Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Look Back in Anger: A One-Man Play

Jimmy's Anger Against Apathy and Complacency
Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger bullies the world in general and his women in particular for not "caring". He campaigns against apathy and complacency and deadness. "Caring" is the attitude which he demands and advocates. The relevant passages are well-known. For instance, we have the following words in the speech in which Jimmy describes his father's slow dying after his return from Spain: "You see, I was the only one who cared".

Anger as a Form of Energy
We get a valuable hint in Osborne's comment on Jimmy in the beginning of the play: 'To be as vehement as he is to be almost non-committal'. This suggests, before Jimmy has had time to open his mouth, that his anger may be after all a short one. But we must not anticipate. There is no doubt that Jimmy's anger is vital to the economy of the play. It is Jimmy's anger that drives the play and makes the wheels go round. It is tempting to avoid putting a moral interpretation on it at all, and to speak quite simply of "energy". The origin of this energy is certainly as nuclear as its direction. It is simply there, an elemental, devastating force. The attempts which have been made to explain Jimmy's energy have not been quite successful. Jimmy has been called a frustrated artist, a repressed homosexual, a sado-masochist, a self-pitying egotist, an idealist without a cause. Yet none of these descriptions seems to help. Jimmy eludes these descriptions. But the question is whether he eludes them because he is too big or too small. Has Jimmy a hidden greatness which could turn his anger into a condemnation of the society which has no room for him? Or, is Jimmy simply maladjusted ? Clearly, while the energy is there, our final judgment on the play must depend on the moral and aesthetic significance that we attribute to the energy.
Jimmy vis-a-vis Contemporary Society
The neurotic's world is a private one, and his language too is a private language; and the writer makes use of it at his peril. This has an obvious relevance to the question of Jimmy's anger. If Look Back in Anger is a study in sado-masochism, then the play would seem to be of considerably reduced significance. In that case, no comment by Jimmy on the present state of society could be taken seriously. His tirades would then become what to many spectators they already are: boring, irrelevant, and silly. Jimmy's appeal for "a little ordinary human enthusiasm", and his outburst about people wanting to escape from the pain of being alive and from love, could simply be dismissed as the ravings of a hysteric. The play would then be reduced to a case-history and would hardly be worth the attention of literary critics. Clearly, if the play is to be considered seriously, then it must be possible to take Jimmy's views and comments seriously. It must be shown that Jimmy's views are the product of his energy fighting with a society that is in some sense too small for him. He must be an eccentric rather than an ego­centric. And modern English society's refusal of his energy must imply a moral judgment on that society. But taking Jimmy seriously, must mean taking him seriously in his dramatic context. To succeed, the play must counterpoint Jimmy against contemporary English society; and this society must be realized on the stage itself, in the persons of Alison, Cliff, Helena, and Colonel Redfern. But if the counter pointing is to succeed, if the play is to have an efficient dialectical structure, then the other persons of the drama must not be merely passive. Jimmy must not be allowed to erupt like a volcano, and smother Alison, Cliff, and Helena with his energy. Weighing the scales in Jimmy's favour would unbalance the play dramatically; and it would also be untrue to the real social situation off-stage.
The Supporting Characters Feeble and Pale
However, these pre-conditions for the success of the play are not actually fulfilled. The passivity of the supporting characters is a weakness which is clear to everyone who goes through the play. Indeed, the fact that one includes Jimmy's wife among the "supporting" characters is significant. Alison is surely as "wet" a character as has ever been presented on the stage. In bullying her, Jimmy is certainly getting an easy revenge on the middle class he detests. Yet Jimmy is presented as a fighter and one would expect him to relish a fight with someone of his own calibre. Nor does this description fit Alison's friend, Helena. She is tougher than Alison, and very typical of her class. But Helena is too much of a type: to balance Jimmy a more original character was required. Helena's struggle with Jimmy could certainly have been elaborated and given more emphasis; but, as it is, their relations have been restricted almost wholly to the sexual level. And Cliff, though he has his part in the economy of the play, is a disappointingly ineffective character. His significance could have been augmented, perhaps, if his serious, self-improving side had been developed further. "I'm trying to better myself", he tells Jimmy at the beginning of the play. And later, when he decides to leave the sweet-stall, "I think I'd like to try something else. You're highly educated, and it suits you, but I need something a bit better." Cliff might have been made to represent the older working-class tradition of self-improvement which Jimmy, in his refusal to accept responsibility, is betraying. As it is, Cliff is only slightly less pale a character than Colonel Redfern who is certainly a caricature of his class, though one portrayed with a sympathy which borders on the sentimental.
The Actual Effect of Jimmy's Portrayal
not in Keeping with the Author's Intention
The unbalance cannot be denied. The supporting characters are simply too feeble to support Jimmy and his anger. We are thus left with Jimmy's all-powerful but directionless energy. The failure to develop the minor characters means that we have Jimmy, unqualified and undefined. This by itself would not matter so much if the claims which Osborne makes for Jimmy, in the speeches he gives to Jimmy, had not been so ambitious. The basic claim made for him is that he knows better than others how to live (since it is obvious from the context that Jimmy's views have the author's approval). When Helena decides to break with Jimmy, she declares that she cannot be happy when she is hurting someone else (namely, Alison), thus provoking Jimmy's speech "They all want to escape from the pain of being alive     " But we are not encouraged to feel that Helena might be sincere in what she says, whereas we have no doubt about Jimmy's sincerity nor any doubt that he is making a statement of some philosophical significance. Yet, plainly, Jimmy does not know how to live better than other people; it is all talk. The famous bears-and-squirrels reconciliation at the end of the play is often condemned as sentimental. But it is probably in keeping with the characters depicted, it may not be love in the Lawrentian meaning, as we have been led to expect, but it is the best Jimmy and Alison can do. Unfit for love they fall back on affection. Yet this is not presented by the author as a criticism of Jimmy. Jimmy's inadequacy is never exposed to view; even in the final scene with Alison there is atone of superiority, when it has lost all justification. Jimmy is a phoney: but we are left with the impression that the author cannot admit this fact.
A One-Man Play
This is, then, the clue to the weakness of Look Back in Anger. The author invested so much of his thought, experience, and energy in the person of Jimmy that he had little left for the other characters. Jimmy is the reason, both for the play's tremendous initial impact, and for its ultimate failure. The same criticism can be made of An Epitaph for George Dillon and The Entertainer. These are all at bottom one-man plays. Some critics deny that Jimmy is a convincing character. This can only be decided by one's own personal experience; and in this case the experience of the young is likely to be most helpful. But, on the whole, one can affirm that Jimmy Porters can and do exist, and Osborne's portrayal of Jimmy is completely faithful to contemporary social reality. To this extent, his creation is a remarkable feat of the imagination.
Osborne's Commitment to Jimmy's Views
But we are concerned with literary criticism rather than with sociology. As a play, Look Back in Anger is a relative success only by the standards of a shallow slice-of-life naturalism. It gives us one powerfully realized, entirely possible human being; and a setting in which the other human beings, despite the talk, are not much more than stage-furniture. And because it fails ultimately as a drama, Look Back in Anger fails to say anything significant about society or about human psychology. Such values as it expresses are simply Jimmy's values, with which the author is evidently in agreement. The content of the play is thus reduced to Jimmy's "views" which are too indiscriminate to be taken seriously in themselves. It is therefore legitimate to say that the author is committing himself in this play to Jimmy's views. In this play, if not in others, it would be just to apply to Osborne what he has himself said of Jimmy: "To be as vehement as he is to be almost non-committal".

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