Look Back in Anger

by John Osborne

Critical Evaluation

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

Look Back in Anger established John Osborne as the leader and prototype of the so-called Angry Young Men, a group of British playwrights and novelists of the 1950’s who shared leftist or even anarchic political views and wrote to express their disillusionment with the status quo. Although Look Back in Anger is not as unconventional or original as it initially appeared to be—its popular and critical success must be attributed in part to the fact that it appeared after one of the dullest decades in British theater—it is nevertheless of more than merely historical importance.

Osborne’s greatest strengths are in dialogue and characterization. Except for entrances, exits, and an occasional kiss, slap, or scuffle, there is little physical action in Look Back in Anger . Instead, the real drama is found in the verbal interplay between the characters. It is also interesting that in this play, as is generally true of Osborne’s works, there is only one character with a real gift for language. Cliff and Alison, who are both at the mercy of Jimmy’s sharper wit, feel they can fight back only by refusing to respond to his insults. Helena at first exhibits some cleverness, but once Jimmy has chained her to the bed and the ironing board, she simply works at being a good audience for him.

It has been noted that the most dramatic, and indeed the most hilarious, segments of Look Back in Anger are Jimmy’s monologues. This is, of course, consistent with the fact that Look Back in Anger is essentially a one-character play—something that is also true of Osborne’s best-known later works, The Entertainer (pr., pb. 1957) and Luther (pr., pb. 1961). Osborne himself had not intended Look Back in Anger to be centered only on Jimmy. Colonel Redfern is a complex character, not nearly as obtuse as Jimmy suggests, and Helena, who at first appears to be the villain of the piece, develops into a rather fascinating individual by the end of the play. Interestingly, it is not Jimmy but Alison who, according to Osborne’s stage directions, is the most complicated of the three characters onstage at the beginning of the play. The fact remains, however, that Jimmy upstages everyone else because of his verbal brilliance.

Osborne’s theory and his practice are at odds in Look Back in Anger . The play is generally classified as a protest play, one that voices the anger of working-class men at having willingly fought Great Britain’s wars only to return to a caste-conscious society that denied them opportunity, advancement, and even an acknowledgment of their dignity. Although the classless society that Osborne advocated could easily find room for weaker souls like Cliff or the suggestible Alison, it would have no place for a Jimmy Porter, who would refuse or be unable to suppress his insistent self for the common good.

Moreover, the play does not end with the triumph of the revolution or even with a useful martyrdom. If Jimmy Porter’s wife has been brought into the working-class camp, that has been accomplished not by him but by life; only because life has brought Alison pain, loss, and the experience of death does it become possible for her to empathize with her husband and, by implication, to surrender to his enormous ego. When the two are reconciled, they return to the fantasy world of their honeymoon; playing bear and squirrel, they retreat from the world. This is a far cry from the joint plans for social action that could be expected from a protest playwright.

Whatever its deficiencies or its inconsistencies, however, Look Back in Anger delighted contemporary audiences, who, like the playwright himself, saw the play as a comedy. If Osborne is to be faulted for writing a play with much talk and little commitment, one must applaud him for creating at least one unforgettable character and for bringing new energy to the British theater.

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Alison in Osborne's "Look Back in Anger": A Critical Analysis


Alison: Situating the Character in "Look Back in Anger"

John Osborne’s "Look Back in Anger" explores and exposes the world of the 1950s, drowned in the visible darkness of post-war disillusionment. The despair and frustration, the anger and anxiety is articulated through the character of Jimmy Porter, the central character in the play.

However, it is through the parallel presentation of his wife Alison that the play gains a multidimensional expanse.

Alison represents a remarkable presence in elaborating the implications of the play’s central theme: protest, though not in its most active form. She is described by the playwright as “the most elusive personality”.

She is an attractive woman with a tall and slim stature and a long and delicate face. “There is a surprising reservation about her eyes, which are so large and deep they should make equivocation impossible”.

Alison: Figure of Resistance and Passivity

With her aristocratic background, Alison represents the society in her own way. She is the embodiment of values of upper-middle class which her husband despises. As a result, she becomes the natural target of Jimmy’s verbal abuse. He abuses her continuously to extract some meaningful reaction from her.

However, having discovered that her only defence is her imperturbability, Jimmy gets irritated by her passive resistance: “She is a great one of getting used to things”.

Alison’s ironing board becomes her weapon of endurance. As she smooths out the wrinkled clothes, she possibly gets to smooth out her own inner creases. Her domestic chores become her pivot of survival.

She might be accused of sitting on the wall, of not taking stand, of not being actively engaged in Jimmy’s intellectual uproars, but she has a different kind of strength: the strength of passive resistance.

Alison: I don't think I want anything more to do with love. Any more. I can't take it on. Cliff: You're too young to start giving up. Too young, and too lovely. — John Osborne, Look Back in Anger

Jimmy vs. Alison: Conflict of Class and Personalities

Alison is basically a well-bred person who refuses to stoop to Jimmy’s level to retaliate on his provocation. She fondly embraces the responsibility and tradition of her upbringing. She keeps faith in an orthodox morality.

However, she married Jimmy against her parents' wishes. Perhaps her love was triggered by pity and compassion. Perhaps she saw him as a knight in shining armour because of some misdirected juvenile fantasy. The way she speaks to Helena about Jimmy is full of these implications: “Everything about him seem to burn…full of sun. He looked so young and frail.”

Jimmy, the extrovert, airing his views loudly and blatantly, “riding roughshod” on everyone’s sentiments, appeared to Alison as a stark contrast to her own introvert calm. During the play, she finds it impossible in the beginning to inform him of her pregnancy. It appears clearly that over the years, they have drifted apart. Or, perhaps, they never were close at all.

On a human level, they hardly have the ability to reach out and communicate to each other. While on one hand Jimmy abuses her for her middle-class adherence to values, her pre-marital virginity, he openly calls her a python, engulfing his passionate advances with stoical coolness and apathy.

She could never accept Jimmy’s permissive sexual code and attitude to sexuality. “It is not easy to explain,” she says to Helena, “it’s what he would call a question of allegiance and he expects you to be pretty literal about them.”

A Classic Scene from the play where Alison is seen at her ironing board while Jimmy and Cliff engage in verbal duels.

A Classic Scene from the play where Alison is seen at her ironing board while Jimmy and Cliff engage in verbal duels.

Tom Witkowski

Alison and Jimmy: Beyond Conflict

On a sub-human level, the level of animals, with little awareness and expectation, Alison comes to terms with Jimmy. When they fail to reach a human union, their world of bears and squirrels helps them survive.

This makes one wonder if Jimmy too, quite like Alison, is juvenile with a solid faith in the world of fantasy because reality can never give him any relief. However, the world of bears and squirrels lacks retention and permanence. It can only offer momentary respite.

However, despite her apathy, Alison knows Jimmy deep down. She knows that Jimmy has suffered intensely but is also shaped by his suffering. If the suffering is taken away, he would be non-existent.

She rightly believes that Jimmy married her from a sense of retaliation; by making her suffer, she imagines that Jimmy is reacting against and punishing the society that she represents. Her friendship with Cliff helps her unburden herself.

We'll be together in our bear's cave, and our squirrel's drey, and we'll live on honey, and nuts—lots and lots of nuts. And we'll sing songs about ourselves—about warm trees and snug caves, and lying in the sun. And you'll keep those big eyes on my fur, and help me keep my claws in order, because I'm a bit of a soppy, scruffy sort of a bear. And I'll see that you keep that sleek, bushy tail glistening as it should, because you're a very beautiful squirrel... — Jimmy Porter

Is Alison Really Just About Passivity?

Alison is not as passive as she is claimed to be by her husband. “I keep looking back as far as can remember and I can’t think what it was to feel young.” Alison may be seen as withdrawing behind a façade of indifference, but her apparent apathy need not be perceived only as indication of tolerance and acceptance.

Unlike most women of her set, she is neither domineering nor ambitious; she has voluntarily chosen a life of poverty, gladly sacrificing the comfort of her home. She has cast her lot with one who manages a meagre existence. However, this life would have been bearable if Jimmy were a reasonable man.

She leaves him in search of peace. She returns distraught after four months, collapsing at Jimmy’s feet and Jimmy takes her up, probably for the first time, with loving tenderness. After the death of her baby, Alison comes to realize the spectra of loneliness that Jimmy has always been in and only then can they find each other’s embrace an escape out of the prison of agony.

This is when they truly communicate, not needing the illusive world of beasts, but as humans, reaching out to each other, no more in anger, but in love.

Original trailer of Look Back in Anger

© 2019 Monami

Critical Analysis of The Play Look Back in Anger

Introduction, a critical examination, autobiographical element, sensitiveness of the hero, the significance of the animal game, a peculiar kind of sexual relationship in the play, the nostalgic feeling, plot construction, technical flaws in the play, the role of cliff and helena, jimmy’s puritanism, jimmy’s demand for complete allegiance, psychological aspect of the play, the sociological background, search your questions, contact form.

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Look Back in Anger Critical Analysis of the Play

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Look Back in Anger

By john osborne, look back in anger the kitchen sink drama: perspectives and criticism.

The 1950’s through the 1970’s saw the rise of one of the most important movements in modern British theater: the Kitchen Sink drama. These types of plays had several characteristics that distinguished them as a break from the forms of theater before them. They can be compared against theatrical movements such as avant garde theater, or the theater of the absurd, characterized by the plays of authors such as Samuel Beckett.

Perhaps the first, and most notable, characteristic of these Kitchen Sink dramas was the way in which they advanced a particular social message or ideology. This ideology was most often leftist. The settings were almost always working class. The previous trend in Victorian theater had been to depict the lives of the wealthy members of the ruling classes. These classes of people were often conservative in their politics and their ideologies. This was not the case for Kitchen Sink theater. The Kitchen Sink drama sought, instead, to bring the real lives and social inequality of ordinary working class people to the stage. The lives of these people were caught between struggles of power, industry, politics, and social homogenization.

Another chief characteristic of the Kitchen Sink drama was the way in which its characters expressed their unvarnished emotion and dissatisfaction with the ruling class status quo. This can be seen clearly in the play considered to be the standard bearer of this Kitchen Sink genre: John Osborne ’s Look Back in Anger . In Osborne’s play, Jimmy Porter plays the role of the Angry Young Man. He is angry and dissatisfied at a world that offers him no social opportunities and a dearth of emotion. He longs to live a “real life.” He feels, however, that the trappings of working class domesticity keep him from reaching this better existence. His anger and rage are thus channeled towards those around him. Osborne’s play is a study in how this pent up frustration and social anger can wreak havoc on the ordinary lives of the British people.

Some critics have noted the irony in the term “Kitchen Sink drama.” The domestic world during this time was believed to be the domain of the feminine. Almost all of the major Kitchen Sink works which take place in the mid-twentieth century, however, are centered around a masculine point of view. These plays rarely centered around the emotions and tribulations of its women characters. The power dynamic between male and female often assumed to be masculine and is an unexamined critical component in many of these plays. Women are often assumed to serve the men of their household and, when conflicts do arise, it is often the man who is portrayed as the suffering protagonist. Women’s suffering is always a result of the suffering of the male.

Though Kitchen Sink dramas gained notoriety in twentieth century British culture for their unflinching anger and criticism directed towards the social, political, and economic establishment, the plays were also significant for the way they depicted the most intimate aspects of domestic life. This was in stark contrast to popular classical or Victorian dramas and comedies which largely centered around the public lives of socially established characters. Before the Kitchen Sink dramas, commentators have noted that in the mid-twentieth century, British theater still produced plays as if it were the nineteenth century. The Kitchen Sink drama, in contrast, moved the action and emotion of the theater from depictions of the public space of people’s lives into the most intimate of settings. The kitchen was considered to be the realm of the domestic, of females and servants, and Victorian drama often excluded any mention of it. Kitchen Sink dramas, however, turned this notion around and made the kitchen the center of familial and social life. In the case of the Porter’s attic apartment, the kitchen and living spaces were all one room on the stage. The boundaries of intimate domestic life and public life were blurred and created a realism not seen before in British theater.

Whether social or domestic, the Kitchen Sink drama changed the trajectory of British theater. Though many of the authors considered to have written in this genre such as Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney, and John Arden never claimed the title of Kitchen Sink dramatist, these author’s plays contained themes of common life that deeply resonated with British culture of the period. These types of plays signaled a resolute shift of British theater into the 20th century.

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Look Back in Anger Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Look Back in Anger is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

Explain the concept of the “Angry Young Man” with reference to the play Look Back in Anger.

Osborne's play was the first to explore the theme of the "Angry Young Man." This term describes a generation of post-World War II artists and working class men who generally ascribed to leftist, sometimes anarchist, politics and social views....

In Act 2, Alison is wearing only a "slip". What is the significance of the change in her dress?

Alison's change of dress, particularly when compared to Helena's, illustrates Alison's assimilation into the working class culture.

What is the implication of the phrase "white woman's burden"?

Jimmy is addressing Alison. In context, the “white man’s burden” was a phrase used to justify British imperialism, as well as the exploitation of non-white people. In this instance, however, Jimmy is using the phrase for his own purposes......

Study Guide for Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger study guide contains a biography of John Osborne, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

Essays for Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger literature essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne.

Wikipedia Entries for Look Back in Anger

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  1. Look Back in Anger Study Guide | Literature Guide | LitCharts

    Look Back in Anger is loosely based on their tumultuous relationship. Osborne wrote it in 17 days while on vacation, and it was first produced in 1956. The production catapulted the 26-year-old Osborne to fame, and ushered in a new era of British theater showcasing working class protagonists in the contemporary, post-World War 2, era.

  2. Look Back in Anger Critical Essays - eNotes.com

    Look Back in Anger established John Osborne as the leader and prototype of the so-called Angry Young Men, a group of British playwrights and novelists of the 1950’s who shared leftist or even...

  3. Alison in Osborne's "Look Back in Anger": A Critical Analysis

    John Osborne’s "Look Back in Anger" explores and exposes the world of the 1950s, drowned in the visible darkness of post-war disillusionment. The despair and frustration, the anger and anxiety is articulated through the character of Jimmy Porter, the central character in the play.

  4. Critical Analysis of The Play Look Back in Anger

    Critical Analysis of The Play Look Back in Anger Introduction. The ventured to stage Look Back in Anger by a young playwright without a valid literary reputation at... A Critical Examination. Familiarity of the Story Line: The story of Look Back in Anger is familiar enough. Jimmy and... ...

  5. Look Back in Anger Act 1 Summary & Analysis | LitCharts

    Look Back in Anger: Act 1 Summary & Analysis Next Act 2, Scene 1 Themes and Colors Key Summary Analysis The play is set in a one-room apartment at the top of an old Victorian house. When the curtain rises, we see Jimmy Porter and Cliff Lewis, seated on opposite sides of he stage and reading newspapers.

  6. Look Back in Anger Study Guide | GradeSaver

    Look Back in Anger is a play that appeared in a time of crucial transition from Britain's Victorian past into the modern twentieth century. Jimmy's rage and anger is his expression of pent-up emotion and his need for life in a world that has become listless and uninteresting.

  7. Look Back in Anger Critical Analysis of the Play - My Exam ...

    Look Back in Anger set up John Osborne as the pioneer and model of the purported Angry Young Men, a gathering of British dramatists and authors of the 1950's who shared liberal or even anarchic political perspectives and wrote to express their dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs.

  8. Look Back in Anger The Kitchen Sink Drama ... - GradeSaver

    Osborne’s play is a study in how this pent up frustration and social anger can wreak havoc on the ordinary lives of the British people. Some critics have noted the irony in the term “Kitchen Sink drama.”. The domestic world during this time was believed to be the domain of the feminine.