Realism has become one of the most powerful theatrical genres for drawing attention to the problems in ordinary life. 19th Century realism in Theatre is thought by many to have been introduced by Henrik Ibsen in the early 1870s. Realistic Ibsen works such as “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler” capture the grim truth about the lives of the 19th century middle class. Ibsen’s approach to portraying normal life in Theatre has since been a great influence for writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller, and Eugene O’Neil, establishing realism as an important theatrical genre. British Playwright John Osborne is successfully able to demonstrate the effectiveness of realism in his 1956 play “Look Back In Anger” by using the genre to tell a story that is relatable to audiences, shows a truthful representation of its generation, and serves as a great form of self expression.
Following the end of WWII, the United Kingdom faced great economic hardships. The British government had spent 25% of it’s national wealth paying for a costly war. With finances and military resources exhausted, 55% of Britain’s labor force was working in military production, and served as a band-aid for a bullet hole in the rebuilding of Britain’s once powerful military structure. The post-war working class of Britain were disenfranchised and disillusioned people and experienced the full effects of the devastating economic situation of the nation. When John Osborne published “Look Back In Anger” in 1956, the realistic nature of the play was very different from the type of theater considered to be the norm in Britain. Up until that point, Theatre remained very high brow and better represented the lifestyles of higher class Britain and the Monarchy. This new “kitchen sink realism” that Osborne presented, focused on the government treatment and living conditions of a silenced lower class. “Look Back In Anger” told the story of Jimmy Porter, a disaffected young man brought forth from the working class and his unfaithful, and more upper class wife Alison. The frankness of the storytelling and natural design presented with the play created a sense of relate ability to theatre that the lower classes of Britain had not formerly experienced. Osborne gave relevance to the unfamiliar genre of realism with “Look Back In Anger” by creating a story and style that was truly relatable to the society in which it represented. The honest portrayal of lower class characters by Osborne gave voice to a generation in desperate need of representation. Osborne’s ability to connect with is audience testifies of the important impact the genre of realism is possible of having.
In using the genre of realism, Osborne is able to realistically portray specific problems of a certain time and place. In “Look Back In Anger”, the character Jimmy embodies the disaffected nature of those in “angry young men” generation. Jimmy is a character that can truly relate to the problems of the working class, and because of that, allows this piece of theatre to stand as a historical reference as to what it may have been like living at that time. In previous generations, the United Kingdom was more accustomed to escapist theatre, which created a world that distracted from the truths of reality. Osborne does not attempt to shy away from these truths in his work, instead highlighting the problems facing his society. At the release of “Look Back in Anger,” many critics recognized the great potential of the production. One of the great drama critics of the time, Harold Hobson, recognized the potential of Osborne’s realistic representation calling it “a landmark in British theatre.” The accuracy captured in realistic theatrical productions is one of the best was to entertain and educate audiences. Osborne effectively demonstrates the power of realism by creating a piece of Theatre that stands as a literary retelling of history.
Because realism is a genre that shows life exactly as is, it becomes a sort of unique outlet for storytelling. John Osborne gives further credibility to the genre in the way that “Look Back In Anger” serves as an autobiographical piece. Osborne tells stories from his own life through the characters and circumstances of the play. Touching on the topic of dealing with the death of a loved one, the playwright conveys his own personal feelings at dealing with the loss of his father. Another topic of Osborne’s play is portrayal of the strained relationship between Jimmy and his wife Alison. The two are from different class standing, living a cramped apartment, and dealing with infidelity amongst a strained marriage. The relationship between the two is very alike Osborne’s relationship with his wife, actress Pamela Lane. Lane came from a middle upper class standing while Osborne, as a struggling writer, was working class. During the marriage Osborne dealt with the infidelity of his wife as she had an affair with a local dentist. By creating similar life experiences between himself and his characters, Osborne uses realism as a way of telling setting his own personal story in a place that his audience will understand. As well as being historically accurate, the play also serves as a personal snapshot into John Osborne’s earlier life.
“Look Back In Anger” serves as a powerful statement piece for the left-wing working class of post-war Britain in the 1950’s. The norm-rejecting attitude present in the production defines the generation for which it was written. The play has continued to stand the test of time and is widely considered to be one of the most important pieces of theatre from the “angry young men” movement. John Osborne gives relevance to the genre of realism by relating to audiences, portraying history accurately, and using it as a tool for personal self-expression.
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