Looking Back on an Angry Young Man
The Angry Young Men movement of the 1950’s was generated by a group of young, British intellectuals born out of working and middle class families who had grown tired of the sociopolitical order of their country. They shared a public, mutual irreverence for the British class system whose pedigreed members displayed elitist hypocrisy and mediocrity. Though the post war period of the 1950’s is often referred to as the “Age of Affluence” or the “Age of Youth”, the playwrights and writers of the movement still had plenty to be angry about. The Cold War and its threat of militant action began only five years after the conclusion of the second world war in a century, the British joined a nuclear race, the Soviets invaded Hungary, and the sense of fear and uncertainty that had permeated the air since the early 1900’s began creeping back into the hearts of the people. The young artists of the time became embittered with the lack of fulfillment in the promises of postwar reform for genuine change and a transfer into a world of peace and hope. The label ‘angry young men’ was first employed by the press toward these young playwrights and authors and their mirror-image characters that typically featured a itinerant, lower-middle or working-class male protagonist who viewed society with scorn and sardonic humor and often had conflicts with authority, but who is nevertheless preoccupied with the quest for upward mobility. The first and most prominent of these literary figures to earn this label was 24 year old John Osborne for his 1956 play Look Back in Anger and his heated protagonist, Jimmy Porter. Osborne and his peers employed the harsh reality of life to theatre that had eluded the previous notions of escapist theatre of the previous century. Realism emerged as a dominant style of theatre and became an even more potent and prolific form of social and political statement.
Look Back in Anger is a three-act play that takes place in a one-bedroom flat in the Midlands. Jimmy Porter, lower middle-class, university-educated, lives with his wife Alison, the daughter of a retired Colonel in the British Army in India. His friend Cliff Lewis, who helps Jimmy run a sweet shop, lives with them. Jimmy, intellectually restless and thwarted, reads the papers, argues, and taunts his friends over their acceptance of the world around them. He rages to the point of violence, reserving much of his wrath for Alison’s friends and family. The situation is exacerbated by the arrival of Helena, an actress friend of Alison’s from school. Appalled at what she finds, Helena calls Alison’s father to take her away from the flat. He arrives while Jimmy is visiting the mother of a friend and takes Alison away. As soon as she has gone, Helena moves in with Jimmy. Alison returns to visit, having lost Jimmy’s baby. Helena can no longer stand living with Jimmy and leaves. Finally Alison returns to Jimmy and his angry life. Look Back in Anger was a strongly autobiographical piece based on Osborne’s unhappy marriage to actress Pamela Lane and their life in cramped accommodation in Derby. While Osborne aspired towards a career in theatre, Lane was of a more practical and materialistic persuasion, not taking Osborne’s ambitions seriously while cheating on him with a local dentist. It also contains portions of Osborne’s earlier life, the wrenching speech of seeing a loved one die was, for example, a reflection on the death of Osborne’s father. What are best remembered from Osborne’s play are Jimmy’s tirades, most of which were directed against the generalized British middle-class smugness in the post-atomic world, exactly reminiscent of attitudes of the angry young men
Look Back in Anger came to exemplify a reaction to the affected drawing-room comedies of the ‘Coward Era’ in the 1950’s. Coward, Rattigan and other playwrights of the like, wrote about affluent bourgeoisie at play in the lush drawing rooms of their country homes, or sections of the upper middle class comfortable in suburbia. Osborne and the writers who followed him were looking at the working class or the lower middle class, struggling with their existence in apartments or terraces. These “kitchen sink” dramas, as this style of domestic realism became known as, strived to convey the language of everyday people, and to shock the world into understanding with its bluntness. The first production Look Back in Anger in 1956 sparked major controversy. There were those who saw the piece as the first totally original play of the new generation. There were others who hated both it and the world that Osborne revealed to them, but even these critics acknowledged that the Osborne’s title piece marked a new voice on the British stage and eventually the world. Upon Osborne’s death in 1994, Howard Brenton, a writer for the Independent newspaper said, “When somebody breaks the mold so comprehensively it’s difficult to describe what it feels like”. In the same paper, Arnold Wesker, another writer, described Osborne as having “opened the doors of theatres for all the succeeding generations of writers”. The Angry Young Men became the leading force of literature in the 50’s and though the impetus of their movement exhausted in the early 1960s, John Osborne, his peers, and their collection of bitter characters launched the next generation of writers and established realism as a dominant force in the theatre world.