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Harry Ransom Center: © Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin.
John Osborne began writing what was to become his most famous play on 4 May 1955. The end of his first marriage was the catalyst for writing Look Back in Anger, as can be seen in this notebook which contains Osborne’s early draft material. The first part of the notebook is autobiographical and concerns Osborne’s feelings of betrayal following his wife’s affair. This text was later crafted into dialogue for Osborne’s protagonist, Jimmy Porter. Osborne then made notes on the play’s main characters before beginning the first draft of the script in the same notebook. He completed it in less than a month, writing in the mornings on the pier in Morecambe, where he was appearing at the theatre.
Look Back in Anger has become an iconic title inspiring many puns and endless quotations, including Britpop band Oasis’s 1990s hit ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. However, it was not Osborne’s first or only idea. The initial working title for the play was ‘Bargain From Strength’, which you can see crossed out on the title page. Osborne also tried out ‘Close the Cage Door’, ‘My Blood is a Mile High’, ‘Farewell to Anger’, ‘Angry Man’ and ‘Man in a Rage’ before hitting on ‘Look Back in Anger’.
It was not the first time that the phrase had been used: Look Back in Anger is also the title of a 1951 autobiography by philosopher Leslie Paul, while Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon had used the phrase ‘looke back upon Anger’ in his Essays as long ago as 1625.
Osborne wrote the play very quickly with few revisions. The first draft of the script hardly differs from the final text as it was performed. Some of the classic – and most shocking – lines in the play are present in this notebook, including Jimmy’s remark to Alison ‘Oh, if only you would have a child and it would die’ (p. 3). The speech in which Jimmy describes Alison as a python devouring him whole also appears in the early notes (p. 6). Osborne crossed through both of these passages in the notebook, though it is unclear whether he was deleting them or striking through lines that he had incorporated into his first draft in a similar way to ticking off items on a list.
Though Osborne made few revisions, he did improve some of his lines: ‘If only I could make her helpless with tears’ (p. 12) was considerably strengthened when he changed it to ‘I want to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing’ (Act 2, Scene 1).
On page 16 Osborne noted that the premise for the play is that ‘non-attachment leads to the very despair it strives to avoid’. He followed this with a list of notes about ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ – Jimmy and Alison (pp. 16–25). Most of the notes about Jimmy are written in the first person, blurring the boundaries between the playwright and his character, whereas most of the notes about Alison are written in the third person. On page 26 Osborne drew a plan of the attic in which the play is set.