A scruffy but eloquent hater of class distinctions is sadly deserted by his adoring wife. He manages to spend some enjoyable time with her upper-class friend, but when his wife comes grovelling back, the mistress large-heartedly concludes that she has done wrong to break up the marriage. We are left in doubt whether this is a tribute to his powers as a lady-killer or a victory for Bohemianism over stuffy respectability.
The play consists largely of angry tirades. The hero regards himself, and clearly is regarded by the author, as the spokesman for the younger post-war generation which looked round at the world and found nothing right with it. He shares his squalid Bohemia with his wife and a good-natured friend who helps him to run a sweet-stall, and it is easy to understand that his restless disgruntlement, expressed in speeches of great length and ferocity, must sooner or later make the place too uncomfortable for his companions. Much of his sharpest invective is directed against his wife's mother who did not want her daughter to marry into Bohemian squalor. The wife is the first to go, and the wonder is that she ever comes back. The hero seems to be a victim of some love-hate impulses that he cannot control. The actress friend of his wife changes suddenly from her attitude of contempt to one of infatuation for him, thus producing a theatrical effect, while the inarticulate wife suffers really. We might go so far as to say that the hero's continuous tirade against life in the shabby flat, which he shares with his wife and a friend, has a deadening effect upon the whole play.
We are never quite clear what the author of Look Back in Anger wants us to think about. Perhaps it is the class-struggle, or perhaps it is simply sex. Both these are inseparably mixed up in the mind of his hero who is a caricature of a sort of frustrated left-wing intellectual. The hero is a bitter young misfit who can never forgive his pretty wife for her middle-class origin, and who pours out an endless flow of taunts and foul invective most of the time, and plays a trumpet in the bath-room, the rest of the time. In real life someone would surely have hit this self-pitying egotist on his face, and the wife would already have gone home to her parents before the play starts. But that would have deprived good actors and actresses of the opportunity of impressing their audiences with their performances. The actor playing the role of Jimmy is expected to bring real feeling to the play's rare tender moments in spite of the long savage tirades. The other players are expected to contribute their share to the general atmosphere of bitterness and squalor into which some moments of crazy comedy have been introduced with the reasonableness of reality.
Look Back in Anger sets up a wailing wall for the latest post-war generation of under-thirties. It aims at being a despairing cry but achieves only the status of a self-pitying snivel.
In a one-room flat in the Midlands, life for four young people is epitomised by a rainy Sunday afternoon squabbling about the Sunday papers, listening to concerts on noisy radios, contemplating a beer or the movies, and the endless ironing of clothes. In this cocoon of petty squalor and small thoughts, most of them are content to hibernate. Theirs is a world of the aggressively young where it is no bad manners to be outrageous and where ideas are loud rather than deep. Fed up with their complacency and resignation is Jimmy Porter who is constantly lashing himself into a frenzy about their smugness. "Let's have a little game", he shouts; "let's pretend we're human beings". In a hurricane of ranting speeches he abuses his wife and his friend for having no beliefs, no convictions, no enthusiasm. But while he lashes out widely in every direction, he never specifies what he is attacking.
Indeed, the failure of Look Back in Anger is in its inability to be coherent about its despair. There is no real motivation behind Jimmy's bitterness. He is a university graduate. Why is he then running a sweet-stall? What else does he want to do besides blowing a trumpet? What has turned him into an aggressive bore other than the fact that he saw his father dying? We are left to guess the answers to these questions by ourselves. Our only clue is futility.
Contemptuously he dismisses religion, science, morality, or politics as having any acceptable solution to his problems. In a void of anger his only philosophy is a cynical guffaw. In the course of the play he loses his wife, his mistress, and his best friend. And he loses his audience too. But beneath the rasping, negative whine of this play we can distinguish the considerable promise of its author. John Osborne has a dazzling aptitude for provoking and stimulating dialogue, and he draws characters with firm, convincing strokes. (Incidentally, the actor who played Jimmy's role on its first performance admirably caught the arrogance and doubt of a young man carrying a chip on his shoulder so large that it was knocking off his mental balance. The actress, who performed the role of Alison, gave a touching and restrained performance as a wife who thought she had married an idealist and found she had a paranoiac on her hands.)
Look Back in Anger is intense, angry, feverish, undisciplined. It is even crazy. But it is young, young, young. It is about a bitter man who has filched an upper-class girl from her prim home. He pours out a vitriolic tirade against the world. His wild and whirling words damn poverty, damn tenderness, and damn pity. His wife listens in silence. Why is he so angry ? He is young, frustrated, unhappy. His wife leaves him and he turns to her best friend. His wife returns, and he finds that she has borne and lost a baby. She has suffered and now she may understand him better.
Look Back in Anger is about three subjects at once. As a basis there is the psychology of the modern romantic, of the young man who behind all his toughness and rudeness is perpetually building idealized images of people and things, which they are unable to live up to and which then turn to bitterness within him. And his situation is made worse by the fact that, in the present-day world, there is no cause to which he can give himself wholeheartedly, no centre on which he can concentrate his adolescent dreams. This is the second theme of the play. In the thirties of this century, Jimmy Porter would have been a communist and would have fought in Spain but now there is nothing for him but to work on a sweet-stall and relive nostalgic memories of the time when there seemed to be something to believe in. Anarchism is, of course, a sterile attitude except when it is held by the artist. Jimmy Porter is no artist. One feels at the end of this play that he will talk and talk and talk in his attic flat in an industrial town until he rots. It is immaturity that is his trouble. Emerging from extreme youth most people accept the world and a few transcend it. Jimmy can do neither. In this sense Look Back in Anger is a tragedy.
The actual action of the play is centred round Jimmy's relationship with his wife Alison, and his anarchism here develops into the familiar pattern of Strindberg's love-hate relationship between the sexes. Deeply in love, the young couple is perpetually inflicting wounds on each other, until eventually the wife feels she can bear no more. Her place in the house is taken by her friend, Helena Charles, who also feels the same ambivalence in her love for Jimmy, moving in her case from hatred to love. The author brings out very well the appalling side of this self-destruction which continues until the calm of desolation is established in the last act and the tragedy of Jimmy Porter is paralleled by that of his wife.
Out of these complex psychological and social themes the author has made a powerful and sombre play, relieved every now and then by flashes of humour. The dialogue is always tense and witty, though there are speeches (in particular some of Jimmy's monologues) which need cutting. This, however, is a very minor fault beside the outstanding merits of the work.