Look Back in Anger Synopsis
John Osborne’s classic play, Look Back in Anger, has been adapted many times, both for stage and screen, since it first burst onto the theatre scene on 1956, creating quite a stir as it did so.
The play is often hailed as the first major example of work by a group of playwrights who became known as the ‘angry young men’, preoccupied with the social issues of the time. The context is important, as the play addresses the feelings and frustrations of many working class people of the 1950s. It is also important to remember that this play was one of the first to feature ‘realistic’ people, harsh realities and brutal social commentary. Even the fact that the protagonist is from a working class background was quite controversial for theatre audiences of the time.
The plot is set in a small town in England and revolves around Jimmy Porter, his wife, Alison, and their lodger, Cliff. The married couple are from very different backgrounds; Alison is educated and comes from an upper middle-class family (her father is a Colonel in the army), whereas Jimmy is from a working-class background and fiercely proud of his roots. He is more educated than Cliff, the lodger, but they are best friends and run a stall selling sweets together.
Jimmy is angry with Alison, resenting her educated, more privileged upbringing. He is also antagonistic towards Cliff, taunting him about his lack of intelligence. His anger is directed towards Alison for being ‘above’ him and Cliff for being ‘below’ him, socially. He is displaced, unhappy with his lot and yet defensive of it.
When Jimmy’s teasing and antagonising escalate, Cliff tries to keep the peace and the pair have a play fight, which gets rough and knocks Alison over. She makes Jimmy leave and confides in Cliff that she is pregnant with Jimmy’s child. Instead of telling Jimmy when he returns, they play a childish game that allows them to escape from the real issues facing them. However, reality quickly interrupts when Alison tells him her friend, Helena, is going to visit. Jimmy rants nastily about Helena, wishing her to suffer, to have a child and lose it, so that she will understand suffering. When Helena stays, Alison confides in her about her marriage and Helena sees, first-hand, what Jimmy is like when he gets worked up and taunts her. Helena convinces Alison to leave Jimmy, but her motives are questionable—she replaces Alison in the home, despite bitterly rowing with Jimmy after his wife leaves.
When Alison returns with the news that she lost Jimmy’s baby, the women are reunited and Helena decides to leave, feeling guilty over her part in the breakup of the marriage. The play ends with Jimmy and Alison returning to their childish game with hints of a reunion.
The play’s most memorable moments are Jimmy’s angry tirades and outbursts. He represents the frustrations of the age, and these are communicated with a realism that was ground-breaking at the time that the play was first performed, and continue to be mesmerising and relevant today.
Look Back in Anger Characters