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”.
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