A Well-Made Play, Indeed. According to a Critic
Look Back in Anger is a well-made play, with all its climaxes, its tightenings and slackenings of tension in the right places. Another critic rightly calls it a traditional play as regards its construction, with its division into three Acts. (Leaving aside the one Act plays which became very popular in the twentieth century, plays have generally consisted of either five Acts or three Acts). On the whole, Look Back in Anger is technically a very good play, although it is not free from faults. A critic describes the construction of this play as "taut and threatrically exciting".
The Clear and Logical Plot-Development
The action of the play develops in a logical and coherent manner. In Act I we are introduced to the hero, Jimmy Porter, who is a man at odds with his wife, with his wife's family, with his friend, and with the world at large too. We find his wife Alison and his friend Cliff chafing and feeling uncomfortable under his censorious and sometimes contemptuous remarks. In Act II a new character, Helena, is introduced. She is an old friend of Alison's. In Scene I of this Act Alison gives
an account of her marriage to Jimmy and the kind of sordid life she had to lead with him under the roof of his friend, Hugh. Alison also refers to Hugh's mother, Mrs. Tanner, who had established Jimmy in the sweet-stall which he is running for his livelihood. In the same Scene, news comes that Mrs. Tanner has suffered a stroke and has been admitted to a hospital in London. Jimmy gets ready to go to London to attend upon the dying woman, but Alison refuses to go with him. In the meantime Helena has sent a telegram to Alison's father to come immediately as Alison is very unhappy with Jimmy. In Scene II of the same Act we learn that Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, has arrived in response to the telegram. After a brief discussion of the situation with him, Alison leaves with her father, while Helena stays behind. When Jimmy returns from London after Mrs. Tanner's death and talks in his usual offensive manner to Helena, she slaps him but immediately afterwards kisses him, drawing him down by her side. In Act III, Scene I we find Jimmy living happily with Helena as his mistress but, just when they are making plans for the future, Alison unexpectedly returns. In Act III, Scene II Helena leaves Jimmy, while Alison gets reconciled to him. The line of the development of the plot is thus perfectly clear. Helena
A Gripping Play, with Its Dramatic Situations and Unexpected Turns of Plot
Conflict, surprise, suspense, tension, and climax are the principal features of a successful and effective play, and all these features are to be found in this particular play also. The tension in the play begins in the very first Act when Jimmy begins to criticize everything and everybody, particularly his wife Alison. This tension deepens in Act II when Jimmy finds himself compelled to accept Helena as a guest in the house, in spite of the fact that he looks upon Helena as his "natural enemy". The verbal skirmishes between Jimmy and Helena add to the tension and the conflict becomes very dramatic here. Alison's refusal to go with Jimmy to London is another aspect of the dramatic conflict in the play. Thereafter Alison's departure from her husband's home marks one of the climaxes in the play. Helena's kissing Jimmy all of a sudden, after the way she has openly been expressing her strong dislike for him, comes as a very big surprise to us. In Act III, which is comparatively free from conflict and tension, and where we find Jimmy almost in a relaxed mood acting a comic part, with Cliff joining in the fun, another big surprise comes at the end of Scene I when Alison suddenly returns. Scene II of Act III is again highly dramatic and full of surprises. It is a highly dramatic scene firstly because Helena suddenly announces her decision to leave Jimmy, secondly because we find that Alison has had a miscarriage, and thirdly because the kind of dialogue which Alison and Jimmy now have and which leads to their reconciliation. Helena's departure is an even bigger surprise than her having suddenly kissed Jimmy at the end of Act II was. The reconciliation between husband and wife is a surprise also in view of the circumstances under which Alison had left Jimmy. In short, it is a gripping play by virtue of its dramatic situations and its unexpected turns of plot.
Skilful Endings of Scenes
Osborne also shows himself a master in the art of beginning a scene and ending it. The ending of each scene is particularly effective because not only do we find a surprise at that point but also experience a feeling of suspense as to what will happen next. According to a critic, Osborne shows his technical maturity in opening the first and third Acts of this play in identical settings— Helena merely succeeding Alison at the ironing-board, and Alison instead of Helena disrupting the domesticity. This looking-glass effect not only succeeds theatrically, but shapes the action into a closed-circle entirely appropriate to its theme. According to the same critic, there is some merit also in the way the action of the play begins on a Sunday afternoon which is a necessarily static occasion that suits Jimmy's verbosity. The Sunday papers, Alison's ironing board, and the church-bell also serve as further props for Jimmy's accusations against the world and against his wife.
Jimmy's Disconnected Tirades
As has been said, the play is technically not free from faults. There is, for instance, a discontinuity in the tirades of Jimmy. We find Jimmy jumping from one subject to another without any apparent connection between what he has said previously and what he says afterwards. In Act I he begins by criticizing the "posh" newspapers which make a man feel ignorant. Then he goes on to criticize the Bishop of Bromley and the Bishop's alleged support to the hydrogen bomb, afterwards citing the case of the stupid woman who in her religious fervour got her ribs broken. Next, he expresses his intense boredom with the monotony of the Sunday routine and with the apathy and lack of enthusiasm of Alison and Cliff, and his deep annoyance with the general outlook of Alison's daddy and mummy, with Alison's brother Nigel, with women in general for being too noisy, with Miss Drury whom he calls a robber, with orthodox sexual relationships. Act I closes with his denouncing Alison for having the devouring passion of a python. In Act II we find Jimmy taking Alison to task for her decision to go to church, denouncing Alison's mother in very strong terms, describing the circumstances in which he married Alison against the wishes of her parents, condemning Helena for her general outlook upon life and for "looking forward to the past," recalling his father's death which had taught him more of suffering, betrayal, and death than Helena, according to him, would ever learn. In Act III, Jimmy ridicules the "midnight invocations to the Coptic Goddess of fertility"; he scoffs at the spirituality which is expected to make a new man of him; he deplores the absence of any good, brave causes in the contemporary world; he expresses the view that women want to bleed men to death and to butcher them; he alleges that everybody wants to escape from the pain of being alive and especially from the pain of loving. Now, there is no link between Jimmy's many speeches which relate to many different persons and many topics of a miscellaneous nature. All that he says is apt to strike the reader as the ravings of a disordered mind.
A Valid Reason for the Disjointedness
of Jimmy's Speeches
of Jimmy's Speeches
However, it is possible to defend this disjointedness and discontinuity in the speeches of Jimmy. The author's intention seems to have been to depict Jimmy's mind as being muddled and confused. Jimmy was conceived by the author as a spokesman of the disillusioned and frustrated post-war youth. As such, it was necessary for the author to depict Jimmy as being bewildered by the environment and the situation in which he found himself. Jimmy had the feeling that society had not treated him according to his deserts, and he was therefore full of resentment against society. He was also resentful of the class distinctions which were responsible for the opposition of Alison's parents to her marrying him. The painful memory of the way his father had died has also contributed to his resentment against society. It is this embittered state of mind which makes Jimmy attack everybody and every institution. His attacks on the Church, on the rituals of religion, on the kind of politicians who thrive, on the middle class as represented by Alison's parents, by Alison herself, and by Helena, on the press and the newspapers for their stupid kind of reporting and their publication of idle gossip such as Shakespeare's change of sex when he was writing The Tempest, upon women in general—all these attacks are prompted by his sense of grievance against the world, and against contemporary society in particular. The disconnected tirades, therefore, produce exactly the effect which the author intended to produce. The change that there is not enough motivation behind Jimmy's anger therefore loses much of its validity.
The Appropriateness of the Final Ending
The final ending of the play has been criticized as unsatisfactory. But this charge is not really justified. The reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison has a strong psychological basis. Alison has suffered greatly, her miscarriage having been a tremendous blow to her. She has therefore come back in a chastened mood. Jimmy, on his side, has just been deserted by Helena, and her desertion has come as a shock to him, especially after the exchange of tender words between them only a little while before. Jimmy has already lost Mrs. Tanner who was an emotional prop to him. In this forlorn state, he naturally compares himself to the old bear following his own breath in the dark forest, with no warm pack, no herd to comfort him; and he then says to Alison: "I may be a lost cause, but I thought if you loved me, it needn't matter." These words have a profound effect on Alison who is herself now in a forlorn condition. Thus the reconciliation is not only natural but inevitable. The symbolism of the bears-and-squirrels game also has its share in bringing about the reconciliation. At this crucial moment, both of them think of the game that they used to play and that never failed to bring comfort to both of them.
The Charge of Dramatic Imbalance in the Play
Another charge against the structure of the play is that too much attention has been paid by the author to the portrayal of Jimmy and that this has resulted in the importance of the other characters being greatly diminished. Jimmy being the principal talker in the play, we are likely to feel that there is dramatic imbalance which has a disturbing effect on us. The passivity of the supporting characters thus seems to be a weakness in the structure of the play. The supporting characters are simply too feeble to support Jimmy and his anger. But it was the author's own intention to focus the attention of the audience (and the reader) upon Jimmy. Jimmy was intended to be the centre of our attention, and the principal interest of the drama. It was in accordance with the author's deliberate design that the other characters occupied only subordinate and secondary positions. Jimmy was meant to emerge as the spokesman of a whole generation. This dramatic imbalance was therefore inevitable and is not to be regarded as a defect.
Symbolism in the Play
Apart from the symbolism of the bears-and-squirrel game which offers to Jimmy and Alison an escape from the harsh reality of life and from their incompatibility with each other, other symbolic devices used in the play are Jimmy's playing on a trumpet and Alison's endless ironing of the clothes. The noise of the trumpet contributes to the atmosphere of breaking nerves, and the ironing helps to aggravate Jimmy's boredom. Then there is the sound of church-bells which disturbs Jimmy with a vague suggestion of the existence of a world other than the one he lives in. (The other world is spiritual world in which Jimmy's strong rational mind does not allow him to believe). All these symbolic devices are part of the play's structure.
A Realistic Play
While Look Back in Anger is not a profound play, its realistic quality is unquestionable. Its characters are convincing, and its events and situations are perfectly credible. There is nothing far-fetched about the psychology either, despite the abnormality of the principal character. Indeed, there is hardly a false note in the play as regards its psychology. Even the minor characters, Cliff and Colonel Redfern, fully correspond to our ideas of realism.
Dramatic Conflict not Lacking in the Play
It has been alleged that this play is lacking in dramatic conflict. However, this charge is untrue. While we cannot deny that Jimmy dominates the action, it is wrong to say that the other characters are merely non-entities. To say that Alison and Helena are not much more than stage-furniture, is to underestimate their importance. Helena is a powerful figure and the confrontation between her and Jimmy really shows her guts. Her verbal skirmish with Jimmy, her slapping him (even though she immediately afterwards kisses him), her daring to live as Jimmy's mistress in defiance of social proprieties, and her subsequently taking a bold decision to leave Jimmy, all these show her strength. Alison too is not an entirely "wet" character as has been alleged by a critic. She has her self-respect which she shows not only in leaving Jimmy when, during her visit to Jimmy she gets up to go away, and stays only because Jimmy begins to speak to her in a tone of entreaty. Jimmy's conflict with both these women is quite real and gives rise to considerable suspense and tension in our minds. Besides, there is Jimmy's conflict with society as a whole, with the middle class as represented by Alison's family, and with the Church. These opponents of Jimmy do not actually appear on the stage but, even though invisible, they are a strong force, so strong that they provoke Jimmy into endless accusations, fulminations, and denunciations.