Look Back in Anger
The Hidden Fire: The True Character of Allison Porter
When talking about masterpieces in English theater, John Osborne´s “Look back in anger” must be mentioned. Kenneth Tynan, critic for The Observer in 1956, claimed the play to be “the first totally original play of a new generation” (Bond, 1999). The main character, Jimmy Porter, breaks the mold of the “knight in a shining armor” and brings on scene the “angry young man”. Behind Jimmy´s fiery, outshining monologues stands his friend Cliff and his wife, Alison. Some critics define Alison as a submissive figure, victim of Jimmy´s rage. But this assumption impedes us to discover another reality behind her silence. In this essay I argue that Alison is not really a passive character and how the couple is just evading reality with the figures of “the squirrel and the bear”.
Emine Tecimer quotes from Austin E. Quigley: “Jimmy’s attacks on Alison repeatedly focus on what he perceives as her lethargy, her timidity, and her readiness to accept whatever comes her way” (Quigley, 1997, cited in Tecimer, 2005: 14). Before moving on, let´s develop these ideas around Alison. Both her actions—leaving everything she knew for Jimmy— and some pieces in Jimmy´s discourse— “Oh, it’s not that she hasn’t her own kind of passion. She has the passion of a python.” (Jimmy, Act I, p. 37)— demonstrates a passionate, loving and sacrificed woman. What may appear as lethargy could be tiredness from evading her husband´s outbreaks and avoiding confrontation; but why does she act this way? Afolayan, in “Poetics of Anger in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Femi Osofisan’s The Chattering and the Song.”, quotes: Luc Gilleman sees her inactions as participatory. He states that “the provocation – withdrawal interaction pattern in Look Back in Anger appears to be “complimentary” in that one of the partners reacts with the complimentary behavior of submission to the verbal attacks of the other.” [Denison 78]. In fact, Gilleman contends that “Alison’s withdrawal is secret provocation …” (Afolayan, 132). Certainly, this might be true in a subconscious level; Cliff says something that might corroborate that idea: “Cliff —I’m wondering how much longer I can go on watching you two tearing the insides out of each other.” (Cliff, Act I: 28). Nonetheless, those dense silences may not have a defensive purpose.
Alison is a middle-class woman; therefore, she has been taught to keep her composure on every situation, which means she must keep her emotions for herself. Moreover, that is a continuous reminder of her “posh” origins; for Jimmy, Alison is a symbol of the middle class that he resents. Her numbness could be a reminder of his mother as well, who looked after Jimmy´s father (after he came back from war and died) without ever complaining —he always blamed her for not caring enough—. Hence, Alison is in a complicated position; she is between her family and everything she has learned; and her love to a passive-aggressive Jimmy. She ends up taking an inactive position, as she regrets it almost at the end— “I don´t want to be neutral” (Alison, act III: 95)—. Even though Alison manages to stay calm, Jimmy´s fury and continuous judgement overwhelms her. Besides, she still loves her husband and has no desire to upset him back: “I pretended not to be listening – because I knew that would hurt him, I suppose.” (Alison, act I: 28). She is unable to “take his suffering away from him”, for she knows “he´d be lost without it” (Alison, act II: 54). In the end, this lead her to silence. Whenever she is alone with Cliff, Helena or her dad, she speaks and gives us a cold glance of her despair; but when Jimmy appears, his monologues charged with bitterness overshadows anything she might argue. The majority of her few words to him are related to mundane or real things, not to his complaints— “Oh – I haven´t read it yet” (Alison, act I: 11)—. She only manages to raise her voice in front of him when she assumes a maternal role: “Alison—Look out, for heaven’s sake! Oh, it’s more like a zoo every day!” (Alison, act I: 15) and when she has reached her limit of pain at the end.
We should make a stop here and discuss the relationship between Cliff and Alison. To many critics and readers, there could be an affair between them. Even Helena, Alison´s friend, find their relationship as “a little strange- by most people´s standards” (Helena, Act II: 47 ). It is true that they are bonded by a mutual feeling, but not for themselves: they both love— and suffer— Jimmy. Alison needs a confident: she has separated from her family and friends while taking her husband’s attacks every single day; Cliff becomes a support in real life and a counselor— I’ve never heard you talking like this about him. He’d be quite pleased.” (Cliff, Act I, scene one: 30)—; she takes care for him as well. They give each other strength to resist both Jimmy and reality. Time is moving, the world is changing; henceforth, the personages have decided to trap themselves into the routine of “just another Sunday evening” (Jimmy, act I, scene one: 17). Jimmy is aware of the changes and injustices that seem to menace his world, as well as the numbness of those who surround him. As a result, he resists and defends himself from a “pretty dreary” time: the “American Age” (Jimmy, act I, scene one: 17); he intends to wake everyone up. Alison just evades Jimmy´s words and resigns to her new reality (both personal and social), because she has “burnt her boats” (Alison, act II, scene one: 47). This is ironic: it was that “fire” in Jimmy, this sense of life, danger and passion he emanated, that attracted her. His attachment to the past (a one-man battle) and her negative to follow his path only widens the bridge between them. Ironically, the only time when they can be themselves is when they escape the real world and become the bear and the squirrel, then “everything just seems all right suddenly” (Alison, Act I, scene one: 34). By evading reality, Jimmy and Alison break down the walls of social classes and allow themselves to be naïve, playful, natural, even to set free their lust, just like animals.
It is interesting to see how they adopt contrasting characteristics of these animals in reality (out of the game) without being aware. Let´s ignore their casual physical resemblance to the animals and focus on their temper. Most of the time, Jimmy is attacking anyone, just like an angry bear does when in danger or pain. However, when he plays with Alison, another side of his personality comes out: “tenderness” and sweetness. He is no longer a beast, but a teddy bear that one is compelled to love. And how does Alison mirror the squirrel? She is usually evading Jimmy´s attacks; yet, she remains still, like a statute —or a toy—. Only some few words let him know she is there, at least in body — “Oh, give it to him, Jimmy, for heaven´s sake! I can´t think!” (Alison, act I, scene one: 10)—. In the game, she comes out from her impassiveness (Claire Bloom´s representation of the squirrel is excellent to see a cheerful Alison with “crazy eyes”). The game reaches its climax when the innocence becomes lust and the two lovers become one in a passionate instant. Although Jimmy is constantly showing his annoyance, it only hides his real emotions, which means he is not completely authentic either. The fury in Jimmy is nothing but a cover: to his nostalgia—the glorious time of England is coming to an end, while America gains power, invading politics and culture—; his resentment for the opportunities he could never get (unlike Nigel, Alison´s brother) because he is nothing but an educated working-class man and to his many struggles to have a fairly decent “life”, being “a young man without money” (Jimmy, act II, scene one: 59 ), not as Alison´s family and friends. He “learnt at an early age what it was to be angry- angry and helpless”, (Jimmy, act II, scene one: 58) by experiencing his father´s death; he feels rejection as well, thinking that for the love of his life he is nothing but “a dirty word” (Jimmy, act I); and he has nobody to share those feelings with.
Furthermore, Jimmy is also a victim of social pressures related to gender. For a heterosexual man, crying would be inappropriate. He has been deprived of his right to mourn aloud. Thus, he must choose between being an inexpressive gentleman or a rebellious man. His decision affected him and everyone he knew and loved, especially Alison. Another key aspect to consider Alison´s actions in the play is her pregnancy. For her, having a baby was not an option— “It’s always been out of the question. What with – this place, and no money, and oh – everything. He’s resented it, I know.” (Alison, act I, scene one: 29)—. This, as well as Helena´s arrival and subsequent “advices”— “But you can’t go on living in this way any longer” (Helena, act II, scene one: 46)— helped her to leave. Right after the stroke of Hugh´s mom, Jimmy was so demoralized that he even allowed himself to be vulnerable and ask for help “I need you…to come with me” (Jimmy, act II, scene two: 62). In spite of this, Alison was no longer able to help him: she was about to leave him and pass through her own process.
Only one person stayed to face the coming storm: Helena. She was not afraid of being there when Jimmy came back devastated and saw Alison´s note, she was there, as always with “strength and dignity” (Introduction, act II, scene one: 40); that note was actually a big hit for him, yet he used once again his anger as a pivot to blame Alison: “She couldn’t say ‘You rotten bastard! I hate your guts, I’m clearing out, and I hope you rot!’ No, she had to make a polite, emotional mess out of it!” (Jimmy, act II, scene two: 90). Yet, Helena was able to confront his anger and that attracted him. He finally could share his emotions with someone and satisfy his desire, all at once. During their short relationship, she managed to “settle in so easily somehow” (Alison, act III, scene one). Still, Jimmy always loved and desired his wife above all— “There’s hardly a moment when I’m not – watching and wanting you.” (Jimmy, act I)—. Once Alison had lost her baby, she reached the bottom: she was alone. She came back hating herself; she was starting to connect with her feelings, and letting them out— “You sound as though you were quoting him all the time.” (Helena, act III, scene one: 89). At last, she found something to relate with her husband in a deeper, real, human level (besides sex): pain and sorrow. She was ready to be “a lost cause” like Jimmy. Helena loved Jimmy, but she could not “take part- in all this suffering” (Helena, act III, scene two).
Alison Porter is a more complex character than people think. Their story may seem as that of an abusive husband and his martyr wife; but it is actually the tale of two broken lovers trying to find themselves. Behind a mask of no emotions, hides a sorrowful woman trying “to be a saint” (Alison, act II); behind a mask of malice, hides a misunderstood man. The only glances of happiness and authenticity Alison enjoys are those when Jimmy and herself join hands and escape reality in animal forms; in their world, there are no social standards or judgmental looks, just a bear and a squirrel, “all love, and no brains” (Alison, act II, scene one: 47).
Bond, P. “Look back in anger by John Osborne”. World Socialist Web Site, September 14, 1999. Web: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/09/look-s14.html (Accessed April 10, 2017). Falak N., Anila J. “An analysis of identity crisis of Osborne´s character ‘Jimmy Porter’ in Look back in Anger”. Brithish Journal of English Linguistics, September 2015. 20-24. Web: https://www.eajournals.org/wp-content/uploads/An-Analysis-of-Identity-Crisis-of-Osborne—s-Character—-Jimmy-Porter—-In—-Look-Back-in-Anger—.pdf (Accessed April 9, 2017). F. Afolayan, B. “Poetics of anger in John Osborne´s Look back in anger and Femi Osofisan´s The Chattering and the song”. British Journal of English Linguistics, 2012. 123-141. Web: (Accessed April 8, 2017). Osborne, J. Look back in anger. London: Faber and Faber, 1957. Tecimer, E. “The analysis of the theme of anger in John Osborne´s plays: Look Back in anger, Inadmissible evidence, Watch it come down”. Middle East Technical University, july 2005. Web: https://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12606208/index.pdf (Accessed April 9, 2017).
Jimmy Porter as the Figure of Post-War Alienated Youth
1956 can be called the “year zero” because it makes a certain distinction between ‘the old era’ and the ‘new era’. Since after G.B Shaw and Galsworthy British theatre presented nothing noteworthy to hold the attention of the People of England, especially for the generation that did not serve in the wars. The socio-political sphere of England consisted of people pro-establishment and as well as rebels against the establishment. The rebels wanted literature that would represent them, the ordinary ‘working Joe’. When Osborne’s magnum opus ‘Look Back in Anger’ was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre by the English Stage company on May 8, 1956, British theatre was radicalized overnight. The play initially received mixed responses from the critics and audience alike- that is because Jimmy Porter appealed to a particular section of the population. One of the very first critics to apprehend the worth of the play, Kenneth Tynan figures out in his Observer review Osborne’s intended audience: “I agree that Look Back in Anger is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of minority. I estimate it roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of twenty and thirty.” Indeed, Kenneth was right- young theatergoers flocked to the Royal Court Theatre to see Jimmy Porter’s angry ramblings, he represented their own shattered hopes, despair, and hatred. The play summed up, what many of Jimmy’s contemporaries were feeling about their rulers and elders. Great Britain became little England by losing her glory of imperial history. Economic depression beginning in 1929, and lasting a decade made the future of contemporary people uncertain. The labour and conservative party proved their endeavour futile in the making of a welfare state. Suez Crisis diminished the stature of England. This socio-political scenario was reflected brilliantly in the long monologues or what Osborne called “arias” of Jimmy.
Embittered and angry at the betrayal of the promise of the Brave New World, Jimmy fights a lone battle against the sham and hypocrisies of the world surrounding him. He has seen through the monstrous falsehood that went by the name of socialist reconstruction. While the traditionally privileged classes bemoan the loss of the old world, feeling that “everything has changed”, Jimmy knows from experience that old power structure continues to adhere, that ‘everything is same’. He has learned that without the right kind of family background and Oxbridge education, he cannot hope to find a place in society which is commensurate with his intelligence and his aspirations. In contrast, Alison’s brother, Nigel, is assured of a secure future irrespective of his individual merit merely because of the accident of his birth: “Well, you’ve never heard so many well-bred commonplaces come from beneath the same bowler hat. The Platitude from Outer Space- that’s brother Nigel. He’ll end up in the Cabinet one day, make no mistake. But somewhere at the back of his mind is the vague knowledge that he and his pals have been plundering and fooling everybody for generations.” Nigel embodies for Jimmy, the smugness and complacency of the social and political elite, and the absence of any relationship between education, individual merit and social and political power in the present system. Therefore, despite his university education, or rather because of his university education, Jimmy deliberately chooses to run a sweet stall rather than let himself be trapped in the oppressive and soul-killing bureaucratic structure of the welfare state. He has tried, as career options, Journalism, advertising, even selling vacuum cleaners and “seems to have been happy doing this as anything else.”
Jimmy is as class conscious as he is politically conscious. Jimmy hates even his mother for her longing for upper-class gentility. His class consciousness throws his relationship with his wife out of Joint. Jimmy loves Hugh’s mother, not only because she helped Jimmy to open his sweet stall, but also because she belongs to the working class. Jimmy wants Alison to send flowers to the funeral of Mrs. Tanner, but Alison does not feel what Jimmy wants. She does not accept Jimmy’s beliefs and ideal completely- the absolute allegiance that Jimmy demands from all those he is close to. It leads Jimmy to burst into anger and despair. Jimmy’s cynical view of the class structure and political situation and how he reacts to those, vindicates the fact that he is a rebel against the establishment.
Jimmy’s anger is also directed against the institutions of religion. The church and its functionaries are seen to help preserve social inequalities by openly allying with the values and interests of the dominant classes. Religious beliefs function as soporific for social guilt. He mocks Bishop of Bromley for his “very moving appeal to all Christians to do all they can to assist in the manufacture of H-Bomb” and suspects that his wife maybe moved by such destructive appeal. The Bishop alleges that he makes no distinction between the class and it is the working-class people who are trying to blemish his reputation. Jimmy as a representative of the working class considers the appeal of the Bishop as nothing but instigative: “He’s upset because someone has suggested that he supports the rich against the poor. He says he denies the difference of class distinction. ‘This idea has been persistently and wickedly fostered by the working class!’ Well!” For a post-war disappointed youth, who thinks that, “there aren’t any good, brave causes left”, the false religiosity of the Church is nothing but a scam to lull conscience to sleep. If religion is a soporific for the conscience, the ‘Posh’ Sunday newspapers dish out trivia week after week to keep the people occupied with small insignificant matters. The papers and reviews no longer seem to him interesting and meaningful in that he never finds in them the real content that befits an intellectual. The world that surrounds Jimmy is morally Bankrupt, it is dull, uninspiring and demoralizing; a far cry from hopes and expectations that were nurtured in the earlier decades.
From the diverse spectrum of Jimmy’s tirades emanating in all directions targetting everything that maintains the status quo, what comes across powerfully in the play, is the feeling of frustration, pain anger, and discontent. But it is helpless and impotent anger against a condition that is determined by forces over which individuals seem to have little control. The overriding feeling is one of being trapped or blocked in an intolerable, no exit situation; theatrically represented by the closed attic room in which the whole action takes place. Jimmy may be a man of action, but he becomes passive because of the little scope to act in the present historical context. Ronald Hayman goes as far to say: “one of the main reasons for Jimmy Porter’s popularity has been his success as an embodiment of the man of action who is frustrated because there’s nothing he can go into action for.” The causes for this can be located as we have seen above, in the sense of unavailability of a radical political alternative at the time. At home, it was labour party’s failure to break with the politics of consensus. On the international level, too, the growing powerlessness of smaller countries in the face of the hegemony of the two superpowers, seem to have foreclosed the possibility of any individual or collective political action. In comparison to the 1930s and 40s, when heroism and commitment were active values, the present seemed to offer no possibility of a meaningful intervention in society. It is perhaps, this awareness that informs Jimmy’s lament: “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. If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you.”
The complex socio-political situation and insignificance of individual effort led people of the younger generation to indeterminacy and indecisiveness. David Marquand, in Universities and Left Review, opines, “What these angry young men are most angry about is that they have nothing on which to focus their anger”. But interestingly Osborne did not want to call Jimmy an ‘angry young man’. In an article published in the Reynolds News on 1957, Osborne criticized the journalist for using the phrase “angry young man” to describe his motive. Osborne announced in his essay Declaration, “I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards”. What he wanted was to present the result of the problems of the post-war generation. His minute observation of the characters and dealing with psychological problems show how human beings are helpless as passive sufferers in a world where everything is disintegrating. No derogatory expression such as ‘Angry Young Man’ suffices to explain Jimmy’s problems. Jimmy Porter is in fact, as John Russell Taylor says, “Ideally constituted to be the all-purpose hero of the dissatisfied young”.