at the theology of Dante and at the midnight invocations to the Coptic Goddess of fertility in which the people of the Midland are indulging. Jimmy’s disillusionment has made him so cynical that he criticizes the entire female sex for being too noisy and for being blood-thirsty. He not only alleges that his wife jumps on the bed as if someone were launching a battle-ship, but he mentions a couple of girls whose simplest, everyday actions were a sort of assault course on his sensibilities: “slamming their doors, stamping their high heels, banging their irons and saucepans.” And he accuses women of trying to bleed men to death. The very song he has composed shows, with its references to booze and whoring, his disillusionment. He is even fed up with heterosexual love and is toying with the idea of following the example of Andre Gide. He does not want to go to the cinema because he is afraid that his enjoyment will be ruined by the kind of people who occupy the front rows.
No Good, Brave Causes Left in the World
Jimmy also laments the fact that there are no good, brave causes left in the world so that people, of his generation are not able to die for anything noble. There will be no brave new world now but only a brave-new-nothing-very-much-thank-you. Dying will be now as inglorious as stepping in front of a bus. He criticizes the economic philosophy of persons like Helena who “look forward to the past” and whose economics is “the Economics of the Supernatural”. When Helena forsakes him, he says that everybody wishes to escape from the pain of being alive and from the pain of love. He condemns her for trying to live the spiritual life of a saint rather than like a sensual human being. Jimmy cares only for virtues like solidarity and fidelity which he finds in persons like Cliff but not in persons like Helena and Alison.
Jimmy’s Uncertainty and Aimlessness
Jimmy, in spite of the university degree that he holds, has not been able to settle down in life. He has been drifting. As Alison tells her father, Jimmy tried his hand at many things—-journalism, advertising, even vacuum-cleaner for a few weeks; and he was as happy doing one thing as another. He had at one time even organized a jazz band, and might even now start one. His occupation as a seller of sweets in simply something that we cannot understand. He is certainly thinking of leaving the sweet-stall, as he tells Helena, but he does not know what exactly he will do. This attitude of uncertainty and drift is again typical of the aimless youth of post-war England.
His Boredom with Life
Jimmy’s boredom with life is also characteristic of post-war youth. He finds Sunday especially depressing because one has to follow the same routine every time—reading papers, drinking tea, ironing clothes. One’s youth is slipping away hour after hour in this state of boredom, he says. Church-going offers no comfort to him, and the sound of church-bells only annoys him. He tries to escape from all this boredom by playing on his trumpet.
The Opposite View
According to one critic, this play was not intended to mirror the state of post-war society but to dissect or analyze a perverse marriage. According to this view, Jimmy’s problem is not the vicious injustice and hypocrisy of the social order but the desire to possess a woman’s complete, unquestioning love, and his simultaneous inability to get alongwith any one. But this view is too narrow to cover the entire scope of the play which has, indeed, a wide range.