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Student ID: 1015875 Dr. Tony Howard/ Dr.

Gordon Vallins British Theatre since 1939 21st November 2011

Examine the original reviews of Look Back in Anger. What light do they shed on the critics, the period, or John Osborne? On the 8th May 1956 an un-expecting audience found shelter away from the depressing scenes of a disorderly Britain, inside the Royal Court Theatre. Completely unaware of the metaphorical bombshell that John Osborne was about to drop on the capitals theatre district as they took they seats and utterly oblivious to the enormity of its aftershocks. A legend has formed around this single performance of Look Back in Anger advocating that British theatre has never been the same since. However, original reviews were mixed and seemingly ignorant to the magnitude that Look Back in Anger would have in British theatre history. But regardless of the star rating awarded, reviewers unitedly acknowledged the poignancy of the play and its potiential playwright (Hope-Wallace, Manchester Guardian): without doubt the play and its playwright caused a stir in the theatre world. But was Osbornes play the first to shed some light on the reality of the angry 50s? Or did John Osborne, described as the original Angry Young Man stimulate societies repressed anger by introducing Jimmy Porter to the world? By looking at the original reviews of the play and evaluating its initial reception, we can start to understand the era that John Osborne was writing in and about and therefore analyse why the play was so ground-breaking and controversial in its day. By looking back to the 8th May 1956, we can start to comprehend the legend around Look Back in Anger that has built up over the 55 years since.

Student ID: 1015875 The piece consists largely of angry tirade was the overriding negative opinion towards the play from the Sunday Times (Hobson). An ironic statement considering that

the main focus of their critique, the anger, was what became John Osbornes trademark. It was George Fearon, a press officer, who introduced the Angry Young Man nickname that went with Osborne to his grave; on Christmas eve 1994 the Guardians headline read John Osborne, Founding Angry Young Man, Dies Aged 65. This theme of anger struck a sharp chord on the British theatre scene and it is notably instrumental in creating the plays legend. But were the reviewers shocked by the antagonism that the play and its characters (notably Jimmy) exude, or John Osbornes ability to write such fury-filled fictional work for the stage? By giving John Osborne this Angry Young Man title it suggests that the audiences saw him and the play, and perhaps Osborne and Jimmy, as one and the same. Journalist Harry Ritchie (211) commented that the great publicity of the myth of the Angry Young Men actually created the reality the writers were supposed to be reflecting. The media hype around the plays theme can be viewed as stimulating The Angry Decade, a statement that in 1958 became the title to Kenneth Allsops 1958 book, alluding to the myth-making qualities of the play. The play, in my opinion, was not the source of what became known as the so-called Angry Decade: Osborne was the first playwright to reflect the reality of working-class life in the 1950s and Look Back Anger presently exposed this anger to the media in the shape of the Angry Young Man, who just personified the popular feeling of young people of the times. Anger is clearly the overriding theme of the play and as Osborne details in the title page of Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography alternative titles that were all variations on the same theme: Farewell to Anger, Angry Man, Man in a Rage, Close the Cage Behind You, My Blood is a Mile High and of course Look Back in Anger. In Kenneth Tynans review of the play for the Observer he writes that Look Back in Anger presents post-war youth as it really is, with special emphasis on the non-U

Student ID: 1015875

intelligentisia who live in bed-sitters and divide the Sunday papers into two groups, posh and wet. He argues that Osborne was the first playwright to take a bold step towards a more truthful genre of theatre, complete with the gritty reality of life. In an era of feelgood theatre (Lawson, Guardian) Osborne presented the angry, young, working-class man as he really was which purposefully aggravated negative views towards Britain, the war-time generation and conventional plays. Anger was seen as a negative emotion in the stiff upper lip era of the 1950s with its supposed post-war cosiness (Ellis, Guardian). Therefore the play suggested an air of rebellion and violence: all the qualities are there, qualities one has despaired of ever seeing on stage- the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of official attitudes, the surreal sense of humour, the casual promiscuity (Tynan, Observer.) Jimmy Porter was a foreign threat to the middle class theatre patron and is identified as sourcing disparagement towards the play, such as John Barkers review for the Daily Mail that criticised it as intense, angry, feverish, undisciplined. The Angry Young Man was a side to society that people tried to disregard and when Osborne went and put two acts of this reality on the Royal Haymarket stage, people were forced to face and recognize this uncomfortable truth in the form of Jimmy Porter. Kenneth Tynan also commented that the fact he (Osborne) writes with charity has led many critics into the trap of supposing that Mr. Osbornes sympathies are wholly with Jimmy. Nothing could be more false, which elucidates why Osborne was labeled as the original Angry Young Man, as some feared that the intention of his writings was to publicise and even condone an angry youth culture. In the words of Simon Trussler in his book The Plays of John Osborne he writes that it is not altogether possible or even desirable to separate the resultant myth from the reality. A good play, like any major work of art, accretes associations and spawns its own canon of critical commonplaces. This description of him as the original Angry man is debatable: he was original as a playwright, in terms of writing a play that displayed the reality of life for

Student ID: 1015875 the young working class man, complete with his boiling anger. But his play merely acted as the vehicle to publicise this hidden face of society - in British Theatre, which then led to a media event (Allsop, 11) and to the creation of the Angry Young Man, which meant that it could no longer be ignored. The critic for the New Stateman and Nation reviewed Look Back in Anger as not a perfect playit is an exciting one, abounding with life and vitalityIf you are young it will speak to you. If you are middle-aged, it will tell you what the young are feeling. The Angry Young Man was a character invented by the media (Allsop, 11) as a stereotype to represent the young male adult of the 1950s- the real life Jimmy Porters- and demonstrates how the war between classes had started to spread into a simultaneous war between generations (Sierz.) In the words of Professor George Steiner (255), the mumble of the drop out, the fuck off of the beatnik, the silence of the teenager in the enemy house of his parents, are meant to destroy. Although John Barber critiqued the play in the Daily Express for being even a little crazy he mentions how it was young, young, young. Jimmy Porter crashes into the neat and predictable middleclass theatre scene, ranting, cursing and wallowing in self-pity in the setting of a dreary Midlands flat, where pleasant, civilized conversation and manners are non-existent. Ivor Brown, on BBC radios The Critics criticised the plays setting for unspeakably dirty and squalid. Its difficult to believe that a colonels daughter, brought up with some standards, would have stayed in this sty for a day. Even before actor Kenneth Haighs (Jimmy Porter) first line, some were already feeling strongly negative towards the play

and what it was saying about the state of the countrys young people. In the opening lines of the play Jimmy, who is described as a young neurotic who lives like a pig, tells cliff that he is ignorant like a peasant; such savage talk had never before been seen in British Theatre (Cecil Wilson, Daily Mail.) Anthony Cookman for Tatler described the play as a self-pitying snivel and commented on Jimmys chronic disease of nagging as an

Student ID: 1015875 increasingly growing bad habit of young people, as nothing is so comforting to the young as the opportunity to feel sorry for themselves. It is clear from this statement that the war between generations was well established before Osbornes play was produced and can go some way to explaining why the play initially got a rather unsatisfactory reception when studied in regards to its 55 year legend with the knowledge of hindsight. Osborne was a young playwright, writing honestly about the feelings of the young (in

particular males) and he was the first to do so. The Manchester Guardian expressed that it knew exactly what the play was intending to do but suggests that it failed: the author and the actors do not persuade us that they speak for a new generation. However, one can argue that many of these critics were reviewing with bias, positioned on the older side of this generation war and already holding prejudices against this new cohort of young people. Tynam summerises this idea in his review in the Observer, an article that is heralded as making the play the success it is today: I agree 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 twenty and thirty. And this figure will doubtless be swelled by refugees from other age-groups who are curious to know precisely what the contemporary young pup is thinking and feeling. The play shocked the British theatre scene in 1956 because it was the voice of a new generation (Lawson, Guardian.) The success of Look Back in Anger escalated due to the plays representative and informative qualities: Osbornes text was relatable to young adults whilst simultaneously acting as an informative insight on the young people of the 1950s for other generations. In the words of Kenneth Tynan: It is the best young play of its decade.

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The hostility towards the play when it was first released can also be understood due to the unfamiliar audience reaction: they may have felt a frightening feeling of familiarity when watching Jimmy Porter, the only difference being that he voiced in language riding on a high emotional charge (Kitchin, 30), what every other man thought in the 1950s but didnt dare to share. Ronald Hayman comments that thousands of people wanted to feel that, like Jimmy, they were full of febrile energy and immune to endemic complacency. The reality of the plays awakening effect is illustrated in the story of a young Australian painter brought up in a remote mining community who found that Porters sardonic quotations from the Sunday papers at the start of the play gripped his attention instantly, because they expressed feelings which he had long been disturbed by himself. What he found in Osborne was a kind of safety valve (Kitchin, 101.) It is these feelings that may explain why a relatively ordinary, if not dull outing to the theatre was made explosive in the press by critics such a John Russel Taylor (9) who wrote that if ever a revolution began with one explosion it was this. And why one revered theatre dame according to Osborne refused the part saying his text should be thrown into the river and washed out to sea so that it can never be seen again (Lawson, Guardian.) Jimmy reflects the deepest, darkest thoughts of the audience and is the first character who broke up the death mask of loftiness with which previous writers had attempted to disguise their emotions. Although Osborne claimed to have not been expressing a message with his play, it is obvious that Jimmy is the message (Sierz) and as Harold Clurman points out, the English relate with the anger because the jitters which rack Jimmy, though out of proportion to the facts, are in the very air the Englishman breathes (Taylor, 174.) The audiences shock sources from the recognition that Jimmy, the brute, voices opinions they have long held but never shared and he is representative of all those who deplore the tyranny of good taste and refuse to accept emotional as a term of abuse (Tynan, Observer.) Osborne did not write

Student ID: 1015875 the play with the intention of creating The Angry Decade, but instead this myth was lifted out of his play because of the audiences profound need for it (Sierz.) In conclusion, due to the Osbornes honesty in adapting the reality of the young,

working class mans life for the stage and capturing his paramount feeling of anger, Look Back in Anger became highly controversial after its opening night in 1956. A turning point in British theatre history as Osborne provided his audience with what he described as lessons in feeling and this is lived out through Jimmy Porter, a character whose anger expressed a growing feeling amongst the young adults of 1950s Britain. In the words of Kenneth Tynan: Mr. Osborne is their (the real-life Jimmy Porters) spokesman in the London theatre. Osbornes intention for his play was not to fuel what is sometimes referred to as the Angry Decade (Allsop) and neither was this a side-effect, but instead he just illuminated an on going and overlooked truth to the audience. Criticism was sourced from a desire not to want to see this reality that Osborne exposes; growing tensions between the rebellious youth and the more conventional war-time generation; and a frightening realisation amongst audience members of a similarity between themselves and Jimmy. Out of the audiences need for anger arose the media hype in the form of the Angry Young Man- which has gathered a collection of interpretations relating to Jimmy Porter, Osborne himself and a popular feeling of the decade. Although today the play does not have the same impact that it had in 1956, due to the fact that the social contexts within the play do not apply in the same way to todays world, this itself shows how fundamental the play has been in shaping British theatre and what is staged in the present day. Kenneth Tynan wrote for the Observer: I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger - and I agree.

Student ID: 1015875 Works cited Allsop, Kenneth. The Angry Decade: A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the 1950s. London: Peter Owen, 1958. Print. Barker, John. Review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Express, May 9, 1956. Print. Billington, Michael. Review of Look Back in Anger in Anger in Guardian, June 8, 1989. Print. Ellis, Samantha. Review of Look Back in Anger, May 1956 in Guardian, 21 May 2003. Print. Elsom, John. Post-War British Theatre. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Print. Kitchin, Laurence. Mid- Century Drama. London: Faber, 1962. Print. Hobson, Harold. Review of Look Back in Anger in Sunday Times, 13 May 1956. Print. Hope-Wallace, Phillip. Review of Look Back in Anger in Manchester Guardian, 10 May 1956. Print. Lawson, Mark. Article: Fifty years of Anger in Guardian, 31 March 2006. Print. Osborne, John. Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography Vol.II, 1955-66. London: Faber, 1991. Print. Osborne, John. Look Back in Anger. London: Faber, 1957. Print. Paton, Maureen. Review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Express, 8 June 1989. Print. Ritchie, Harry. Success Stories: Literature and the Media in England 1950-59. London: Faber, 1988. Print.

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Sierz, Aleks. John Osborne and the Myth of Anger. In-Yer-Face Theatre Archives (1996): http://www.inyerface-theatre.com/archive13.html Steiner, in notes to Kingsely Amis. Lucky Jim: With an Introduction by the Author. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990. Print. Taylor, John Russel. Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama. Eyre Methuen, 1969. Print. Taylor, John Russel. John Osborne Look Back in Anger: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1968. Print. Trussler, Simon. The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment. Gollancz, (1969): 40. Print. Tynan, Kenneth. Review of Look Back in Anger in Observer, 13 May 1956. Print. Wilson, Cecil. Review of Look Back in Anger in Daily Mail, 9 May 1956. Print.