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J C E Hitchcock
- Publié sur Amazon.com
"Look Back in Anger", first performed at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1956, is often cited as marking a theatrical revolution. The British theatre of the early fifties, dominated by playwrights like Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, was widely regarded as genteel, well-mannered and middle-class. John Osborne's play can be seen as a deliberate reaction against those values. Its plot is conventional enough. It centres around the stormy marriage of a young couple, Jimmy and Alison Porter, who separate after a series of quarrels. Unknown to Jimmy, Alison is pregnant at the time, and he starts a relationship with her best friend Helena, an actress. Six months later Alison, having lost her baby, returns, and Helena ends her affair with Jimmy so as to allow the couple to be reunited.
What was shocking about the play was its social setting and the attitudes displayed by the characters, especially Jimmy. He is from a working-class family and, although he has a university degree, has turned his back on the sort of well-paid white-collar job that such an educational background would normally have led to in the fifties, working as a trader in the local market, running a sweet stall with his friend Cliff. He and Alison, with Cliff as a lodger, live in a dingy bed-sit in a large Midlands town. Alison herself is from the wealthy upper middle classes (her father is a retired Indian Army officer) and her family resent her marriage to Jimmy.
It was in the late fifties that the term "Angry Young Man" was coined by the critics to describe not only writers such as Osborne, Kingsley Amis and John Braine, but also their characters such as Jimmy Porter and Amis's Lucky Jim, who were seen as the mouthpieces of their creators. Jimmy is, to borrow the title of a famous film of the period, a rebel without a cause.
In another Osborne play from around the same period, "An Epitaph for George Dillon", the hero, himself a playwright, is advised by his agent to cut out the long speeches from his latest play, which are seen as being "too Bernard Shaw". This is not advice which Osborne took himself, although the passionate, emotional "Look Back in Anger" is very different in style to Shaw's plays, which at times can read like extracts from the proceedings of a debating society. Jimmy gives vent to his feelings in a series of long, angry speeches. (As Osborne himself was to point out, there is something formal about these speeches, which he likened to operatic recitative).
In these speeches, Jimmy attacks the state of British society, and often takes the opportunity to have a go at Alison and her family (especially her mother) whom he sees as part of the traditional British ruling class. He is instinctively suspicious of any form of authority and of the establishment. He is hostile to religion and to the growing "never had it so good" conservatism of fifties Britain. He does not, however, himself really subscribe to any alternative system of values such as Communism or Socialism. A frequent theme of his complaints is that there are no longer any good causes to fight for; he envies his parents' generation who could fight the anti-fascist battles of the thirties and forties. (His father was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War).
Jimmy's relationship with Alison is a complex one, perhaps best expressed by the cliché that they can neither live with one another nor without one another. On the one hand, the differences in their personalities and their social backgrounds is the cause of constant friction between them. On the other, they have a deep emotional need for one another, shown by their game of "bears and squirrels". To an outsider such as Helena this is mere sentimental whimsy; to them, it is a way of expressing their mutual love.
One reviewer complains that Osborne had a "tin ear" for dialogue and quotes some of Helena's lines in support of this complaint. The problem lies not with the playwright's "tin ear" but rather with the fact that some people have tin voices. There are plenty of people in Britain, especially from Helena's upper-middle-class stratum of society who speak in precisely that stilted, formal tone of voice as a substitute for feeling. In the fifties there were probably even more.
Although it had enthusiastic supporters such as the critics Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson, "Look Back" was highly controversial when it was first produced, being too shocking for many critics and theatregoers in the fifties. Today it has largely lost its power to shock, kitchen-sink realism, bad language and anti-establishment opinions having become commonplace in the theatre over the last fifty years. Nevertheless, when well produced its emotional power and sincerity mean that it can still be an impressively memorable experience in the theatre.
not a natural
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Sometimes it's useful to be reminded that our world is a place that more often than not doesn't make much sense. It's all too frequently a setting for the display of intimidating and triumphal cruelty that takes verbal forms we may not have anticipated but that we immediately recognize when we hear them. Some among us seem to be virtuosos when it comes to cynically devising and inflicting pain, most often on those we care for and who happen to be close by.
Jimmy, the demonstrably vicious protagonist of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger is just such an unrestrained linguistic thug. He inflicts the harshest indictments, the most injurious epithets, and the most painfully timed indifference on everyone he knows, and he does so for reasons that are never clear. In fact, he needs no immediate reason, wants no immediate reason, and offers no immediate reason.
Jimmy is the sort of unsolicited adversary who is at his best, his most inspired, his most whole, and his most creative when he's angriest. I've known people like Jimmy. Their anger may be signaled by a vaguely demonic smirk, nothing too obvious, but definitely there and bespeaking enjoyment. Though their rage is without discernible prompting or purpose, it fills them with self-righteousness that provides a kind of unspoken rationale. The fact that it's actually irrational doesn't in the least diminish their certitude. The intensity of their anger is too keen and all-consuming not to be justified, and not to justify inflicting derision, shame, humiliation, and undeserved suffering on others.
Though they have no immediate concrete excuses, the brutes I've known have long since put forth a false, flimsy, and far-fetched but insidiously plausible patch work of contextual explanations for any and all abusive excesses. Jimmy is sure that he's as smart and well educated as anyone, and he may be, but he attended a lesser university in the British academic status hierarchy, and he lives and makes a living as a member of the working class. He sees himself as a victim of the pernicious and pervasive class structure that organizes once proudly imperial Great Britain, and he takes pains to present himself as a rude, boisterous, ill-mannered lout, making the case that his oppressors and their hierarchical system are right. Ironically, however, he makes the case so well that its rectitude is suspect. Surely he's putting us on with his overblown caricature of a demonically worthless member of the lumpen proletariat.
In spite of his thoroughly objectionable behavior and mean-spirited character, however, Jimmy enjoys the undying love of his attractive, well-bred, middle class wife Alison. She married Jimmy over her parents' intensely bitter objections, and as his wife we see her standing at the ironing board, making tea, doing laundry, and absorbing punishment but not much else. What is there in this chronically contentious and demeaning relationship for her? We are given little or nothing to use in making even the most weakly informed guess. If I hadn't seen relationships such as this for myself, my parents were a case in point, I'd conclude that the marriage of Jimmy and Allison was too destructive and devoid of everyday comforts to be anything more than an unconvincing literary contrivance.
Jimmy and Alison live with Cliff, a man about Jimmy's age, in his middle twenties, and one of Jimmy's few friends. Though Cliff is relaxed and easy going, Jimmy snipes and jabs at him relentlessly. Cliff does what he must to retain his sanity, but one imagines that he stays with the couple out concern for Alison, and in spite of Jimmy's barbs and taunts. Oddly, Cliff and Allison are openly demonstrative in their affection for each other, hugging and occasionally kissing. Jimmy, contrary to expectations of one as prickly and easily offended as he has shown himself to be, makes nothing of it. Perhaps he thinks it can be based on nothing but friendship. After all, women don't leave men like Jimmy. He's no doubt convinced that along with his boorishness comes an irresistible animal magnetism peculiar to brutishly offensive males. Or something like that.
About half way through, a fourth character enters the play. Rather than going into details and telling the whole story, suffice it so say that Jimmy treats her even worse than he treats his wife. Again, we see the inexplicably senseless and often cruel and painful nature of the lives we sometimes live.
If there is an alternative or complementary theme in this, say class antagonism and its costs to the socially disadvantaged, it's not sufficiently well developed to be more than ancillary. But what we see and hear is thematically strong enough to make the play worthwhile. It's all too easy to lose sight of the fact that our damaging irrationality often assures that the most objectionable among us get the most love, devotion, and other micro-social payoffs. We do what we do, too often meaning victory for sharks and other predators in our vicinity.