The English Stage Company
In the theatre there is always scope for new talent. But in 1956 the scope for new talent was even greater. A new group called the English Stage Company had been established at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The object of this Company was to become a writers' theatre. Many other companies had begun with the same object and the same high ideals, but had come to nothing on account of the commercial pressure of the London theatre. The English Stage Company would have met the same fate if it had not been for Look Back in Anger.
A Play by an Unknown Author
Look Back in Anger came into the hands of the English Stage Company through the post in response to an advertisement calling for new plays. Its author was a 26-year-old actor of no particular distinction. No play by him had previously been produced in London, and he had no literary reputation at all. The English Stage Company liked the play and decided to offer it to audiences as their first by a new author.
Although the play received quite encouraging reviews on its opening, it did not immediately prove to be a hit. However, the play caused a sensation when one Act of it was shown on television. The sample of the play seen by people on television aroused their interest, with the result that the audiences at the theatre swelled in numbers. Thus television, which is generally feared as the rival of the theatre, in this case actually proved helpful to make the play popular. The reviewers too were by no means hostile. One of them, Kenneth Tynan, was actually enthusiastic. He wrote as follows:
I agree that Look Back in Anger is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of twenty and thirty. And this figure will doubtless be swelled by refugees from other age-groups who are curious to know precisely what the contemporary young pup is thinking and feeling. I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.
Life and Vitality in the Play
Another reviewer also praised the play in no uncertain terms. According to him, it is not a perfect play, but it is a most exciting one, abounding with life and vitality, and the life it deals with is like, as it is lived at this very moment (i.e., at the time the play was written and produced). The three young people—Jimmy Porter, his wife Alison, and his friend Cliff Lewis—are crowded together in a top flat in some Midland town and are being slowly destroyed. Jimmy Porter, the protagonist, is a brilliant young intellectual adrift. Since he can find no other way of using his intelligence, he is employing it to punish himself and every one around him. The way he does so is dazzling, and he knows it; but it is also monstrous, and he knows that too. But he cannot stop going on with it. (A self-destroyer can never stop.) He has seen through all the tricks of self-deception by which people persuade themselves that life is worth living, and he debunks them in a brilliantly funny series of tirades. His is the genuinely modern voice—witty, relentless, pitiless, and utterly without belief in anything. Since he cannot find himself a place, he must compensate himself by making fun of all those who can; and his wit is stinging.
The Suffering Wife
Jimmy's denunciations, though funny, are also offensive, and someone must suffer—the one who is nearest to him, namely his wife. She had the misfortune to have been better born socially than he, and he makes use of this fact incessantly and brutally. All she can do is to suffer the assaults, though she is helped to some extent by the passive Cliff Lewis, Jimmy's dumb and loyal friend who is always the necessary third in this kind of marriage. John Osborne understands some aspect of life deeply and renders them truly. One of his particular merits is that he goes further than most dramatists in showing his audiences the things that people do to one another.
Much of the Action Unconvincing
The unequal battle between Jimmy and the other two (his wife and his friend) goes on repetitively in its squalid setting. The wife is temporarily driven out of the flat; she is replaced by her best girl-friend, Helena, but the latter also ultimately gives up. There is not enough action in the play, and not all of it is convincing. But what remains completely convincing is the mood and the contemporary language in which it is expressed.
No Strong Motivation for the Hero's Anger
One of the weaknesses of the play is the lack of any satisfactory motivation for the hero's predicament. Motives are written into the text, true, but they are not working in it, not fermenting and aerating it. In the naturalistic form the author has chosen, we inevitably ask questions which remain unanswered. For instance, it is not at all clear why an intellectual, a university graduate, should be running a sweet-stall as a means of his livelihood. We need lots of other explanations too. One of them concerns the ending of the play. After we have been shown in detail the state of the hero's mind, the reconciliation between him and his wife appears to some readers to be absolutely unconvincing.
Many critics saw great promise in John Osborne on the basis of Look Back in Anger. One of them felt that the English Stage Company had discovered a dramatist of outstanding promise: "a man who can write with a searing passion, but happens in this case to have lavished it on the wrong play." He also felt that some passages could be eliminated from the play because they were repetitious; and he expressed the view that "through all the author's over-writing and laborious shock tactics, we can perceive what a brilliant play this young man will write when he has got this one out of his system and let a little sunshine into his soul." Another critic, agreeing, remarked that the play "starts rich in promise, but lets us down with a sickening melodramatic thud", and added that Osborne's development as a writer would depend on what he looked forward to.
Technically a Traditional Play
As for the technical side of Look Back in Anger, Osborne's own opinion, expressed in 1961, was that it was "a formal, rather old-fashioned play". And soon afterwards Osborne began to break away from the traditional naturalism of the play's surface-style by making use in his next play, The Entertainer, of non-realistic devices derived from the example of Brecht. In Look Back in Anger, he was using a structure handed on to him from the most conventional theatrical craftsmen of his apprenticeship. It was only the force of Jimmy Porter's rhetoric which distinguished this play from such traditional pieces as Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea. Indeed, Look Back in Anger seems technically anachronistic after Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. It is anyway significant that Look Back in Anger had surprisingly little influence on either the subject-matter or the style of the dramatists who came after—of Harold Pinter, John Arden, N.F. Simpson, Ann Jellicoe, Arnold Wesker, and Henry Livings.
A Revival in English Drama
A revival in English drama was seen by some critics as beginning with Look Back in Anger. This play, together with The Entertainer by the same author, was readily related at the time of social and political topicalities—the unease, discontent, and frustration of English society in the backwash of the Suez War. The ranting declasse Jimmy Porter became its spokesman, just as the Byronic hero, a Hamlet, a Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, had been for similar moods in theirs. It seemed natural to relate the vogue of "anger" to the emergence of a new educated class which felt itself denied the opportunities of the old. The pre-occupations of Osborne were assimilated to those of Kingsley Aims or John Wain, or those of Arnold Wesker and Raymond Williams. But in the light of Osborne's later work it would seem that his drama, though it has political implication, is really less political than was thought. His gloomy, hate-ridden plays, like Strindberg's, are rooted in domestic obsessions.
The Object, to Make People Feel
Finally, it may be pointed out, Osborne suggested that in Look Back in Anger he was chiefly concerned to "make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling" admitting that there was time enough to "think afterwards".