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John Osborne - Look Back in Anger

Author: John Osborne

Title: Look Back in Anger

Introduced: The Royal Court Theatre, 1956

Genre: a play

Setting: flat in Midlands in 1950s

Jimmy Porter – from working class family, university graduate, intelligent, but unable to find a proper job, aggressive, arrogant, rude, moody, cruel, insensitive, impulsive, vituperative
Alison Porter – Jimmy´s wife, impassive, neak
Cliff Lewis – lodger, friend of Jimmy, companion in the sweet-stall, feels fancy to Alison, attempts to keep the peace
Helena Charles – Alison´s snooty best friend, falls in love with Jimmy

Brief summary of the plot:
The play opens on a dismal Sunday afternoon in Jimmy and Alison´s cramped attic. Jimmy and Cliff are attempting to read the Sunday papers, plus the radical weekly “price ninepence, obtainable at any bookstall” as Jimmy snaps, claiming it from Cliff. Alison is attempting to do the week´s ironing and is only half listening as Jimmy and Cliff engage in the expository dialogue. We learn that there´s a huge social gulf between Jimmy and Alison. Her family is upper-middle class military, perhaps verging on upper, while Jimmy is decidedly working-class. He had to campaign hard against her family´s disapproval to win her. We also learn that the sole family income is derived from a sweet-stall in the local market – an enterprise that is surely well beneath Jimmy´s education, let alone Alison´s “station in life”.
As Act 1 progresses, Jimmy becomes more and more vituperative, transferring his contempt for Alison´s family onto her personally, calling her “pusillanimous” and generally belittling her to Cliff. The tirade ends with some physical horseplay, resulting in the ironing board overturning and Alison´s arm getting a burn. Jimmy exits to play his trumpet off stage. Alison and Cliff play a tender scene, during which she confides that she´s accidentally pregnant and can´t quite bring herself to tell Jimmy. Cliff urges her to tell him. When Jimmy returns, Alison announces that her actress friend Helena Charles is coming to stay, and it´s entirely obvious that Jimmy despises Helena even more than Alison. He flies into a total rage, and conflict is inevitable.

Act 2 opens on another Sunday afternoon, with Helena and Alison making lunch. In a two-handed scene, Alison gives a clue as to why she decided to take Jimmy on her own minor rebellion against her upbringing plus her admiration of Jimmy´s campaigns against the dereliction of English post-war, post-atom-bomb life. She describes Jimmy to Helena as a “knight in shining armour”. Helena says, firmly, “You´ve got to fight him”. Jimmy enters and the tirade continues. There is no doubt about the intentional viciousness of his attacks on Helena. When the women put on hats and declare that they are going to church, Jimmy´s sense of betrayal peaks. When he leaves to take an urgent phone call, Helena announces that she´s forced the issue. She´s sent a telegram to Alison´s parents asking them to come and “rescue” her. Alison is stunned but agrees that she will go.
After a scene break, we see Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, who has come to collect her to take her back to her family home. The playwright allows the Colonel to come across as quite a sympathetic character, although totally out of touch with the modern world (as he himself admits). "You're hurt because everything's changed", Alison tells him, "and Jimmy's hurt because everything's stayed the same". Helena arrives to say goodbye, intending to leave very soon herself. Alison is surprised that Helena is staying on for another day, but she leaves, giving Cliff a note for Jimmy. Cliff in turn hands it to Helena and leaves, saying "I hope he stuffs it up your nostrils". Almost immediately, Jimmy bursts in. His contempt at finding a "goodbye" note makes him turn on Helena again, warning her to keep out of his way until she leaves. Helena tells him that Alison is expecting a baby, and Jimmy admits grudgingly that he's taken aback. However, his tirade continues. They first come to physical blows, and then as the Act 2 curtain falls, Jimmy and Helena are kissing passionately and falling on the bed.

The final act opens as a deliberate replay of Act 1, but this time with Helena at the ironing-board wearing Jimmy's Act 1 red shirt. Months have passed. Jimmy is notably more pleasant to Helena than he was to Alison in Act 1. She actually laughs at his jokes, and the three of them get into a music hall comedy routine that obviously isn't improvised. Cliff announces that he's decided to strike out on his own. As Jimmy leaves the room to get ready for a final night out for the three of them, he opens the door to find Alison, looking like death. Instead of caring for her he snaps over his shoulder "Friend of yours to see you" and abruptly leaves.

After a scene break, Alison explains to Helena that she lost the baby - one of Jimmy's cruellest speeches in Act 1 expressed the wish that Alison would conceive a child and lose it -- the two women reconcile but Helena realises that what she's done is immoral and she in turn decides to leave. She summons Jimmy to hear her decision and he lets her go with a sarcastic farewell.
The play ends with a major surprise - a highly sentimental reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison. They revive an old game they used to play, pretending to be bears and squirrels, and we are left to assume that they live, if not happily, at least in a state of truce in the class warfare, ever after.

Theme: alienation from society, no meaningful role in society, Jimmy is graduate but without connections – no opportunities to find proper job, that turns him into an angry young man

Statement I remember: There´s hardly a moment when I´m not-watching and wanting you. Nearly four years of being in the same room with you, night and day, and I still can´t stop my sweat breaking out when I see you doing – something as ordinary as leaning over an ironing board. (Act 1, pg 14)

My evaluation: An interesting story about impact of too little proper jobs for too many university graduates in England in 1950s. Jimmy has a reason to be an angry young man but he works off his energy upon his wife. She is just a passive victim of class society.

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