Osborne’s Opens in London

John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger and its protagonist, Jimmy Porter, came to define the “Angry Young Man” movement in British theater and to stand as archetypes of a generation of working-class British culture.

Summary of Event

Emblematic of the bitter disillusionment of a whole post-World War II generation, Look Back in Anger is, more immediately, the story of Jimmy Porter, a highly intelligent graduate of an English “red-brick” (state-aided) university. In itself, Jimmy’s educational background is a major symbol of the class division prevalent in England; despite his intelligence, he finds that the best he can do is to operate a candy store in the dreary midlands of England. According to Jimmy, the school was not, in fact, even made of red brick but, rather, white tile—a further bitter reproach on the gradations of a class system. Look Back in Anger (Osborne)
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“Angry Young Men”[Angry Young Men]
[kw]Osborne’s Look Back in Anger Opens in London (May 8, 1956)[Osbornes Look Back in Anger Opens in London]
[kw]Look Back in Anger Opens in London, Osborne’s (May 8, 1956)
Look Back in Anger (Osborne)
Theater;”Angry Young Men”[Angry Young Men]
“Angry Young Men”[Angry Young Men]
[g]Europe;May 8, 1956: Osborne’s Look Back in Anger Opens in London[05190]
[g]United Kingdom;May 8, 1956: Osborne’s Look Back in Anger Opens in London[05190]
[c]Theater;May 8, 1956: Osborne’s Look Back in Anger Opens in London[05190]
Osborne, John
Richardson, Tony
Tynan, Kenneth
Haigh, Kenneth
Ure, Mary
Bates, Alan
Hughes, Helena
Welsh, John

His sociological discontent, however, is only part of a maze of psychological and philosophical contradictions that suggest William Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Molière’s Alceste. An idealist, he finds himself in a world without ideals. “I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer,” he complains. “We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave causes left.”

The setting of the play is reminiscent of earlier American plays, most notably Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl (1950). Jimmy’s apartment is cheaply furnished and is made even more squalid by the constant presence of Jimmy’s wife, Alison, who is constantly ironing Jimmy’s shirts. Jimmy’s world is made up of Alison, his friend Cliff (who lives with them), Alison’s friend Helena, who arrives for a short stay in the course of the play, and Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern—who, as a symbol of the hated class system, is the subject of some of Jimmy’s angry tirades.

The bleak monotony of things is especially pronounced on Sundays. Every Sunday, Jimmy reads the same papers, the liberal Sunday Times and the conservative Observer, which to him are the same. Even the current issues seem the same as last week’s. The sameness is at the heart of Jimmy’s horror; the difference between Jimmy and the other members of his household is his existential anguish. Jimmy’s reaction to the pain of hopelessness and monotony is verbal violence, a fury that only intensifies with his awareness of the passivity of the others. Having no other outlet for his complex and deep-seated frustrations, he vents his anger on those nearest him. He injures those whom he loves most, Alison and Cliff, as he himself feels injured by the utter inanity of his existence. Succeeding in what has seemed to some critics to be an exercise in sadomasochism, he hurts himself more than those at whom he rails.

When his savage mockery fails to evoke a response from Alison and Cliff, the verbal attacks turn physical. There is an exhilaration in Jimmy’s pain at being alive, something he accuses the others of trying to escape. The energy he invests in his anger takes on a life of its own, inhabiting every corner of his most intimate experiences.

After one of his attacks, Allison leaves to live with her upper-middle-class parents, without informing Jimmy of her pregnancy. Her actor-friend Helena, who has by now changed the ménage à trois into a foursome, easily slips into Alison’s role not only as ironer of Jimmy’s shirts but as his mistress as well. Even she, however, can finally take no more, and she leaves, as does Cliff. Eventually, Alison, having lost her baby, returns, realizing that though she cannot live with Jimmy easily, she cannot live without him at all. At the end, she and Jimmy are huddled together, exhausted, without the emotional (and sometimes physical) buffer zone provided by Cliff, Helena, or even a child who may have made a difference.

Although its explosive anger has given the play historical importance, its form is that of the prevailing realistic play, with roots in the conventions of Henrik Ibsen’s social-problem drama. Osborne’s malaise, like Ibsen’s, is deeply rooted in the personal and societal past of the main character, and it is the function of the present to exorcise the consequences of that past.

Jimmy’s complex frustrations begin with his own dysfunctional family, which is contrasted with Alison’s privileged upbringing. His anger has roots in his childhood and father, whose final illness and death have left Jimmy with feelings of guilt. He is the only person who cared for his father, a maimed veteran of the Spanish Civil War, which Jimmy refers to as the “last great cause” for which idealists volunteered to fight. Jimmy speaks of having listened for hours to his father “pouring out all that was left of his life to one, lonely, bewildered little boy, who could barely understand half of what he said.” As that young boy, Jimmy “learnt at an early age what it was to be angry—angry and helpless.”

In addition to its Ibsen-like use of the past, Look Back in Anger relies on a conventional psychological theme made famous by another nineteenth century dramatist, August Strindberg. Like Strindberg, Osborne depicts the resulting violence of strong love-hate relationships, first between Jimmy and Alison and then between Jimmy and Helena. Both women are attracted to his masculinity, despite their revulsion at the form it sometimes takes. Helena, even though she despises Jimmy for his treatment of Alison, eventually subjects herself to the very same treatment. The Strindbergian forces in the play are the same as those found in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, in particular Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Beneath the surface lives of the characters lie repressed injuries, vulnerabilities, and pain that erupt in verbal or physical violence when a breaking point is reached.

A third conventional feature of Look Back in Anger is its linear plot movement. Emotional tensions build and explode, causing a temporary break with Alison and permanent ones with Cliff and Helena, who leave for good—to say nothing of the loss of Jimmy and Alison’s child. The powerful concluding imagery of the play—Osborne’s use of a bear and squirrel huddling together in exhaustion and desolation—is a variation on the use of animal references in Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880).

As conventional as Osborne’s themes and style may have been, however, he shook the prevailing theatrical scene with the vitriolically articulate tirades of a lower-middle-class college graduate, heard for the first time on the English stage. The exhilarating freedom of such expression opened that stage to a variety of writers in two ensuing waves of drama (the first in the mid-1950’s and the second in the mid-1960’s). Those writers were, variously, graduates of the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge, graduates of red-brick or white-tile universities—or, indeed, graduates of no university at all.


When Look Back in Anger opened on May 8, 1956, at the Royal Court Theatre on London’s Sloane Square, history was made, and the label “angry theater” was born. Chief among the new critics, Kenneth Tynan gave the play its only unqualified approval at a time when most critics objected to Jimmy’s sadomasochistic laceration of himself and others. Conceding that the play would remain a minority taste, Tynan declared it to be the “best young play of its decade,” estimating its potential minority audience “at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of twenty and thirty.”

Although synonymous with Jimmy Porter, the term “angry young man” had already been coined as a description of many young artists of the 1950’s such as film director Lindsay Anderson and novelists John Braine, Kingsley Amis, and Alan Sillitoe. In fact, as early as 1951 an Irish writer, Leslie Paul, had published an autobiographical work entitled Angry Young Men. Osborne’s impact was to make “angry” a catchword for a variety of new social-protest plays by the early new dramatists—John Arden, Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney, Ann Jellicoe, Joan Littlewood—and, as well, for stylistic experiments by writers such as Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Look Back in Anger directly and publicly put into sharp focus an already pervasive antiestablishment mood.

Politically, England’s Suez debacle of the 1950’s fed the economic and psychological malaise dramatized so intimately by Osborne in 1956. The sense of England’s decline as an international power was an equivalent of the personal helplessness of Jimmy to effect any change in his own life. Osborne’s anger on the stage seems a premonition of the political and cultural explosions that rocked the 1960’s: the student riots in Paris, the Vietnam War protests, the political assassinations and burning of cities in the United States, and, finally, the repeal in 1968 of the hated English stage-censorship law, which had been in effect for centuries. Rebellious Jimmy Porter is the English version of the tormented youth immortalized by American actor James Dean; antiheroes in their cultures, both are rebels without a cause.

The problems facing Jimmy were not necessarily new, but such problems had theretofore been treated obliquely, disguised in the polite, middle-class language and prevailing conventions of drawing-room problem plays. A loosely knit movement that included T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry had made some attempts to reinvigorate the language of the theater with poetry, but neither these attempts nor anything in the prevailing drama had changed the sense of a twilight era in the English theater. It was the advent of Osborne’s play that provided the needed energy, successfully realizing what the talk of poetic changes by earlier dramatists failed to do. Now Arnold Wesker (of “kitchen-sink” drama fame), Harold Pinter (with his comedy of menace), and working-class dramatists from the provinces such as David Storey and Peter Terson were part of the impetus given the English stage.

The class system had in the past been satirized in the sophisticated comedies of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but never had it been attacked in the self-laceratingly intimate manner to which Osborne gave expression in his antihero. Jimmy’s venting of his anger on those he loves violated the famed English traditions of fair play and attention to duty, but his vulnerabilities and vitriol were real, touching a whole generation, educated and uneducated alike, with the force of emotional honesty, however brutal.

Described by George Devine Devine, George as the “bomb that would blow a hole in the old theatre and leave a nice-sized gap, too big to be patched up,” Look Back in Anger is the one event in twentieth century English drama with historical impact; it represented the public ushering-in of a new stage era. A catalyst was needed in a time ripe for change, a time when the Ibsen-influenced drama of Sean O’Casey and Shaw had run its course and the polite middle-class drawing-room plays of James Bridie, Noël Coward, W. Somerset Maugham, J. B. Priestley, and Terence Rattigan dominated theaters in the West End. The Royal Shakespeare Company was not yet established in its Barbican home, nor was the Royal National Theatre yet in its home on the south bank of the Thames.

The institutional catalyst arrived in the form of the English Stage Company, with its home in the historic Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square and its artistic director, George Devine. Devine achieved patron-saint status as promoter of new playwrights, and the Royal Court continued in its function as encourager of new writers and stage experiments. With Tony Richardson as director of the 1956 production of Look Back in Anger, the fortuitous ensemble of author, director, producer, and stage home fired the first shot heard in England’s stage revolution.

Look Back in Anger, however, is as much a broadly cultural event as a narrowly theatrical one; the societal conditions and the psychological and philosophical reactions to those conditions were a mid-century phenomenon. A child of its time though the play may seem, the same futility and the same anger, ironically, have continued to persist in the poor sections of the world and in the poorer sections of the richest countries. Look Back in Anger (Osborne)
Theater;”Angry Young Men”[Angry Young Men]
“Angry Young Men”[Angry Young Men]

Further Reading

  • Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. Rev. ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. A narrative of movements, writers, and events that gives context to Osborne’s plays. Includes an index.
  • Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961. Esslin’s famous book, about European theater movements complements Taylor’s The Angry Theatre (see below) in its review of absurdist forces similar to those in the angry theater. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Gilleman, Luc. John Osborne, Vituperative Artist: A Reading of His Life and Work. New York: Routledge, 2002. Biography and critical study of Osborne’s work, focusing particularly on his use of invective in character dialogue. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Hinchliffe, Arnold. John Osborne. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A useful chronological study of Osborne’s plays. Includes chronology, index, and annotated bibliography.
  • Northouse, Cameron, and Thomas P. Walsh. John Osborne: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1974. A valuable sources list for any study of Osborne.
  • Taylor, John Russell. The Angry Theatre: New British Drama. London: Methuen, 1962. An incisive commentary that remains the most reliable guide to the major writers and general trends of the new era of drama.
  • _______.“Look Back in Anger”: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1969. A minor encyclopedia, containing sections such as reviews of the first performance of Look Back in Anger, nondramatic writings of Osborne, points of view, and critical studies. Includes questions, select bibliography, and index.
  • Trussler, Simon. The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment. London: Gollancz, 1969. Analysis of Osborne plays up to 1968, with chronology, cast lists, and bibliography.

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