“Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Novels and plays by new, mostly working-class writers—termed by journalists the “Angry Young Men”—expressed widespread alienation and social discontent in mid-1950’s Great Britain.

Summary of Event

Although the “Angry Young Men” who emerged during the mid-1950’s and early 1960’s are often referred to as a “movement,” these novelists and playwrights were never part of a coordinated literary group. Although their political orientation was generally left of center and certainly opposed to the status quo, they adhered to no specific doctrine or ideology. The term, which appears to have been inspired by the title of the novel Angry Young Man Angry Young Man (Paul) (1951) by the Irish writer Leslie Paul Paul, Leslie , became a journalistic catchphrase used to describe a number of writers, many of whom were of working-class origin and were from the English provinces rather than London, the traditional center of English literary culture. The fact that their iconoclastic attitudes, stylistic vigor, raucous humor, and working-class characters and settings were similar has often caused these authors’ individuality and distinct differences to be overlooked. "Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] Theater;"Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] Literary movements;"Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] [kw]"Angry Young Men" Express Working-Class Views (1950’s)[Angry Young Men Express Working Class Views] [kw]Working-Class Views, “Angry Young Men” Express (1950’s)[Working Class Views, Angry Young Men Express] "Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] Theater;"Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] Literary movements;"Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] [g]Europe;1950’s: “Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views[03060] [g]United Kingdom;1950’s: “Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views[03060] [c]Literature;1950’s: “Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views[03060] [c]Theater;1950’s: “Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views[03060] Amis, Kingsley Arden, John Braine, John Osborne, John Pinter, Harold Sillitoe, Alan Storey, David Wain, John Waterhouse, Keith

Many novels from the period feature protagonists who, like their creators, were young, irreverent, brash, and profane; they celebrate individuality, berate conformity, defy conventional behavior, and delight in subverting traditional institutions. Some, including the narrators of Brendan Behan’s Behan, Brendan autobiographical Borstal Boy (1958) and Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), are teenaged inmates of a borstal (reform school); others, like the protagonist of Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Sillitoe) (1958), feel hardly less confined in the factories where they are employed.

Similarly, the narrator of David Storey’s This Sporting Life This Sporting Life (Storey) (1960) finds that life as a member of a professional sports team turns play into work; in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim Lucky Jim (Amis) (1954), the title character comically subverts the conventions of university life. With brash disregard for stolid middle-class morality, including (especially) its sexual constraints, these protagonists were also unabashedly sexual and often far from monogamous. The title character of Bill Naughton’s Naughton, Bill Alfie Alfie (Naughton) (1966) shamelessly seduces numerous girlfriends, married and unmarried alike, while making commitments to none; Arthur Seaton of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning enjoys illicit sex not only with a coworker’s wife but also, separately, with her sister. The novels in which they appear are often episodically structured and follow various adventures of their antiheroic protagonists, modern-day counterparts of the picaresque heroes of earlier literature.

Although their attitudes toward women now seem callously chauvinistic and were often exploitative, these characters’ vitality, physicality, and defiance of conventional norms made them the male “sex symbols” of their day—a reputation that was enhanced when commercially successful, critically acclaimed films were based on the novels, including Lucky Jim (1957), Room at the Top (1958), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962), and This Sporting Life (1963).

In the theater, simultaneously, a number of “angry young playwrights” were establishing themselves in what admirers later termed English drama’s “Second Elizabethan Age.” Two theater companies were at the forefront of theatrical innovation: the English Stage Company English Stage Company , founded by George Devine Devine, George at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, and Joan Littlewood’s Littlewood, Joan Theatre Workshop Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London. The 1956 premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Look Back in Anger (Osborne) the English Stage Company’s initial production, inaugurated a new age in contemporary theater and startled theatergoers as alienated young Jimmy Porter, the play’s protagonist, harangued both the other characters in the play and the audience itself.

In contrast to the standard commercial star vehicles that predominated in London’s West End theater district, the English Stage Company was, from the outset, self-proclaimedly a writer’s theater. Though constantly financially imperiled, it offered the first productions of many of the then-controversial playwrights who were to become recognized as the most important dramatists of postwar Britain, including Harold Pinter, John Arden, Arnold Wesker, David Storey, and Edward Bond. Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, influenced by the theories of German playwright Bertolt Brecht, emphasized collaborative repertory theater and lengthy rehearsal periods; the workshop also established directors as creative cocreators with the playwrights, the most prominent of whom was Brendan Behan.

Because these playwrights were controversial, their defenders performed a particularly important function. Among the foremost of the group’s defenders were Kenneth Tynan Tynan, Kenneth of The Observer and the writers for Encore Encore (periodical) magazine, the self-proclaimed “voice of vital theatre” that was the most ardent and exhortative (sometimes literally the only) defender of the theater’s most daring and innovative new forms. Disdaining “moribund” West End commercialism, the new playwrights sought a new audience that would, in Lindsay Anderson’s words, come to the theater “not with the passive expectation of ’entertainment,’ nor just with mouths wide open for another slab of minority culture, but themselves prepared to give something, to work, with minds open and alert, themselves creative.”

Significance

The foremost achievement of the “Angry Young Men” is the uncondescending incorporation of authentic working-class voices, characters, and issues into the English literary tradition, from which they had been conspicuously absent. These writers’ virile, defiant, iconoclastic protagonists (often described as muscular or physically big) stand in marked contrast to long-familiar caricatures of the working class in English literature—the clownish artisans in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-1596), the drunken porter in Macbeth (1606), the genially shiftless Alfred Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), the ever-indolent comic-strip character Andy Capp, and countless one-dimensional, more or less competent servants who, if they perform their jobs well, go virtually unnoticed by or subordinate themselves to their social “betters” (even when such betters are as fatuous as Bertie Wooster and his friends in P. G. Wodehouse’s numerous stories of the perfect butler, Jeeves).

The few major protagonists in pre-1950 fiction who are of working-class origins—Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861) and Paul Morel in D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), for example—typically, if wrongly, regard their class background as something to be escaped and perceive themselves as both apart from and better than “common” people. The post-1950 writers are more divided on such issues; Sillitoe’s characters express no desire whatsoever to leave the working class, while Braine’s Joe Lampton is successful in marrying his way out of it but ultimately becomes disillusioned. Many of Storey’s characters rise into the professional classes through education but find themselves in a social limbo, at home neither in their new class nor in their old one.

Notwithstanding such diversity, the “Angry Young Men” also gave voice to a widespread alienation and discontentment in Great Britain, particularly among the working-class young who came of age during the decade of postwar shortages, reduced expectations, and painful readjustment following the dismantling of the empire. Significantly, most of the protagonists of these plays and novels are or recently were adolescents; as such, like the characters portrayed by the American actor James Dean, they are “rebels without a cause,” railing against the status quo but doing little or nothing to effect meaningful change, remaining ultimately unempowered. Accordingly, they enjoy engaging in secret subversions of middle-class propriety, acts of defiance with a value more symbolic than real.

For almost all of these characters, the ultimate authoritarian enemy is the modern urban social institution, whether a prison, factory, sports team, or school, which embodies and enforces life-stifling constraint, conformity, and regimentation. Against the threat of such dehumanization, the body and its pleasures provide the principal refuge—a respite from workaday monotony and the dreariness of life in a class-ridden world. Accordingly, the much-vaunted “anger” manifested itself more in talk, rowdiness, and violation of sexual strictures than in meaningful action toward social reform. Characters such as Sillitoe’s Arthur Seaton may occasionally fantasize about blowing up the factory but will never take such radical action, primarily because they are having too much fun otherwise.

The novelists’ straightforwardly realist Realism;literature prose style stood in clear contrast to the oblique, self-consciously literary experimentation of such writers from the previous generation as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad. The playwrights, on the other hand, tended to be more innovative and challenging, Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] willing to risk seeming inaccessible in order to experiment with untraditional forms. While the number of plays set in dingy working-class flats earned the genre the nickname “kitchen-sink realism” (a description applied to Look Back in Anger and Pinter’s 1957 The Room and 1960 The Caretaker), others, like John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance (1959) and Behan’s The Hostage (1958), were influenced by the antirealist theories of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose overtly didactic plays blended history, comedy, and song. Pinter’s “comedies of menace” puzzled audiences by combining naturalistic events, ominous silences, unexplained motivation, and the philosophical premises of the Theater of the Absurd. David Storey’s “poetic naturalism” in The Contractor (1970) and The Changing Room (1972) presented ostensibly plotless plays with a Chekhovian mastery of subtext.

Although the then-shocking anger of the “Angry Young Men” now seems pale in comparison to the rage of more militant writers and literal revolutionaries in the later 1960’s, the literary contribution made by these groundbreaking novelists and playwrights is of permanent value. They vigorously expressed attitudes that had been excluded from serious literature and expanded literature’s subject matter by including the experience of working-class people whose culture had been marginalized and whose voices had been long suppressed. The autobiographical writings of Alan Sillitoe in Raw Material (1972) and John Wain in Sprightly Running (1962) are particularly noteworthy personal explorations of a now-lost way of life among earlier generations of the working class. "Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] Theater;"Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] Literary movements;"Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carpenter, Humphrey. The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950’s. London: Allen Lane, 2002. Group biography of the “Angry Young Men” by one of England’s foremost mainstream literary biographers. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doty, Gresdna A., and Billy J. Harbin, eds. Inside the Royal Court Theatre, 1956-1981: Artists Talk. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. Based on the proceedings of a conference celebrating twenty-five years of the English Stage Company, this book transcribes discussions among its artistic directors, playwrights, directors, managers, designers, and critics. The remarkably distinguished list of participants includes all but one of the living past and present artistic directors of the company. Photographs, index, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Findlater, Richard, ed. At the Royal Court: Twenty-five Years of the English Stage Company. New York: Grove Press, 1981. This collection of reminiscences about the history of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre contains not only memoirs by many of the major playwrights and directors who worked there but also numerous photographs, charts of production details, financial tables, and cast lists for every play produced there between 1956 and 1980. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Nigel. The Silent Majority: A Study of the Working Class in Post-War British Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973. Focuses on adolescence and manhood in Barry Hines’s Kes (1976), Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959), Behan’s Borstal Boy, Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Storey’s This Sporting Life, and Naughton’s Alfie. Useful, although the assessment of Sillitoe seems unduly harsh. Frequent lengthy quotations from the novels are included; index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lichtenstein, Claude, and Thomas Schregenberger, eds. As Found: The Discovery of the Ordinary. Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2001. Examination of English art and architecture in the 1950’s, including the influence of the “Angry Young Men” on these arts and the development of an “Angry Young Men” artistic movement in parallel with the literary and dramatic movement. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Machsler, Tom, ed. Declaration. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957. This collection of essays by many of the foremost young writers of the mid-1950’s, including many of the “Angry Young Men,” embodies their diverse aesthetic and political principles. Contributors to the volume are Lindsay Anderson, Stuart Holroyd, Bill Hopkins, Doris Lessing, John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan, John Wain, and Colin Wilson. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marowitz, Charles, Tom Milne, and Owen Hale. Theatre Voices of the Fifties and Sixties: Selections from Encore Magazine, 1956-1963. Introduction by Michael Billington. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981. As London’s self-proclaimed “voice of vital theatre,” Encore magazine was consistently the foremost—and sometimes virtually the sole—advocate for and defender of such new dramatists as Pinter, Osborne, Arden, and others. This collection offers a representative, if regrettably brief, selection of witty, iconoclastic, aggressively opinionated, and occasionally vituperative reviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rabinovitz, Rubin. The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950-1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. Following a chapter-length survey of novelists of the 1950’s, Rabinovitz examines in detail the works of Kingsley Amis, Angus Wilson, and C. P. Snow. Useful comprehensive bibliography on the individual authors plus a more general list of secondary sources. Notes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Peter, ed. 1953-1968. Vol. 1 in The Best of “Plays and Players.” London: Methuen, 1988. The monthly issues of Plays and Players magazine offer the most comprehensive (and best-illustrated) coverage of English theater’s “second Elizabethan age.” More eclectic and less partisan than Encore, which it subsumed in 1965, its often insightful reviews, interviews, and feature articles provide candid insights. Roberts’s selections are representative and judiciously chosen. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, John Russell. Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama. Rev. ed. London: Eyre Methuen, 1969. This is the most comprehensive single-volume overview of the dramatists of the 1950’s, offering succinct assessments of major and minor writers; such breadth, though, necessarily precludes much in-depth analysis. Photographs; index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Second Wave: British Drama of the Sixties. Rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1978. This sequel to Anger and After profiles the so-called second generation of “angry” playwrights, including Edward Bond, Joe Orton, David Storey, Howard Brenton, and David Hare.

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