Sunday, November 22, 2009

Look Back in Anger - by John Osbourne

Look Back in Anger
was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 1956. On the back of my copy it states, "The searing drama of the angry generation" and it fits into the British cinema of the time that was focused on these, angry young men.

The play is in three acts. Jimmy, an educated son of the working classes, is married to Alison, a beautiful flower of the posher set. They live in a flat with the bathroom down the hall and share their space with Cliff, who works with Jimmy running a sweet stall. At open Alison irons a pile of laundry for the men, she takes care of both of them without question or thanks, and Jimmy and Cliff read piles of Sunday papers. Jimmy berates Alison for her stupidity, for taking his insults and for settling for such a shit hole. He dumps his hatred of the upper classes onto his wife, who silently takes it. Cliff plays mediator and comforter of Alison. In the second scene of the first act, Alison's friend Helena arrives to stay. She's an actress and acts as a savior to Alison, who has told everyone except Jimmy that she is pregnant.

Helena encourages Alison to leave Jimmy, calling her father - a former officer who spent the last 3 decades before the war in India - to come get her. Alison goes with poppa and Helena moves in on Jimmy. So that the third act's opening mirrors the first except this time it is Helena doing the ironing. Alison loses the baby, returns one last time - Helena vamooses and Alison and Jimmy are back together.

This play holds a place in British theater as turning point of sorts, heralding the arrival of these new angry young men.
I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. There aren't any good, brave causes left. If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won't be in aid of the old-fashioned, grand design. It'll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus. No, there's nothing left for it, me boy, but to let yourself be butchered by the women. (Jimmy - Act 3)
This speech of Jimmy's, among many others that he has, is the prism through which the play can be seen. A mixture of the aimless, young men after the war, under-employed and in a society going through a major upheaval. And the other huge strand of the play which is a view of women as life-sucking harpies.

As a reader I got pretty sick of reading this character's constant bitching about women, about his wife, about how stupid she is, about how she doesn't know anything about life. And sick of her subservient, helpless affection for him. That by the end of the play she comes back to him and they find their way back too each other through a little affectionate game they play of bear and squirrel. (yes, she is the squirrel) did nothing to alleviate my feeling of exhaustion with the narrative and the characters.

Now, I've striven to take plays on their own terms and freed myself from feeling the need to comment on the merits of scripts. And here is a play that yes, technically I can see how it works, the scenes all end on a cliff-hanger, the characters and their story serve as a mirror to look at a particular time in a particular society. There is a commentary on class, on British post-war society, on moralities and romanticism, and through the character of Jimmy it's all presented very 'in your face' and uncomfortably. And yet, I couldn't get past the sense of the women as functionaries and punching bags to serve the writer's central character. Even the unseen mother is depicted as a vulture, un-caringly waiting for Jimmy's father to die, leaving the young boy as the only one his father had to care for him.

And that's where the play gets really tricky for me. I feel like the play wants to be about the anger of a young man towards a stifling, class-based, moralistic society - but ends up being about a man angry at his mother and every iteration of her in his life. Which takes the teeth out of the play's posturing for me.

1 comment:

  1. Jimmy's rants and raves may be tedious and filled to the brim with hatred towards the upper class and woman. BUT! Looking past that i believe you would see the complete joy in reading how amusingly literate and wonderfully educated Jimmy's speeches are. From reading what you have written i can see that you are quite talented with the way you use words, taking that into consideration i am surprised and discusted that you have displayed yourself as such an ignoramus. Jimmy's hatred towards woman and society is due to the fact that he is comprehensively over sensitive, every little thing will upset and annoy him. He's passionate, confused and in my eyes a wonder character.