The Pre-Condition for the Play's Success
According to a critic, there is no doubt that Jimmy's anger is vital to the economy of the play, Look Back in Anger, it is Jimmy's anger that drives the play and that makes the wheels go round. This anger has its origin in Jimmy's energy, and this energy is an elemental, devastating force.It is curious how the attempts to explain Jimmy's energy fail. Jimmy has been called a frustrated artist, a repressed homosexual, a sadomasochist, a self-pitying egotist, an idealist without a cause. Yet none of these descriptions seems to hold; Jimmy eludes them all. The question that arises is, whether Jimmy has a hidden greatness which could turn his anger into a condemnation of the society that has no room for him. Or, is Jimmy simply maladjusted ? If this play 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 state of contemporary society can be taken seriously. His tirades then become merely boring, irrelevant, and silly.
The Alleged Failure of the Play
This critic then goes on to say that the passivity of the other characters is a weakness in the play. The other characters are simply too feeble to support Jimmy and his anger. The author's failure to develop the minor characters means that we are left with Jimmy, unqualified and undefined. Nor does Jimmy know better than the other characters how to live. In fact, Jimmy is a phoney, says this critic. Although the portrayal of Jimmy is completely faithful to contemporary social reality, the play ultimately fails as a drama; and because it fails as a drama, it fails to say anything significant about society or about human psychology. The content of the play being reduced to Jimmy's views, we cannot find anything profound in the play because his views are too indiscriminate to be taken seriously in themselves.
The Shallowness of Many of Jimmy's Speeches
Now, it is not possible for us to agree wholly with this critic's conclusion as regards this play. There is no doubt that Jimmy expresses his views indiscriminately, disconnectedly, and at random. Many of his utterances, while showing the strong emotion of anger or indignation, are rather superficial and shallow. There is nothing deep or profound in many of Jimmy's speeches that have rightly been called "tirades" by critic after critic. What does he say about religion, for instance? He ridicules the Bishop of Bromley for supporting the rich against the poor and for apparently supporting the hydrogen bomb. Obviously it is some fake bishop that Jimmy is talking about. There are hundreds of bishops who do not support the rich against the poor and who have vehemently opposed all nuclear weapons. Again, what does Jimmy have to say about the press ? He criticizes the two "posh" papers (one of them evidently Conservative, and the second evidently Liberal) for their stupid reporting and their silly views. These newspapers, he complains, make the reader feel ignorant. But Jimmy is certainly not right in his sweeping condemnation of newspapers which, on the whole, do serve, at least, in a democratic country like England, as custodians of public interest. Then there are Jimmy's comments on women whom he denounces for being too noisy ("like the launching of a battle-ship") and for trying to bleed men to death. These comments on women certainly amuse us by their witty sarcasms, but otherwise nothing could be sillier than what Jimmy says about women. As for noise, Jimmy himself is a noisy talker who does not let either his wife or his friend have any peace, and as for the other remarks, it is a moot point whether women butcher men or vice versa. Jimmy's defence of his trumpet is equally silly. In his opinion those who do not appreciate jazz have no feeling either for music or for people. Jimmy's rhetorical speech expressing his weariness with the orthodox kind of sexual pleasure and his hinting at a possible switch-over to homosexuality is another silly speech even though homosexuality was acquiring more votaries and was ultimately legalized in London. Even Jimmy's attacks on the middle class proceed not from any humanitarian concern for the working class but from a feeling of personal grievance against his wife's parents for having opposed his marriage to Alison. These attacks on Alison's mummy, daddy, and brother Nigel are prompted by personal pique and show a childish petulance. His rhetorical speech about Alison's mummy is a masterpiece of sarcasm and satire. (According to him, she is "as rough as a night in a Bombay brothel and as tough as a matelot's ann" and when she dies the worms in her grave will suffer from indigestion after eating her flesh). But there is hardly any intellectual contents in this attack. Towards the end of the play, Jimmy complains that there are no good, brave causes left in the world. This too is a meaningless lament. The world has never been without brave causes. The world has always, in every age and in every period of history, stood in need of social, political and religious reformers. Even in Jimmy's own days (during the post-war period) there was need for an organized opposition to the development of nuclear weapons; there was need for an organized opposition to the kind of ruthlessness that Communist Russia was employing in its suppression of liberty; there was need for a movement for the liberation of African countries from foreign subjection, and so on. In short, there is nothing profound in most of these speeches by Jimmy.
The Psychological Significance of the
Transformation in Helena
Transformation in Helena
And yet we cannot declare that this play fails to say anything valuable or meaningful about society and about human psychology. We come across, in the course of this play, several valuable comments by different characters (not necessarily by Jimmy alone) which stimulate or exhilarate, or enlighten us. One of the most important such speeches comes from
in the last scene when Alison has returned from her parents' home. Helena's suppressed sense of right and wrong suddenly emerges to the surface when she sees Alison, looking sick, tired and hurt, and when Helena observes that Alison has lost her baby. Helena makes some statements in this scene which are elevating because of their truth and their sincerity. "I believe in good and evil” says Helena, adding: "What I have been doing is wrong and evil". She goes on to say that Alison's miscarriage is a divine judgment on them all. And then she says that one cannot be happy while doing a wrong or hurting somebody else. When Helena leaves after telling Jimmy that she loves him and will never love anyone else as she loves him, we really admire her for her self-sacrifice and her act of renunciation. "I can't take part—in all this suffering. I can't! she says. It is not only that Helena talks in a lofty moral tone; her conduct also comes up to the level of her lofty sentiments. The awakening of Helena's conscience in this scene is a vital psychological fact revealing to us how the human mind works. Helena could probably have gone on staying sinfully with Jimmy, but Alison's visit has made all the difference and given an absolutely new turn to Helena's thinking. Helena
Cliff’s Character, a Significant Comment on
Cliff's character, in spite of Cliff's passivity and negligible role in the action of the play, is in itself a significant comment on human psychology. He possesses the virtue of solidarity which Jimmy did not find in either Alison or Helena (though Helena shows herself to be capable of rising to an even greater moral height than the virtue of solidarity). The way in which Cliff tries all the time to preserve peace in the Porter-household is worthy of our admiration. His attachment to both husband and the wife does him great credit. Jimmy recognizes the sterling quality of Cliff when he says that Cliff has got a big heart. Cliff is not the kind of man whom we can easily forget, whether or not he plays any vital part in the action of the play.
Colonel Redfern's Contribution to our
Even Colonel Redfern makes a certain contribution to the heightening of our knowledge of human psychology. He frankly tells his daughter that both he and his wife were wrong in having interfered with Jimmy's marrying Alison. He also tells her that there was much right on Jimmy's side. He gently points out to her that she has a tendency to sit on the fence, like himself. He also says that he cannot understand the motive of revenge as a reason for anybody's marriage, and that he always thought that people married because they were in love. Finally, he tells his daughter that in leaving Jimmy she is taking a big step (which she ought to reconsider). All this may be common sense, but it is this kind of common sense which most of us stand in need of, which can make things easier for most of us, and which can even solve some of our problems. The retired military commander does know a thing or two about human psychology and about sociology.
Jimmy's Profound Comment on Suffering
One of the profoundest comments comes from Jimmy himself when he points out to Alison that she must suffer, that she must, for instance, have a child which should die. Suffering is, indeed, essential to bring about maturity in a human being and to give him the proper perspective about life and its problems. When Jimmy gives an account of how he had watched his father dying, he is illustrating the effect of suffering on the mind of even a young boy. That early experience had taught him more of love, betrayal, and death than Helena, as he says, would ever learn in all her life.
The Reconciliation at the End, another
Significant Comment on Human Psychology
Significant Comment on Human Psychology
The chastening effect of suffering finds its concrete illustration in the way the play ends. Alison has had a miscarriage; and she has therefore suffered terribly. Jimmy, who has always been a victim partly of himself but largely of society, has now been forsaken by Helena and finds himself alone "like the old bear, following his own breath in the dark forest". Both now need companionship, and both have been tamed by suffering. That is the reason for the reconciliation, which is not arbitrary on the part of the author but which is perfectly logical and convincing. In fact, the very ending of the play is a significant comment on human psychology, and therefore contributes to our mental enlightenment. The manner in which Alison's marriage had broken down showed how disparity between the social status of the husband and that of the wife could ruin a marriage, and how the disparity between their temperaments could expedite the collapse of the marriage. But the reconciliation shows how suffering can humble human beings and how every human being craves and yearns for companionship and comradeship in this vast universe where a sentimental attachment between two human beings is an indispensable source of comfort and consolation to both.
A Wholesome Reminder to Us
According to a critic, Look Back in Anger is a play which increases our understanding both to the morally tormented and of their torments, and which does even more than that. It is a reminder of what rebel moralists are apt to be like, and of the strange mingling of sensitivity and cruelty, insight and wilfulness, idealism and cynicism which is not reserved for Jimmy or for his times alone. In the kind of the world in which we live, it is no bad thing to have a reminder like this.
Wider Psychological and Sociological Implications
According to the same critic, the play has some wider psychological and sociological implications also. Although the hydrogen bomb is mentioned in the play only twice, we feel throughout its pervasive effect upon the moral imagination of a generation: the limits which it sets, both to personal heroism and to the future as incentives to hope and action. Remembering the type of participation in Spain which seemed possible to intellectuals of Jimmy's type in 1937, and the inevitable paralysis imposed on their counterparts at the time of Hungary twenty years later, we can feel that this play is as aware of the psychological impact of the hydrogen bomb era, upon men like Jimmy as anything else in twentieth century English literature. Then there is the place of "the Establishment" in the play. Protests against insensitivity and hypocrisy in Church and State have been more or less constant features of western civilisation. Jimmy's complaints in this connection therefore become relevant and valuable, especially because the tone here is different and distinctive. The tone of his complaints belongs to a generation which came after the Second World War. In this connection, we might also refer to the opinion of another critic who informs us that this play has been regarded as a harbinger of the New Left, of anti-apartheid, and of the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Jimmy's remarks early in the play that "nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm," has also its psychological and sociological significance.