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An introduction to Look Back in Anger

Dan Rebellato explains how John Osborne's Look Back in Anger changed the course of British theatre.

8 May 1956 is one of the most momentous dates in British theatre history: it was the press night of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre, London, only the third production of the newly formed English Stage Company. The date sharply divides 20th-century British theatre into before and after; this was the moment, so it is said, when British theatre rediscovered its artistic seriousness, its youth, its politics, its anger.

Photograph of Alison and Cliff from John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (Royal Court Theatre, 1956)

Photographs of the original production of Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger opened on 8 May 1956. The production was directed by Tony Richardson. It starred Kenneth Haigh as Jimmy Porter, with Mary Ure as his wife Alison, Alan Bates as their flatmate Cliff, Helena Charles as Helena, and John Welsh as Alison’s father, the Colonel.

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But encountering Look Back in Anger now, for the first time, it can be hard to see what all the fuss was about. The play centres on Jimmy Porter, an articulate malcontent, living with his upper-class wife, Alison, and their friend Cliff. Jimmy spends his time berating the world and his wife, so to speak, trying to provoke a reaction from the stoical Alison. When eventually she is goaded beyond endurance and leaves, Jimmy begins an affair with her friend, though that too descends into cruel mutual loathing. When Alison returns, having suffered a miscarriage, she and Jimmy begin a tentative, broken reconciliation. Osborne himself described Look Back in Anger as a ‘formal, old-fashioned play’,[1] and indeed his playmaking has not made that leap into modernity that characterises his later plays such as The Entertainer (1957), Luther (1961) and Inadmissible Evidence (1964). There are strong ‘curtain lines’ (designed to elicit applause at the end of a scene), and some rather awkward exits and entrances that are reminiscent of the very theatre that Osborne’s revolution is said to have made obsolete. It would be in later plays and playwrights that audiences would fully see the influence of European writers such as Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht.

What was so striking about the play in the theatre of the mid-1950s, though, was its articulacy. What was exquisite in the work of playwright Terence Rattigan, for example, was the use of understatement, subtext, the unsaid. There is very little unsaid in Look Back in Anger: Jimmy Porter lashes out verbally at a huge variety of topics – the class system, American evangelists, Alison’s family, women in general, flamboyant homosexuals, church bells, Sundays and more – and the tone is unstrained: scornful, witty, ferociously articulate. Osborne called them ‘arias’, like a solo in an opera, and each time Jimmy Porter launches another verbal barrage into the room one can sense even now the power of this new music on the London stage. The glamorous high society locations of so many plays of the 1940s give way in Look Back in Anger to a pokey attic room in the Midlands, the sloping roof seeming to stifle and oppress the characters, but Jimmy’s language breaks through that, not just bursting out of that attic room, but even seeming to break the fourth wall. The audience at the Court on 8 May 1956 felt insulted, skewered, thrilled or inspired.

Of course, rarely do revolutionary cultural changes actually happen overnight and this was no exception. That the play’s young author (Osborne was 26) was unknown to most critics added to the sense of a play coming out of nowhere, though he had been a jobbing repertory actor for some time and this was his third professionally produced play. He had written this one in a flurry between 4 May and 3 June 1955 while acting in Hugh Hastings’s Seagulls over Sorrento in Morecambe, heading down to the pier each morning and writing scenes in a deckchair. Osborne tried out a number of more or less dreadful titles – including Man in a Rage and My Blood is a Mile High – before alighting on Look Back in Anger.[2]

John Osborne's notebook for Look Back in Anger

John Osborne's notebook for Look Back in Anger

This notebook contains Osborne's notes and early draft material for Look Back in Anger. The initial working title for the play was ‘Bargain From Strength’ which you can see crossed out here. Osborne tried out a number of alternatives before settling on Look Back in Anger.

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Harry Ransom Center: © Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

As for overnight success, the play got mixed reviews but made enough impact for its run to be extended, though it only began to make a wider cultural impact four months later when a long extract was broadcast on television. Osborne benefitted from the Court’s publicist, George Fearon, coining the phrase ‘angry young man’, a term immediately employed to gather together a disparate group of writers, including Colin Wilson, Kingsley Amis, John Wain and John Braine. Although John Osborne had met none of them, and they all differed wildly in style and outlook, it helped fix the public impression of a new cultural movement – full of political anger – of which Look Back in Anger was its primary theatrical manifestation.

To a contemporary audience, it may be less clear why the play is considered such a milestone of political theatre. Jimmy’s targets are not carefully selected, and his spirit seems more anarchic than anything else. Jimmy even declares ‘there aren’t any good, brave causes left’,[3] a strange claim at a time of nuclear proliferation, a cold war, apartheid, radical segregation and more. Further, his sexual politics, as has been pointed out several times, are far from progressive.[4] Jimmy’s behaviour to Alison is undeniably cruel, callous and deliberately misogynistic, and while Jimmy is given all the wonderful language, Alison spends much of the first act of the play silently ironing. It is important, though, to understand the play’s power on the stage. While it is true that Jimmy has many more lines, there is something passive-aggressively powerful about Alison’s presence, and her successes in the marital war are felt when Jimmy falls silent, having failed to provoke her, the silence filled by the metronomic thump and hiss of the iron.

Letter from John Osborne to his first wife Pamela Lane

Letter from John Osborne to his first wife Pamela Lane

John Osborne’s most famous play, Look Back in Anger, was based on his marriage to actor Pamela Lane.

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More substantially, though, it would be wrong to seek Look Back in Anger’s politics in the content of Jimmy’s monologues. Instead, the politics is in their form: specifically, in their passionate articulacy. Jimmy’s criticism of the contemporary world is its lack of feeling:

Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm – that's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! (He bangs his breast theatrically.) Hallelujah! I'm alive! ... Oh, brother, it's such a long time since I was with anyone who got enthusiastic about anything.[5]

Throughout the work of the Angry Young Men is a pervasive sense that the polished surfaces of the new consumerist society hid an emotional absence beneath. The emotional restraint of Terence Rattigan's or J B Priestley’s plays was part of this separation between appearance and profound feeling. In 1957, in the collection Declaration, as near to a manifesto as the Angry Young Men ever wrote, Osborne announced ‘I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling’.[6] For Osborne and others, Britain’s political sickness was this inability to feel, and their work was designed to change this. The politics of Look Back in Anger lay not in the targets of Jimmy’s anger, but in the anger itself.[7]

Telegram of complaint from John Osborne to theatre critic Irving Wardle

Telegram of complaint from John Osborne to Irving Wardle

This telegram to The Times critic, Irving Wardle, shows that Osborne had not lost the cantankerous spirit which had seen him labelled as an ‘Angry Young Man’ in 1956.

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Kenneth Tynan, The Observer theatre critic, wrote a famous review of the play that built to the declaration, ‘I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger’.[8] This remarkable admission is significant precisely because of its dramatic assertion of feeling into the theatre review. In saying so, he was, as much as Osborne, making a political claim about what is wrong with the world and how to put it right.

Review of Look Back in Anger, by Kenneth Tynan

Review of Look Back in Anger, by Kenneth Tynan


In a famous review, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan said ‘I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger’.

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Soon, Osborne was followed by playwrights such as Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney, John Arden and Harold Pinter, whose mostly working-class backgrounds were in stark contrast to the debonair sophistication adopted by a previous generation’s writers such as Noël Coward or Terence Rattigan. This was recognised at the time and not always admired: Somerset Maugham, after reading Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), declared of the type of people it depicts: ‘They have no manners ... Their idea of celebration is to go to a public house and drink six beers ... They are mean, malicious and envious. Charity, kindliness, generosity are qualities which they hold in contempt. They are scum’.[9] A few months later critic Kenneth Tynan quoted Maugham’s verdict and added, ‘Those who share it better stay well away from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (Royal Court), which is all scum and a mile wide’.[10] This was a moment of demographic change, the rise of the state-educated young people who had less immediate deference than their parents and would go on to create the satire and popular culture of the 1960s.[11]

More broadly, Look Back in Anger marked some wider changes in British theatre. One was to cement the reputation of the Royal Court as the home – perhaps the most important and influential in the world – for serious, challenging new plays and playwrights, a position it has maintained in the 60 years since that premiere. Second, Look Back in Anger demonstrated the value of public subsidy for the theatre. The Arts Council was barely a year old in 1956, but here was a play which no commercial producer would have touched that the relatively well-funded English Stage Company was able to nurture and support. Third, Look Back in Anger reasserted the centrality of the playwright in British theatrical production. Mid-century theatre before the Royal Court was dominated by star actors, but at the Court the play was primary and the playwright the originating creative force; all other theatre workers – and even the audience – were there to serve the play. The verbal aggression of Jimmy Porter is a symbolic announcement that the audience is to be confronted and challenged, not wooed and flattered. For better or worse – and there are passionate views on both sides – this model has spread widely through the theatre industry and is partly responsible for Britain’s consistent reputation as a powerhouse for new plays and playwrights.

But the most important change wrought on British theatre by John Osborne’s example is the idea of a new play being a way of putting contemporary society on stage for pitiless appraisal. Some of the most important playwrights of post-war Britain may not be directly inspired by Osborne, may even be politically or artistically opposed to some of his ideas, but he showed the way, and in the work of Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Howard Brenton, David Hare, Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Simon Stephens, Lucy Prebble and Debbie Tucker Green there is still the influence of Osborne’s Royal Court premiere. The politics of Look Back in Anger itself may have become obscured by time, but its influence is clear and sharp in the freedoms British playwrights have to confront and challenge the attitudes, beliefs and practices of our own age.

Footnotes:

[1] John Osborne, Damn You, England: Collected Prose (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 48.

[2] John Osborne, Looking Back: Never Apologise, Never Explain (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), pp. 261–63.

[3] John Osborne, Look Back in Anger in Plays: One (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 83.

[4] See, for example, Michelene Wandor, Post-War British Drama: Looking Back in Gender (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 41ff.

[5] Osborne, Look Back in Anger, p. 11.

[6] John Osborne, ‘They Call It Cricket’, in Declaration, ed. by Tom Maschler (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1957), p. 65.

[7] For a more detailed presentation of this argument see Dan Rebellato, 1956 and All That: The Making of Modern British Drama (London: Routledge, 1999), chapter one.

[8] Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 42.

[9] Quoted in Jeffrey Meyers, Somerset Maugham: A Life (New York: Vintage, 2005), p. 313.

[10] Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theatre, p. 41.

[11] Though in fact, young as he was, John Osborne was too young to have benefitted particularly from the Butler Education Act of 1944, and, unlike his creation Jimmy Porter, didn’t go to university.


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  • Dan Rebellato
  • Dan Rebellato is Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book 1956 and All That  is a radical rethinking of the revolution in British Theatre around Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in the mid-1950s and he edits Terence Rattigan's selected plays for Nick Hern Books. He is also a playwright whose work has been seen across the world. 

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