Theatre Censorship – 22: John Osborne’s Luther

John Osborne

John Osborne

John Osborne’s Luther (1961) was a major milestone along the road to the abolition of censorship. A history of Martin Luther, it traced his life from being a young, fearful monk born in the late 15th century, through his arguments with the Catholic Church, to his advocating a Reformed Church and his marriage to ex-nun Katherine von Bora. The subject matter of the play was obviously controversial and the censor feared that it might be offensive to Christians. Throughout the century the censors had been particularly strict against plays which they felt offended on religious grounds; the chief problem was that it was forbidden to portray the deity on stage, although, as Fowell and Palmer point out in their 1913 book Censorship in England, nobody seems able to trace the origin of this rule. As a result several thought-provoking and quality plays were long banned. For example, W. B. Yeats’ Noh Drama Calvary (1920), based on Oscar Wilde’s story The Doer of Good, has at its core two awkward problems; one, that Lazarus does not wish to be raised from the dead, and two, that Judas betrays Christ in order to escape the trappings of his all-encompassing religion. The Lord Chamberlain could never have permitted Christ to be vilified on stage by his enemies like that. The American Marc Connelly’s fantasy representation of the Old Testament stories, Green Pastures (1929), was also banned outright even though critical opinion felt it was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930.

LutherFaced with the prospect of licensing Luther, the Lord Chamberlain had no hesitation in demanding fourteen cuts from the play. Osborne had been appalled at the demands made by the censor of his previous two plays, The Entertainer and The World of Paul Slickey (1959). In the latter case he employed the services of a solicitor to argue with the Lord Chamberlain over changes. Osborne decided that he had had enough unfair treatment from the censor. He refused to comply with the cuts under any circumstances and wrote a public letter to the Lord Chamberlain, who was at the time Lord Scarborough: “I don’t write plays to have them rewritten by someone else,” he said; “I am quite prepared to withdraw the play from production altogether and wait for the day when Lord Scarborough is no more…” Surprisingly, Osborne’s anger made an impression on the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and, presumably feeling threatened, or guilty, they withdrew most of their amendments. Bullies always back down when you face them openly, and Osborne’s easy victory made the censor appear weak and inconsistent. This did the public image of the Lord Chamberlain’s office no good at all. Shocked by the success of his letter, Osborne compromised, went back on his word and agreed to accept the few changes which the Lord Chamberlain continued to demand.

Earl of Scarborough

Earl of Scarborough

In the scene where Martin speaks to his father Hans after he has given his first Mass, Hans refers to the weak wine made by the monks first as “convent piss” and later as “monk’s piss”. Osborne agreed to the Lord Chamberlain’s demand to change “monk’s piss” to “monk’s wine” which takes the venom out of the term; and he changed “convent piss” to “kidney juice” which, personally, I think is even more distasteful. In the same scene, Hans refers to Martin as “piss-scared”, which Osborne had to change simply to “scared”. When Martin is discussing the nature of contentment with his religious mentor Staupitz he affirms that: “a hog waffling in its own crap is contented”. It was the word “crap” to which the censor most objected, but Osborne changed the sentence to read “a pig waffling in its own filth is contented”. The image is the same; no real damage done to the play.

The final change that the censor required was the exclusion of the phrase “balls of the Medici”. Much to the amusement of commentators, the Lord Chamberlain’s office suggested that “testicles of the Medici” would be acceptable, ignoring the fact that the coat of arms of the Medici family was a set of brass balls. This goes to show that it’s the use of slang, as much anything else, that the censor found more objectionable. That’s why “kidney juice” was not considered as reprehensible as the slang “piss”, even though the longer phrase dwells on the subject more. Osborne was outraged at the suggestion that Luther, furious with the papal bull which excommunicates him, should cast it in to flames with the dramatic declaration, “as for this bull, it’s going to roast, it’s going to roast and so are the testicles of the Medici!” Osborne complained that the censor took no notice of the double significance of “balls” in this context. The word “testicles”, he maintained, did not appropriately describe the crest; the censor, realising his error, felt compelled to withdraw the objection and “balls of the Medici” stands.

Erik H Erikson

Erik H Erikson

Had Osborne accepted the censor’s fourteen original cuts, the play would have lost much of its structure and bite, and would have been largely ruined. The cuts that he did accept, however, have left the play more or less the way he originally wanted. Nevertheless, most critics agree that the play’s structure isn’t that great anyway. Some say the play falls apart after the scene concerning the Diet of Worms, as the sudden change of the character of the knight – from supporter to enemy – is too unbelievable. As the play is mainly derived from a source work, Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther, you might not necessarily expect to find any of Osborne’s recurrent themes; but Martin is surely much more of an angry young man than Jimmy Porter ever was. He is angry at the Church and angry with himself. He is angry at the fools who buy indulgences and at the Swabian peasants whose revolt against serfdom and whose demands for the pure gospel had to be exterminated. Above all, he is also a stubborn young man. He never gives way.

The language of Luther is uncomfortably but realistically uneven in two different ways. Firstly, there is an enormous range of different types of speeches and there are different speech patterns for each of his characters. Osborne offers us the stichomythic (I know, get me, look it up) conversation of Lucas and Hans, the communal speeches of confession, and general conversational speech, as well as vast debates and tirades which extend over many pages such as those delivered by Tetzel, Martin, both Martin and Eck together, and the knight. The length of the speeches grows as the play progresses and they become more philosophical and more turgid in the process. In the Faber edition of the play, only six speeches cover pages 79 – 88, because of their inordinate length. It seems that Osborne is much more at home with diatribe than with dialogue.

Martin’s visceral language provides a strong contrast with the holy conservatism of the monks, using individualistic words and phrases such as “worminess” or “warm hair and a bony heart… a scraped marrow and a dying jelly”. His sensuous vocabulary sets him aside from the penitent low-key confessions of the other monks who have no feel for language or vocabulary of their own, because they are conforming to the ideal of the platonic monk, and therefore must stifle their own personal tendencies. Elsewhere in the play his vivid linguistic imagination gives way to some splendid imagery. I really admire the phrase: “I wish my bowels would open. I’m blocked up like an old crypt.”

As well as using blasphemous language, Luther also takes up the question of blasphemy itself by pointing out the antithesis between the godly and the ungodly, the sincere and the ridiculous: “and so, the praising ended – and the blasphemy began”. This refers not only to his taking Mass – for which he feels he is insufficiently qualified, strictly in accordance with Christ’s teaching – but is also an oblique reference to the naked child he holds; one requires child-like innocence to enter heaven, but after childhood, man’s life is in itself blasphemy because he is no longer worthy of heaven. The phrase is also, even more widely, a reference to Martin’s life of rebellion against Catholicism.

Pope Leo

Pope Leo X

You don’t expect to hear particularly bad language from a member of the Church, so there’s a great shock effect from, for example, Pope Leo calling Martin a “double faced German bastard” – it puts Martin’s earlier use of the words “mother’s tit” in the shade. You expect the clergy to be polite, but they swear; indeed, their bad language is a major outlet for their blasphemy. With his argumentative nature, Martin should have been a lawyer instead of a cleric; rather than saying confession with the other monks, he’s more at home talking about his vivid, sexual, anxious dreams. But over the years Martin realises that the differences between himself and the other members of the Church are symptomatic of the rift he would set in motion.

Looking back, it’s clear how Osborne dominated this period, both in terms of drama and in his struggles against the censor. His argument with Lord Scarborough over Luther indicates the path that other dramatists were about to take but matters had not quite come to a head yet. But we’ll never know what might have been written by those who could not see the point of creating plays which could not be performed due to censorship.

In my next post I’m going to consider plays by Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett.

Review – Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, 28th July 2018

AllelujahI have to admit, it’s lovely to be back at the Bridge Theatre after the complete disaster of trying to get tickets to see their earlier show Nightfall. I booked for a Sunday matinee, only to be told a few weeks later that by then the run would have ended as they were squeezing another show into their timetable. So they transferred me to an earlier Sunday matinee, only to be told another few weeks later that the performance had been cancelled and could I manage a different date? No I could not! Whatever happened to the show must go on? As Oscar Wilde once (almost) said, “to cancel one performance may be classed a misfortune. To cancel two sounds like carelessness.” Clearly Sunday matinees at the Bridge Theatre are a thing of the past, which is a shame because Saturdays are always busy; for us, it will simply mean seeing fewer shows at this otherwise fantastic new theatre.

SalterAnyway…. Allelujah for the return of Alan Bennett to the London stage. He’s 84 now; and sometimes, when a much loved and respected playwright reaches their later years, you can tell it by an increasing laziness or tiredness in the writing. Not so with Mr Bennett. Allelujah! has a sprightly construction, killer punchlines, devastating observations about the NHS and Life in General (whatever that is), memorable characterisations and a neat eye for the surreal. It’s rare for a first Act to end on two bombshells, both within the last ten seconds; but you’ll be going into the interval not knowing whether to be horrified or laughing out loud – probably both. There are some very moving and accurate portrayals of characters with dementia; if occasionally they verge on the cruel, it’s only because dementia itself is cruel and there’s no point hiding it. This play isn’t always an easy watch; more power to its elbow for being that stark.

Dr Valentine on TVTo fill you in, the Bethlehem Hospital is in a parlous state because it no longer fits in with the modern NHS. It’s a local hospital, for local people; the kind of place where you go in with something wrong with you, they make you better, and you leave. No sexy surgical specialities; the books all add up and in fact the place is run so efficiently that it even makes something of a profit. But there’s a lot of bed-blocking, it doesn’t fit in with 21st century vision, and if they’re not careful, it’ll get closed down and all the patients (and some of the staff, perhaps) will get transferred to Tadcaster, Lord forbid. Save the Beth is the cry of the local protest movement, and TV cameras are out and about covering the hospital’s every move for the Local News. Salter, the Chairman of the Hospital Trust, is constantly fussing around trying to emphasise all its achievements, and brown-nosing anyone he suspects might be of influence; like in-patient Joe’s son Colin, who has cycled all the way from London to visit his dad, but who is known to work in Whitehall, if not actually as part of the Department of Health, but alongside the Department of Health. If anyone might be in a position to put in a good word for the future of the hospital, it’s Colin. But is he on their side? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

Mrs Maudsley arrivesIt’s not the first time a hospital has been used as a metaphor for the state of British society. Allelujah reminded me strongly of Lindsay Anderson’s 1982 film Britannia Hospital, which did very much the same thing; it also featured a panicky and increasingly desperate Chief Administrator, and a TV documentary crew snooping round who (without giving the game away too much) observed some particularly nefarious and illegal goings on. What’s different about Allelujah is that, when everything else has dried up and failed, in the face of all adversity, indomitable human spirit carries on. And that’s shown in the singing.

Colin singsSinging? So is this a musical? No not at all. Nor is it particularly a play about singing, although singing plays a major role. If you’ve ever had an elderly relative spend a long time in a hospital ward, or a care home, you’ll know that musical entertainment in the form of getting everyone around to join in a sing-song, is a successful way to lift spirits. So on the one hand, it looks a little surreal when all the old patients start singing songs together, but on the other, nothing could be more natural. The music is significant in many ways: 1) on the most basic level, it’s a spirit-lifter for the patients; 2) it reveals the youthful nature of what’s inside us all, no matter how old and decrepit we are on the outside, inside we’re all still 21; 3) no matter what problems beset us, we shall overcome; and 4) as our inexorably failing NHS and society in general steadily decline, we can divert ourselves from this inevitable horror by singing; a little like throwing yourself into the last verses on the Titanic.

Sister Gilchrist dances with JoeI would, however, question the choice of songs. The average age of the people on the wards would, I would have thought, be something in the region of 80. So the songs that are really going to keep them buoyed up would be the songs they enjoyed during their 20s and 30s; so that would be songs of approximately 50 to 60 years ago; so roughly 1958 – 1968. The songs that feature in the show are actually more like those that Mr Bennett’s own parents would have enjoyed; so to me at least they felt strangely old-fashioned. I would have found it even more believable if they’d been singing some rock and roll and some Lennon & McCartney. Actually, the second Act opens with the patients performing a rousing version of Good Golly Miss Molly, just like they would have done in the Good Old Days, and it stood out like a beacon of sheer joy.

Dr Valentine and ColinBob Crowley’s design for the play is spot-on accurate in its representation of a busy hospital; all the signs, the notice boards, the reception areas, the magnolia walls, even the dado rails are absolutely perfect. We’ve all been to children’s wards where they’re given names like Disney Ward, Pooh Ward, Noddy Ward, and so on. Mr Bennett’s runs with this idea to create in Bethlehem Hospital, Dusty Springfield Ward, Shirley Bassey Ward, Len Hutton Ward, etc, which works perfectly.

Save the BethNicholas Hytner has brought together a comparatively huge cast of 25 to create a great ensemble atmosphere amongst the actors who play the patients; this creates something of an us and them feel in regard to their dealings with anyone outside their own group – so the medical staff, the visiting relatives, the documentary people definitely feel like outsiders. And it’s true, as this play deftly shows, some of those outsiders are not working in the patients’ best interests.

Sister Gilchrist chatted up by FletcherThere isn’t a one single star performance in this play because there isn’t one single star role that is that central to the story; but there are some terrific performances throughout the cast. Peter Forbes is delightfully smarmy and slippery as Chairman Salter, constantly on the lookout to emphasise the best and disguise the worst, careful never to be out of the camera’s eye for too long; and, when it looks as though the Beth won’t be saved, he’s the first one to ensure his future security in whatever way he can. He doesn’t know quite how to handle Samuel Barnett’s Colin, though; Mr Barnett plays this strategic adviser-but-also-relative with cool, detached cynicism and a quiet adherence to a more ruthless vision for the NHS. TAndy taunts Joehere’s a chillingly eerie performance by the brilliant Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist, making her rounds with silent determination, rarely betraying any emotion; as her complete opposite number, Sacha Dhawan is excellent as Dr Valentine, keen as mustard, trying to engage with the patients on an emotional level – and put through the humiliation of a citizenship test that is truly cringeworthy. There’s also brilliant support from David Moorst as the gormless work-experience lad Andy; negligently trying to get away with as little effort as possible, whist still sucking up to the bosses.

Dr Valentine and AmbroseAnd then there’s the fantastic cast of patients. Jacqueline Clarke shows she still has a great voice and charisma as the woeful Mrs Maudsley; Julia Foster is hilariously mischievous as Mary; Jeff Rawle as Joe shows not only great understanding of dementia but also brilliant comic timing and a genuinely horrified understanding of what his fate is to be. Gwen Taylor’s Lucille is still full of the vigour of a much younger and (what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called) flightier woman; and Simon Williams’ Ambrose dishes out some fantastic cantankerous malevolence as his patience is tried too often.

Neville and CoraVery funny, but also more than a little sad, this beautifully written play gives us lots to think about our own long-term future and how vulnerable the elderly can be. Highly recommended!

Party for EverybodyP. S. For the attention of Alan Bennett: I have a bit of a gripe with the title, Mr Bennett. I was always taught that if it ends with a J and an H it starts with an H. If it ends with an I and an A, it starts with an A. Hallelujah or Alleluia; make your mind up!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Theatre Censorship – 21: A Taste of Honey (Shelagh Delaney) and Five Finger Exercise (Peter Shaffer)

Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney in 1960

Jean in The Entertainer bears some similarity to the writer Shelagh Delaney. She started off angry, attempted to do something different and make a name for herself, and then she largely sank back into obscurity. That isn’t entirely fair; in the years after The Lion in Love (1960) she wrote short stories, television plays, radio plays and film scripts. Yet she never repeated the success of her first major attempt at creative writing: A Taste of Honey (1958). The story of how she came to write it at the age of eighteen is one of simple motivation and determination. She saw a touring production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme (1958) and thought that she could write something better herself. This is perhaps an unfortunate reflection on Rattigan, whose faith, incidentally, in Osborne’s ability as a writer was consistently loyal – that is, after the success of Look Back in Anger, the attraction of which he could not understand.

Joan Littlewood

Joan Littlewood

A Taste of Honey is as youthful as its writer, in that the characters are not concerned with big issues – it’s just the here and now that is important. The present is to be enjoyed, the future to be eagerly expected, and the past does not mean a thing. As she was totally inexperienced in mounting a production, Delaney sent her script to Joan Littlewood of the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Littlewood’s theory (and practice) of the democratisation of the theatre was already well established, and it concurred with Delaney’s philosophy of creating exciting, vivid portrayals of everyday people. The Theatre Workshop had also recently been involved in a conflict with the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and Delaney wanted to show her support for the freedom of speech advocated by Littlewood by sending the script to her. Apparently, the script was partly re-written by Littlewood’s team but Delaney’s tone was kept throughout so much so that when Delaney first saw it performed, she did not realise that the script had been changed at all.

Even though the ban on homosexuality in plays had just been lifted, A Taste of Honey did give the Lord Chamberlain’s office some headaches. The reader, Mr Heriot, called it “the perfect border-line case, since it is concerned with the forbidden subject in a way that no-one, I believe could take exception to.” As a result, he recommended it should be licensed. However the Assistant Comptroller described it as “revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits”. There was some minor horse-trading over a few lines – references to “pervert” and “castrated little clown” were removed; they concerned the character of Geof, about whose significance more follows later.

A Taste of HoneyThe play stands out for three main reasons. Firstly, its general mood and atmosphere, which is one of optimism despite squalor. The play opens with mother and daughter, Helen and Jo, moving into their new flat; cold, damp and derelict, with one bed and “a lovely view of the gasworks”. Delaney sets to work, bringing out the ironic humour of the situation instantly, especially in the form of Jo’s concerns which seem totally out of proportion and misplaced; for example, what she hates most about the flat is that it has “an unshaded electric light bulb dangling from the ceiling”. Jo’s top priority on moving into the flat is to find somewhere she can plant her bulbs. Helen recognises the irony of these priorities and keeps a running commentary with the audience to emphasise the humour. Their relationship, though often tense, is based on love; this explains why Jo feels so threatened by the presence of Helen’s gentleman friend, Peter, especially in their new home, where he had also hoped to set down some roots.

The other unusual aspect of their relationship is that they are equals. Jo refers to her mother by her first name, and not “mum” or something similar. Helen sometimes tries to exercise parental restriction on Jo, only to realise that this is a lost cause. Jo cannot exert influence on Helen not to get married again; so instead of consigning herself to loneliness, Jo determines to get a boyfriend, and this she has achieved by the beginning of the second scene. This is much more dynamic than the inactivity of Look Back in Anger. As its title suggests, the earlier play is rooted in the past. A Taste of Honey takes a similar working-class situation – in fact Helen and Jo are considerably worse off than Jimmy and Alison – but instead of complaining about their plights, the characters actively go off and do something about it. The equality in relationships that is found in Delaney’s work is not present in Osborne’s. Jimmy Porter is a dictator in his house, whereas Helen allows her daughter to do what she likes. It is perhaps this desire for freedom on Jo’s part, doubtless translated there from Delaney’s own experience, that raises the general quality of life in A Taste of Honey.

The second notable aspect of the play is its racial harmony. Relationships between young people of different races had not really been examined on stage before, chiefly because of the middle-class stronghold on the theatre; the young men that Osborne’s Alison would have met at the Tarnatts and the Wains would almost certainly have been Caucasian white. Jo’s boyfriend is a young black sailor, who treats her more gently and with more respect than either Helen or Peter. Interracial marriages were very controversial back in 1958. Revealingly, Jo does not tell Helen that her boyfriend is black, and Helen never guesses. No doubt Jo anticipates that Helen may not have approved and that would have been extra hassle that she didn’t need. Jo tells the boy that “whatever else she might be, she isn’t prejudiced against colour”, but again, maybe she is being tactful to keep the peace. Jo’s two scenes with the boy are touching, lightly comical and not at all coy. As the play progresses, we sense that the boy has been left behind; until we realise that he deserted her as soon as he got her pregnant. This brings the delicate sense of fun they enjoyed together down to earth with a bump, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller

The final aspect of the play which makes it very different from other plays to date is its attitude to homosexuality. The difficulties in presenting a play with homosexuals in Britain before 1958 meant there were not many such plays in existence at the time. The three plays which appeared at the New Watergate Club and which dealt, at least in part, with homosexuality, were all American. In Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Eddie, a longshoreman, believes his daughter has fallen in love with a gay man and he tries to prevent the relationship from continuing any further to protect her from future disappointment or divorce. Eddie’s attitude to homosexuals is a mixture of distrust and distaste. In Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, a naïve school student is suspected of having had a homosexual relationship with one of his teachers, and bears the brunt of abuse and prejudices of both other boys and other teachers alike. Again, the old-fashioned attitude is that homosexuals are dirty and a menace to society and morals. In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the audience sympathises with Brick who has had to keep his homosexuality a secret all his life or run the risk of losing everything.

In all these plays, homosexuals are set apart from society; either simply to be alienated, or as a target for sympathy. A Taste of Honey was the first major British play to feature a central character who was homosexual and who was not ridiculed or abused for it. Apparently, much of this sense of acceptance stems from the Theatre Workshop’s ideas for the play. Shelagh Delaney’s original intention was for Geof’s homosexuality to be far more overt. As the play stands, Geof is a far more rounded and credible character because he is incidentally homosexual rather than primarily homosexual. Jo and Geof carry on a very enjoyable friendship. He is very generous to her and she amuses him. They soon realise that they suit each other because they each recognise each other’s needs and can provide for them. Geof isn’t popular with Helen or Peter; at first this does not matter because Geof and Jo are a content, self-contained unit, but later he is forced to leave when Helen’s jealousy of his privileged position becomes too spiteful. The play ends with Jo unaware that Geof has left, and Delaney spares us the sadness of witnessing that revelation.

It’s a great title, because everybody in it tastes the sweetness of life, even if it is only for a short time. Jo knows love with her boyfriend and her friendship with Geof; Helen has a good time with Peter; Geof achieves a sense of purpose. However, the end of the play appears to be quite arbitrary, and perhaps also ominous; it suggests that this is where the honey ends, and life becomes bitter. With the birth of the child, Geof’s departure and Helen’s return, Jo’s prospects are no longer optimistic.

Peter Shaffer

Peter Shaffer

1958 also saw Peter Shaffer’s dramatic debut with Five Finger Exercise. Fortunately, the Lord Chamberlain’s memorandum on homosexuality appeared shortly before the play was due to open, for otherwise the play would have been surely banned even though its homosexual references were slight. The play had been planned for performance under the auspices of the New Watergate Theatre Club, but the club, whose membership had reached 60,000 in two years, disbanded after the closure of its previous production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because the club status now seemed unnecessary. The slight reference to homosexuality centres on Clive’s wish to go away with Walter, the young German tutor, for a holiday, because, as he says, “I need a friend so badly”. The reference is no more concrete than that, except that, later on in the play, Stanley, Clive’s father, accuses Walter of perverting Clive: “what else did I ask you to do? Turn my son into a cissy?”

However, Walter’s insecurity has nothing to do with homosexuality; the root of his insecurity is the main reason for the play’s controversial nature. Walter is a German, whose father was the most respected Nazi in the town. The boy is kind and thoughtful, and has no attachment to his father’s evil history. He has, therefore, had to turn his back on his past and renounce his heritage. This accounts for why he refuses to teach or speak German; and why he lies about his family. When Stanley accuses him of being a “filthy German bastard… Once a German, always a German. Take what you want and the hell with everyone else”, Walter’s inbuilt guilt prevents him from defending himself.

The acceptance of this play by the Lord Chamberlain was controversial and indeed it very nearly was banned, because it falls into the category of being offensive towards a friendly nation. Earlier in the century, many more innocuous works were banned for the same reason: even The Mikado was temporarily banned because the Examiner of Plays thought it was offensive to the Japanese, even though the Japanese themselves thought of it as a welcome linking of eastern and western cultures. Five Finger Exercise warns against adhering to nationalistic characteristics: Walter’s anti-Germanic instincts, Stanley’s essential Englishness and Louise’s French affectations all obstruct genuine communication between people. The play ends on a positive note; Walter revives from his suicide attempt with the words “schon gut. Mir fehlt nichts” (“all right. I am alright”) with the suggestion that he will be able to face both the future and the past.

In my next post, I shall be looking at John Osborne’s Luther.

Theatre Censorship – 20: Billy Rice Will Not Appear Again (John Osborne’s The Entertainer)

John Osborne

John Osborne

Despite the considerable influence of Look Back in Anger, there was no immediate enormous swing to realistic, working-class drama. The Suez Crisis had passed, the Hungarian Revolution had passed. As 1956 became 1957, people in Britain felt exactly the same about things as they had before. The direct influence of Look Back in Anger had not yet been felt. Any anticipated, endless supply of prospective dramatists, sending in an abundance of new scripts to the Royal Court, had not materialised; the situation was no different from when Osborne submitted his play and the majority of new drama was still “endless blank verse shit”, as Tony Richardson, who had directed Look Back in Anger, put it. In fact, the only production in the first season at the Royal Court which was financially viable was a star-studded production of Wycherley’s The Country Wife, a Restoration Comedy which transferred into the West End and whose success paid for the continuation of the English Stage Company’s policies.

The EntertainerThe next dramatic work to engage the public’s imagination (although its impact was considerably less) was Osborne’s next play, The Entertainer (1957). Before Look Back in Anger, Osborne had written Epitaph for George Dillon in collaboration with Anthony Creighton, where the central character is a performer; and like George Dillon, and Jimmy Porter, and Archie Rice – The Entertainer himself – hasn’t achieved any substantial success. The Entertainer continues where Epitaph for George Dillon left off; this time the central subject matter, the settings and the structure of the play create an analysis of the role of the theatre in everyday life. Archie Rice is an old-fashioned entertainer; unlike George Dillon, he seems unlikely to become acceptable to modern tastes. He is a music hall artiste, a stage comedian and compere whose persona revolves around pubs, girls and mother in law jokes. He’s very much based on the real-life Max Miller. His downfall has been his inability to keep up with the times – although his father Billy, himself an “old pro”, is even further behind; he believes the kind of music-hall entertainment that Archie practices has changed too much since his day and, of course, for the worse.

In his introductory note, Osborne writes: “the music hall is dying, and, with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.” The Rice family are a microcosm of 1957 England. They are scattered and disunited through their attitudes to relationships, beliefs, age and duty. The confident music hall patter gradually sticks in Archie Rice’s throat as he realises, through the course of the play, the enormous gap between himself and his stage persona. The music hall routine is full of nationalistic pride, but this is a painful juxtaposition with his sorrow at the death of his son returning from Cyprus with the British Army. His jokes are all based on sexual prowess, but we know that he and his wife Phoebe no longer have sex. His songs are full of irony; they contain throw-away asides like “why should I worry?” and “thank God I’m normal”, a bitter humour that pokes fun at anyone who doesn’t conform to the norm; and which also gives the (wrong) impression of a happy, carefree man on a one-way ticket to self-enjoyment. Not surprisingly, at the end of the play, he just crumples up. The glitter and fun and noise of the music hall make it a deceitful art – it only allows optimistic thoughts to be expressed, suppressing the real dissatisfaction people hide behind the smiles – the Tears of a Clown, as Smokey Robinson would have it.

The simplest and most obvious way a music hall performer could inject sexual intrigue into his act was to be backed by a group of nude girls. Music hall itself was never categorised separately in the 1832 Theatres Act and because of that anomaly the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain did not extend to it. However, music hall acts within other plays or revues were censorable. The fact that this form of uncensored entertainment had outlived its popularity and was thus on its last legs could clearly be used by those in favour of stage censorship as an argument for its retention. This was certainly what Billy Rice believed. He’s in no doubt that the nudes are to blame for the music hall’s decline: “they’re killing the business… why should a family man take his wife and kids to see a lot of third class sluts standing about in the nude?” Billy clearly approves of the work of the Lord Chamberlain who, as far as he’s concerned, protects the family unit – knowing how disparate his own family is. Archie, of course, takes the opposite view and exploits the nudes for as much sexual joking as possible: “What about these girls? What about them? Smashin’. I bet you think I have a marvellous time up here with all these posing girls, don’t you? You think I have a smashin’ time, don’t you? You’re dead right!”

Windmill Theatre

Windmill Theatre

Posing girls became an almost unavoidable part of revue entertainment during the Second World War – they became synonymous with the Windmill Theatre, and it was at this time that music hall merged into revue and became subject to the censor’s rules and regulations. Owing to the controversial nature of this subject, the Lord Chamberlain’s office had issued a statement on the use of nudity on stage. As we’ve already seen, actresses were allowed to pose completely nude “provided the pose is motionless and expressionless, it is artistic and something rather more than a mere display of nakedness, and provided that the lighting was subdued”. One would expect that none of these conditions were met in Archie Rice’s show. Actresses who moved were meant to wear at least “briefs and an opaque controlling brassiere”, and “strip-tease” was not permitted in any circumstances. These instructions continued until the 1968 Theatres Act was introduced.

The death of Billy Rice in the play represents the demise of his artistic views and values. Nude girls would inevitably continue to be part of the act. Archie notes Billy’s death with sadness and respect, and is obviously sorry that the type of entertainment he represented has also passed on: “Billy Rice will not appear again. I wish I could sing a song for him – in his place”. But he says he simply cannot, and therefore the nudes continue to have gainful employment. Archie has no respect for the censor – in his end monologue he refers to his nudes as “a lot of madam” and then adds “oh, I put a line in there. Never mind, it doesn’t matter”. A performer like Archie must have found it very difficult and restrictive to keep to a script; but of course he had to because otherwise he would have infringed the conditions of the licence.

GhostsAs for The Entertainer itself, the censor demanded a number of changes, which Osborne reluctantly agreed to make. Nearly all were at the expense of some sexual innuendo, as sex was of course still the censor’s chief bête noir (at this time, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned). The individual lines which the censor refused to pass, when taken as part of the whole work, don’t stand out as extreme in any way. Taken out of context, however, they could give the impression of a sex-crazed script, much as Peter Nichols had said of his own Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and I doubt the Lord Chamberlain would have approved.

For example, when the members of the family are discussing Archie and Phoebe’s son Mick at war, Archie denies any allegations that Mick might be suffering from depression: “I expect he’s screwing himself silly. I hope he is anyway.” The censor deleted this line, not only because it advocates sexual immorality but also because the phrase may have suggested a kind of syphilitic madness. The censor could not possibly allow such a flippant attitude to so serious a subject to remain unchecked. After all, Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881), which features a character suffering from inherited syphilis, remained banned in Britain for nearly forty years, and indeed the actual word syphilis was still forbidden. Osborne did not substitute another line for this one – he just removed it and made Archie continue with his speech: “What’s happened with you and Graham?” he asks Jean. Osborne’s original intention was to make Archie imply that sexual problems were the cause of Jean and Graham’s problems. However, now that the reference to sex has been removed from the speech, that implication is missing. Osborne’s original wording enhances our understanding of Archie as a seedy, insinuating person. Without it, it becomes just a bland sequence of conversation.

The censor also shortened the verse of one of Archie’s chorus songs. His songs are, of course, an intrinsic part of his act and reflect the persona with great accuracy. He sings about sex, and about being “ordinary” to make the majority of his audience relate to him. This made the censor’s job more difficult because the audience is on Archie’s side. Therefore, the censor removed the lines: “I don’t push and shove at the thing they call love, I never go in for goings on.” The lines are deliberately ambiguous; again, they do not seem particularly daring in context, where their chief purpose is to confirm the idea “I never really care, I’m what you call a moderate”. However, the censor doubtless saw the references to sexual intercourse: “push and shove”, “go in”, both in the context of “love” and “goings on”. As a result of this cut, Osborne also chose to remove the lines: “I’m what you call a moderate, I weigh all the pros and the cons” in order to make the metre fit the tune again. The whole cut makes the song rather innocuous.

Another major cut is that of the passage in which Archie very frankly described the regularity of his sexual activity. He maintains: “I’ve always been a seven day a week man myself, haven’t I, Phoebe? A seven day a week man. I always needed a jump at the end of the day – and at the beginning too usually. Just like a piece of bacon on the slab.” The censor probably thought that, given the repetition in the speech and the maudlin, drunk tone Archie has adopted, the audience might find this speech embarrassing. The imagery of the piece of bacon was no doubt a step too far. By cutting this speech, it was as though the censor was protecting Archie from himself, and from the audience’s judgment. He is drunk, and possibly he may say something he will regret, especially as in a few moments he will hear that Mick has been killed on his return home. This paternalistic censorship changes our impression of Osborne’s attitude to Archie. Osborne’s attempts to communicate Archie’s coarseness are effectively thwarted and the effect of the cut is to render Archie’s speech confusing if not meaningless. The speech sounds very much as though a key issue has been omitted from it – which, of course, it has: “Say, aren’t you glad you’re normal? Well, it’s everybody’s problem”. That’s a complete non-sequitur. What is? Being normal or not being normal? In fact, the problem Osborne intended Archie to refer to is that of chercher la femme. Archie’s explanation: “either they’re doing it, and they’re not enjoying it. Or else they’re not doing it and they aren’t enjoying it” seems a little out of place without the overt sexual reference.

The only other censored word in the text is the censor’s insistence on using the word “decent” instead of “devout” in the description of an act Archie used to know called “Lady Rosie Bothways”. The censor obviously thought that the religious overtones of the word “devout” were not in keeping with the rest of the description. All in all, the substituted words and passages and censored sections of the play weaken the force of the play; it’s less coarse and therefore Archie himself doesn’t come across as quite so reprehensible a character.

Thematically, any relation the play bears to Look Back in Anger is indistinct. There are hints of class-consciousness, such as Billy’s attitude to Archie’s “third class sluts”, and Graham’s attitude to Jean and her family, but there is no real advocating of a class-struggle. War is just a catalyst, causing the death of Mick, the missing link of the family chain, but not the overpowering threat that it is in the earlier play. The closest association may be seen in the character of Jean who, though, not central to the play, is nearly an “angry young woman”; she is at least sufficiently motivated to protest in Trafalgar Square against the government. She gives up her boyfriend at the end because of class differences and family loyalties. She decides that nothing can be gained merely by turning her back on her family: “here we are, we’re alone in the universe, there’s no God, it just seems that it all began by something as simple as sunlight striking on a piece of rock… somehow we’ve just got to make a go of it. We’ve only ourselves”. Her final position is one of reconciliation with her family, just as Jimmy Porter and Alison are (temporarily at least) reconciled at the end of Look Back in Anger.

Next up I’m going to take a look at Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.

Review – Comedy Crate Festival, Northampton, 22nd July 2018

Comedy CrateWe really enjoyed our day at the Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton last year, and needed no hesitation to book again for this year! As last time, we were unable to take advantage of the excellent weekend rate (£30 for both days, so that’s only £3 per show) because on the Saturday we were Otherwise Engaged. But we definitely up for the Sunday schedule.

Charles BradlaughBasically there are two shows on each of two venues all through the day – a show at 3pm, 4.30pm, 6.30pm, 8pm and 9.30pm – and you can mix and match your attendance at either the upstairs bar at the Charles Bradlaugh, or a swanky tent in the garden at the Black Prince. It was a gloriously sunny day (aren’t they all at the moment!) – in other words a perfect opportunity to combine top quality comedy with a bit of a boozy afternoon and evening. Well, you’re only young once. For the most part, the comics were all shaping up their current works-in-progress in preparation for their Edinburgh Fringe gigs next month. This is both a more relaxed way of seeing comedy, as it’s a very informal structure; but it can also be an exciting form of comedy if your comedian suddenly chances on just the right wording or just the right punchline – you can get that feeling that you’re at the birth of some comedy gold.

Black PrinceOriginally I had planned to see all the shows at the Bradlaugh, because they were more Premiership comic contenders, whilst the Black Prince performers were slightly more Championship. But I also didn’t want to be packed in a room which was too full and too hot. So in a last minute change of plan we saw the first two in the Bradlaugh and the other three in the Black Prince. Let’s take them one by one.

Kiri Pritchard McLean (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Kiri Pritchard McLeanOur organisers had kept us informed that Kiri was running late and she eventually appeared at 3.20, a little flustered from the car drive from hell following her brother’s wedding on the Saturday. I’m impressed that she made it all! Shimmering before us in the outfit that Gina G wore for Eurovision (well damn nearly) she explained that this was her third Edinburgh show and the first two had been easy to create, as they were about gender equality and paedophiles. Sometimes it’s hard to get inside the mind of a comedian! And just as she was concerned that she couldn’t think of a subject for her next show, her long-term boyfriend cheated on her; problem solved. So over the next forty or so minutes we heard all about Seymour (not his real name) and Brandy (not hers) with lots of excellent little side details, like the quality of her shoes, the racist tendencies of Kiri’s mother, and Beyoncé’s album Lemonade. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the full hour – and at the moment Kiri decided she had run out of time, she had divulged a big bombshell in her story! There’s definitely an end to that story, and we don’t know what it is! Kiri is a bright, friendly, warm person on stage and I can only suggest that her Edinburgh show definitely looks worth seeing.

Marlon Davis (4.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Marlon DavisAmazingly, it’s been eight years since we last saw Marlon Davis at a Screaming Blue Murder show in Northampton. He really impressed me then with his intelligent and slightly quirky style. Eight years on, and he’s still intelligent and quirky, comparing his high pitched natural voice and his gently infantile language structure with his son’s basso profundo directness. It’s typical of Mr Davis’ almost anarchic style that he spends maybe five minutes explaining how work-in-progress shows are very important for a comic to gauge what works and what doesn’t in preparation for their imminent Edinburgh appearance – to then kill his whole explanation with his confession that he isn’t going to be in Edinburgh this year. I think I recognised some of his material from eight years ago, although there’s also a nice running joke about nicking towels from hotels, as well as a funny sequence about his neighbour using their trampoline, and also the rather dark humour of his driving into a tree and being forced into what he calls a pussy coma. His hugely likeable personality means he could get away with just reading the shipping forecast and he would be able to make it funny. Very enjoyable!

Tom Lucy (6.30pm Black Prince)

Tom LucyNext up was a name new to me but I can see that he’s already carving out a great reputation. At the age of 22 Tom Lucy is a very gifted comic with terrific stage confidence and an easy way with banter. He quickly struck up a great rapport, especially with the Ryanair Cabin crew man in the front row. Imagine a South London James Acaster, but less bitter. The main thrust of his new show is all to do with understanding what it is to be a millennial, and he took us through several aspects of this subject and his material was excellent. He wasn’t happy with how it ended though – which is asking the audience at what point they found out that their father wasn’t a superhero. This could work, depending on the person you pick on. If he’d asked me, I’d have to have said that mine died when I was eleven and then it would have been a gloomy end to the show – so it’s a risky strategy. Dating apps, a lovely sequence with a clairvoyant, what constitutes an icon – all played a part in the show. And I’m glad to discover he doesn’t understand the “no socks” thing either. Very enjoyable, and I predict a great future for this chap!

Lloyd Langford (8pm Black Prince)

Lloyd LangfordAnother completely new name to me, but what a find! Mr Langford is full-on attack right from the start, with his quirky delivery and incredibly creative and inventive material. He comes across as totally fearless and will stop at nothing to explore a comic idea to the full. I loved his material about the totally invasive massage that he wasn’t expecting; also the massage chair at Tokyo airport (massages seem to be his thing), his dad’s useless Christmas presents which consist of what he finds on the beach; and the innate danger of balconies. One of those comics where it’s really hard to remember the gist of what they were talking about because they carried you away on a sea of nonsense and you didn’t want to fight it. His Edinburgh show looks like a must, and I’d really recommend him.

Patrick Monahan (9.30pm Black Prince)

Patrick MonahanTop of the Bill at the Black Prince was Patrick Monahan, whom we’ve seen a couple of times in Edinburgh, always as a guest at Spank! He’s another comic with a terrific rapport with the audience; it’s very likely that if he catches your eye you’ll become part of the show but it’s never unkind and always hilarious. He spotted Mrs Chrisparkle for a quick chat and for the rest of his gig she was just the scouser. He wanted to know who thought they had married “up” and who had married “down” – and this got cleverly interwoven in his material about Goals, which is the subject of his Edinburgh show this year. He brings in quite a lot of material about his own relationships, both with his wife and his parents, and his hour just flew by. This was the most polished, and the least work-in-progress of the shows all day, and he’s probably the most accomplished and professional comic that we saw too. Very highly recommended!

So that was it! With a bit of over-running we didn’t leave the Black Prince till after 10.45. There’s great commitment from the organisers and it requires a great commitment from the audiences too. And it really repays the hard work – five excellent performers gave us all a terrific day’s entertainment. Huge congratulations to everyone and I hope we can all do it again next summer!

Theatre Censorship – 19: Jimmy Blows his Trumpet – Look Back in Appreciation of Look Back in Anger (Part Three)

There are many other little niggling qualities about Jimmy Porter which render him irritating and contrary. He smokes a pipe simply because he knows that it annoys Cliff; both because of the smell and because it reminds him of the cigarettes the doctor has forbidden him to smoke. Jimmy makes it one degree worse for Cliff with his self-righteous scoffing: “They’re your ulcers. Go ahead, and have a bellyache if that’s what you want”. He refuses to lend Cliff his newspaper, so although he advocates education, in his own small way he deliberately impedes Cliff’s progress. He rifles through Alison’s handbag, in search of “something of me somewhere, a reference to me. I want to know if I’m being betrayed”, predatory like the bear which represents him in their lovers’ games. He storms off angrily when Alison burns herself on the iron, another symbol, a painful weapon of domesticity, the mark of the bored housewife.

By all accounts, he was no less boorish when younger. The raids made on the friends of the Redferns by Jimmy and Hugh appear not only to have been embarrassingly puerile but also calculated to indulge their greed and their desire to upset all the other guests. He even taunted Alison about her virginity when they got married. By remaining a virgin to her wedding day she remained faithful to her upbringing and class; she had done what was expected of her, and this infuriated her rebellious husband, who still reflects on his first lover, Madeline, to whom, in Alison’s words, “he owes just about everything”. When Alison leaves Jimmy in Act Two Scene Two, she has prepared a leaving note for him in a sealed envelope for Cliff to give him. Cliff seems surprised that she should tell Jimmy in this way, but, as she explains, she is “a conventional girl”.

Here is another cause of Jimmy’s antagonistic behaviour; wherever he goes he runs up against the divisive class system which he loathes. This is, of course, why he and Hugh disrupted the parties of the Arksdens, the Tarnatts and the Wains; they wanted to show they had no affiliation to the upper-middle-class. It was Hugh’s mother who ran the sweet stall, and Jimmy now carries on the trade as a mark of respect for her and what she represents; whilst at the same time scorning the more acceptable and financially viable positions occupied by the very people Jimmy abominates. Hugh’s mother’s stroke affects Jimmy very deeply, for it reminds him of how his own father suffered; both old people felt the scorn and contempt of everyone except Jimmy, and both represent old qualities of socialism which appear to have little relevance in 1956. Therefore Jimmy delivers diatribes of wrath against defenders of Edwardian England, like J. B. Priestley and Colonel Redfern, and reports the quote by the Bishop of Bromley which totally condemns that reputable clergyman: “He’s upset because someone has suggested that he supports the rich against the poor. He says he denies the difference of class distinctions. “This idea has been persistently and wickedly fostered by – the working classes!” Well!” Jimmy’s reaction is outraged but feeble – all he can add to the argument is “Well!”.

Helena, his “natural enemy”, appears to Jimmy at first as the epitome of everything squalid and contemptible about the class-ridden society. She doesn’t maintain her position in society but deliberately “slums it” by being an actress. Jimmy interprets this as her abandoning real life for playing out fantasies. This makes her the complete opposite of Jimmy, who is down-to-earth if nothing else. He forces her to threaten him with physical violence – “If you come any nearer, I will slap your face” – and then refuses to play the middle-class game of giving way to a woman who threatens to slap one’s face: “I’ve no public-school scruples about hitting girls. If you slap my face – by God, I’ll lay you out!” That’s Jimmy’s version of scrupulous fairness and equality.

However, Jimmy’s attitude to class struggles is not as straightforward as it might seem. He may condemn class distinctions, but his own class-oriented behaviour ensures that the traditions of the classes continue. He may seem bitter in his condemnation of Redfern’s Edwardian England, but he is unable to hide a certain resentment, even jealousy, of the contented idyll of something which can never be his, “still casting well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable, disenfranchised wilderness”. There is nothing intrinsically honourable about not being well-fed or comfortable; and there is a certain romance in the phrase “Edwardian twilight”, the years before the World War when the well-to-do family felt comfortably free from all responsibility to have care for others less well off. In his own way, Jimmy Porter, would also dearly love some form of capricious disenfranchisement which would free him of his burdens.

Above all, it is the way that Osborne has created the character of Colonel Redfern that proves Jimmy’s reports of him are false. Far from being an unreasonable, dogmatic, overpowering character, he is mild, kind and very understanding indeed. Alison cannot really accept it when Redfern believes that some of the communication-gap between the two parties was his own fault. One might expect Redfern to be far more infuriated with his foolish daughter than he is. He even agrees with Jimmy’s description of him: “one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can’t understand why the sun isn’t shining any more”. Rather than representing the past, or arch-Conservatism, or class hatred, or any of the things to which Jimmy is obviously opposed, Redfern is a family man who represents basic decency, and never considers himself infallible. He is quite prepared to try to learn the lesson of the young; he accepts that the amount of time that he spent abroad meant he missed out on trends in Britain. Above all, he is not proud and does not set himself up as Jimmy’s chief opponent. As a result, Jimmy’s heroism looks like just petulance.

Redfern perhaps represents society which refuses to change with the world. Alison tries to sum up the basic difference between her father and her husband: “You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it. Something’s gone wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?” Both men have experienced change; Jimmy has come through the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War as a child, and, indeed, Redfern served in India between 1914 and 1947. Redfern has not been at home in Britain for as long as Jimmy and this causes the rift between them. Nevertheless, Jimmy is also a static character, whereas Redfern is strangely progressive. The play begins with Jimmy complaining that every Sunday they go through the same ritual of reading all the newspapers, no matter what happens, as Alison does her ironing: “Even the book reviews seem to be the same as last week’s”. The play is, in fact, largely static because even though Jimmy’s lover changes, the new one is still seen doing the Sunday afternoon ironing. Alison seems to use this ironing as a coping mechanism; she pretends to be so involved with her task that she cannot tear herself away from it to answer Jimmy’s irritating questions. This is particularly noticeable after his recriminations against Alison’s brother Nigel in Act One.

The major change in Alison is caused by Helena’s arrival, making her see sense as far as her marriage is concerned. The turning point for her is the moment she announces that she is going to church. Jimmy can only retaliate with some inarticulate bluster, but does not really know how to cope with the situation. Religion is an anathema to Jimmy and is to be treated with the utmost derision. When he thinks of Alison going to church, he calls to mind the story of the Earl’s Court evangelist and the article by the Bishop of Bromley; but more than that, just like her pre-marital virginity, going to church on a Sunday is one of the last bastions of middle-class life which he so despises. So Jimmy sees this as a step back on Alison’s part, heavily influenced by Helena.

John Osborne

John Osborne

In later years, Osborne’s own opinion of the play was that he wanted very little to do with it, and that he became deeply embarrassed if he saw a scene or read a part of it. In 1961 he famously described it in an essay entitled That Awful Museum, as “a formal, rather old-fashioned play”, and it is true that it has dated quickly. This is perhaps because of the special nature of the year 1956 and of the enormous progress made in the theatre since then. I agree with Osborne’s description of the play as formal, with its three-act structure and recurrent themes and images; and perhaps what Kenneth Tynan described in The Observer on 13th May 1956 as “the painful whimsy of the final reconciliation” does indeed indicate an old-fashioned yearning for a neat and happy ending. Today Jimmy Porter would be well into his eighties, maybe ninety – if he has survived; probably still a campaigner against nuclear arms and refusing to patronise any of the chains of American fast-food restaurants. Alternatively, his neuroses might have given him one too many heart attacks by now, and he probably wouldn’t be alive to see what became of the dreams he once had.

Thanks for sticking with me through this week of Look Back in Anger! In my next blog post, I’ll move on to Osborne’s next significant play, The Entertainer.

Theatre Censorship – 18: Jimmy Blows his Trumpet – Look Back in Appreciation of Look Back in Anger (Part Two)

Angry Young ManAnother myth that grew at this time was that of the “angry young man”. Today Jimmy Porter and that phrase are synonymous despite the fact that the phrase was first used by the Anglo-Irish writer Leslie Paul in 1951 as the title of his autobiography. The critic John Russell Taylor adapted the phrase to suit his purposes when he published his book Anger and After in 1962. “Angry young man” sums up a good deal of Jimmy Porter’s outward personality, and is, of course, an easy and memorable epithet.

The myth even extends to the period. 1956 was a notorious year. It was the year of the Suez crisis, when Britain decided to join forces with France to invade Egypt after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Protests against the Suez invasion lead to the eventual establishment of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. 1956 was also the year of the Hungarian Revolution, when Hungarian dissidents were strongly supressed by the Russian communists. Amid this turmoil arrived Jimmy, a man, whether he be spokesman or individual, who cared for his country and his people and who turned his anger on the politicians and moralists of the day because they had moulded the national situation into its current, dismal shape.

However, this was not the first period of turmoil that Britain had experienced in the twentieth century. If the creation of a character like Jimmy Porter is a natural reaction to the horrors of war, why didn’t an equivalent character arrive on the scene shortly after the First World War, which was far more horrendous and cost many more lives? For me, it was the antagonism between the United States and (what was) the Soviet Union that created the perfect environment for Jimmy Porter. In a most self-conscious attempt at flippancy, Jimmy says: “we get our cooking from Paris…our politics from Moscow, and our morals from Port Said” – a world of fine dining, Russian expansionism and corruption! He is concerned at what he considers to be the threat to British individualism from foreign powers, and continues to maintain a sneaking regard for Colonel Redfern (Alison’s stiff-upper-lip father) and his Edwardian England. However, his socialism causes him to side more with the USSR than with America; he is disgusted with the Bishop of Bromley’s appeal “to all Christians to do what they can to assist in the manufacture of the H-Bomb” because it naturally assumes that the USA are the good guys and that Russia is the enemy. He cannot believe that it can be Christian and, above all, right, to kill off the Russians. There’s no doubt that he’s portrayed as a CND pioneer.

Furthermore, he is revealed as anti-American in most respects. His story about the American evangelist at Earl’s Court, where a woman was badly injured under the weight of enthusiastic Christians who were so carried away by their keenness to get to the front that they did not notice she had been trampled underfoot, is used to demonstrate both the impracticality and horror of organised religion and what he sees as the self-centredness of American influence. It’s no surprise that critical reaction to the play in the USSR was most favourable. Reuters reported on 5th August 1957 that the TASS drama critic had written that “one of the most attractive features of the work is its faith in everything that is good and radiant in the soul”. This radiance is presumably the opposite of the tedium that Jimmy envisages in the future; “I must say it’s pretty dreary living in the American Age – unless you’re an American, of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans. That’s a thought, isn’t it?” It is a thought, and it’s a shame he doesn’t develop it further.

This kind of behaviour – bringing up an important idea and then not drawing any conclusions from it – is symptomatic of both his fear for the future and his laziness. C. W. E. Bigsby commented in his 1981 essay The Language of Crisis in British Theatre: “Education had given [him] articulateness but nothing to be articulate about”; but that’s not entirely the same thing. Jimmy is clearly an educated man, to set him apart from the other major characters of the play. Colonel Redfern cannot understand why Jimmy has not achieved more than just running a sweet stall in a market, but doubtless the personal contact involved and the more leisurely pace offer him a greater quality of life than the cut-throat worlds of, say, journalism or advertising, two of the careers which Alison says he has tried. At the beginning of the play, education and intelligence appear to be Jimmy’s main preoccupations, as he spends most of his time shaming and bullying house-mate Cliff into admitting that he is ignorant and uneducated. At the beginning of the second act we hear Jimmy playing his jazz trumpet; evidence of eloquence and talent, but wasted as there is no audience. Certainly, Alison and Helena would wish he would keep his trumpet quiet. In fact, Helena’s slight paranoia comes to the fore as she imagines him killing her with it. Does that take the symbolism of the trumpet too far? It is more revealing that she enjoys the danger – she finds him “horrifying and oddly exciting”; her eventual relationship with Jimmy will not come as quite such a surprise.

It is that kind of stifling of Jimmy’s activities and responses which make Jimmy associate himself with the unborn foetus at the end of Act One. Something which does not experience life but has the promise of it; something so protected and untouchable, that it is virtually a prisoner, suffocating in silence; Jimmy believes that he and the foetus share the same plight. A cruel extension of this idea is his wish that Alison should have a miscarriage; ostensibly, Jimmy simply wants to generate a reaction from Alison, a spark of individualism which would prove life and the power of communication. At the same time the death of the foetus would represent the end of Jimmy’s own suffocation.

Jimmy’s use of the foetus as a symbol for his own condition is a good example of his being his own worst enemy. In his efforts to express himself and to provoke reactions, Jimmy manages to be cruel and antagonistic. It’s brutal to wish that a pregnant woman should lose her child. Osborne emphasises Alison’s reaction to his cruelty: “She moves away, stunned… Alison’s head goes back as if she were about to make some sound. But her mouth remains open and trembling…” Normally she takes all Jimmy’s petty cruelties in her stride, but this demand for an elimination of life and love is too shocking for her. She moves as if to speak – which would be her natural reaction – but she does not, because this would signify that Jimmy’s cruelty had hit its target. Therefore, she hovers between the expressive and the insensible and refuses to yield to his violence.

In my next blog post, I’ll conclude this appreciation of Look Back in Anger.