The majority of the reviews that appeared following the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger on 8 May 1956 were negative or mixed. Derek Granger in the Financial Times was the first to note its significance, calling it ‘a play of extraordinary importance’. Luckily for Osborne, two major critics in the Sunday papers agreed. One was Harold Hobson from the Sunday Times who judged Osborne to be ‘a writer of outstanding promise’. The other was Kenneth Tynan, who summed up his blisteringly positive review for The Observer with the words ‘I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade’. This is Tynan’s cutting of the review from his own archive.
What did Kenneth Tynan admire about Look Back in Anger?
Tynan admired the youthful energy of the play and its forthright display of emotion. Responding to other reviewers’ criticisms he conceded that the protagonist Jimmy Porter ‘certainly goes off the deep end, but I cannot regard this as a vice in a theatre that seldom ventures more than a toe in the water’.
At a time when most theatre was aimed at older, middle-class audiences, Tynan appreciated that Look Back in Anger spoke to a different demographic. He wrote that the play ‘presents post-war youth as it really is, with special emphasis on the non-U [non-university] intelligentsia who live in bed-sitters’. Look Back in Anger presented characters and ideas that felt new:
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 sense of humour (Jimmy describes a pansy [homosexual] friend as ‘a female Emily Brontë’), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned.
How did Tynan regard Jimmy Porter?
Where other critics had been dismissive of Jimmy – the Daily Mail labelled him as ‘basically a bore’ – Tynan compared him to Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
Tynan praised Jimmy Porter’s heroic qualities but did not mention his cruel treatment of Alison, an aspect of the play which audiences today find misogynistic and hard to stomach.
What with his flair for introspection, his gift for ribald parody, his excoriating candour, his contempt for ‘phoneyness’, his weakness for soliloquy and his desperate conviction that the time is out of joint, Jimmy Porter is the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
Novelisation of Look Back in Anger by John Burke
John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a cultural phenomenon that reached a wider audience than those who saw it at the theatre. An excerpt from the play was shown on television, generating interest in what had been until then only a moderately well-received production. As its popularity increased, the published version of the script became a best-seller, revitalising the business of publishing plays. In 1959 Look Back in Anger was made into a film starring Richard Burton – one of the most famous actors of the time. A novelisation of the play was written by John Burke and published by Four Square Books in 1960.
Does the novel add to the Look Back in Anger mythology?
In its attempt to cash in on the success of Look Back in Anger, the novel added to the mythology that had grown up around the play. A note at the beginning of the novel states that the stage production was an ‘overnight success’, which is not true, though it does remain ‘a milestone in the history of English theatre’.
The publishers also aimed to associate the novel with the success of the film by using illustrations of its stars on the front cover, a marketing ploy that is commonplace today but was less widespread back then. From 1960 onwards, John Burke wrote novelisations of a number of other popular stage plays and films including Osborne’s play The Entertainer (1960), the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
How does the novel differ from the play?
John Burke’s novelisation is a creditable prose adaptation of a dramatic text. Comparing the first chapter of the book with the opening scene of the play, you can see that Burke has converted Jimmy Porter’s dialogue into a convincing interior monologue. Woven into the narrative are important elements of subtext from the play, such as Jimmy’s relationships with his father and his former lover, which Burke deals with by having Jimmy imagine them as ever-present ghosts in the room.
 John Heilpern, John Osborne (London: Chatto & Windus, 2006), pp. 170–71.
 Heilpern, John Osborne, p. 169.
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- Article by:
- Dan Rebellato
- Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre, Exploring identity
Dan Rebellato explains how John Osborne's Look Back in Anger changed the course of British theatre.
- Article by:
- Jeanette Winterson
- Gender and sexuality, 20th-century theatre, Art, music and popular culture, Exploring identity
Jeanette Winterson describes how Shelagh Delaney's imagination, humour and self-belief helped her to make a place for herself in the male-dominated world of 1950s and 1960s British theatre and become the country's first working-class female playwright.
- Article by:
- Natasha Bonnelame
- Authors, artists and activists
Postwar migration to Britain from Africa and the Caribbean led to the development of black British theatre in the 1950s. Natasha Bonnelame introduces several of the most important black playwrights of the period, including Errol John and Wole Soyinka and describes the contexts in which their plays were staged.