Criticism

Kritike dr. Browne-a

Terry W. Browne

Browne holds a Ph.D. in theatre and is the author of the book Playwrights’ Theatre, which is a study of the company that first produced Look Back in Anger. In this essay he discusses elements that made Osborne’s play important when it was first produced and why it remains a dynamic play today.

When Look Back in Anger opened in 1956 it brought a new force to the English theatre. It was written in the prevailing form of a three-act well-made realistic play, a form that had existed for at least eighty years. The fact that the play was somewhat clumsy in its construction and needed editing was not lost on the critics, even those who championed the play as a major breakthrough in English drama and a new hope for English theatre. Not only that, but Look Back in Anger has received many revivals and has continued to speak to audiences, to hold their attention, and even to shock them. Although the form was not innovative, this clearly is no ordinary play.

The subject matter of twentieth-century English theatre until 1956 had been polite, perhaps witty, and even elegant and glittering in the use of language; however, it did not speak to the concerns of the nation, either young or old. It was a theatre of diversion, a theatre careful not to upset the illusions of its middle-class audience, a theatre that had lost all relevance to life as it was in fact being lived in post-World War II England. John Osborne changed that. As Kenneth Tynan said in the Observer on December 19, 1959: “Good taste, reticence and middle-class understatement were convicted of hypocrisy and jettisoned on the spot.” They were not jettisoned in polite, or even comedic, political or social analysis; they were jettisoned by an articulate, educated, furious young man who pointed out what his contemporary world was really like. It was not the world of egalitarianism and idealism that had been envisioned by the socialist intellectuals. It was a dreary world in which, as Jimmy says, “There aren’t any good, brave causes left.”

In spite of the broadening of opportunities for university education, the old power structure based on “the old boy” network of school and family connections was still very much in place. The old power structure was cynical and bent on its own perpetuation. The Church of England was as much a part of the Establishment as the politicians and also seemed out of touch with the everyday realities of the people. For Jimmy, and for Osborne, the answers provided by the Church were a simple bromide that prevented people from looking at their lives and their society honestly. The “Bishop of Bromley” who is quoted by Jimmy may be a fictional person, but his call for Christians to help develop the H-Bomb was not fictional. John Osborne found a form that captured the unformed mood and discontent of the audience in 1956 England and gave it voice. Once the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) had shown a twenty-five minute segment of the play, that broad audience responded with letters asking to see the whole play.

It is not enough simply to point out that people, especially young people, are discontent. The theatre must bring that reality to life in a memorable way. Jimmy Porter is a magnificent character, and the power of his invective is certainly memorable.

John Osborne said many times that his aim was not to analyze and write about social ills but rather to make people feel. Jimmy Porter is not a political activist: he is a man living day-to-day in a world in which feelings and imaginative response to others has been deadened by convention. Jimmy’s attacks are not against abstract ideas. He realizes what this world of dead ideas and moribund custom is doing to him and to those he loves. It is his desire to awaken them to feelings, to being truly and vibrantly alive, that drives Jimmy Porter. Look Back in Anger is a deeply felt drama of personal relationships, and it is because of that personal element that the play remains not only valid but also vivid to audiences today.

Jimmy’s main conflict is with Alison. While the marriage is a misalliance, it is not just that of a Colonel’s daughter marrying the rough-hewn commoner; it is the misalliance of someone who is alive and suffering to one who shuts off all suffering and sensitivity to the suffering of others to avoid the pain of life. They have been married for three years and their own routine has become deadening.

Jimmy’s first direct attack on Alison comes barely a minute into the play when he says, “She hasn’t had a thought in years! Have you?” Shortly after, he says, “All this time I have been married to this woman, this monument of non-attachment,” and calls her “The Lady Pusillanimous.” Alison’s cool remoteness extends even to their lovemaking. Jimmy says, “Do you know I have never known the great pleasure of lovemaking when I didn’t desire it myself… . She has the passion of a python.” He wants to awaken her to life, with all its pain. That his passion and despair lead him to excess is undeniable: he wishes her to have a child and to have that child die. He says, “If only I could watch you face that. I wonder if you might even become a recognizable human being yourself.” He later says he wants to watch her grovel in the mud. “I want to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing.”

To be alive is to feel pain. Certainly, the notion that suffering validates human existence is an idea that runs through world drama from the time of Sophocles. Moreover, Jimmy recognizes that Alison’s lack of emotional commitment to anything is draining him of his own zest for life. He tells of Alison’s mother doing all she could to prevent the marriage, “All so that I shouldn’t carry off her daughter on that old charger of mine, all tricked out and caparisoned in discredited passions and ideals! The old grey mare actually once led the charge against the old order — well, she certainly ain’t what she used to be. It was all she could do to carry me, but your weight was too much for her. She just dropped dead on the way.” Jimmy is fighting for his love and for his own inner life. He needs to break down Alison’s neutrality.

It was Jimmy’s vibrant life that attracted Alison to him in the first place. In Act II, scene 1, she describes to Helena the time she first met Jimmy: “Everything about him seemed to burn, his face, the edges of his hair glistened and seemed to spring off his head, and his eyes were so blue and filled with the sun.” In Act II, scene 2, she also shows insight when she tells her father why she married Jimmy: “I’d lived a happy, uncomplicated life, and suddenly, this — this spiritual barbarian — throws down the gauntlet at me. Perhaps only another woman could understand what a challenge like that means… .”

Alison does suffer the loss of her unborn child and she does return to Jimmy richer in the humility and pain of living. At the end of the play they have entered into their game of “bears and squirrels,” which Alison explained earlier was a place where “[w]e could become little furry creatures with little furry brains. Full of dumb, uncomplicated affection for each other. A silly symphony for people who couldn’t bear the pain of being human beings any longer.” It seems doubtful that such a withdrawal from the world is likely to last, and it is likely that Osborne recognized the irony of the ending of the play when he wrote it. Jimmy’s anger is deep and it is not new or brought on by current circumstances, either in his domestic life or society at large.

At the age of ten, Jimmy watched his idealistic father dying for twelve months, and “I was the only one who cared!” 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.” Jimmy’s source of pain and anger seem to come from the same source as that of John Osborne who, at an early age, watched his own father die of tuberculosis.

“Good plays change their meaning with time,” said critic Michael Billington in the Guardian after seeing the 1989 revival of Look Back in Anger. It is a measure of its worth that even forty-two years after it premiered, the play still rings true and excites as the emphasis moves from the social comment to the personal angst that was propelling it from the first.

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