Sunday, September 20, 2009

Play #7: Look Back in Anger

"I believe we started out with hope, and hope deferred makes the heart sick, and many hearts are sick at what they see in England now." JOHN OSBORNE, 1959

These next few posts are going to concern 3 plays that changed the English speaking theatre world and all premiered within 18 months of each other...First was Peter Hall's English language premiere production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in 1955. The second was the world premiere of Look Back in Anger by the new English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in May 1956 and the third was the Berliner Ensemble's first visit to London with Mother Courage in August 1956, two weeks following the death of Brecht. Those are the next three plays we are going to look at on this journey and we will begin with John Osborne.

It is hard now to understand the impact Look Back in Anger must have had when it was first produced. George Devine at the Royal Court apparently didn't care too much for it and was talked in to producing it by Tony Richardson, the original director of the production.

In creating the character of Jimmy Porter, Osborne forever altered the world of English theatre and began to shatter the dominance of the Binkie Beaumont-dominated theatre world of Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan and others. Simply put, Jimmy Porter is a son-of-a-bitch...he has beyond firm ideas about what he believes in and at one point, he actually says, "You are either with me or against me." (Sounds familiar, no?)

Being an American, reading Look Back in Anger is to truly read a foreign play. 1950's England was still recovering from the decimation of World War II. The country was struggling to redefine itself in the new world and its rigid class system was coming to grips with the changing times. Conservative factions wanted to return to empire, liberal factions were crafting what would become the cradle-to-grave welfare was a country at war with itself and Jimmy Porter breaks through conventions to take on EVERYBODY.

This is from Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright's fantastic book, Changing Stages:
"Look Back in Anger is set at the epicenter of 50's inertia -- an early Sunday evening in a small rented room in a dull Midlands town, with the air thick with boredom it sexual frustration? The protagonist, Jimmy Porter, runs a sweet-stall in the market and is engaged in an attritional war with his wife Alison, trying to goad her into life: 'If only something--something would happen to you, and wake you out of your beauty sleep! If you could have a child and it would die.' (She does get pregnant and she does lose the child.)
He is cruel, violent and iconoclastic (he is also a thinly veiled portrait of Osborne himself, check out John Heilpern's book John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man for a definitive Osborne biography), and he hacks away at his pet aversions with a wild and always beautifully orchestrated rhetoric: the upper classes, the middle classes, the Sunday papers, his wife, his friend Cliff, women, Americans, apathy and absence of feeling. Not exactly misogynistic -- he gives far too much credit to the power of women for that -- but demanding a commitment from them that is absolute."

English class structure is interesting...Alison is solidly middle class, her father is a retired Indian army colonel, and Jimmy is solidly working class...he clearly married above his station, Alison's parents disapproved of the marriage, and he has been taking their disapproval out on Alison ever since. He seems to do everything he possibly can to drag her down to his class level...she becomes pregnant and leaves and Jimmy takes up with her friend Helena, which doesn't work out any better than he relationship with Alison does. Alison eventually loses the baby but returns to Jimmy, Helena and Jimmy's friend and roommate Cliff (with screaming homosexual subtext) leaves, leaving Alison and Jimmy alone in a final scene that is sort of an anti-Doll's House.

What makes this play extraordinary? Simply put, it was a new voice on the British stage...the anger, frustration, bewilderment of Jimmy Porter (and by extension Osborne) was something new. Peter Hall, the original director of Waiting for Godot, thinks Beckett deserves more credit for changing the landscape because he changed form. Look Back in Anger is a conventionally structured 3-act play, like the kind Osborne played in as an actor in regional reps early in his career. But the voice was unmistakable. Tony Richardson, his director, says of Osborne, "He is unique and alone in his ability to put on the stage the quick of himself, his pain, his squalor, his nobility -- terrifyingly alone." This voice appeared at a time when the British theatre was "hermetically sealed off from life" as Arthur Miller had famously remarked. Already in the United States, plays like Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real and The Rose Tattoo had premiered. The combination of Binkie Beaumont and the Lord Chamberlain made sure nothing of like measure was being produced by British dramatists at the same period. Osborne changed all of that...he made possible Wesker, Bond, Arden and others and he helped to establish the Royal Court Theatre has the most important theatre for new plays in the world.

I actually hadn't read this one till last week and I am a fan, though I don't know how a production would play today. I would suspect that in the United States, it would be seen with a kind of intellectual bewilderment, but how about in England? Jimmy Porter is a virtuoso role for a young actor and the writing sizzles...I also think I am a fan because I would want to make Kenneth Tynan happy. Tynan, perhaps the greatest theatre critic ever, famously remarked in his review of Look Back, "I doubt if I could love anyone who didn't love Look Back in Anger."

Look Back in Anger is a critically important play because it provided a snapshot of a time and place and captured it perfectly through the eyes of its creator. It is also a major accomplishment because of what it prologued. Look Back in Anger helped usher in a golden age of British theatre, even if the entire "Angry Young Men" label was largely media driven, it still helped capture the mood of its time and provide inspiration for a number of young artists who previously may have never thought about writing plays as a means of their expression. It is a singular achievement and Osborne is certainly a singular individual.

Up next, Waiting for Godot...

Rick St. Peter
September 20, 2009

Quick Post Script: Can the American theatre in 2009 (0r ever) produce a Look Back in Anger? If every the great American play was going to be written, it seems now that our hopelessly polarized times could produce a galvanizing play. Of course, the theatre in America doesn't have the same place as theatre in England does, and in 2009, even theatre in England is diminished by all of the competition. I am not sure if it is possible for the American theatre to produce a work like Look Back and even if it did, the country is so distracted by the stupidity of our mass media and conglomerate entertainment, would anybody even hear it? Unfortunately I don't think so...


  1. Rick, If you want to see how this plays. I have two versions of it. One the film with Richard Burton nasally honking his way through it. And a production done in the eighties, I believe, with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, directed by Judi Dench.

  2. the bloom off the rose? No one wants to discuss Angry Young Men? Let me just say John Heilpern's Osborne Bio pictured above is one of the most compulsive theatre bio reads I've devoured in the last couple of years. Osborne is brilliant, but like so many blazing lights of the theatre also had a genius for self-destruction.