Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Look Back in Anger: A Critical Examination

The Play Apparently a Variation on
the Eternal Triangular Theme
Briefly stated, the theme of Look Back in Anger is familiar enough. Jimmy and Alison's marriage, rapidly breaking down in spite of a certain shared affection and the good offices of the even-tempered Cliff, finally cracks under the strain of Jimmy's continuous verbal assaults. His brief, incongruous affair with Alison's friend Helena fails to survive his wife's abject return, and the couple settles down to make the best of the mutual fantasy that protects them as much from each other as from the world.
Superficially, then, this play amounts to a variation on the eternal triangular theme, in which the wife wins a victory over the other woman, and the marriage is somehow saved. And yet, the play is believed to have contained the seeds not only of a dramatic renaissance but of an influential attitude towards life itself. In any case, the relative straightforwardness of the story­line here did give the author a chance for a really close look at his characters which he had failed to do in Epitaph for George Dillon.
The Autobiographical Element
Look Back in Anger is thoroughly autobiographical in one respect. The hero here is deeply involved in what is called the "class-war" as the author was. Jimmy Porter is self-consciously proletarian, having his origins in the working-class, and he is proud of being so. Osborne's family too had worked very hard to earn their livelihood. The kind of puritanism such a background often gives rise to—a social rather than a sexual puritanism—is perhaps at the core of Jimmy Porter's character.
The Feeling of Nostalgia
In Jimmy's rhetoric, we can perceive a sense of nostalgia which helps to account for the constant associative backward look of that rhetoric. It is less a nostalgia for past experience than for denied experience, for Colonel Redfern's "long, cool evenings up in the hills, everything purple and golden", for a world which "looked like going on for ever". These words of Colonel Redfern closely echo Jimmy's earlier evocation of a time of "home­made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms"In. Quite early in the play Jimmy says, in the course of a long speech:
Always the same picture: high summer, the long days in the sun, slim volume of verse, crisp linen, the smell of starch. 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. I must be getting sentimental. (Page 17)
Jimmy Sentimental
Jimmy is undoubtedly sentimental, and profoundly so. And his sense of emotional loss is felt as much by Alison as by him, but is never shared between them. At one point, Alison speaking to Cliff, says: "I keep looking back, as far as I remember, and I can't think what it was to feel young, really young. Jimmy said the same thing to me the other day. I pretended not to be listening." (It is in this speech by Alison that the only explicit reference to looking back is made, apart from the title of course.) And the play is really much more about the impotent anger induced by such an intangible yet irreparable personal loss than it is about the objective anger generated by the loss of "good, brave causes". Ironically, it is a product equally of Jimmy's proletarian and Alison's upper-class upbringing. That accounts, too, for the incongruity of Jimmy's simultaneous feelings of identification with the working-class and the aristocracy. Jimmy is less in search of a particular background than of a lost innocence and assurance which both these classes seemed to share.
The Bears-and-Squirrels Game
This common loss has greatly diminished the marriage of Jimmy and Alison, and it has rendered them sexually inarticulate". Their bears-and-squirrels game is a brave attempt to compensate for this failure by means of an extended metaphor. As we witness the game developing in the play, it is not in the least embarrassing but strangely fragile and moving. As a form of conventionalized sexual play, it has an undoubted dignity of its own; for, as Osborne himself has suggested, such a mutual perpetuation of a fantasy-level of experience can be a sophisticated form of sexual communication.
A Particular Kind of Sexual Relationship in the Play
But this fantasy is compensatory rather than complementary to the sexual relationship. The play explores, within a formally perfect frame­work, a particular kind of sexual relationship, the incidental frustrations of which, expressed in Jimmy's outbursts, just happened to bring about, or coincide with, a theatrical chain-reaction. A study of the play's construction, and of the emotional processes of the characters, will show why that happened.
The Traditional Construction of the Play
The play is built along traditional lines. It has three acts, and specifies a single domestic interior. Most of the necessary first-act exposition proceeds through the self-pitying and grumbling speeches of Jimmy against the alleged insensitivity of Alison and Cliff. These speeches characterize also Jimmy's habit of depending heavily on his past for the raw materials of his rhetoric, and his tendency to repeat himself. They also serve to suggest the tense relationship between Jimmy and Alison, and the casual, catalytic function of Cliff, partner in Jimmy's sweet-stall, who has become a sort of buffer-state between the marriage-partners. Thus is established the paradox of a university graduate who has chosen to retreat to a provincial town and to earn his livelihood through running a sweet-stall.
The Beginning of the Action
To accommodate Jimmy's verbosity, the action begins on an English Sunday afternoon, a necessarily "static" occasion. Of course, Jimmy's occupation demands that the action must occur either on Sundays or after business hours, and this does reinforce the impression of a mutually irritating domestic claustrophobia, and in the process the Sunday papers, Alison's ironing-board, and "those bloody bells" serve as verbal props for bored recriminations.
Technical Merits and Flaws
It shows Osborne's technical maturity that he dares to open 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. There are, so far, far fewer traces of inept craftsmanship in the play than there were in the Epitaph for George Dillon, in spite of its occasional expository lapses as during Alison's over-explicit recollection of her marriage and as the contrived note of the drawing into the action the mother of Jimmy's one-time closest friend (Hugh). But Hugh's mother lives and dies off-stage; she is a proletarian substitute for the mother from whom Jimmy had felt himself estranged. But in the genuineness of Jimmy's response to her death, Hugh's mother certainly comes to life as more than a figment of working-class wish-fulfilment.
Some More Technical Flaws
Another off-stage character, perhaps another mother-substitute, is Jimmy's first mistress, Madeline. She too comes in for clumsy handling, though the weakness here is in the rhetoric rather than in the reportage: it rings as false on the stage as it does to the ear-partly because its careful, consecutive development reflects over-anxiety on Osborne's part to make his point, rather than Jimmy's usual, free-flowing stream-of-consciousness. Alison's retrospection for Helena's and the audience's benefit in the second Act is another sequence during which the construction of the play clumsily breaks surface. The death of Alison's baby too is over-timely. A squalling child in Jimmy's attic, and things would really have to change; but Alison's miscarriage means that the bears-and-squirrels game would become even more vital as a means of making the old existence endurable.
Some Other Features of the Play's Construction
In other respects, Look Back in Anger adapts the familiar mechanics of the naturalistic problem-play comfortably enough. A first-act exposition culminates in the arrival of an outsider to develop the situation, as Helena duly develops it in the second act, and the final act restores a kind of precarious status quo. Osborne here shows considerable skill in ending an act or a scene, and beginning another, with one notable exception. The exception is Helena's instant seduction of Jimmy at the end of Act II, soon after Alison's departure. Helena's equally sudden renunciation, which brings Jimmy and Alison together again near the close of the play, is also unsatisfactory. The undoubted dramatic quality of both twists lends them theatrical viability, but it is a viability in a vacuum.
The Characterization of Cliff and Helena
Both Cliff and Helena function rather as a chemical agents than as characters. Cliff even describes himself as a no-man's land between Alison and Jimmy. The self-consistent idiom of this particular speech of Cliff's suggests that he is a much more credible person than Helena, and he does instil both stability and a sense of pity into the play, without which Jimmy's severity might prove less effective. The very incongruity of Cliff’s friendship with Jimmy makes it, in a sense, more acceptable. But Helena is an altogether too-perfect embodiment of everything Jimmy despises. The affair between them is necessary to the formal shape of the play: but their mutual attraction is given very little dramatic substance. We could perhaps say that it is an attraction of opposites, and we could further explain this attraction in terms of a passionate clinch following a moment of violence, and the shared sado-masochism of a sexual encounter between social enemies. Helena's seduction of Jimmy would seem trite even if she were adequately depicted as the upright Anglican she proclaims herself to be (and that is the lame excuse, namely her Anglicanism, which she offers for her final departure). As it is, her whole existence in the play seems little more than a dramatic convenience. Her leave-taking is in part symbolic, and it is followed by just enough of an anti-climax before the final curtain to suggest the nature of the dramatic resolution.
An Animal Relationship
Helena, it must be noted, is a potential soul-mate to Jimmy. At the same time, it appears that Jimmy ultimately reconciles himself to a kind of animal relationship with Alison. In her squirrel's drey, Alison is precisely a warm, generous animal who will lie by Jimmy's side every night. And yet the conclusion to the play is meant to be a kind of triumph. Jimmy and Alison are supposed to have achieved some sort of self-realization. Hence the climactic game of bears-and-squirrels—an animal relationship indeed.
Jimmy, Rooted in His Past
Jimmy, in his wife's words, has never known "what it was to feel young, really young". Emotionally, he later suggests, he was old at the age often. Watching his father's slow death, he "learnt at an early age what it was to be angry-angry and helpless". He tells Helena that he knew more about love, betrayal, and death at the age of ten than she would probably ever know all her life. Thus Jimmy has remained rooted in the past. He has been shaped by personal circumstances which have left him self-consciously proletarian and sexually uncertain. He runs a sweet-stall and chooses to live in more squalid surroundings than are really necessary. He chooses his squalor existentially; he is created and identified by it.
Jimmy's Puritanism
Jimmy's ethical system is so entirely a product of sentimentalized working-class puritanism that he is almost Victorian in his insistence upon keeping a sexual relationship in its proper place-in bed. Outside bed, brawling is "the only thing left I'm any good at." Jimmy does not talk to his wife except in anger or in allegory: and this is not really because he is "too much of a pig," as Cliff suggests, but because he is too much of a puritan to pay her any sexual compliment other than copulation. His marriage with a middle-class girl has apparently damned him in the eyes of his former friends; and he is no doubt well aware that his wife's social condescension resembles that of his own mother-bourgeois intellectual as she was, "all for being associated with minorities, provided they were the smart, fashionable ones".
Jimmy, Tolerant of Sentimentality
from a Proletarian Source
To redeem that maternal guilt, Jimmy has sought a working-class mother-substitute in Hugh's mum over whom he sheds profuse tears. Thus he recalls that when he had first shown Alison's photograph to her she had remarked with tears in her eyes: "But she's so beautiful! She's so beautiful!" She had kept repeating these words and the way she had said this was "pure gold". The proletarian preferences of Jimmy make him believe that the simple and sentimental comment of Hugh's mother had been purified by its proletarian source, because otherwise he would have been the first to condemn the sentimentality of Hugh's mother. Jimmy demands, in short, that others should recognize his own exceptions to his own rules.
Jimmy's Demand for Allegiances
Cliff is another exception. He is permitted, to Helena's great surprise, to be quite actively fond of Alison who admits to Helena that it is not easy to explain and that it is "a question of allegiances". Jimmy, she says, expects you to be pretty literal about allegiances in respect of all the things he believes in, his present and his future, and his past as well, all the people he admires and loves, and has loved (the friends he used to know, his father, who died years ago, even the other women he has loved). In order to understand Jimmy, and therefore the play, we have to appreciate and accept this demand by Jimmy for allegiance to his own past. Alison is prepared to offer this allegiance to him because she loves and consequently needs Jimmy, and is prepared for co-existence on almost any terms. She goes through an endless verbal assault from him, an assault which is relieved only by the occasional comfort of the bears-and-squirrels fantasy. Osborne chooses such a fantasy as his climax, but only a few lines earlier Alison has been grovelling, and there can be little doubt that she will grovel again, because the bears-and-squirrels are inseparably woven into the texture of ordinary despair which is the fabric of the play.
The Psychological Aspect of the Play
An opinion was once expressed that Osborne's maladjusted characters in this play only exist in the vortex of emotional vindictiveness which the writer creates, and that all the externals of the misalliance, including the sweet-stall operated by Jimmy, do not seem quite integral. Now, it is true that the sweet-stall is not integral. The sweet-stall is part of the complex process of self-identification with a lost, proletarian innocence, as alien to the university-educated Jimmy as the Spanish Civil War. And it is surely in this conflict between actual alienation and "applied" identification that the play did strike a chord in many radical breasts of the mid-fifties. What is typical about the play is its hero's consciousness of the conflict: what is eccentric is his attempt to reconcile it by means of a sort of enacted nostalgia. And his foredoomed failure to find fulfilment in such an attempt is at the root of his malady. Jimmy's scorn, and his apparently unmotivated outbreaks of anger, derive from this failure, and in turn nourish it. He is caught in a vicious circle, and in this sense the play's return to what is effectively a status quo is both formally and thematically appropriate.
The Irony Behind the Sociological Comments
Look Back in Anger, then, is basically a well-made problem-play of considerable psychological insight. The psychological aspect has to be emphasized if only to counter the usual tendency to over-socialize the play. As for the "little ordinary human enthusiasm" and the "good, brave causes" which Jimmy longs for, the actual contexts in which Jimmy uses these phrases should not be ignored. Jimmy's desire for "ordinary human enthusiasm" is an ironical plea for interest in an article in one of the posh newspapers. His comment on the absence of good causes is an after-thought to an assertion that he is being bled to death by all the women in the world, not to mention the postmaster-general. The irony inevitably modifies the reader's response. However, it must be admitted that the emotional need for brave causes was characteristic of a prevailing mood in the year of the Suez War and the Hungarian Revolution.
The Basis for a Sociological Interpretation
It was because of these sociological remarks by Jimmy that Look Back in Anger was regarded as a harbinger of the New Left, of Anti-Apartheid, and of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, it would be going too far to suggest that Jimmy himself could have been an active campaigner to support these movements. Jimmy could have found no more enduring a satisfaction by leading a protest march than in the warm, animal comfort of his squirrel's drey. Jimmy's emotional needs may have been typical, but his response to them was "exceptional" (a world which Osborne himself has used to describe the condition of his heroes). After a few more years, Jimmy might well have sought comfort from gin, from a number of casual mistresses one after the other, and from a hopeless nostalgia over the years that divided him from his instinctive heritage.

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