Look Back in Anger

Though Osborne’s shocking play resonates differently today it has lost no relevance to the human condition

On The Town | David Warren | June 2009

Roxanne Carless, Ben Maddox and Thomas Crawley in a production of the 1958 play Look Back in Anger, which played at Vienna’s International Theatre during May (Photo: Rolf Bock)

With its graphic vocabulary of class warfare, squalor and resentment, Look Back In Anger sent shock-waves through British theatre when it opened in London in the 1950s. Those at the play’s premiere must have taken quite a blow: Gone was the bourgeois cosiness of Noel Coward, Terrance Rattigan, and Somerset Maugham. Gone too was the geriatric establishment culture of inter-war Britain with the gentle imperial vistas, the deferential language, and the illusion of harmony.

In 1956, theater was an escape from the drab reality of post-war Britain. While Coward’s affluent drawing rooms were an antidote to Britain’s stalling economy and vanishing influence – the nadir of Suez was just around the corner – Osborne presented his viewers with the raw truth of social dislocation. In the run-down West Midlands flat that provides the setting for the play, a society is losing its grip on old certainties. Look Back In Anger turned a young writer living off nettle soup on a leaky houseboat into one of the most successful dramatists of his day.

Reviewers at the time were keenly sensitive to this shift: Coward’s effete quips had been replaced with "the vocabulary of the intestines" and "tirades [laced] with the steamier epithets of the tripe butcher." It is still easy to imagine the gasps as Jimmy ranted that he wants his wife to lose a child, or screamed of his mother-in-law, "She is an old bitch and should be dead."

Burning with dissatisfaction, the protagonist, Jimmy, was a kind of subversive anti-hero hitherto unknown who, like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, would become central to a new wave of British fiction.

With time, critics and fellow dramatists have come to appreciate Look Back in Anger’s lasting importance. British dramatist David Hare recently described Osborne as "our poet laureate of lost opportunity, of missed connections and of hidden dread." The Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, described Look Back In Anger as a "Strindbergian play about two people finally achieving contact."

In Jack Babb’s recent production at Vienna’s International Theatre, the emphasis is on the latter element. While the traditional staging grips us in the pervasive insecurity and grime of post-war Britain, we are never allowed to forget the play’s core: Jimmy’s struggles to come to terms with his life and the endless needling conflict with his wife Alison.

From the outset, Ben Maddox, as Jimmy, seems less like a noble, disinterested class warrior, than a tortured nobody railing against anything that distracts him from his own intellectual inertia. His anger is indiscriminately discharged: against his long-suffering, upper-middle class wife, against all the women who "bleed us to death," against Cliff, his one remaining friend, for his "lack of education," and, of course, against a society that – judging from his run-down attic flat – doesn’t appreciate him. Oddly, the one thing that escapes his ire is his third-rate job as a sweet vendor, a more likely factor in his misery than the distant snootiness of Alison’s family.

Jimmy is a peculiarly tortured figure, casting himself in Nietzschean terms, the strongest and also the loneliest. But his wife’s friend Helena, sees his anger more clearly as a displacement for inactivity. "He’d be lost without" his rage, she observes.

Worse, though is his inability to achieve a bond with Alison. She irons endlessly, stoically examining interminable shirts, while from across the room her husband maligns her family and friends. When they approach, Jimmy crashes into her, burning her with the iron.

"I’ve an idea," he mocks cruelly. "Why don’t we have a little game? Let’s pretend that we’re human beings and that we’re actually alive!" The closest Alison comes to vitality is by flirtatiously sucking the fingers of their neighbor Cliff. But she is trapped in the consequences of her youthful rebellion in marrying Jimmy. Not that we have a chance to feel too sorry for him though, for he quickly jumps into bed with Helena as soon as his wife is away. The loss doesn’t seem to mean much to either of them.

They are reconciled, and in keeping with the work’s casual promiscuity, Alison kicks out her rival and is welcomed back with a hug. The inevitable reconciliation isn’t very convincing. Alison falls into Jimmy’s arms calling him "her bear", hoping perhaps that her husband may have morphed into a figure able to take care of her. Having witnessed his ineffectiveness, we know better. As the curtain comes down, an uneasy truce prevails, but the audience is left wondering for how long.

Yet while it’s all very well today to treat Look Back in Anger as a cross between a sordid soap opera and psychoanalysis, Osborne’s work would have resonated quite differently with its original audience.

We are shown other concerns of the 1950s: "Maybe we are all Americans now" laments Helena for example, reflecting a broader worry about the eclipsing of British political and cultural influence. And contemporary audiences are unlikely to appreciate jazz as quite as exotic as it was for Jimmy, or his intellectual courage in comparing a gay to "a man with a strawberry mark—he keeps thrusting it in your face because he can’t believe it doesn’t… horrify you."

This production, however, tries to skip over such anachronisms. Indeed director Jack Babb in his cameo as Alison’s father does his best to look positively embarrassed when called upon to lament Britain past, the "long, cool evenings up in the hills" in Colonial India and a Britain on which "the sun doesn’t shine anymore".

Thanks then to Babb’s emphasis upon the play as an "every man" drama, Look Back in Anger may have lost its power to shock. But, it hasn’t lost its relevance to the human condition: the millions of restless Jimmy Porters stewing at home take note.

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