Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger (1956) overview

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger didn’t change the face of British theatre overnight, but it did pave the way for that change. The play ‘energised a generation’, according to The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington, but only after an extract had been broadcast on the BBC.

Written when he was 26, Osborne’s play was an attack on the restrictiveness and division of 1950s England; a yell of frustration and discontent. The play explores the relationship between intelligent but disaffected Jimmy Porter – the original ‘angry young man’ – and his wife, Alison. Class is a major factor in the Porters’ marriage. Jimmy is from a working-class background, while Alison is from an upper-middle-class military family.

The play takes place in the Porters’ cramped one-room flat in the Midlands. Jimmy and their lodger Cliff discuss politics while Alison does the ironing, Jimmy's temper becoming more and more volatile, his ire shifting towards Alison and her family. The ironing board ends up being overturned, and Alison’s arm is burned.

Alison’s friend Helena, an actress, comes to stay. Jimmy can’t stand her and this further inflames his temper. It also transpires that Alison is pregnant. Helena believes that Alison needs rescuing from a relationship that she sees as little more than an act of rebellion against her family. After she sends a telegram to Alison’s parents, Alison’s colonel father comes to take her home. In this scene Alison encapsulates the social and generational divide, telling him: ‘You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same’.

After finding Alison’s goodbye note, Jimmy continues to rage at Helena, only for Act 2 to end with them kissing and falling onto the bed together. In Act 3, Helena and Jimmy are living together, and there is a replay of the ironing board scene to illustrate the nature of their relationship. But when Helena discovers that Alison has lost the baby she regrets what she has done and decides to leave, too. The play ends with a scene of reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison.

The verbal repartee of the music hall was a big influence on Osborne, and it can be heard in much of the dialogue and seen in the interactions between characters. According to Michael Billington, Look Back in Anger, much like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, is a play ‘all about waiting and the agony of hope endlessly deferred’.

Key productions of Look Back in Anger

Director Tony Richardson first staged the play for the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1956, with Kenneth Haigh as Jimmy. The critical reception was decidedly mixed – one review called it ‘a self-pitying snivel’ – but it had its champions. Kenneth Tynan famously pronounced that he could ‘not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger’.

After its London run the play transferred to Broadway. In 1958 Richardson adapted it for film, with Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter. When they were casting the original production a number of actors turned down the lead role, but in the years since it has become iconic. Actors who have played Jimmy Porter include Michael Sheen and, more recently, Jimmy Akingbola.

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