Look Back in Anger
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Look Back in Anger By John Osborne. BIOGRAPHY John James Osborne playwright, screenplay writer, actor, theatre director and critic of the Establishment, was born on 12 December 1929 in Fulham, London. In a productive life of more than 40 years, Osborne explored many themes and genres, writing for stage, film and TV. His personal life was extravagant. He was notorious for the ornate violence of his language, not only on behalf of the political causes he supported but also against his own family, including his wives and children. The success of his 1956 play Look Back in Anger transformed English theatre. Osborne was one of the first writers to address Britain's purpose in the post-imperial age. He was the first to question the point of the monarchy on a prominent public stage His father Thomas Godfrey Osborne was a lower-middle-class commercial artist and copywriter from Wales and his mother, Nellie Beatrice Grove was a barmaid. The marriage was an unhappy one; in John´s autobiography “A Better Class of Person” he gives an extremely honest and often humorous account of his childhood which was frightening and sad. In 1936 they moved to Stoneleigh in search of a better life. He adored his father and hated his mother. His father died in 1941. Look Back in Anger was written in seventeen days in a deck chair, the play is largely autobiographical, based on his time living, and arguing, with Pamela Lane in cramped accommodation in Derby while she cuckolded him with a local dentist. Osborne had many affairs over the course of his life and frequently mistreated his wives and lovers. He was married five times with all except his final marriage being unhappy unions.
In 1951 he married Pamela Lane (actress), they divorced and he married his second wife, Mary Ure, who played “Alison” in the first production of Look Back in Anger. In 1963 he divorced Mary Ure and in the same year married Penelope Gilliat. Again he divorced her in 1967 and in 1968 Jill Bennett became his wife. In 1977 he divorced her and the following year he married Helen Dawson. After a serious liver crisis in 1987, Osborne became a diabetic. He died in 1994 from complications from his diabetes at the age of 65 at his home in Clunton, near Craven Arms, Shropshire. He is buried in St George's churchyard, Clun, Shropshire, alongside his last wife, Helen Dawson, who died in 2004.
SETTING The action throughout takes place in the Porters’ one-room flat in the Midlands. TIME: the present. ACT 1 Early evening. April. ACT 2 Scene 1: two weeks later. Scene 2: the following evening. ACT 3 Scene 1: several months later. Scene 2: a few minutes later.
CHARACTERS Jimmy Porter Jimmy Porter is the play's main character. He is the "Angry Young Man" who expresses his frustration for the lack of feelings in his placid domestic life. Jimmy can be understood as both a hero for his unfiltered expressions of emotion and frustration in a culture that propagated unemotional resignation. He can also be considered a villain for the ways in which his anger proves to be destructive to those in his life. Cliff Lewis Cliff is a friend to both Jimmy and Alison. Cliff lives with them in their attic apartment. He is a working class Welsh man and Jimmy makes sure to often point out that he is "common" and uneducated. Cliff believes this is the reason that Jimmy keeps him as a friend. He is quite fond of Alison and they have a strange physically affectionate relationship throughout the play. Alison Porter Alison Porter is Jimmy's wife. She comes from Britain's upper class, but married into Jimmy's working class lifestyle. The audience learns in the first act that she is pregnant with Jimmy's child. Jimmy's destructive anger causes her great strain and she eventually leaves him.
Helena Charles Helena Charles is Alison's best friend. She lives with them in their apartment while visiting for work. Helena is from an upper class family. She is responsible for getting Alison to leave Jimmy. Colonel Redfern Colonel Redfern is Alison's father. He represents Britain's great Edwardian past; a period during which the British class system was very rigid. He was a military leader in India for many years before returning with his family to England. He is critical of Jimmy and Alison's relationship, but accepts that he is to blame for many of their problems because of his meddling in their affairs.
Historical context Look Back in Anger is considered one of the most important plays in the modern British theater. It was the first well-known example of "Kitchen Sink drama", a style of theater that explored the emotion and drama beneath the surface of ordinary domestic life. One of the famous critics of its time, John Russell Taylor, calls the play “the beginning of a revolution in the British theatre”. Look Back in Anger is called a significant play owing to the fact that it can be considered as a moment of change and also a reaction because, since the end of the Second World War British theatre was believed to have been in rapid decline. Most of the companies were trying to restore Elizabethan theatre by restaging Shakespeare plays over and over. Audiences were falling off and theatres were closing all over the country. Jimmy Porter, the play's main character, became the model for the "Angry Young Man," a nickname given to an entire generation of artists and working class young men in post-World War II British society. The play appeared in a time of crucial transition from Britain's Victorian past into the modern twentieth century. But to understand Jimmy Porter’s character and his relationship with Alison, we require some awareness of the widespread changes in post-war Britain. In the decade between the end of the Second World War (1945) and Osborne writing Look Back in Anger (1956), a rush of change had occurred: a) The National Health Service and other aspects of the Welfare State had been introduced; b) opportunities in both secondary and tertiary education had expanded; c) key industries such as the railways and coal had been nationalized; d) Britain had withdrawn from the last vestiges of empire, symbolized most powerfully by India’s attainment of independence in 1947. The dissolution of the colonial Empire came about with India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, Egypt, and the Sudan gaining independence; the result was a loss of political and military power for Great Britain; Britain vastly diminished its size and lost plenty of resources.
e) Education Act – created several “red-brick universities” that broke away from the Oxbridge (Oxford + Cambridge) model; for the first time in British history, university education and study grants were widely available to working-class students, which allowed figures like Jimmy to have a university education; f) the gulf between two generations –those who fought in the war and regarded themselves as the inheritors of an imperial past, and those who were born during or just after the war and found many of the values of their society useless and outmodedwas widening.
There were other important changes, but they are not mention in this analysis because they are not relevant for the study and comprehension of the play. Yet many people were frustrated by what was felt to be a fundamental resistance to more thoroughgoing reform and the limited nature of the social mobility which had begun to appear. Class and background still mattered a great deal. Jimmy Porter is regarded as an embodiment of the frustrations of a particular age and class especially the generation of young men who have been expecting to leave behind their lowerclass origins by using higher education. Jimmy is educated beyond his social roots; however, he cannot get what he expects from his education. He should have been working in a job suitable for his university education. It can be said that Jimmy is not working in a proper job due to his working-class origins. His university degree does not make him a member of a higher class. It is certain that Jimmy is nostalgic about the good old days of England because he is a part of a generation who has to handle the disappointments and difficulties left from the Second World War. However, unlike his generation he is trying to stay alive. What can also be added is that internationally, the Cold War was at its height. Jimmy Porter is representative of an entire culture that remained nostalgic for its past glory. His anger became a symbol of the rebellion against the political and social malaise of British culture. Critics today agree, however, that the play is central to an understanding of British life in the twentieth century and, thus, a crucial piece of literature in the British canon.
Context: Autobiography Look Back in Anger is a strongly autobiographical play. We can find many similitudes between the characters’ lives and experiences inside the play and John Osborne’s life. To begin with, there are two characteristics about Osborne’s early years that are present in the play. The first one is the death of John’s father when he was ten years old and the sorrow of seeing him die, which is represented by a wrenching speech made by one of the protagonists, Jimmy, in Act 2 scene one. The second characteristic is the hatred that the writer felt towards his mother, just as Jimmy towards his own mother, because she didn’t care much about his dying father. Osborne adored his father and hated his mother, Nellie Beatrice, who was described in his autobiography A
Better Class of Person as “hypocritical, self- absorbed, calculating and indifferent”; all these feelings and resentment are lively represented in the play. Osborne was one of the first writers to address Britain’s purpose in the post-imperial age. He wrote this play to express how working class people felt living in England during the 1950’s and this is depicted through Jimmy’s tirades, which are directed to the generalized British middle-class smugness in the post-atomic world. On the other hand, there are some tirades directed to the female characters within the play (Helena, Alison, Jimmy’s own mother, Alison’s mother), what might mean an echo of Osborne’s profoundly uneasy relationships with women. Some characterize Osborne as a misogynist, that is to say a person who dislikes and mistreat women. Misogyny is also found in this play as one of Jimmy’s personal characteristics, but this actually was part of the writer’s personality, which may have influenced his writing. There is a female character mentioned in the play, called Madeline, who also has an important reference to John’s real life. Madeline, older than Jimmy, is his lost love, and he refers to her with great passion. This character is based on Stella Linden, an actress and writer with whom John had an affair. She was the first in encouraging Osborne to write and she also mentored him. As regards relationships in John Osborne’s life, he had had many affairs and had frequently mistreated his wives and lovers. But this play is especially based on his unhappy marriage with the actress Pamela Lane and their life in cramped accommodation in Derby. There are some similitudes between his real marriage and Jimmy and Alison’s marriage. Within the play, Jimmy and Alison got married in secret; the same as John Osborne and Pamela Lane. To add more, Alison’s parent had hired a private detective to follow Jimmy, but this wasn’t just part of fiction. In his autobiography, John describes Pamela’s parents as “much coarser” and how at one point they hired a detective to follow him after another actor had been seen “fumbling” with his knee in a teashop. Both, John in real life and Jimmy in the play hated their wives’ parents.
Main Themes Anger and Hatred Jimmy Porter operates out of a deep well of anger. His anger is directed at those he loves because they refuse to have strong feelings, at a society that did not fulfill promises of opportunity, and at those who smugly assume their places in the social and power structure and who do not care for others. He lashes out in anger because of his deeply felt helplessness. When he was ten years old he watched his idealist father dying for a year from wounds received fighting for democracy in the Spanish Civil War, his father talking for hours, "pouring out all that was left of his life to one bewildered little boy." He says, "You see, I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry - angry and helpless. And I can never forget it."
Class Conflict Jimmy comes from the working class and although some of his mother's relatives are "pretty posh," Cliff tells Alison that Jimmy hates them as much as he hates her family. It is the class system, with its built-in preferential treatment for those at the top and exclusion from all power for those at the bottom, that makes Jimmy's existence seem so meaningless. He has a university degree, but it is not from the "right" university. It is Nigel, the "straight-backed, chinless wonder" who went to Sandhurst, who is silly and insensitive to the needs of others, who has no beliefs of his own, who is already a Member of Parliament, who will "make it to the top." Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, is not shown unsympathetically, but her mother is portrayed as a class-conscious monster who used every tactic she could to prevent Alison from marrying Jimmy. The only person for whom Jimmy's love is apparent is Hugh's working-class mother. Jimmy likes Cliff because, as Cliff himself says, "I'm common." Identity Crisis While Jimmy harangues everyone around him to open themselves to honest feeling, he is trapped in his own problems of social identity. He doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. As Colonel Redfern points out, operating a sweet-stall seems an odd occupation for an educated young man. Jimmy sees suffering the pain of life as the only way to find, or "earn," one's true identity. Alison does finally suffer the immeasurable loss of her unborn child and comes back to Jimmy, who seems to embrace her. Helena discovers that she can be happy only if she lives according to her perceived principles of right and wrong. Colonel Redfern is caught out of his time. The England he left as a young army officer no longer exists. Jimmy calls him "just one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can't understand why the sun isn't shining anymore," and the Colonel agrees. Cliff does seem to have a strong sense of who he is, accepts that, and will move on with his life.
Alienation and Loneliness Jimmy Porter spoke for a large segment of the British population in 1956 when he ranted about his alienation from a society in which he was denied any meaningful role. Although he was educated at a "white-tile" university, a reference to the newest and least prestigious universities in the United Kingdom, the real power and opportunities were reserved for the children of the Establishment, those born to privilege, family connections, and entree to the "right" schools. Part of the "code" of the Establishment was the "stiff upper lip," that reticence to show or even to feel strong emotions. Jimmy's alienation from Alison comes precisely because he cannot break through her "cool," her unwillingness to feel deeply even during sexual intercourse with her husband. He berates her in a coarse attempt to get her to strike out at him, to stop "sitting on the fence" and make a full commitment to her real emotions; he wants to force her to feel and to have vital life. He calls her "Lady Pusillanimous" because he 6
sees her as too cowardly to commit to anything. Jimmy is anxious to give a great deal and is deeply angry because no one seems interested enough to take from him, including his wife. He says, "My heart is so full, I feel ill - and she wants peace!" Apathy and Passivity Although Alison is the direct target of Jimmy's invective, her apathy and passivity are merely the immediate representation of the attitudes that Jimmy sees as undermining the whole of society. It is the complacent blandness of society that infuriates Jimmy. When speaking of Alison's brother Nigel, he says, "You've never heard so many wellbred commonplaces coming from beneath the same bowler hat." The Church, too, comes under attack in part because it has lost relevance to contemporary life. For Helena it spells a safe habit, one that defines right and wrong for her - although she seems perfectly willing to ignore its strictures against adultery when it suits her. Jimmy sees the Church as providing an easy escape from facing the pain of living in the here and now - and thus precluding any real redemption. Of course, Jimmy has also slipped into a world of sameness as illustrated by the three Sunday evenings spent reading the newspapers and even the direct replacement of Alison at the ironing board with Helena. Deadly habit is portrayed as insidious. Sexism A contemporary reading of Look Back in Anger contains inherent assumptions of sexism. Jimmy Porter seems to many to be a misogamist and Alison a mere cipher struggling to view the world through Jimmy's eyes.
SYMBOLISM The bear and squirrel game This game symbolizes Jimmy's and Alison's immature role-play game to escape from their socially and emotionally violent class differences. Jimmy and Alison are bear and squirrel living in a jungle where steel traps lie all around them, symbolizing the pitfalls and dangers in life. In the end, Jimmy and Alison admit their need for one another's constant support, saying they are "very timid little animals" who are afraid of the "steel cruel traps" all around them. Alison's steel trap took away her child and any future motherhood, and the play equates this with Jimmy's loss of his father at ten, when he learned about "love...betrayal...and death."
Ironing Other symbols have also been used in the play. Such as Alison's endless ironing, for instance. Her ironing represents the kind of routine with which Jimmy is fed up. The ironing serves to add to Jimmy's boredom and it therefore becomes also a symbol of his boredom. In one of his early speeches in the play Jimmy complains: "Always the same ritual. Reading the papers, drinking tea, ironing." Subsequently also he shows his impatience with the ironing. It is ironical that, after Alison has gone away and has been replaced by Helena, we find Helena also ironing the clothes like Alison, so that from one point of view at least there is no change in Jimmy's life. The Church-Bells Jimmy feels annoyed when he hears the sound of the church-bells. He is opposed to church-going; he is opposed to religious practices and rituals; and the church-bells, being symbolic of the church, annoy him. In Act I, when he has declaimed about the noise that women make, he hears the ringing of the church-bells and says: "Oh, hell! Now the bloody bells have started". The sound of the church-bells is an irritant to him, and he feels that this sound will drive him crazy. The church-bells irritate him also because they suggest in a vague manner the existence of a world other than the one with which Jimmy is familiar, and that other world is the spiritual world. The Trumpet Finally, there is Jimmy's blowing on his trumpet. Although playing on the trumpet is only a hobby for him, it also serves a symbolic purpose in the play. In the first place, it offers Jimmy an escape from the irritating world of routine, and is therefore a source of some comfort to him. He really thinks that the sound of the trumpet has a wholesome quality. That is why, he says that those who cannot appreciate jazz can have no feeling either for music or for human beings. But the sound of the trumpet also suggests an atmosphere of breaking nerves. While Jimmy may resort to his trumpet as an escape, the sound of the trumpet annoys others. For instance, when Alison and Helena hear the sound of the trumpet, they feel very upset. Alison says: "God, I wish he'd lose that damned trumpet". She is afraid that the landlady will ask them to vacate the flat because of the noise Jimmy makes. Helena says that it seems to her that Jimmy wants to kill someone, herself in particular, with the sound of the trumpet. Afterwards, Cliff shouts to Jimmy, saying: "Hey, you horrible man! stop that bloody noise, and come and get your tea!" Thus the sound of the trumpet reinforces the tension of the play by drawing our attention to another point of difference between Jimmy and the other inmates of the house.
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