On reflection, one of the most surprising facts about 20th century British theatre is that the play which has been most widely regarded as being the watershed in modern drama, John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956), with its reputation for anger, generation-gap protest, bald domesticity, and bloody-mindedness, does not fall foul of any of the categories agreed by the Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship) in 1909, and did not receive much attention from the Lord Chamberlain’s office.
There was some bartering over a few words and phrases, some of which Osborne agreed to change, some on which the censor relented. My favourite example of horse-trading getting this play licensed was the censor’s insistence on removing the song title “There’s a Smokescreen in my Pubic Hair”, which Osborne changed to “You can quit hanging round my counter, Mildred, cos you’ll find my position is closed.” Go figure. Bizarrely, the thing that upset the censor the most was Osborne’s imagery of a python devouring its prey as a metaphor for Alison’s sexual hunger. Eventually they agreed on a milder description of the act; maintaining the metaphor but just toning down the language a little. It all seems so petty nowadays.
The play takes war, arguably the most offensive and indecent act in the world, as the starting-point for its anger. Jimmy Porter tells Helena: “I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry – angry and helpless… I knew more about love, betrayal… and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know all your life.” This desperation was caused by the young Jimmy’s concern for his dying father. The rest of his family did not care about him because he had been wounded fighting for the cause of socialism in the Spanish Civil War; this was an embarrassment to them as they preferred to belong to the “smart and fashionable” set. Jimmy’s disgust at this mother, whose only thought was “that she allied herself to a man who seemed to be on the wrong side in all things” went on to cause an obsession with mother-figures; recognisable in both his utter hatred of his girlfriend Alison’s mother, and his unconditional love for his mate Hugh’s mother.
Jimmy’s war-scarred upbringing, then, converted him into a socialist because of his admiration for the supreme sacrifice made by his father. However, rather than trying to be an upbeat promoter of his cause, he tries to inflict the misery which he experienced on others in the hope that, via suffering, they might reach the same conclusions as him. Unsurprisingly, this is not a successful tactic. At best his motives are misunderstood and at worst he’s the epitome of boorish insensitivity. He’s the archetypal “own worst enemy”.
This boorishness and insensitivity led to a critical misunderstanding of the significance of the character of Jimmy Porter. Consider, if you will, the difference of opinion between these short statements: “Jimmy Porter is being offered as a spokesman for a disaffected generation… contrived to express the misgivings, the grievances and the impatience of almost everyone who resented the power and the corruption” (Ronald Hayman, in British Theatre since 1955 – A Reassessment); “there is absolutely no indication in the play that Osborne ever intended Jimmy’s remarks to be taken as a general condemnation of society. Jimmy is an extremely unusual young man and anything but representative of the young men of our time” (George A. Wellwarth’s essay, John Osborne – Angry Young Man?) Fifteen years elapsed between the two comments – Hayman’s was made in 1979, Wellwarth’s in 1964 – and certainly the more recent comment reflects the attitude most widely held nowadays.
Today aficionados of Jimmy Porter and his play would criticise Wellwarth’s opinion, believing that at the time he was too close to the situation to understand its truth – basically, he couldn’t see the wood for the trees – and that the added years have enabled us to see the play in greater perspective. Jimmy fans may well also believe that he was too realistic and accurate a creation to be easily acceptable. Nevertheless, Wellwarth’s comment was delivered eight years after the play, and, as the play itself clearly states, society is continually changing, so I think it is unlikely that he was too involved in the situation to have a clear vision of what was taking place. Supporters of Wellwarth’s argument might well agree that Jimmy is a psychotic individual with an individual tale to tell. Certainly, in performance, the audience is more interested in discovering how the love affairs of Jimmy, Alison and Helena will work out, rather than relating the whole story to Britain in 1956. Perhaps Ronald Hayman’s quote suggests that he succumbed to the easy mistake of considering the myth more than the play itself.It is important to separate the two. Over the past six decades, commentators have romanticised the play and its characters almost out of recognition. Osborne’s own personal success with it is a kind of fairy story; George Devine, director of the English Stage Company based at the Royal Court theatre, had invited young and as yet unknown writers to submit their plays with a view to their being produced in the 1956 season. Look Back in Anger was submitted in this way, and was the only play from those sent in that was chosen for production. In his famous criticism in the Observer of 13th May 1956, Kenneth Tynan agreed “that “Look Back in Anger” is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of 20 and 30…. I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see “Look Back in Anger”. It is the best young play of its decade.” Tynan’s typically sensationalist and emotive language did not cut much ice with many of the other critics. Milton Shulman, never quick to keep up with the times, wrote in the London Evening Standard on 9th May 1956: “Nothing is so comfortable to the young as the opportunity to feel sorry for themselves… [Look Back in Anger] aims at being a despairing cry but achieves only the stature of a self-pitying snivel”.
Despite the enormous variety of critical responses, it was not a box-office success until a scene from it was shown on television. Public awareness of the play suddenly grew, as did the audiences, and the season was extended. Also, despite their reactions to the play itself, the critics were almost unanimous when they considered Osborne’s skill as a writer. Cecil Wilson, in the Daily Mail, also on 9th May 1956, hit the nail on the head as far as many commentators were concerned, when he said: “we can perceive what a brilliant play this young man will write when he has got this one out of his system and let a little sunshine into his soul.”
In my next blog post, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the character of Jimmy Porter.