Although the form of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was not as experimental as that of Waiting for Godot, its naturalistic technique expressed an intensity of feeling which connected British theatre more directly with everyday life. It represents the British avant-garde in the sense that “it started a national revolution: the young for the first time wanted to write plays, not novels on poems” (Peter Hall).
An early Royal Court flyer describes Look Back in Anger as an “intensely personal play” and “a disturbing comment on Osborne's own generation”. Its central character is an English “rebel without a cause” (a reference to James Dean). The phrase was soon replaced by “Angry Young Man”, an invention of the Royal Court's press officer that instantly conjured John Osborne, his play - whose author, director and lead actors were all in their twenties - and Jimmv Porter's testosterone-laden outbursts. Its shock waves radiated far and wide, rallying a new generation, showing the potency of theatre to speak out in a world of increasing uncertainty.
Osborne disliked the Angry Young Man label, yet could not resist a new car with the number-plate AYM1. Rather than be considered a social critic or spokesman for his generation, he regarded Look Back as expressing his concern for personal relations, which “may have social and moral implications”. He wrote the play in response to a deep personal crisis. After seven years acting and stagemanaging in provincial theatre, he was out of work and traumatised by marital breakdown. His autobiography confirms that the play was the product of “shocked, brooding months” of separation after his first wife Pamela left him for a dentist and the experiences that led to this situation. For instance, he quotes at length Jimmy Porter's account of marrying Alison as a “fairly accurate description” of his own wedding to his first wife.
Looking back on his mental state in the summer of 1955, Osborne recalled the “inertia” of post-war Britain as the Empire slipped away and the “Establishment” clung on. He used Look Back in Anger to sum up the tension between the young and older generations as they faced a radically changing nation: “Jimmy Porter was hurt because things had remained the same. Colonel Redfern grieved that everything had changed. They were both wrong, but that was hard to see at the time.”
Although Look Back in Anger was rejected by leading play agents, Osborne believed that something would turn up and was spectacularly rewarded when George Devine agreed to premiere his play, on 8 Mav 1956 in the first English Stage Company season at the Royal Court Theatre.
Osborne found in Kenneth Haigh a talented actor who could live up to an antihero as compelling as Jimmy Porter; and in Tonv Richardson a director who gave the “extremity” of his writing consistency and credibility. During the summer of 1956, Look Back in Anger continued to attract critical interest, but by mid-September declining ticket sales almost caused it to close three weeks early. Its fortunes were dramatically revived by a couple of television broadcasts, and it transferred to the West End, and then to New York in 1957.
During autumn of the same year, the play toured the theatreless regions of Wales and the north-east in an Arts Council production directed by Frank Dunlop. A reviewer of Colin Jeavons' “superbly squalid” performance as Jimmy Porter noted “one of those rare moments in the theatre where an audience is so completely identified with a character that there is, especially in the second act, an overwhelming urge to go and punch the actor on the nose”.
The urge to punch Jimmy anticipated an incident in New York. With Look Back ticket sales falling, Osborne remembered how producer David Merrick “hired an out-of-work actor to get up on the stage and strike Kenneth Haigh in a fit of fury. The audience was delighted, a photographer recorded the event for Time magazine, and bookings rose ... For $50 it was a stylish investment.” Tony Richardson recalls that the assailant was “a feminist before her time” and the stunt “established the play for a year on Broadway and afterwards a year's tour”.
The above extract is from Unleashing Britain: Theatre Gets Real 1955-64 by Jim Fowler (V&A Publications, £19.99). To order a copy from the V&A website, click here.
As part of its own year-long 50th anniversary season, the Royal Court is holding a special celebration on 8 May 2006, 50 years to the day after Look Back in Anger’s world premiere. Following David Hare’s keynote speech on John Osborne, “I Have a Go, Lady, I Have a Go”, David Tennant, Anne-Marie Duff and Helen McCrory will perform extracts from the play as part of the evening’s tribute, directed by artistic director Ian Rickson. During the rest of the week (9 to 12 May), under the title “The Angry Brigade”, contemporary playwrights – including David Edgar, Christopher Hampton, Philip Hedley and Ramin Gray – and other commentators take part in nightly events exploring the legacy of Look Back in Anger and the issues that are making us angry, 50 years on.
The Peter Hall Company will present a full-fledged anniversary production of Look Back in Anger during its annual summer repertory season at the Theatre Royal Bath. Directed by fellow Royal Court veteran Peter Gill, it runs from 16 August to 2 September 2006 ahead of a possible London transfer.
The golden anniversary is also celebrated this month by John Heilpern’s authorised biography John Osborne: A Patriot for Us (Chatto and Windus, £25); and in July by Looking Back: Playwrights at the Royal Court 1956-2005, a collection of interviews edited by Harriet Devine (Faber & Faber, £14.99). The National Portrait Gallery has a Royal Court display until 2 July, and Jim Fowler’s book Unleashing Britain: Theatre Gets Real 1955-64, is accompanied by an ongoing exhibition at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, which includes the first prompt book for Look Back in Anger (admission free).