John Osborne’s most famous play, Look Back in Anger (1956), was based on his marriage to actor Pamela Lane. In the play, Jimmy Porter and his wife Alison have a turbulent marriage which echoes aspects of Osborne and Lane’s relationship. In this letter Osborne berates his wife for her lack of feeling. He later used lines from the letter as dialogue in the play.
What is the background to the letter?
At the time Osborne wrote this letter Lane was away from home – working at Derby Theatre where she had been having an affair with a local dentist. Osborne was unable to forgive her infidelity, and the couple eventually divorced in 1957, though the letter shows that they had attempted to reconcile.
The letter was probably written sometime in 1954, a year before Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger. The couple had been living at 35 Caithness Road in Hammersmith, London, with their friend Anthony Creighton. Creighton is referred to in the letter as ‘Mouse’, and he was one of the models for Cliff in Look Back in Anger.
‘The Lady Pusillanimous’
In Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter rails against people with ‘no beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm’ (Act 1, Scene 1). He sees Alison as typifying this sort of attitude and subjects her to a torrent of verbal abuse, accusing her of being timid, sycophantic and pusillanimous, i.e. lacking courage. The seeds of these speeches can be found in John Osborne’s letter to Pamela Lane (he refers to her in the third person):
I used to think: ‘How can I expect any truth or honesty in her feelings for me when she has no deep, violent convictions of her own about anything? With her feelings, it is all “done by mirrors” reflecting other people’s passions and opinions – rather dimly. In my case, she has merely held the mirror closer, and the image is ever muddier.’ … In everything we are implicated in a matter of choice – even in love – we have to make up our minds on which side of the barricade we are to be. (f. 38r)
What other parts of the letter are echoed in Look Back in Anger?
Osborne used the passage in the letter about strength and weakness (f. 38v) in the closing scene of Look Back in Anger, though he developed the idea by crafting an image of Jimmy Porter as an old, lonely bear:
Was I really wrong to believe that there’s a burning virility of mind and spirit that looks for something as powerful as itself? The heaviest, strongest creatures in this world seem to be the loneliest. Like the old bear, following his own breath in the dark forest. There’s no warm pack, no herd to comfort him. That voice that cries out doesn’t have to be a weakling’s, does it? (Act 3, Scene 2)
Throughout the play Jimmy and Alison refer to themselves as Bear and Squirrel, just as in real life Osborne and Lane used the pet names ‘Teddy’ or ‘Bears’ (for him) and ‘Squirrel’ or ‘Nutty’ (for her).