The 1950s: English literature’s angry decade

Greg Buzwell explores how anger produced new kinds of literature in the 1950s, from the Movement poetry of Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn to the fiction of Kingsley Amis and the plays of the so-called Angry Young Men.

Britain in the years immediately following World War Two was beginning to move forwards once again. The National Health Service began offering comprehensive health care for all in 1948. The Festival of Britain, held in 1951, celebrated the nation’s heritage and looked ahead to an exciting future. The weariness caused by war was receding, the rationing of food was becoming a thing of the past and financial aid from America was helping the country to rebuild.

The arts, however, and literature and theatre in particular, were in a rut. The cosy drawing-room dramas of the pre-war era still dominated the stage, and in 1954 a series of articles in the The Observer asked ‘Is the novel dead?’ On both the stage and the page a reluctance to let go of Britain’s imperial past and an obsession with class held sway. A radical shake-up was needed. Literature needed to get angry.

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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The Movement

Anger as a force in 1950s literature had its origins in a group known as the Movement. Deeply English in outlook, the Movement was a gathering of poets including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, John Wain, D J Enright and Robert Conquest. The Movement can be seen as an aggressive, sceptical, patriotic backlash against the cosmopolitan elites of the 1930s and 1940s. The poets in the group rejected modernism, avant-garde experimentation, romanticism and the metaphorical fireworks of poets such as Dylan Thomas. Their verse was ironical, down to earth, unsentimental and rooted in a nostalgic idea of English identity. European sympathies were regarded as unmistakable signs of intellectual pretentiousness and moral turpitude. For some critics and readers, the poets’ approach understandably evokes a narrow-minded Little Englandism. The Movement – were Oxbridge-educated, white, predominantly male (Jennings was the only woman in the group, and she was a late arrival), middle-class, Europhobic and for the most part heterosexual. Even so, they caught the mood of their time, and Larkin and Amis in particular are undeniably major figures in English literature.

The title for the group was coined in 1954 by the literary editor of The Spectator, J D Scott, who referred to ‘this new Movement of the Fifties’. Recently, the notion of the Movement has come in for criticism. Some see it as a fraud, an artificial construct created by the press to counter the arguments that English literature was in decline and cowering in the shadow of American popular culture. Those identified as part of the group were also not convinced: ‘What a load of bullshit all that was in the Spr about the new movt. etc.’, wrote Kingsley Amis to his friend Philip Larkin.[1] All the same, the term caught on, and by rejecting the complexities of modernism the group helped return poetry to a wider readership.

The Movement produced two anthologies, Enright’s Poets of the 1950s (1955) and Conquest’s New Lines (1956), but while Amis achieved some success as part of the group with his poetry it was his debut novel, Lucky Jim (1954), which secured his reputation. With the novel’s central character, Jim Dixon, Amis gave English literature an unlikely new hero, one who was very much in tune with the modern age. In the process Amis also provided the link between the Movement, with its dislike of cosmopolitan elites, and the Angry Young Men of the mid 1950s who combined this dislike with an authentic down-at-heel working-class view of life.

Kingsley Amis and Lucky Jim

Lucky Jim tells the story of Jim Dixon, a lecturer at one of Britain’s new redbrick universities. Dixon, especially to modern eyes, is an affable Everyman; the chap in the street; the down-to-earth fairly decent bloke with a taste for beer and jazz and with an eye for pretty girls. What he is not is an intellectual; it is Dixon’s ordinariness and his lack of heroic qualities that make him such a radical departure for English literature. He has the unheroic aim in life of keeping his job while doing as little work as possible. He is also – and here Amis shows his roots in the Movement – suspicious of anything foreign, and has a horror of eccentricity. Dixon at one point even considers tying his colleague, Professor Welch, to a chair and ‘beating him about the head and shoulders with a bottle until he disclosed why, without being French himself, he’d given his sons French names’ (Chapter 8).

Lucky Jim was a controversial novel. For the literary establishment – writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham – it encapsulated the new lower-middle-class challenge to the status quo presented by both free secondary education and the emerging welfare state. In an article for the Sunday Times Maugham launched a tirade against not only Jim Dixon, but also the suburban world of the white-collar proletariat he believed Dixon represented:

They do not go to university to acquire culture, but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. They have no manners and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a 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.[2]

By implication, Maugham was also criticising Kingsley Amis. For critics of the novel, Dixon, with his distrust of Continental, coffee-drinking intellectuals and his interests in beer, popular music and sex, mirrored his creator and signalled the rise of the intelligent outsider – the clever, work-shy chancer, keen to enjoy himself and with no respect for the upper classes.

The Angry Young Men

Kingsley Amis, by combining the Movement’s straightforward approach and loathing for snobbery with a portrayal of lower-middle class opportunistic charm in the character of Jim Dixon, suddenly found himself at the forefront of a new group of writers, namely the Angry Young Men. The term ‘Angry Young Men’ was coined by the Royal Court Theatre’s press officer to promote Look Back in Anger, a 1956 play by the then-unknown playwright John Osborne. The label caught on and came to characterise young working-class and lower-middle-class writers disillusioned with conformity and the conservative values of the ruling classes. The most prominent writers in the group were Amis, Osborne and Colin Wilson, whose book The Outsider was a publishing sensation when it appeared in 1956. In truth none of those labelled as Angry Young Men liked the term. Nor did they know each other or have much time for each other’s work – all indications of the looseness and artificiality of the group. One thing they did have in common was the fact that they had all been born in the late 1920s and early 1930s, meaning that their years of potential teenage rebellion had been taken up with the war and national service. They were also the first generation of writers whose work came into print with British influence around the globe in decline. In that sense it is hardly surprising that they had so little time for authority. Amis dismissed the label ‘Angry Young Men’ as ‘a phantom creation of literary journalists’ but it caught the mood of the times and gained the writers thrust under its umbrella considerable newspaper coverage.[3]

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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Where Lucky Jim had shaken up the novel, Look Back in Anger shook up the theatre. At the time most new plays were aimed at a self-consciously conservative audience. Terence Rattigan, author of popular dramas such as The Browning Version (1948) and The Deep Blue Sea (1952), summarised this audience in the imaginary figure of ‘Aunt Edna’ – a typical elderly theatre goer who knew what she liked, and who wanted to be entertained rather than shaken by something gritty, realistic and possibly foul-mouthed. Commenting upon the best plays of 1954, just before Osborne burst on the scene, the theatre critic for The Spectator lamented this lack of ambition, observing ‘The English stage is passing through a singularly barren period’.[4]

The first performance of the play took place on 8 May 1956. The set was dressed as a claustrophobic attic flat in the Midlands, with an ironing board prominently placed at the front of the stage. This was a world away from the drawing rooms and upper-class sensibilities so prevalent in most contemporary theatre productions. The plot follows the marital fortunes of Jimmy and Alison Porter, with the emphasis upon Jimmy’s frustrations with his lot in life and his bursts of contempt, anger and disgust. Not all reviews were positive. The Evening Standard’s critic described the play as having ‘the stature of a self-pitying snivel’, but others, such as the influential theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, were enthusiastic.[5] For Tynan the play presented:

postwar youth as it really is … All the qualities are there, qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage – the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of ‘official’ attitudes, the surrealist humour … the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for …[6]

Tynan’s point regarding ‘the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for’ is important. There were several campaigns Jimmy Porter could have embraced – from joining the anti-apartheid movement to protesting against the proliferation of nuclear weapons – but his anger is directed inwards. There is no political activism involved. There is no attempt to propose solutions to problems. In common with all of the central characters portrayed in the plays and novels of the Angry Young Men, Jimmy’s main concern is himself. As the playwright Noël Coward put it: ‘I wish I knew why the hero is so dreadfully cross and what about?’[7]

What was the impact of the Angry Young Men?

Within six years it was widely accepted that Osborne’s play had marked a revolutionary shift in post-war British culture. In its wake there emerged a wave of ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas by authors such as Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney. Cinema also got in on the act with adaptations of Look Back in Anger (1959) and contemporary novels that dealt with similar themes, such as John Braine's Room at the Top (1957), Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960).

In hindsight, though, how revolutionary were the Angry Young Men? Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, in place when Look Back in Anger was first performed, was re-elected with an increased majority three years later. The theatre was still a minority art form in the shadow of cinema and television. Osborne himself later admitted that Look Back in Anger was a ‘formal, rather old-fashioned play’.[8] His next work, The Entertainer, was written for and starred Laurence Olivier. This arrangement was double-edged. Olivier was able to revive his career by starring in the work of a radical new playwright, but having Olivier in the starring role conferred a damning hint of the Establishment on Osborne and the Angry Young Men.

The Angry Young Men, as the title implies, also did little for women. Their writing of female characters reveals a rife, inescapable misogyny: not only are women never the central protagonists, but they are also often treated in a horrifyingly aggressive way as passive objects of the male characters’ tirades. In Look Back in Anger Jimmy snarls at his wife: ‘I want to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing. I want to be there when you grovel’ (Act 2, Scene 1). Shelagh Delaney, who wrote A Taste of Honey (1958), was inevitably labelled in some quarters as an ‘Angry Young Woman’, but she was the exception to what was a male-centred group. A crucial distinction between Delaney and the group was made by the critic Lindsay Anderson, who characterised Delaney’s lead character, Jo, as wholly different to ‘the middle-class angry young man, the egocentric rebel’: ‘Josephine is not a rebel; she is a revolutionary’.

Review of A Taste of Honey by Lindsay Anderson, 1958

Review of A Taste of Honey by Lindsay Anderson, 1958

Lindsay Anderson understood the importance of A Taste of Honey as a socially and theatrically inclusive play, calling it a work of ‘complete exhilarating originality’.

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Usage terms Lindsay Anderson: © Lindsay Anderson Archive, University of Stirling. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. Otto Karminski: © Estate of Otto Karminski, The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Even the idea that the Angry Young Men came about as a howl of rage against the class system, the literary elite and the Establishment has been questioned. What cannot be doubted, however, is that the Angry Young Men shook things up and got themselves noticed. Lucky Jim was a best seller, Look Back in Anger roused strong emotions and the writers who followed Amis and Osborne made the literary establishment sit up and take notice. The Angry Young Men may have been loud, crude and even obnoxious, but they gave literature a fresh impetus and they helped theatre regain its relevance to modern life.

[1] The Letters of Kingsley Amis, ed. by Zachary Leader (London: Harper Collins, 2000), Kingsley Amis to Philip Larkin, 18 October 1954.

[2] The Sunday Times, 25 December 1954.

[3] Encounter, November 1968.

[4] The Spectator, 7 January 1955.

[5] Evening Standard, 9 May 1956.

[6] The Observer, 13 May 1956.

[7] Richard Weight, Patriots: National Identity in Britain, 1940–2000 (London: Macmillan, 2002), p. 303.

[8] John Taylor, Anger and After: A Guide to the new British Drama (London: Meuthen, 1962), p. 40.

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  • Greg Buzwell
  • Greg Buzwell is Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library. He has co-curated three major exhibitions for the Library – Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination; Shakespeare in Ten Acts and Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty. His research focuses primarily on the Gothic literature of the Victorian fin de siècle. He has also edited and introduced collections of supernatural tales by authors including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Edgar Allan Poe and Walter de la Mare.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.