In early May 1956, Britain was rehearsing for destruction. A civil defence exercise took place in London and Birmingham, based on the hypothesis that 10-megaton hydrogen bombs had exploded at dawn. The Times reported volunteers with fake blood and burns lying on street corners, waiting to give practice for ambulances and police cars.
Within four months, there would indeed be a war, although it involved not a Russian nuclear attack on the UK but Egypt's seizure of a vital shipping channel. But, between the Eden government's dry-run for atomic apocalypse and its implosion over Suez, the capital's theatre district was shaken by a metaphorical explosion of its own: on May 8, the Royal Court theatre premiered a first play by a 26-year-old actor called John Osborne.
The other big London theatrical opening of the week was The House by the Lake, a Christie-ish crime comedy by Hugh Mills about two people trying to kill the same man. The major movie opening was Hitchock's The Trouble With Harry. The literary pages were excited by Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. On what was still called the wireless, the BBC Third Programme had just premiered a verse-drama by the poet Louis Macniece, called The Dark Tower.
The legend is that Look Back in Anger changed British theatre for ever, replacing stage-sets of Belgravia mansions with a drab Midlands flat, and smart upper-class remarks with the angry anti-establishment rants of its hero, Jimmy Porter.
It's a measure of how unexpected the setting was that, at the first performances, the sight of Alison Porter's ironing-board on stage is said to have drawn from the audience the sort of gasp of surprise otherwise achieved only by the most innovative cinematic special effects. In an era of feel-good theatre (although Rattigan's plays were darker or deeper than their first productions allowed them to be), Look Back in Anger deliberately provoked bad feelings about Britain, the war-time generation and conventional drama.
Certainly, the ruling forces of the UK stage seem to have sensed a revolution. The impresario "Binkie" Beaumont, camp baron of the profitable comedy and well-made play and with 40 theatres at his command, walked out of Look Back in Anger at the interval. Terence Rattigan, Beaumont's house dramatist and the author of The Winslow Boy and Separate Tables, tried to follow him but was dissuaded by TC Worsley, theatre critic of the Financial Times. Even so, when Rattigan left at the end and was asked by a reporter what he thought, he trembled: "I think the writer is trying to say: 'Look how unlike Terence Rattigan I am, Ma!'"
It's in the nature of the theatre that even its great events are momentary and vanish. But this particular evening at the Court is even harder to reconstruct than most, because of the melancholy fact that almost no one connected with Look Back in Anger caused much trouble to the pension industry.
Osborne was just 65 when he died in 1994. The director, Tony Richardson, had gone three years earlier, aged 63. Mary Ure, who played Alison Porter, though the youngest of the cast, had not even lived until the 20th anniversary, dying in 1975 at 42. George Devine, who accepted the play for the Royal Court, died at 55 in 1966. Even Alan Bates, who played Jimmy's emollient friend Cliff, can no longer give eye-witness testimony; he died three years ago, aged 69. The first Jimmy Porter, Kenneth Haigh, survives, though he is very unwell. For the most part, the gang was variously lost to smoking, drinking, depression and terrible illnesses.
The result of this is to leave historians of the first night dependent on memoirs, and to make the few remaining first-person memories precious. William Gaskill, a young actor at the time, would become a director and run the Royal Court. But in 1956, in his early 20s, he was a friend of Richardson's. The director had shown him a copy before rehearsals and he was "knocked over by it", finding a "passion and freshness, a rhetoric that had gone from theatre: one person speaking directly to the audience".
He remembers his first meeting with the writer. Osborne was "raffish, I suppose. An old-fashioned word! I remember him as very charming and flirtatious. I never saw him angry in person; that only came out in the plays." But Gaskill recalls no sense of history on the first night. Nine years later, when Edward Bond's Saved opened at the Court with a scene of stones being thrown at a child in a pram, there were boos and a feeling of boundaries being crossed. Anger, though, had a much slower impact. The stories of the play's revolutionary effect - such as Beaumont storming out - became celebrated only later.
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot had been staged in August 1955, introducing an unprecedented bleakness of dialogue and design; Bertolt Brecht, a pioneer of political theatre, died in 1956. So, logically, Look Back in Anger, following Beckett and Brecht, cannot have been quite the shock to audiences and critics that the theatrical annals insist. But those challenging dramatists had been Irish and German, and their stage techniques abstract. Osborne wounded the traditionalists much more because he was English and realist.
Osborne had more than theoretical experience of the kind of drama his own play helped to replace. His memoir Almost a Gentleman (1991) records his time as an actor in regional repertory theatres, often working, as it happens, for Binkie Beaumont. Rapidly dissatisfied with acting, he was prone to theatrical pranks. Appearing in an army melodrama, he applied spirit-gum to both sides of his fake moustache so that, after a romantic clinch, the leading actress was left with the facial-hair stuck on her upper-lip. Stage-props were also at risk; a plate of sandwiches for a meal scene would be sabotaged by the addition of what was then called a rubber johnny.
Such stunts led to longer gaps between engagements and Osborne began to write, initially verse dramas in the then fashionable style of Christopher Fry. In 1955, already separated from his first wife Pamela Lane, he was living in Hammersmith with a friend called Anthony Creighton. Gossips insisted that the men were lovers, a claim supported by Creighton in an interview before his death, but Osborne and his family have always denied this. Gaskill, who saw them together many times, says now: "I just don't know. Their relationship was anyone's guess."
Creighton's own ambitions as a dramatist were initially more advanced than Osborne's. Together, they wrote Epitaph for George Dillon, revived last year in London. But on May 4 1955, Osborne noted in his pocket diary the start of a solo project: "Began Look Back in Anger."
The situation of the central character Jimmy Porter - trapped in a combative marriage in cramped digs - recalled Osborne's own situation with Lane; Porter's torrential monologues about the stasis and decay of Britain were distillations of the playwright's own politics. In late May, Osborne took a small part in a production at Morecambe of Seagulls Over Sorrento, by Hugh Hastings. He finished writing his own play sitting in a deckchair on the beach, looking out at sea.
Water would become strangely important to the fortunes of Look Back in Anger. Osborne had persuaded Creighton to spend a legacy from his mother on an old rhine barge, the M/Y Egret, which was moored near Chiswick in west London. Friends always commented that it smelled of cabbage: the barge-mates were experimenting with vegetarianism.
Reading on deck a copy of the theatrical paper the Stage, the aspiring writer saw an ad for a new group called the English Stage Company whose director, George Devine, was seeking new plays. He posted off a script which, after the rejection of possible alternative titles including Man in a Rage and My Blood is a Mile High, was again called Look Back in Anger. On August 12 1955, a grey-haired, breathless man was to be seen approaching the boat, having unwisely rowed out at high tide. This was Devine, who offered Osborne £25 for an option on the Porter play.
It would be staged in a season at the Royal Court beginning with The Mulberry Bush, a drama by the then modish novelist Angus Wilson. Devine was nervous about the box-office prospects of the unknown Osborne and so sought to protect his play by scheduling only a short run before two verse dramas by Ronald Duncan, Don Juan and The Death of Satan. The fact that these supposed bankers are now quite forgotten - and that Anger had to be extended when Duncan's unspeakable historical pieces were pulled off after catastrophic reviews - may stand as a warning for theatre managers against making too many assumptions.
Hopes for Anger were very low. Dozens of actors turned it down, horrified by its bolshieness. According to Osborne, one "revered theatre dame" explained her refusal of a part with the view that "it should be thrown into the river and washed out to sea so that it can never be seen again". It is unclear if this was an instinctive insult or if she knew that the writer lived on the Thames.
Richardson, hired to direct, recalled in his posthumously published autobiography The Long-Distance Runner (1993) that "rehearsals were terse and a bit glum". Osborne's own phrase was "subdued and unspeculative". One day, Richardson gloomily observed that the third act was sagging; the author wrote a quick song on the bus.
Publicity was also considered problematic. George Fearon, press officer for the new season, read the script and summoned its author to a meeting in a pub, where he informed Osborne that he was appalled by the drama and saw no hope of interesting the papers, before offering a psychological summary of the unfortunate author: "I suppose you're really ... an angry young man?" Fearon was, as Osborne recalled, the first to say a phrase that, against the publicist's predictions, was indeed taken up by the papers.
Stage censorship would remain in force in Britain for another 12 years and so LBIA, in common with all scripts at the time, was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, the royal official historically charged with keeping theatres clean. The response of the Queen's blue pencil was, with hindsight, slightly surprising. CD Heriot - a notably conservative assessor who two years later would dismiss Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party as "an insane and pointless play" - seems, uncharacterisitically, to have got Osborne's point. In March 1956, he reported that "this impressive and depressing new play breaks new psychological ground". He asked for nine changes, including "page 41, cut the homosexual reference" and "page 16, alter reference to 'excessive love-making'", but granted the play a licence and concluded with a summary that would not have disgraced a theatre critic: "The play's interest, in fact, lies in its careful observation of the anteroom of hell."
In fact, as it turned out, none of the play's first professional reviewers would be either as insightful or as kind. In his memoir, Osborne recalls waking fully-clothed and totally hungover in his cold cabin and crossing the river to Mortlake to buy the dailies. Even 35 years on, he omitted to quote them, either because the memory or the research was too much for him. But the overnight verdicts still stand as a warning to critics about how much they can miss. The Times complained of the very detail that would make Osborne celebrated: "The piece consists largely of angry tirades." The Manchester Guardian knew what the play thought it was doing, but didn't think it succeeded: "The author and actors do not persuade us that they 'speak for' a new generation." The London Evening Standard called it "a self-pitying snivel".
In his memoir Richardson recalls sitting with Osborne "in the little coffee shop adjoining the theatre and opposite the Sloane Square tube station, frozen in depression, with little belief in our futures". He does not include the savage line that Osborne attributes to him in his own book: "But what on earth did you expect? You didn't expect them to like it, did you?" But, by the time both wrote their memoirs, Osborne and Richardson were enemies, still festering over issues dating from the movie of Tom Jones they made in 1963.
During the first weekend of Look Back in Anger's run, the play was featured on the BBC Third Programme's The Critics, forerunner of subsequent broadcast cultural bust-ups. The programme was presented that week ("conducted", as Radio Times has it) by Sir Gerald Barry, with critics Catherine de la Roche, Lionel Hale, Alan Pryce-Jones and Ivor Brown.
Brown led the attack on Anger: "The play's setting - a one-room flat in the Midlands - is unspeakably squalid. It is difficult to believe that a colonel's daughter, brought up with some standards, which we are led to believe Alison is, would have stayed in this sty for a day ..." The chairman cut in to advise listeners that Alison Porter spent most of the play at an ironing board: "I almost had a nervous breakdown waiting for her to iron one pyjama top."
But though dismissed by The Critics, Osborne was saved by another sabbath institution. Kenneth Tynan, a 39-year-old peacock who championed new theatrical writing with a critical prose every bit as original as Osborne's drama, published in the Observer words that have become at least as quoted as any lines in the play: "All the qualities are there, qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage ... I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger."
Tynan did not generally go short of lovers but, in the summer of 1956, he would have been somewhat lonely if he had operated the veto suggested in his review. Even his write-up did not make the production a significant success. The force that lifted the play into the history books would come from an unexpected source.
This was a period when theatre feared the competition from television; a second British channel, ITV, had been added the previous year. Somehow, however, the BBC was persuaded to screen a 25-minute extract. These days, such a gesture would be artistically unlikely and indeed legally impossible, amounting to little more than free advertising. But the chunk, introduced by the artistic grandee Lord Harewood and giving the play a first stamp of establishment approval, did its commercial work, attracting a new audience to Sloane Square.
Osborne became a celebrity, pictured in magazines in a Rolls-Royce at London Airport with Mary Ure, whose Mrs Porter had led to her becoming Mrs Osborne. The Royal Court became for 50 years the nursery for British playwrights, incubating David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Caryl Churchill, Roy Williams and many others. The title which Osborne had finally decided upon on Morecambe Beach entered the English language, encouraging, among other tributes, a famous headline about a library strike: Book Lack in Ongar.
Oddly, the one thing not to prosper was the play. There have been few major revivals, although Peter Hall plans one in Bath this year and Radio 4 broadcasts a cut-down version tomorrow afternoon. It is perhaps revealing that the piece benefits from this severe trimming, as genuine classics shouldn't.
The problem maybe is that the moment of Look Back in Anger's explosion on to Britain's postwar theatrical scene is impossibly lost. Just as the deaths of all the major participants make the details of the first night hazy, so time has removed the context that made the play shocking. How can we imagine what it was like, in a London caught between nuclear fears and Suez, for an audience that had watched the previous night The House by the Lake by Hugh Mills, to look up from their programmes and find Jimmy Porter raging from the stage?
Critical Overview of Play Look Back in Anger Essay
2087 Words9 Pages
Look Back in Anger
Look Back in Anger has been recognized as a bombshell that blew up the old British theater. However, when Look Back in Anger opened as the third play in the repertory of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre (a company that had been founded the year before precisely to stimulate new writing that would have contemporary relevance), it was not an immediate success. The critical reaction was mixed, but many of the critics, whether or not they liked the play, acknowledged its merits and those of its young author. Cecil Wilson in the Daily Mail assessed Jimmy Porter as a "young neurotic who lives like a pig," whose "bitterness produces a fine flow of savage talk, but is basically a bore…show more content…
Part of the "code" of the Establishment was the "stiff upper lip," that reticence to show or even to feel strong emotions. Jimmy's alienation from Alison comes precisely because he cannot break through her "cool," her unwillingness to feel deeply harmonized with her husband.
Helena is Alison's friend, a very proper middle-class woman. She is an actress who comes to stay with the Porters while she performs in a play at the local theatre. Jimmy has long despised her, as he considers her a member of the Establishment. When she contacts Alison's father and asks him to take Alison home, Helena seems genuinely concerned about Alison. However, she seduces Jimmy and replaces Alison in the household. When Alison returns, Helena realizes that her affair with Jimmy is wrong and decides to leave. Cliff is Jimmy' s friend and partner in the candy stall business and shares the Porters' flat, although he has his own bedroom across the hall. Cliff is a poorly educated, working class man of Welsh heritage. He is warm and loving gentlelman.
Look Back in Anger (1956) is a John Osborne play and 1958 movie about a love triangle involving an intelligent but disaffected young man (Jimmy Porter), his upper-middle-class, impassive wife (Alison), and her snooty best friend (Helena Charles). Cliff, an amiable Welsh lodger, attempts to