Oliver & Boyd Ltd
Although Look Back in Anger is not termed an absurd play like Waiting for Godot it does contain some conventions of an absurd play. When the curtain opened to an ‘unfamiliar scene of cramped, suburban shabbiness, with Alison Porter performing the most mundane of task-the ironing’, it provided the first shock of the play to the audience. John Osborne depends on speeches rather than action and scenery to keep the play afloat.
(Shellard, 2000, P51) Look Back in Anger made its controversial entrance to the theatrical scene on 8th May 1956, at the time of the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian uprising and a British housing shortage, and the fact, that the two major political parties in Britain appeared to be moving closer together. It had the result of disillusioning many who had formerly been active in politics.
It seemed to many young men and women that it was no longer realistic to suppose that everything would be different if only one party were out of power and the other in, they were in the situation which Jimmy Porter outlines in Look Back in Anger when he says ‘I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave causes left’. (Osborne, 1957, P89) Look Back in Anger is considered to be one of the first ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas.
The term ‘kitchen-sink’ originated in the literature of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It aims to provide a vivid picture of working class life in all its often-unpleasant reality. A ‘kitchen-sink’ drama has the following characteristics: – it is always set in a working-class environment; usually a bed-sit or flat. It always deals with domestic issues, with conflicts that take place between people who are poor and live in cramped conditions. The genre uses everyday language in an attempt to provide the audience with an accurate picture of one section of society.
The play is about ordinary people locked into a relationship. They do mundane things like reading papers, making tea and ironing. The setting of the play- in the Porters’ one-room flat- is a theatrical revolution in itself. The morning after the first performance critics and commentators described it in various ways such as ‘the appearance of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger… was to the new move in British theatre as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was to the initiation of World War One: it triggered the action, but in itself was more effect than cause.
‘ (Banham, 1969, P1) John Osborne is dubbed the ‘Angry Young Man’ for dramatically highlighting his perception of class distinctions and social injustice. Osborne’s Jimmy Porter is lost in a world that seems to offer him no clear status and which he certainly does not find funny. Jimmy Porter hits out in anger and frustration. The play expressed a youthful frustration at the post-war establishment, which had never been seen before on a London stage. The youth were frustrated at the establishment because they expected changed after World War Two and did not get it.
A critic argued that Look Back in Anger ‘marks the real break-through of “the new drama” into the British theatre, and Osborne himself remains… the first of the angry young men and arguably the biggest shock to the system of British theatre since the advent of Shaw’. (Banham, 1969, P1) Look Back in Anger got a good deal of criticism on its opening. The play did not immediately establish itself as a hit; it played a little below break-even figures until the English Stage Company agreed to let an act of it be shown on television.
Audiences no longer had to rely entirely on what the critics said in order to decide whether to go to see a play or not. Look Back in Anger was one of the first plays to demonstrate that television might be a valuable form of advertising to get people to go to the theatre. At once the takings increased to nearly double in two weeks. Look Back in Anger is a piece of straightforward dramatic realism, but with a particular emphasis on people rather than plot.
Jimmy Porter was clearly recognised both by his parent’s generation-who were shocked by him- and by his own generation who acclaimed him, not as a hero, but as fact. To some Jimmy Porter seemed merely a rebel, but what Osborne is trying to show is a nonconformist. Jimmy is an objectionable young man who abuses his friends, insults his wife, attacks his parents and engages in self-pity. Yet he is loved by Alison, Helena, Cliff and also by some of the audience. Jimmy is intelligent, sensitive, energetic and willing to offer passion and energy to society, but he finds no one wants what he has to offer.
His life with Alison is dominated by his consciousness of her middle-class upbringing. Jimmy attacks Alison for being what she is, and yet wishes that he could treat her as her upbringing might lead her to expect. The ending of the play-with the image of the bear and squirrel is in many ways an unsatisfactory ending to the play. However critic Bamber Gascoigne said that ‘this seemed a painfully good ending, admirable in its irony. The pattern of the play was clearly a circle; we were back where we started and tomorrow the agony would begin all over again.
This is like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot were the play ends where it begun, with a repetition that forbids action. In the case of Waiting For Godot Vladimir and Estragon are still ‘waiting for Godot’ and will continue to wait until Godot arrives. (Banham, 1969, P18) Both Look Back in Anger and Waiting for Godot had a strong social impact for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons for them being so controversial is because they both undermined the traditional conventions of the theatre in various ways.
In the case of both plays audiences were so shocked by what they were seeing and showed their disapproval by walking out of the performance; it almost became the fashionable thing to do with Waiting for Godot. In Waiting for Godot members of the audience who did sit it out until the end were completely stunned by the ending. The play had been an entirely new experience; it had taken the audience into a new broadening of their imagination. The play ends without any real conclusion. The audience tends to leave the play in a state of total ignorance.
Nothing makes sense. Beckett has told you nothing about how to resolve man’s plight; he has merely presented you with a snapshot of how his characters react to their plight. Look Back in Anger, on the other hand, was merely stimulating. The characters, story and the plot were unexceptional.
Books Banham, M. (1969). Osborne. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd Ltd. Beckett, S. (1954). Waiting for Godot. USA: Grove Press. Boxall, P. (2000). Samuel Beckett Waiting For Godot/Endgame: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd.