The Birth of the Angry-Young-Man Movement
In 1956 the critics and the public in England were ready for something new in the field of drama. When, therefore, Osborne's Look Back in Anger was produced on May 8, 1956, they felt that a dramatist had appeared who could challenge such American playwrights as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. With this play was born the angry-young-man movement.
Jimmy's Dissatisfaction with Society
Look Back in Anger was regarded as representing the dissatisfaction with society reflected in the novels of such young writers as John Wain, Kingsley Amis, and John Brain. The rancorous hero of this play, Jimmy Porter, was thought to symbolize the fury of the young post-war generation that felt itself betrayed and ruined by its elders. The older generation had made a thorough mess of things, and there was nothing the new generation could do except find refuge in the occupation of nursing its resentment. Jimmy Porter, a cultural university graduate, supports himself by selling candy at a stall. Thus society is so rotten that there is no longer any point in trying to be useful. Of course, Jimmy is not content to stagnate, but he feels that he has no chance. His withdrawal from society is not one of choice. He feels himself to be unjustly crushed down with no hope of ever getting up. Such was the general interpretation of Osborne's portrayal of Jimmy. Jimmy's defeatism was looked upon as a symbol of the numb quiescence of post-war youth. But it is doubtful if Osborne himself intended this when he wrote the play.
Jimmy No Representative of the Young Men of his Time
According to a critic, John Osborne must have been the most surprised man in England when he suddenly found himself placed at the head of the angry-young-man movement. He had written a carefully and intelligently worked-out dramatic study of a psychoticmarriage relationship and was greeted, instead, as the creator of a revolutionary literary movement. Certainly Jimmy Porter makes many cutting remarks about contemporary society, but he only makes them as a result of his peculiar personality problems. There is no definite indication in the play that Osborne ever intended Jimmy's remarks to be taken as a general condemnation of society. Jimmy is an extremely unusual young man and not at all representative of the young men of his time. Osborne has not put his tirades against society in Jimmy's mouth in order to make speeches in the manner of a public orator. Instead, Jimmy's tirades are always the natural outcome of his psychotic state: they are a defence-mechanism which he uses to hurt his wife whom he suspects of not being fully devoted to him, and to avoid facing the problem of his own helpless character. Granted that a representative of the generation which reached adulthood in the early fifties would condemn his elders, his anger could hardly be embodied in the kind of speeches Jimmy makes. Jimmy has a right to rant and he has a right to be heard; he has a right even to throw up his hands in disgust and retire into a state of false enthusiasm or simply into an unthinking, irresponsible lassitude. But Jimmy's tirades are not representative of any attitude. Osborne has given Jimmy a certain facility in composing biting remarks, but there is no real sense, no mature criticism in those remarks. If we examine his remarks closely, we find them to be just trivial.
An Accurate Dissection of a Perverse Marriage
This play was described as an epoch-making play by the London critics. It has nothing of the sort but, on the other hand, it is by no means a worthless play. Osborne has here given us an excellent, accurate dissection of a perverse marriage. Jimmy Porter's problem is not the vicious injustice and hypocrisy of the social order: it is his suppressed awareness of the insoluble psychological paradox caused by his desperate, over-riding need to possess a woman's complete, unquestioning love and his simultaneous constitutional inability to get alongwith anyone. His outbursts are the overflow of his bitterness whenever his wife fails to rise to the standards of devotion that he expects from her, at the same time that he knows them to be impossible. His biting sarcasms are, in a sense, really directed inwardly against himself in the manner of the guilt-ridden hero who tortures himself in the manner of the guilt-ridden hero who tortures himself by torturing others. His real purpose, as he deliberately tries to destroy his wife's love for him because it is not the love he had imagined, is self-torment. He is the sort of man who needs absolute devotion, but who is too proud to ask for it. He needs it all the more from his wife because she comes from the sort of upper class family which he, as a good socialist, despises as useless and out-of-date and which, at the same time, he envies and resents because he knows that it looks down on him. In order to possess her, he had to marry her and submit to the conventionality that he hates. His dilemma is perfectly presented in Alison's description of his reaction to her virginity: he taunted Alison's description of his reaction to her virginity: he taunted Alison with her virginity and was quite angry about it; "he seemed to think an untouched woman would defile him." By being a virgin, she is pulling him down into an observance of social conventions. She is what her middle-class circle expected her to be. But Jimmy cannot feel pleased, because that would be the conventional reaction, though if she were not virginal he would have to resent it as evidence of her fickleness. What he really wants, as Alison explains to Helena, is "something quite different from us. What it is exactly, I don't know—a kind of cross between a mother and a Greek courtesan, a henchwoman, a mixture of Cleopatra and Boswell". Jimmy's tragedy is simply that he will never find this ideal and he knows it. He will spend the rest of his life bathed in self-pity, ranting impotently about the misfortunes he himself has created.