Look Back in Anger is a realist play written by James John Osborne in 1956. The focus is on marital life and its struggles. It was a period where America was finding its freedom in marital life; the time when couples were not really bound by the oath taken in marriage. Women and men were educated and women were slowly getting financial independence and they did not really depend on men. The church was slowly losing control over marriages. The author himself went through a bad marriage with Pamela Lane and some of this is reflected in the play Look Back in Anger.
About the Playwright
John James Osborne was born on 12th December, 1929, in Fulham, London. He was an English playwright and later became an actor too. He minced no words to criticise the established political and social norms. His play Look Back in Anger became very successful and it changed English theatre. He wrote for more than 40 years and he explored many genres and themes. He wrote for the stage, films and television. He went through many marriages and his life was very extravagant. There was violence in his language. He was equally vocal about political causes and his own personal life. He did not shy away from promoting bad behaviour on stage and helping the audience to see the cleansing wisdom in it. He has written more than 40 plays. Around five of his plays were adapted for films.
Jimmy and Cliff are friends for years and are in business together. There are always angry exchanges of words, mostly taunting in tone, especially by Jimmy. But these exchanges never result in anything more than short scuffles. Irrespective of these the two are good friends. Jimmy is married to Alison who is wealthier than him but he taunts her too but loves her as well. The scene opens one Sunday morning where Jimmy is hitting out at Alison. Cliff always comes to the support of Alison. When Jimmy is out of the room Alison confides to Cliff that she is pregnant but is scared to tell him. Cliff says that she must tell and as goes out for short while tells her to tell Jimmy the news. But she could not do it again due to misunderstandings and tiffs. Later in the day they get a call from Helena who wants to stay with Alison. Helena arrives and sees the situation at home. Helena talks about Alison and Jimmy and questions Alison about her relationship with Cliff. She says she is fond of Cliff but only as a friend. Helena then puts the seed of separation into Alison’s mind and with the father to support she leaves. After Alison leaves Jimmy gets to know that she was pregnant but is not really moved. Jimmy takes Helena as his mistress. In the last scene we see the first scene again with Helena in place of Alison. Alison walks in after a while very distraught. She is unhappy not because Helena had taken her place but that she lost the child. Helena’s conscience starts to work, she apologises for what happened and then leaves Jimmy and Alison is back with Jimmy.
There are only five characters in the play Look back in Anger. There are certain similarities in the characters and yet there is some difference. None of them are completely good or bad; all have shades of grey.
Jimmy Porter was a twenty five years old who lived in Britain, in the industrial midlands. He is educated, well read and works in a factory and also tends a sweet shop. He is never tired of criticising the British society which denied him many opportunities because he belonged to the working class. He was an honest person and was proud of it. He was very cruel in his verbal attacks on his wife Alison and friend Cliff. He is ego centric and is oblivious to his own faults. He criticises his wife but has no worry about his affair with his wife’s friend Helena. He cannot empathize with his wife when she grieves over the loss of her baby. He accepts Alison only after realising that she had suffered enough like him.
Alison is Jimmy’s wife and belonged to the upper middle class. After three years of marriage she is miserable and knows why Jimmy resents her. Alison knew retaliating Jimmy’s abuses would do no good, therefore she remained silent. Although she loved Jimmy, she wanted some peace in life and when her friend suggested she leave Jimmy, she did it. She leaves him without even telling him that she was pregnant. After losing her baby she returns to him and apologises. By now she too had suffered and she feels she can be a wife Jimmy wanted her to be.
Cliff Lewis is a friend of Jimmy and belonged to the working class like Jimmy. Cliff is a gentle person and does not have the fire or wit of Jimmy. Cliff is fond of Alison and appreciates her housekeeping efforts. It is Cliff who bandages the burns on Alison’s hands and not Jimmy. Cliff is the only character in the play who understands the feelings of other and he is the first to see Helena’s intention behind breaking Alison’s marriage. He dislikes Helena and moves out when she moves in.
Helena Charles is an elegant and beautiful actress who comes to stay with Alison. She is attracted to Jimmy. She also notices that all is not well between Jimmy and Alison and makes use of the opportunity to drive a wedge between them. When Alison leaves she takes her place and when Alison comes back leaves in a dignified manner. By then she realises the affair with Jimmy was not working and leaves the household apologising for her mistake.
Colonel Redfern is Alison’s father. He is a good-looking man in his sixties who has returned to England after spending many years in the army in India. He was indifferent to Alison’s marriage to Jimmy while his wife was trying to break it. He regrets his indifference when he comes to pick up Alison. Yet he admits his liking for Jimmy. His characterization in the play is a contract to all others in the play; he represents the fast fading old order.
The play is about characters in the 1950s. John Osborne has reflected his personal experiences in this play. The class conflict of the times is one of the ideas that stand out; Jimmy is criticising the British for denying his chances just because he belonged to the working class. There are three acts in the play. The second and the third act have two scenes. Yet the setting is the house of Jimmy which is that of a middle class young man. Chairs and the ironing table are the areas where the action happens. This is a play where the setting hardly changes.
One of the themes is the “angry man” mostly brought through Jimmy Porter. Jimmy is disgruntled at the system and his own life. He had suffered a lot and felt that his wife who was from the upper middle class did not understand his suffering. So he showed his anger on his wife and through her about the society. Kitchen Sink drama denotes a play which is realistic when handling domestic and social issues. Look Back in Anger is a Kitchen Sink drama as it captures the lifestyle of young educated working class people. The rise and fall of the British Empire and slothfulness in the British culture is a theme in this play. With the entry of Colonel Redfern we get a comparison of the two generations. Redfern had just returned from India and that was the indication that British had to end her strategy of colonisation. The relationship between Alison and Cliff is very slothful. Both are attracted to each other physically and emotionally but do not want to make it more passionate. If they were guilty of doing something wrong they would not have demonstrated it in front of Jimmy. Jimmy even tells them “Why don't you both get into bed, and have done with it.” Young male anger is glorified in this play. Some other themes are alienation and loss of childhood. Both Jimmy and Alison have had bad childhood but for different reasons. With World War II just over, there were many children who were orphaned and had a bad childhood.
Pipe is used in all three acts to show the domination of Jimmy in the scenes. Cliff does not like the smell but Jimmy goes on to smoke. “Jimmy grabs the matches and lights his pipe. Cliff complains of the smell, but Alison says she’s gotten used to it.” Newspaper is almost another character in the play. Newspaper symbolizes the pride Jimmy takes in being educated. “Jimmy complains that the Sunday papers are boring, and also that they make him “feel ignorant.” Though Alison was from the upper middle class he taunts her that she does not understand anything. Bear and squirrels are brought into the conversation to show the affection between Jimmy and Alison when they are in a mood to show their affection. Church bells ring and Jimmy finds it exasperating. “The church bells begin to ring outside. Jimmy yells out the window at them to stop.” Church bells symbolises the middle class morality which was fast becoming a thing of past.