The Immediacy of the Subject-Matter
Look Back in Anger had a tremendous impact on audiences when it was first produced. Technically it marked no innovation: it was a "fourth wall" realistic play, not different in a technical sense from such a play as Galsworthy's The Silver Box which had been shown fifty years before in the same theatre.One explanation for the great impact of Osborne's play was the immediacy of its subject-matter. Osborne displayed his feeling for the contemporary scene, and the temper of post-war youth, by his awareness of the contemporary idiom, and by his sharp comments on matters ranging from "posh" Sunday newspapers and "white tile" universities to the bishops and the hydrogen bomb.
A Realistic Play
English drama had become so remote from the facts of modern life that, when Osborne brought it up to date simply by restoring to it the proper qualities of realism, he seemed to be doing something revolutionary. Look Back in Anger showed that English drama was no longer "hermetically sealed off from real life". The popularity of the play showed that demand for truly realistic drama did exist.
An "Unpleasant" Social Play
As a realistic play, Look Back in Anger is more like G.B. Shaw's "unpleasant plays"! than like Galsworthy's "slices of life". However, while Shaw focuses dramatic interest on social problems (in such plays as Widowers' Houses), Osborne's handling of social themes is decidedly haphazard. For Osborne social themes are not of first dramatic importance. Most of the earlier realistic playwrights had dramatized social questions in order to arouse social conscience: they had a palpable design upon their audience, and their plays were therefore didactic-realistic. Look Back in Anger does not belong to this category. Osborne is not concerned with social theories and remedies. Social questions are important in his plays only as they are imaginatively apprehended by his characters, and they do not form the action. The striking rhetorical power of Look Back in Anger shows an imaginative vitality going beyond that which is commonly associated with the realistic prose drama. The long speeches of Jimmy Porter have a genuine rhetorical force. These speeches are at the same time violent and controlled, sardonically humorous and in deadly earnest.
Intellectual Inertia, the Real Target of Jimmy's Attack
Many of Jimmy's impressive tirades are no doubt concerned with the debased values of modern life, but the action of the play is only very indirectly influenced by such social questions as the class-system. Alison surely describes Jimmy's invasion of her upper-class world as part of the class-war he is waging, with herself as a hostage. Jimmy's irritation over the absurdities of the English cast-system also surely colours his whole view of life and enters into the frustrations of his marriage. But what Jimmy feels himself to be revolting against is not simply the class-system but something even more frightful; namely, the kind of intellectual inertia or sluggishness which afflicts people regardless of the class they belong to, which afflicts people regardless of the class they belong to, which afflicts the working-class man, Cliff, as much as the well-bred, middle-class woman, Alison.
Lack of Imaginative Response from Everyone
Jimmy is infuriated by the lack of imaginative response he encounters everywhere. "Did you read Priestley's piece this week?". Jimmy asks Alison and Cliff, and he goes on to say that there is no point in his asking such a question because he knows that they have not read that piece. He adds that they are incapable of raising themselves out of their "delicious sloth", that they will drive him mad by their apathy, and that they are devoid of even the ordinary human enthusiasm which he expects from them. "Let's pretend that we're human beings, and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say? Let's pretend we're human. Oh, brother, it's such a long time since I was with anyone who got enthusiastic about anything", he says in desperation.
The Roots of Jimmy's Anger
Jimmy's anger is not at all superficial; it has deep roots. He is the kind of man to whom, in the words of the poet Keats, "the miseries of the world are misery and will not let them rest". Jimmy is capable of suffering on behalf of others, and of living in other people's lives. As a boy he had suffered at the bedside of his dying father. That was his initiation into suffering. He recalls that experience with great bitterness. Every time he had sat on the edge of his father's bed, to listen to his father talking or reading, he had to fight back his tears. At the end of twelve months of that sort of thing, he had become a "verteran". He had spent hour after hour in his father's tiny bed-room, listening to his father's talk which he could hardly understand at his age. All he had felt at that time was the despair and the bitterness, and the sickly smell of a dying man. At that early age he had learnt what it was to be angry and helpless, and he has never been able to forget the experience. Subsequently we find Jimmy suffering for Hugh's mother, an old woman "going through the sordid process of dying", as he puts it.
The Essential Incompatibility between
Jimmy and his Wife
Jimmy and his Wife
Jimmy knows that such imaginative suffering is a profoundly solitary experience. The heaviest, strongest creatures in this world, he tells Alison, 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 this bear. "The voice that cries out doesn't have to be a weakling's, does it?" he asks Alison. It is ironical that Alison asks Helena not to take away Jimmy's suffering from him because he would be lost without it. But Alison's statement is literally true. Jimmy would surely be lost without his suffering. Yet, at the same time, and quite naturally, he resents the capacity for self-torment with which he is endowed. He kicks against the pricks, seeing all round him people who live their lives free of demons, the people who are untroubled. "They all want to escape from the pain of being alive,” he says and, he longs for Alison to be initiated into suffering too. He would like her to have a child that dies. "Let it grow, let a recognizable human face emerge from that little mass of India rubber and wrinkles", he says, pointing to her body. Such outbursts, verging on hysteria, show the strain which his sense of the difference between himself and others imposes on him. Alison, by withdrawing behind an appearance to detached indifference makes communication between him and herself impossible. "That girl there can twist your arm off with her silence", is his bitter comment on her reaction. Her behaviour is also, of course, natural under the circumstances: they are both defeated by an incompatibility that goes too deep to be cured by the sexual harmony which undoubtedly they have been able to achieve.
Jimmy's Deep-Seated Need
Jimmy seeks from women much more than he could ever hope to get from them, and when he is disappointed turns on them with savage resentment. He wants release from his tormenting consciousness. When he first fell in love with Alison, it seemed that she could offer him that release. He was attracted by what seemed her "wonderful relaxation of spirit". But, as he puts it, "In order to relax, you've first got to sweat your guts out", and this, as he soon discovers, is something that Alison cannot do. Her calm is only that of a sleeping Beauty. His rage on finding his mistake is irrational and unfair, but, as it springs from so deep a need, it compels our pity.
Regret Over a World which Is No More
There is often a wistful note in Jimmy's attacks on people who have escaped "the pain of being alive" by living in dreams or in the past. The Edwardian world in which Colonel Redfern seems to live is such a dream world. Jimmy's comment on this world is: "What a romantic picture. Phoney too, of course. It must have rained sometimes. Still, even I regret it somehow, phoney or not. If you've no world of your own, it's rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else's."
Sexual Passion No Remedy for Jimmy's Troubles
Sexual passion does offer an occasional escape to Jimmy but it cannot solve his problems. He alternates between sexual yearning and sexual disgust in a way that is difficult to understand. In a famous passage he asks why women bleed men to death. He says that men have no alternative but to let themselves be butchered because men find no good, brave causes to die for: "I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids." Jimmy's lament over missing causes is not meant by Osborne to set us thinking of the good, brave causes that do exist. This is not a play about causes but about a special kind of feeling, what Osborne has described as "the texture of ordinary despair". Jimmy is a suffering hero, and the action is designed to illuminate his suffering rather than to force a conflict.