Osborne and His Depiction of the British Working Class – ‘Look Back in Anger’

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) opens with three characters – Jimmy and Alison Porter, and their friend Cliff Lewis – huddled together in a closed attic house on a Sunday evening. The atmosphere is not a jovial one as one would expect to see shared amongst friends. Rather, it is clouded with an amalgam of emotions and tensions – Jimmy’s bitterness and discontent, Cliff’s carefree nonchalance and Alison’s quiet withdrawal from the chaos of the room.

The most striking character is that of Jimmy’s, who embodies the image of the “angry young man” typically seen in post-modernist kitchen-sink dramas. He is introduced to the reader by the playwright as “a mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends.” Jimmy is insensitive, loud and vehement. Overcome with a complete sense of ennui and detachment from life, Jimmy is seen complaining about his depressing, repetitive Sunday routine. Surrounded by piles of newspapers and weekly magazine sections which depress him as he reads on about the latest updates in the socio-political sphere, he feels numbed by the mechanical, almost clockwork drill of “reading the papers, drinking tea, ironing”. Jimmy is on the brink of being consumed by the existentialist Void, or vacuum – a concept conceived by Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). Fear of the Void, or a sense of being surrounded by utter nothingness forces Jimmy to cling to the white noise in the background of his life – the monotony of Sunday routine. Becoming aware of the real apathy and emptiness of life would lead to his self-destruction. And so, he clings to the basic formulaic habits that are absurd in the very same way he refuses to question their origins.  For him, this routine is inescapable – “A few more hours and another week gone. Our youth is slipping away.” This existentialist Void has been described by many writers and poets as a contagious disease that spreads through human agency. The post-modern poet G.M. Muktibodh, in his poem The Void (1964), depicts the Void as a carnivorous creature with deadly jaws that will “chew you up” and “chew up everyone else”. In Look Back in Anger, we see this disease slowly being passed on from Jimmy to his wife Alison whose life, too, does not provide her with the fulfilment she seeks.

The opening scene of the play also shows Jimmy as afflicted with Sunday Neurosis, a condition wherein, according to Viktor Frankl, one develops a devastating anxiety after becoming aware of the lack of content in one’s life after the rush of the busy week is over. Jimmy finds himself drenched in vague uneasiness, growing more and more irritable as Alison and Cliff quietly move on with the Sunday routine. He suddenly begins finding life meaningless and the most basic habits futile. His discontent bursts forth in the form of jibes made at Alison and Cliff, and remarks like, “Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm”, and “Nobody thinks, nobody cares. No beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm.”

“I like to eat. I’d like to live too. Do you mind?” questions Jimmy caustically as he desperately seeks to quench his hunger for some motivation in life. Alison seeks a similar fulfilment from her relationship with Jimmy. She is vexed by his treatment of her and his misogynistic discourses arising from his own personal dissatisfaction. However, unlike Jimmy who very profoundly expresses his anger and disgust, Alison quietly bears it all, possibly because “she is turned a different key, a key of well-bred malaise” that disallows her from overtly expressing her frustrations. On a Sunday evening, while the two men in the apartment relax and smoke, Alison stands behind an ironing board and furiously irons away so as to keep herself occupied and distracted from her husband’s retorts. Later, as she confides in Cliff, she says, “Tonight it might be all right – we’d make love. But later, we’d both lie awake watching for the light to come through that little window, and dreading it.” Contrary to a symbiotic relationship which a husband and wife are expected to share, Alison and Jimmy seem to be better off without getting in each other’s way. Alison is often the target of Jimmy’s incessant sexist remarks that are meant to hint at her lack of knowledge and awareness about the world. She is called “Pusillanimous” by Jimmy who wishes to attack her by defining her as “wanting of firmness of mind, of small courage, having little mind, mean spirited, cowardly, timid of mind.” Jimmy’s insecurity pervades and seeps through his own self into his relationship with his wife. An acute distrust exists between the two is apparent from the way Jimmy spies on Alison, meticulously searching for something that may betray her disloyalty – “Living night and day with another human being has made me predatory and suspicious. I know that the only way of finding out exactly what’s wrong is to catch them when they don’t know you’re looking. When she goes out, I go through everything – trunks, cases drawers, bookcase, everything. Why? To see if there is something of me somewhere, a reference to me. I want to know if I’m being betrayed.” However, although Jimmy alienates love, or rather is forced to alienate love due to the existential crisis unfolding before his life, he does long for a more intimate relationship with his wife. Towards the end of Act I, he says, “Do you know I have never known the great pleasure of lovemaking when I didn’t desire it myself. Oh, it’s not that she hasn’t her own passion. She has the passion of a python. She just devours me whole every time as if I were some over-large rabbit… She’ll go on sleeping and devouring until there’s nothing left of me.” Through these words, and through the imagery of the carnivore, one can see that Jimmy unconsciously compares Alison to the Void consuming him. Alison, as is evident, bears the brunt of his misery and dissatisfaction, feeling herself alienated from his life. She seems to have a better connect with her friend Cliff who is kind to her, and in whom she is able to confide about her pregnancy and her distress.

Cliff Lewis, Jimmy’s friend, is best understood as a foil to him in the play. Cliff is everything that Jimmy isn’t – calm, patient, loving, optimistic. The two men embody the contrasting attitudes that existed in the era. During the English project of post-war reconstruction, a false sense of optimism was propagated throughout the country, to endow in the youth, a mythical self-image of a great and prosperous country.  While Cliff continued to embody this optimism and joie de vivre, Jimmy has estranged himself from it and sees the larger perspective – that of Britain failing as a dominant player and America emerging as the new superpower. Getting a grip of the harsh reality of the world, he ponders out loud, “…I must say it’s pretty dreary living in the American Age – unless you’re an American or course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans.” Jimmy’s disillusionment with the present also leads to an obsession with the past and a sense of longing for a glorious era bygone. He thinks about Alison’s father, a Brigadier who was posted in British India and whose world looks “pretty tempting” with “homemade cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms… high summer, long days in the sun, slim volumes of verse, crisp linen, the smell of starch” – truly “romantic picture”. Jimmy regrets the passing of the Edwardian Age and has trouble adapting to the sudden change in political and cultural milieu. Cliff, on the other hand, is untroubled by these changes. And perhaps for this reason, he more sensitive towards Alison, looking after her when she hurts herself and offering her his shoulder to cry on when she’s troubled. He also comes to her defence when Jimmy attacks her with his harsh words. While Jimmy obsesses over things that trouble him on a Sunday, Cliff simply intends on enjoying his weekend by drinking tea, or going to the pictures or watching a concert on the television.

The one-bedroom attic apartment where the three characters put up in the opening scene is described as being cluttered with furniture of all kinds – dressing table, bookshelf, a chest of drawers, “covered with books, neckties, and odds and ends”, a wardrobe, a gas stove, floor cupboard, dining table, leather chairs, and Alison’s ironing board. The mess and confusion in the house is symbolic of the cluttered socio-political sphere and also the chaos within the individuals themselves.  The house gives one the overriding feeling of being trapped or experiencing claustrophobia. This setting is typical of most post-modern plays. For instance, Mohan Rakesh’s Halfway House (1969) which also explores the theme of alienation and estrangement from one’s community and from oneself, is set in a disorderly living room in what was once a fairly well-to-do middle class home.” The set includes broken furniture which, “having lost its proper function, appear to have acquired uses dictated by the limitations of space.” In both cases, as in many other post-modern plays, the props and set lay the premise for the action about to unfold and the issues waiting to be addressed.

The characters’ relationships with each other and the set that Osborne describes are therefore representative of the deep-set existential angst of the modernist age. Jimmy is very nearly consumed by the Void of nothingness while Alison and Cliff inch closer and closer to it through their associations with Jimmy.

Works Cited

  1. Osborne, J. 1956. Look Back in Anger. Worldview Publications.
  2. Frankl, V. 1946. Man’s Search for Meaning. Online.
  3. Muktibodh, G.M. 1964. The Void. Modern Indian Literature, Worldview Publications.
  4. Rakesh, M. Halfway House. Worldview Publications.

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