From within a few weeks of its opening in May 1956, it’s been accepted that John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger ushered in a theatrical revolution. Launching both the Angry Young Man and kitchen-sink drama, the play is held to have had a devastating and irreversible impact on a postwar theatre scene dominated by winsome drawing-room comedies and witless country-house whodunnits. At the time, the play and its message were anatomised in leading articles, discussed by school debating societies, and worried at in the pulpit. In retrospect, its first production at the Royal Court has become, in the words of Mark Ravenhill, the creation myth of the contemporary British theatre.
Over recent years that reading has been challenged by academics, critics and some theatre practitioners keen to question the play’s impact and legacy. They have argued for the rehabilitation of the supposedly moribund theatrical culture that preceded Look Back in Anger, proposed alternative agents for the great changes in the British theatre which undoubtedly occurred in the late 1950s, and questioned the centrality of Osborne’s influence on the generations that followed. Following Osborne’s death in 1994, however, David Hare, among others, leaped to the playwright’s defence, in his memorial eulogy and a longer lecture first delivered in 2002 and repeated on the stage of the Royal Court on the 50th anniversary of Look Back in Anger’s opening. Now John Heilpern has taken up the cudgels in an energetic and enjoyable biography.
Drawing heavily on Osborne’s two-volume memoir (the glory of his later writing years), Heilpern tells of a childhood dominated by loss (his sister dying in infancy, his father when he was ten) and a continued relationship of bitterness and anguish with his mother, whom he blamed for his father’s death (his mother’s statement that ‘he’s never been ashamed of me’ has to be the greatest parental misjudgment since King Lear banished Cordelia). After a short career in provincial rep (in an era when rep ads stipulated ‘no fancy salaries and no queer folk’), Osborne drew on his equally short first marriage in writing Look Back in Anger; when she saw the set, Pamela Lane’s first reaction was: ‘Oh no, not the ironing-board.’ He went on to write The Entertainer (in which Laurence Olivier played the lead), Luther (played by Albert Finney), Inadmissible Evidence (with Nicol Williamson) and A Patriot for Me (which, along with Edward Bond’s later Saved, can be credited with having brought about the end of theatre censorship). Moving through two further marriages in quick succession (to Mary Ure, who played his first wife in Look Back in Anger, then to Penelope Gilliatt, the film critic), Osborne developed a lifestyle to go with his riches, with Savile Row suits, town and country residences, stables, swimming-pools, solaria and plenty of vintage champagne (he once asked his tailor to make him a smoking jacket, aged to look as if he’d inherited it from his father). As his fourth marriage (to Jill Bennett) fell apart, so did his writing career: from A Sense of Detachment (1972) on, his plays were neither critically nor commercially successful. Plagued by illness, and known increasingly for his blimpish opinions rather than his plays, Osborne’s later career provides, as Hare puts it, ‘all too convenient a parable of squandered promise’.
Heilpern charts Osborne’s transformation from the Angry Young Man of the late 1950s via ‘the faux Coward sophisticate and surly teddy boy’ of the 1960s to the English country squire of the 1980s and 1990s. People who knew Osborne personally (which I didn’t) speak warmly of the quality of his company; however, most also acknowledge that his refusal to edit his life or his behaviour had its down side. The angry stalking out of rehearsals and previews (in later years), the vituperative correspondence, the jibes against lefties, gays and Jews (in the name of truth-telling and integrity) are all described, as is Osborne’s bitterness towards former collaborators and intimates alike. Given access to notebooks which reveal ‘a staggering self-loathing and guilt’, Heilpern acknowledges that he is dealing with a man who threw his 16-year-old daughter out of his house, fired his secretary for being pregnant, wrote letters to Jill Bennett addressed to ‘Mrs Adolf Hitler, Pouffs’ Palace, 30 Chelsea Square’, and, following her suicide, wrote of his desire to look down on her open coffin and ‘drop a good, large mess into her eye’.
Despite all this, Heilpern’s deeper purpose is not only to reaffirm Osborne as ‘the unyielding advocate of individualism in conformist times’, but also ‘to reclaim the place of Look Back in Anger in British history from recent revisionists who would have us believe that its impact was somehow minor or even negligible’. Among the revisionists, the most considerable advocate of pre-Osborne British theatre is Dan Rebellato, whose 1999 study is dismissed by Heilpern in a single sentence: ‘1956 and All That deconstructs the Look Back phenomenon along the lines of Michel Foucault.’ For Rebellato, ‘the theatre of the 1940s and early 1950s was quite unlike the theatre we have been told it was’ and the 1956 theatrical revolution was ‘motivated by different concerns from those conventionally proposed’.
The conventionally proposed concerns were with a theatre dominated by a certain sort of play. At least two artistic directors of the Royal Court (Lindsay Anderson and Ian Rickson, the present incumbent) have marked Look Back in Anger commemorations by reading out the West End listings of May 1956, which include a version of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, but largely consist of forgotten country-house comedies, French classics, light farces, anodyne musical comedies and the work of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan (though, unlike today, there were no musical revivals, popstar tributes or shows based on films). In an era when the point of plays was to provide vehicles for star actors to show off their wares, the Royal Court revolution was an assertion of the lower middle class, the unfashionable, the provincial and the direct, against the feyness, falsity and snobbery of a sclerotically self-regarding West End.
However, as Rebellato points out, there was another fault-line dividing the West End from the Royal Court revolutionaries at their remote and unfashionable base in Sloane Square. Coward and Rattigan were gay writers whose subjects and meanings were (under the strictures of stage censorship) necessarily encoded. By contrast, Osborne’s patron at the Royal Court, George Devine, saw his enemy as, in part, a ‘blight of buggery’ in the English theatre, to be countered, as Osborne put it, by ‘a direct appeal to seriousness and good intentions from his own crack corps of heterosexual writers, directors and actors’. In an argument expressed in more forceful terms elsewhere by Mark Ravenhill, Rebellato concludes that what appeared to be an assault on upper-class triviality was in fact an attack on the theatricality of writers whose need to write in code made their work, whatever their intention, subversive of dominant national values. The urge towards ‘something strong, something simple, something English’ expressed by Look Back in Anger’s protagonist, Jimmy Porter, is, for Rebellato, a call for the reassertion of imperial virility after the emasculation of large tracts of the empire in the Attlee years. ‘The whole revolution in British theatre,’ Rebellato argues, ‘can be seen as responding to the linguistic perversity of a homosexuality which seemed on the point of constituting itself as an oppositional subculture, destabilising the vital unities which seemed the foundation of a strong national identity’. Or, as Ravenhill puts it, 1956 was the moment when the ‘straight boys arrived to sort everything out’. For Ravenhill and Rebellato, it was this sense of heterosexual mission that had unjustly consigned the postwar repertoire to the status of ‘before’ photographs in the advertisement of the 1956 revolution.
Heilpern’s counter to this argument is contradictory. He asserts the feebleness of early 1950s theatrical culture, ‘still dressed in dinner jackets and cocktail dresses’, but is keen to prove that Osborne rather admired Rattigan and Coward (and, increasingly, got on with them personally), as if this helped the revolutionary case. He pays hardly any attention to the second revisionist argument, which is that mid-century British theatre was indeed narrow, dull and backward, and that something important happened to change it, but that its epicentre wasn’t the Royal Court.
In plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey or Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, and shows like the chirpy East End musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be or the antiwar polemic O What a Lovely War, the Theatre Royal Stratford East came at the cocktail shakers and the cigarette holders from a very different direction. The Royal Court articulated the anguish and exclusion of, in Kenneth Tynan’s words, ‘the non-U intelligentsia who live in bedsitters and divide the Sunday papers into two groups, “posh” and “wet”’; Stratford East celebrated the festive energy of the put-upon and the oppressed, for whom the Sunday papers meant something quite different. Under the maverick genius of its director, Joan Littlewood, Stratford East was the secondary modern to Sloane Square’s grammar school. The Royal Court put writers at the centre; Littlewood put directors and actors at the forefront (textual integrity not being a primary Littlewood value). And, crucially, while the Royal Court mistrusted the audience (Devine described the audience for The Entertainer as ‘the same old pack of cunts, fashionable arseholes’), the Theatre Royal loved it and sought it out, in the working-class communities that surrounded it and in frequent successful sorties into the West End. Formally much more distinct from the traditional West End than the Royal Court’s social realism, Littlewood’s productions popularised a high-energy, rough and ready, anglicised version of Brecht’s suddenly influential political theatre. Littlewood herself played in and directed Mother Courage in 1955; the Berliner Ensemble visited London a year later. Heilpern notes that Littlewood thought the Royal Court ‘very middle-class and proper, like their leader’, and argues, correctly, that O What a Lovely War followed The Entertainer into metatheatrical metaphor. But of the argument that her ultimate influence was greater he says nothing.
Equally challenging – and equally underplayed in Heilpern’s biography – was an invasion from the Continent. Despite formal experimentation in unexpected places (J.B. Priestley’s time-plays anticipate Caryl Churchill; Noel Coward’s 1930 antiwar play Postmortem takes place in the closing seconds of a man’s life), mid-20th-century British theatre was as resistant to the high avant-garde as it was disdainful of the lower orders. Yet, nearly a year before Look Back in Anger, Peter Hall directed another play with one set and five characters, who perform music-hall turns, make long speeches and take off their trousers; in which nothing much happens, key elements of the first half are echoed in the second, there is a crucial off-stage character, and the two protagonists spend the play trying to leave and end up agreeing to stay. There, however, the resemblance between Look Back in Anger and Waiting for Godot ends. For – as the revisionists point out in their third major argument – Samuel Beckett’s plays changed the vocabulary of theatre, while Osborne’s play is, formally, surprisingly conservative.
Look Back in Anger is a three-act drama, in a single domestic setting, in linear time. The play’s mode is essentially naturalistic: there are no soliloquies, asides, ghosts, alter egos, split or simultaneous scenes, or surreal effects. The plot is essentially about a marriage in crisis: Jimmy mistreats his pregnant wife, Alison, who is encouraged by her friend, Helena, to leave him; once Alison is gone, Helena and Jimmy have an affair, until Alison returns (having lost her baby) and the couple are reconciled. Jimmy’s friend, Cliff, and Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, make up the five-strong cast.
Structurally, Look Back in Anger is gracefully put together, using repeated and varied elements in a way that would be familiar to Rattigan. In the first act, the meandering, circular nature of Sunday-afternoon conversations is elegantly dramatised, as subjects like J.B. Priestley, Alison’s friend Webster and Jimmy’s former girlfriend Madeline are introduced, abandoned, and then pop up again later (there is also a reiterated series of demands by Jimmy for Cliff to make him tea). For most of its length, the only action in this first trialogue is reading newspapers, switching the radio on and off, and Cliff taking off his trousers to be ironed by Alison. It culminates in a silly dance by Cliff and Jimmy, which gets out of hand, upsetting the ironing-board and burning Alison’s arm. Then, in a short scene in Jimmy’s absence, Alison reveals that she’s pregnant. The act ends where it began, with the three on stage, and a speech from Jimmy, full of dramatic irony, in which he wishes that Alison would have a child and that it would die.
Another – Chekhovian – device is Osborne’s use of heavily encoded sound effects. Act 1 has one major offstage noise, the church bells which drive Jimmy to distraction; Act 2 begins with another, which is Jimmy playing his jazz trumpet. Along with the play’s repertoire of visual images – men sitting reading newspapers, women ironing, the toy bear and squirrel which define Alison and Jimmy’s emotional life, and the subtle and less subtle rhyming of later scenes with earlier – the sound effects worked in a way that would have been familiar to Osborne’s audience from the plays that this play was intended to supplant. These elements and usages are not just a means of telling any old story; they contain a meaning: they imply that life is cyclical, that try as we might we cannot break free of the patterns of our past, that one woman at an ironing-board is very much like another, that escape attempts will fail, that for better or worse we will end up with the devil we know. The form of Look Back in Anger is conservative in two senses: it is old-fashioned, and it invites us to a conservative view of the world.
The counter to this argument is that the plot is not the point of Look Back in Anger. It is possible to describe the plot, in detail, with hardly a mention of what everyone remembers about the play: Jimmy Porter’s aggressive, wild and passionate personality, expressed in a series of set-piece speeches, many of them railing against the smug self-satisfaction of the British postwar establishment. Whether by design or accident, Osborne may have chosen a conservative frame for his central character, but it is no more than a frame. What matters is what’s inside, and that is blazingly radical.
Well, once again, you could argue that myth has overtaken reality. As Alan Plater points out, Jimmy Porter is far from being a working-class hero. By trade, he is a very small shopkeeper (he runs a sweet stall). When he isn’t enjoying himself slumming around with Cliff, he’s berating the workers for being noisy at the flicks. Envious of the revolutionary fire he senses in what he calls ‘the Greek chorus boys’ and ‘the Michelangelo brigade’ (at least they have a cause, if ‘not a particularly good one, it’s true’), he confesses he cannot share it. ‘If the revolution ever comes,’ he says, ‘I’ll be the first to be put up against the wall, with all the other poor old liberals.’ In short, when Osborne writes of Jimmy’s ‘rabble-rousing instincts’, it poses a question. Rousing he may be, but one suspects that if faced with an actual rabble, all he’d do would be to tell it to shut its face, or sell it a Crunchie.
Furthermore, it’s clear that Porter’s idea of the good society is drawn from the past. His attack on Alison’s colonial family is tempered by envy: ‘The Edwardian brigade do make their brief little world look pretty tempting. All home-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms … if you’ve no world of your own, it’s rather pleasant to regret the passing of someone else’s.’ There is also the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War (in which Jimmy’s father was mortally wounded), the time he harks back to when he speaks of there being ‘no good, brave causes left’. And although still in his twenties, Jimmy seems to have passed his own golden age, symbolised by his offstage trumpet: ‘He had his own jazz band once,’ Alison says. ‘That was when he was still a student, before I knew him.’ Later, Helena states even more specifically that Jimmy Porter’s problem is that he was born not before his time but after it. ‘There’s no place for people like that any longer – in sex, or politics, or anything. That’s why he’s so futile.’
Even the arias burn out before our eyes. There are 13 big set-piece speeches in Look Back in Anger. Almost all of them end with a puncturing effect: a non sequitur, or an inconsequential line by another character, or the realisation that the character to whom they’re directed hasn’t been listening (the ‘no good, brave causes’ speech is interrupted by Helena handing Cliff a clean shirt).
In other words, far from contradicting the plotting arc of the play, all but a couple of Jimmy Porter’s great flights of rhetoric actually echo it. In his words as well as his deeds, Jimmy makes a series of attempts to break out of the drab stasis of his life, but that life breaks back in at the end, whether he wants it or not, returning him to the point from which he started. The conservative form does not contradict the actions and attitude of the central character: they reflect each other.
And this is no surprise. There is a view that Osborne started out on the left and moved to the right; another that he was always a rebel, just moving his fire round to each new tempting target as it came in range. Certainly, the young Osborne described himself as a socialist, echoing his grandfather’s cheerful definition of a socialist as ‘a man who never raises his cap to anyone’. But his writings suggest that the Angry Young Man was father of the old one. So although Osborne supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (and was arrested at the Committee of 100 sit-down in Trafalgar Square in 1961), he was never comfortable with protest politics, and (according to his second volume of autobiography) quickly came to see the Ban the Bomb movement as a sinister anti-British plot. As Heilpern points out, Osborne was still voting Labour in 1974 (‘a jolt to the Osborne myth of Angry Young Man turned brawling Tory blimp’), but only because he was not on the electoral roll in Down, South, where he would have voted for Enoch Powell. And when, in the same decade, Osborne turns his guns on, in Heilpern’s words,
the gay-lib movement, the lesbian activists, ‘those longshore bullies with bale hooks in bras’, the militant feminists, the anti-smoking police, the do-gooding welfare workers – ‘God rot the carers’ – the cheery senior citizens groups, the self-improvers and New Agers, the types, the herds, the prigs, the puritans and banner wavers everywhere whose formula for living would reduce life to a political slogan at the joyless cost of individualism and eccentric Englishness,
you feel he’s come home.
So if the play reflects the conservatism of the playwright, what was radical about it? Once again, John Heilpern doesn’t quite answer this question, but David Hare does. The argument is threefold.
First, Osborne brought emotional intensity back to the English stage. He was a huge admirer and defender of the man who performed the same service for the American theatre, Tennessee Williams. ‘In Osborne’s values,’ Hare said in his memorial lecture, ‘you find a love of emotion, of high, true, uncensored feeling.’ For Hare, ‘resentment of Look Back in Anger, and recent attempts to rewrite its place in history, are, finally, resentment of vitality. One way or another, the bald can’t wait for Samson to get a trim.’ In this sense – and only in this sense – Osborne was in tune with an emerging British New Left for whom (as Rebellato points out) the words ‘live, living, alive, the antonyms dead, death, the synonyms vital and vitality, and the related term feeling’ were crucial components of a project to regenerate socialism after Stalin. For Osborne, feeling was a blowtorch to be blasted in the face of ‘the coming homogenisation of everything’.
Second, for all George Devine’s fears about fashionable arseholes, Osborne found a new audience. Each of the great ages of British theatre writing – from the Elizabethan-Jacobean period through the Restoration to the turn of the 20th century – has spoken to and for a newly significant and confident social group. For Osborne, it was the generation too young to have fought in the Second World War but old enough to have benefited from the 1944 Education Act, who had escaped from the lower middle and working classes but had not been accepted by the class they had joined. Jimmy Porter is the most vivid representative of the children for whom the welfare state had proved an invalid passport; it got them out of a background they despised, but appeared not to allow them entry into a new world in which they felt comfortable. They were left in no man’s land, scornful of the states between whose frontier posts they found themselves stranded. Having missed out on the revolutionary certainties of the 1930s, this generation was contemptuous both of what Porter calls Dame Alison’s mob, the residue of the old gang who ruled England between the wars, and of the working-class yobs in the cinema; contemptuous, too, of their parents’ limited cultural horizons and of the new pop culture – particularly pop music – being imported from America. Indeed, the big speech that Cliff doesn’t listen to in Look Back in Anger ends with Jimmy’s insistence that ‘it’s pretty dreary living in the American age – unless you’re an American of course.’
In those respects, it was a pioneer. Almost all of the plays that have lasted from the late 1950s and early 1960s – especially those by Osborne and his leading contemporaries, Arnold Wesker, John Arden and later Edward Bond – address the alarm that newly empowered but alienated young intellectuals feel at the cultural impoverishment of the class they left behind, the subject of Arden’s Live like Pigs and Wesker’s Chips with Everything. (As Rebellato points out, the hostility to ‘the slop singers and the pop writers and the film-makers and women’s magazines’ expressed at the end of Wesker’s Roots could have come straight out of an editorial in Universities and Left Review). Many of the plays of this period deal with unsuccessful acts of revolt or failed attempts to build a new society, from Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and Armstrong’s Last Goodnight to Wesker’s I’m Talking about Jerusalem and Their Very Own and Golden City (and indeed Chips with Everything). And the embittered outsider as hero – like the rant as form – marks the rest of Osborne’s work from Inadmissible Evidence to The Hotel in Amsterdam.
Osborne and Wesker’s alarm about popular culture was swept away by the generation who grew up in the 1960s, but the cycle of youthful idealism mugged by dashed hopes remained the basic arc of the plays by the political dramatists of the 1970s, including Trevor Griffiths’s Occupations, Howard Brenton’s Magnificence, David Hare’s Plenty and much of my own work. Nearly twenty years on from those plays, the climax of Hare’s The Absence of War (1993) consists of the leader of the Labour Party, facing defeat in a general election, trying to recapture the rhetorical fire of his past, and finding he can’t cut it any more. Great rhetoric punctured by a failure of nerve, bang followed by whimper: you can draw a direct line back from Hare’s George Jones to Jimmy Porter.
And onwards to today. The third anti-revisionist argument is that – by putting the playwright back at the centre of the theatre – Osborne opened the door to wave upon wave of socially engaged new theatre writing, from 1957 all the way to the present. Certainly, and unlike Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, the Devine regime at the Royal Court brought about a fundamental shift in power from the director and the actor to the playwright, artistically, critically and contractually. (It’s not true, as Heilpern asserts, that only ‘dramatists of stature’ are consulted about casting; since 1981, all British playwrights have had the right to approve casting, attend rehearsals, and to prevent unwanted changes in their work.) Indeed, in Hare’s view, one of the covert motivations of the revisionists is to drag some of that power back to the directors.
The result of this has been that while there have been periods when the energy of new writing appeared to shift elsewhere (to television in the mid-1960s, to the novel and film in the mid to late 1980s), the theatre has been the most consistent site for exploration of the state of Britain; and whenever one generation appeared to run out of steam, a new one appeared to renew the project, in conversation with new audiences. This happened in the 1970s with playwrights who emerged from the student revolt of the late 1960s (such as Hare and Brenton), in the 1980s with a generation of women playwrights for whom the Royal Court provided the first major platform, and again in the 1990s when the ‘in-yer-face theatre’ of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill spoke for the generation who grew up in the era of Thatcherism, Ecstasy and Aids. Beside these waves of new energy, Littlewood’s proletarian populism burned only fitfully. And while both Harold Pinter and (arguably) Tom Stoppard started out as British absurdists, the influence of Beckett across the whole range has been less than in any other European country.
John Heilpern says none of this, because he neither knows very much about Osborne’s successors (he thinks David Hare co-wrote Howard Brenton’s Weapons of Happiness) nor likes the little he does know. In particular, he cannot bring himself to accept that Ravenhill’s seminal Shopping and Fucking (1996) has anything in common with Look Back in Anger (except for being presented at the Royal Court). In fact, if proof were needed that Look Back in Anger fired an arrow that flew pretty unerringly from the late 1950s via the revolutionary playwrights of the 1970s and the women playwrights of the 1980s to the mid-1990s bratpack and beyond, it is the plays of Mark Ravenhill. Accused of being about ‘the death of all feeling’, both the milieu and the dramatic geometry of Shopping and Fucking are a surprisingly direct echo of Look Back in Anger. Its central trio of characters are two anguished, prolix, self-destructive and emotionally incontinent young men, and a woman trying desperately to stop them self-immolating. And, far from being a celebration of a generation which can’t see beyond next Tuesday or back past last weekend, the play is a kind of elegy for lost political certainties. In Ravenhill’s later play Some Explicit Polaroids, an Aids victim who is refusing to take the medication which will save his life admits: ‘I want Communism and apartheid. I want the finger on the nuclear trigger. I want the gay plague. I want to know where I am.’ This is perilously close to a paraphrase of Jimmy Porter’s ‘no good, brave causes’ speech, 43 years on.
The final page of illustrations in Heilpern’s biography is captioned ‘the legacy’, and consists of stills from recent revivals of two relatively minor Osborne plays. David Hare is right to point out that Osborne’s first five plays at the Royal Court looked great then and still look pretty good today. But Osborne’s real legacy is not the continued life of his own plays, but those of generation after generation of writers of whom he would doubtless disapprove (and who might well disapprove of him), which would not have been written for the theatre, or for any medium at all, without Look Back in Anger.