The Historical Weight of this Play
Naturalism in drama, in its ordinary forms, aims at "putting ourselves and our situation on the stage". The locally convincing speech and atmosphere of one generation in course of times becomes dated, and a new local style is then launched against it.This is the central importance of Look Back in Anger which at the time of its first production had the appearance of a break-through but which was essentially a delayed recognition of an already altered style which had not broken through to the stage though outside the theatre it was already known. It is, in one sense, a remarkable play that achieves this public alteration of style; only a genuine power can effectively dramatize the necessary sense of release. At the same time, any particular play, which achieves this, gets an excessive historical weight and representative importance.
Jimmy Raging at Others, at Himself,
and at a General Condition
and at a General Condition
The details of talk and atmosphere of this play have an authentic power, and so too has its expression of an intense feeling. The intense feeling is one of a frustrated anger, a prolonged waiting which must be broken at any cost by means of a demonstration or a shout. The play depicts the traditional room of the naturalist theatre, the room as a trap with the sounds and messages of a frustrating world coming in from outside and with the inmates of the room looking on and raging at their world. What comes from the inmates is the trapped angry slang of people shut up too long, and of one man raging, in a way on behalf of them all, but, in default of a visible general condition, at each and all of them as victims, as a necessary but intolerable audience. Jimmy Porter is raging at himself, through the raging at others and at an intolerable general condition. The sickness of a society is re-enacted in this particular enclosed form, as the sickness of available relationships and of this man at their centre.
The Disordered Talking and Crying of a Trapped Group
Look Back in Anger has been regarded as marking the emergence of working-class drama at a particular stage of cultural and social change in Britain. But it is not that. The life that is depicted in this play is of people disorganized and drifting; youth and poverty are factors in this, but the general state of feeling matters more than any precise social setting. The true social experience is of a general restlessness, disorganization, and frustration, which had elements in common with the utterly different dramatic style which plays of this kind replaced. In T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry also, the dominating themes had been restlessness and loss of direction, but in the late plays of Eliot, and in the decorated sentences of Fry, this condition had been displaced and indulged in a distant and theatrical mannerism. What appeared in Look Back in Anger was a new voice and a different edge: not the sweet hopelessness and the measured despair, but the directly disordered talking and crying—the social criticism, the cruelty, the sentimentality—of a trapped, identifiable group. Plays of this category are then not, as they sometimes have been described, experiments in social realism. A locally convincing detail and atmosphere are used, but, as always in the mainstream of naturalism, to be the immediate circumstance for something very different from description or report. The plays are not documentaries of youth and poverty, but are intensely personal cries in the dark: a sentimental drama turned bitter and hopeless realism: a set of blues rhythms rather than a set of social problem-plays.
Social Despair Plus a Fear and a Hatred of Women
What is central and memorable in Look Back in Anger is the sound of a voice. For instance, in the famous speech in which Jimmy laments that people are no longer able to die for good causes, what is communicated is an unusual complex which is in fact evident throughout the play. This complex is a kind of social despair and a fear and hatred of women. ("No, there's nothing left for it, me boy, but to let yourself be butchered by the women", says Jimmy.) The sharp edge of this voice, at every point, draws on those apparently separable emotions which are felt as one emotion. It is at this point that we encounter the limitation of the description of the play as a blues rhythms; for of course, the play is not only a voice; it is an action around this voice. And what is then interesting is that this complex of emotion, which the play as a whole is designed to express, comes to be seen in other plays of the kind not as an idiosyncrasy but as the structure of feeling of a group. It is now almost a convention in Britain: the play of overt social criticism in which the only enemy in sight, though always against a background of generalized social experience, is a wife or a girl-friend. This attitude has been described, in orthodox terms, as a "fusion of the class-war and the sex-war". Actually, however, in this particular complex there is certainly no class-war—it is too trapped and passive for that and what is characteristic about the abuse of the women is that it is, in pseudo-social terms, not a fusion but a displacement. In any case Look Back in Anger is the most important example of this complex.
Woman as the Symbol of Frustrating Society
What seems crucial here is that the woman is made the bearer of society, in a literal way. Towards the end of the first Act, Jimmy speaks of Alison's passion in these words: "She just devours me whole every time, as if I were some over large rabbit," etc. To an ordinary kind of sexual disturbance is here added the disturbance as metaphor. The fear of adult relationships, the willing relapse into a child's game (bears-and-squirrels), the incoherent shifting from one girl to another (from Alison to Helena, and back to Alison) are made into a criticism of the world, of a stupid establishment, of a lack of causes, of a general emotional incapacity. In a sense, always, women are the bearers of society. A rage against a frustrating society might then express itself through this particular available symbol: namely, woman who is seen as the society which traps and swallows a particular self, and is only acceptable when she renounces that social role and will play in a hiding, frightened isolation, like Alison when she has lost her baby. The isolated man can find a possible if childish role by destroying that continuity or that physical fact of men born into relationships. Any other available identity is not only rejected; it is made into a common rejection, enlisting the support of others. What can be said, in apparently direct ways, about a middle-class establishment, about reactionary ideas, about the loss of effective causes and feelings, is then swept, by the rhythm, into an identity with this lonely fear.
The Shouting from that Trap of a Room at the World
It is then important to understand that this structure of feeling is neither recommended nor valued; the whole form of the play allows it to be taken as a case, without necessary endorsement. It is very similar, in this respect, to those first-person novels which at once communicate an emotion, a way of responding to the world, and yet, by their form, can detach themselves from its understanding. This particular relationship between a voice and an action is then the necessary critical point: the action serves only to release the voice, but at the same time the voice can hide itself behind an apparent action. A world has been reduced to these symptomatic relationships, and the shouting inside them—even the direct indifference and cruelty—is heard as a shouting past them, a shouting from that trap of a room at an unseen, representative world. Indeed, the idiom itself—a continual free association of ideas, a rough overriding of precision, an engaging, disturbed rage and parody—is an exact expression of a carefully prepared dramatic situation: the rough shouting at cruelty and indifference through cruelty and indifference; the loss of feeling in an acting-out of feeling; the humiliation of self and others as a response to a humiliating, intolerable society.
A Late Stage of the Crisis of Isolation and Terror
To put ourselves and our situations on the stage: this orthodox claim of naturalism comes back like an echo. "The joy of life in its tense and cruel struggles": the emphasis persists, from that early to this later naturalism. The voices and the atmosphere of each period of breakthrough become period voices and a period atmosphere, in direct relation to the original shock and excitement of recognition. And then what stands out is a situation, inseparable from the idiom but defining itself in much wider terms: a late stage of that crisis of isolation and terror, in which the victims turn on each other and on the weakest, and their cries for freedom are the painful, ugly, hysterically powerful cries from the trap.