Look Back in Anger (1956) is a realist play written by John Osborne. It focuses on the life and marital struggles of an intelligent and educated but disaffected young man of working-class origin, Jimmy Porter, and his equally competent yet impassive upper-middle-class wife Alison. The supporting characters include Cliff Lewis, an amiable Welsh lodger who attempts to keep the peace; and Helena Charles, Alison’s snobbish friend.
Osborne drew inspiration from his personal life and failing marriage with Pamela Lane while writing Look Back in Anger, which was his first successful outing as a playwright. The play spawned the term “angry young men” to describe Osborne and those of his generation who employed the harshness of realism in the theatre in contrast to the more escapist theatre that characterised the previous generation. This harsh realism has led to Look Back in Anger being considered one of the first examples of kitchen sink drama in theatre.
The play was received favourably in the theatre community, becoming an enormous commercial success, transferring to the West End and Broadway, and even touring to Moscow. It is credited with turning Osborne from a struggling playwright into a wealthy and famous personality, and also won him the Evening Standard Drama Award as the most promising playwright of 1956. The play was adapted into a motion picture of the same name by Tony Richardson, starring Richard Burton and Mary Ure, which was released in 1959. Film production credited circa 1958.
Act 1 opens on a dismal April Sunday afternoon in Jimmy and Alison’s cramped attic in the Midlands. Jimmy and Cliff are reading the Sunday papers, plus the radical weekly, “price ninepence, obtainable at any bookstall” as Jimmy snaps, claiming it from Cliff. This is a reference to the New Statesman, and in the context of the period would have instantly signalled the pair’s political preference to the audience. Alison is attempting to do the week’s ironing and is only half listening as Jimmy and Cliff engage in the expository dialogue.
It becomes apparent that there is a huge social gulf between Jimmy and Alison. Her family is upper-middle-class military, while Jimmy belongs to working class. He had to fight hard against her family’s disapproval to win her. “Alison’s mummy and I took one look at each other, and from then on the age of chivalry was dead,” he explains. We also learn that the sole family income is derived from a sweets confectionary 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. (Some actors play this scene as though Jimmy thinks everything is just a joke, while others play it as though he really is excoriating her.) The tirade ends with physical horseplay, resulting in the ironing board overturning and Alison’s arm getting burned. Jimmy exits to play his trumpet off stage.
Alison, alone with Cliff, 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 Jimmy despises Helena even more than Alison. He flies into a rage.