The Immediacy and Topicality of this Play
Look Back in Anger has generally been regarded as an expression of the mood of disillusionment, frustration, and rebelliousness of post-war youth and Jimmy Porter has been regarded as the spokesman of that post-war generation. In fact, the tremendous appeal of this play to the audiences and readers of the time (in the mid-fifties) was due to its immediacy and topicality. If this view be correct, the play should have by now certainly become dated and lost its appeal because conditions keep changing, and the mood which this play expresses can certainly not have remained the same in our time.
Jimmy, a Rebel against Society
What, after all, is the reason for Jimmy's anger and resentment, and what are his grievances ? The play is a protest against contemporary society. Jimmy seems to be a rebel against the society which had betrayed the young people and against an older generation which had left the younger people down. Jimmy feels that society has not treated him according to his deserts. He is a university graduate but he is running a sweet-stall. Of course, nobody has compelled him to run a sweet stall, but he has already tried his hand at various other occupations as well, and has not been able to achieve much success in any. He therefore finds himself adrift, and is leading a purposeless existence. He finds his Sundays to be depressing because they offer him the same routine, reading the newspapers, drinking tea, ironing the clothes. Even his playing upon the trumpet is just a kind of escape from his boredom. He finds both his wife and his friend to be utterly devoid of any life, animation, or enthusiasm.
Jimmy's Opposition to the Middle-Class
Jimmy is also a rebel against the class-distinctions of which he found himself to be a victim. Alison's parents had fiercely opposed Alison's marriage to him, and that opposition has left bitter memories of them in his mind. Alison, though now his wife, still reminds him of the middle class from which she has come. Her continuing to correspond with her mother means that she is to that extent on the side of his enemy, namely, the middle class. He therefore keeps talking not only in a sarcastic and condemnatory manner about Alison's parents and Alison herself, but in a most offensive and insulting manner. Helena too in the beginning is a red rag to him because she is another representative of the arrogant middle class.
Jimmy, Averse to Politics and to Economic Theorizing
Jimmy finds nothing in politics to attract him. Nigel, Alison's brother, is a politician and Jimmy thinks that man to be devoid of any worth. Nigel, in his opinion, is vague and hazy in his knowledge of things, and yet he is aspiring to become a cabinet minister. And Nigel is sure to attain his ambition, too ! He describes both Nigel and Alison as being sycophantic, phlegmatic, and pusillanimous. One of the reasons why he condemns Helena is that she is an expert in the new economics—"the Economics of the Supernatural". He calls her one of those share-pushers who are spreading all those rumours about a transfer of power. She belongs to the category of romantic people who spend their time mostly "looking forward to the past" and who see the light only in the Dark Ages.
Jimmy, Critical of Religious Practices
Jimmy is a rebel against religious practices and rituals also. He never wanted to get married in a church. He feels annoyed when his wife, under the influence of Helena, starts going to church again. He makes fun of the people who indulge in "midnight invocations to the Coptic Goddess of fertility". He does not even see any virtue in the so-called sacrifices which people make. People who seem to sacrifice their careers, their beliefs, their sexual pleasures do so because they never really wanted these things in the first place. Jimmy also speaks mockingly of the Bishop of Bromley.
Jimmy's Other Grievances
Jimmy speaks against many other things too. He finds fault with the so-called "posh" papers which publish, among other things, idle gossip and silly views. He speaks against the spiritual life as opposed to the life of the senses. He speaks against the hydrogen bomb. He finds fault with Cliff for his ignorance and with Helena for not having had the opportunity to see a human being dying. In short, there is hardly any aspect of life which affords any satisfaction of joy or hope to Jimmy. He is full of grievances against society, against his friend, against his wife, against his wife's relations, and against her girl friend Helena; and he is full of self-pity.
The Change in Present-Day Conditions
Much water has flowed under the bridges since this play was first produced in 1956. The problems and conditions of the present-day British society are widely different from what they were in the mid-fifties which were characterized by the mood of disillusionment verging upon despair consequent upon the non-fulfilment of the hopes of the youth of the times, the decline and disintegration of the British Empire, (especially the loss of British prestige on account of the Suez crisis), and the events in Hungary, when the world found itself helpless against Russian militarism and aggressiveness. The main problem of British society today is the racial conflict originating in the fear of Englishmen that they will in course of time be swamped by the coloured immigrants. Another problem is that created by the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army). Every other day we hear of some violent or subversive action by members of that organization. Then there is the problem of galloping inflation and widespread unemployment. The trade unions are demanding higher wages which the government or the non-government employers are unable to agree to. Class-distinctions in England are now more or less a thing of the past, so that Jimmy's fulminations do not have much point now-a-days. The general attitude to nuclear weapons has also become more crystallized today. Opposition to nuclear weapons has hardened not only in Britain but in all Western Europe. However, Russian militarism and aggressiveness still continue. What had happened in Hungary in 1956 has been repeated, though in a slightly less violent form in Poland recently. As for Britain's international prestige, it is higher today than it was in 1956. The general mood in Britain today is certainly not one of disillusionment or despair (except perhaps among the unemployed young people, especially those who are coming out of colleges and universities). The British society today is quite hopeful and dynamic. Marriage is much freer today, and we cannot today imagine the kind of opposition which Alison's parents had put up against Jimmy's marrying Alison. Nor can we talk of the feeling of apathy or lack of enthusiasm among the people, especially the younger people.
The Extent to Which the Play Has Dated
In view of these facts, much of the basis for Jimmy's resentment and anger has ceased to exist, and Look Back in Anger has therefore become a dated play. It can no longer have the same appeal for today's audiences or readers in England. With the change in social and political conditions, people's attitudes also change. Today's youth cannot respond to this play in the same manner as the youth of the mid-fifties did. A character like Colonel Redfern is quite inconceivable in England now-a-days, because there would be nobody talking in a nostalgic manner now about the kind of life the Britishers had led in imperial India. Nobody in England would be heard today complaining that the sun has set for him because he cannot enjoy that comfortable life which he used to lead in the Indian dominion.
Elements of Enduring Interest—Colonel Redfern's Sensible Observations
And yet certain aspects of Look Back in Anger still have an undeniable validity even today, and the play does have a relevance for the present-day world in some respects. Of course, Look Back in Anger is not one of the greatest English plays, and we cannot expect it to possess the same enduring appeal which the greatest works of literature possess. Great art has an everlasting value, and its appeal never diminishes. Look Back in Anger may be classified as a literary work of average merit so far as its appeal for us or for the coming generation is concerned. But certain things in this play do still find an echo in our bosoms, so that we still find the play worth reading. There are a number of utterances from various characters in the play which still retain their value. For instance, Colonel Redfern, whose nostalgic memories of India have become out of date, yet makes some very sensible observations. His disapproval of his daughter's tendency to sit on the fence is quite shrewd, and in this respect his daughter has simply taken after himself. His disapproval of his wife's procedure in having investigated into the activities of Jimmy Porter through private detectives is also noteworthy as showing an intelligent man's recognition of the right of the young people to choose their own life-partners. Equally laudable are his comments on marriage when he says that he always believed that people married one another because they were in love, and that such things as revenge and challenges were absolutely alien notions in respect of marriage.
Helena's Sound Remarks
Some of Helena's speeches in the final scene of the play have also a permanent appeal. Helena expresses her belief in good and evil, saying that it is quite a modern, scientific belief now. She tells Jimmy that no one can be happy when he or she is doing something wrong or hurting somebody else. This is a remark which can never become stale because it contains a truth of permanent value. In this respect, Helena's action in giving up Jimmy whom she loves as she can never anybody else is a true sacrifice, despite Jimmy's cynical view that no sacrifice is real.
The Value of Suffering
At least one of Jimmy's comments has a positive and permanent value, and that is the value of suffering as an essential part of human experience. When Jimmy asks Helena if she had watched a man dying, he is not putting a merely rhetorical question. He then gives an account of how he himself had watched his own father dying, and how that experience had taught him more about love, betrayal, and death at that age than she will probably ever know all her life. It is this need for a knowledge of suffering that makes him wish Alison to have a child which will die. When Alison really loses her child, the experience chastens her and she comes back to regain Jimmy's love. The speech which Alison makes to Jimmy giving an account of what she has been through, is almost heart-rending, and one of the supreme moments in the play, and this can never become stale.
The Need of Comradeship
Above all, there is the fundamental need of every human being for some kind of comradeship with another and some kind of understanding with another, some kind of fellow feelings and some sentimental relationship. Nobody can remain alone in this world. Alison was not wrong when she had written in her note to Jimmy that she would always have a deep, loving need of him. Jimmy had at that time dismissed Alison's note as being sentimental rubbish, but ultimately even he realizes that he cannot live alone. With Helena gone, he speaks of his own loneliness, saying that the happiest and strongest creatures in this world seem to be the loneliest, like the old bear following his own breath in the dark forest. That is why, when Alison falls at his feet, Jimmy quickly responds to her, and both then play their favourite game, pretending to be animals, a bear and a squirrel. This world of fantasy has been the only source of comfort to them in the past, and now, when both have become more mature as a result of their experiences, they may find true happiness with each other in the real world, and the bears-and-squirrels game may no longer be necessary.
Thus it is that the play offers to us certain moral insights which are timeless and which will never lose their appeal. The portrayal of characters in this play further contributes to its permanent appeal. The portrayal of each character is psychologically true and convincing. All the characters come alive. Even Cliff, who does not have any part in the action of the play and only a slight part in the dialogue, is a memorable person because of a certain quality in him which is of great value, and that quality is fidelity. Jimmy is perfectly conscious of this quality in his friend. As Jimmy tells Helena, Cliff has a big heart. Anybody having a big heart can be forgiven for any fault that he may suffer from, says Jimmy. We all recognize the value of solidarity, of true friendship, and this is what Cliff offers to both Jimmy and Alison. Besides these moral and psychological aspects of the play, there is its entertainment value which too cannot become stale. The brilliant wit of Jimmy Porter imparts a certain value to the play which cannot fade. His devastating flings at various persons and his withering sarcasms can never fail to amuse. And others—Cliff, Helena, and Alison—also contribute, though in a much smaller measure, to the comic character of the play by their sense of humour and by their ironical remarks and their retorts.