He is lost; he is a disenfranchised youth; he rages in numerous futile and impotent anti-establishment rants; he is Jimmy Porter with his ‘own private morality’: the original so called Angry Young Man presented on the stage. Hailed in 1956 as a voice of the new generation, John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger antihero’s ‘mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty’ being unleashed on the unsuspecting audiences arguably marked a new (and fresh) phase of the British theatre.
I have been recently revisiting some of the texts that I first happened upon years ago. I must admit: while I did not quite expect the same response to a text as all those years back (when I was certainly young, often angry but definitely not a man), I did not anticipate a response quite so different when it comes to specific elements of this play. Tension packed, breakneck and frenzied, most certainly absorbing as Osbourne’s play is, there have been some decidedly frustrated moments this time round which I simply do not recall from more than a decade ago. The key themes remain eerily relevant; whether this is the disaffected youth believing in ‘Brave New-nothing’, media content and the effects of ‘a jungle of newspapers’, or politics and/ or marriage. However, even though I read the defence of Osbourne’s stereotypical and, frankly, sexist portrayal of women who ‘bleed us [the men] to death’ as being simply an artistic trope, I cannot help but feel that Osbourne not only firmly cemented the play in the 1950’s but also missed a trick there. Perhaps he was focusing on the presentation of the emasculated 50’s ‘mad, smothered’ male yet I am sure that there were numerous angry young women who felt their life was ‘futile’ too.
Importantly, Osbourne moved the theatre from privileged settings to focus on the working class and the harsh reality of despair. The very setting of a ‘one-room flat … in Midlands’ is symbolic of a whole generation trapped in a system that they cannot see an escape from. Consequently, despite complaining about ‘no beliefs, no convictions and no enthusiasm’ of the modern society filled with political tensions and nuclear military concerns, Jimmy Porter becomes representative of the very same symptom. Jimmy stands for all the disaffected, disenfranchised and alienated youth ranting against the establishment which they feel ignores them. Yet all he as a character can muster are ‘carefully rehearsed attacks’ against the very few people who do care with the blanket excuse that there ‘aren’t any good, brave causes left’, which only further accentuates Jimmy’s lack of direction and purpose in life. Even though the play was considered an example of very contemporary social criticism, the sense of not belonging anywhere, of frustration with the status quo, of pent up ‘restless’ energy and (teenage) angst remain current. Identity crises, perhaps not only in young (nor men), appear to be a feature of modern Western society. How many exist isolated in some symbolic ‘attic’ despite the onslaught of proliferating fragmented media promising giving voice to everyone which converge to comment on ‘different’ issues only to offer the ‘same [re]views’?
For all the rage, however pointless any action may appear, it is rather disheartening to observe the hollowness of the new generation’s efforts as Osbourne presents them. Jimmy as their representative ultimately remains passive, shows no active drive to change anything and comes across as a simply spoilt and self-pitying character clinging onto the overwhelming sense of ‘suffering’ and injustice as ‘he’d be lost without it.’ Although he screams and shouts about ‘the pain of being alive’ and the wish ‘to live too’, apart from intellectual mockery and undiluted aggression within the confines of the ‘one room’, he does nothing. Yet somehow ironically he criticises the ‘delicious sloth’ of all those who cannot rouse themselves to attempt to achieve anything. Personally, it strikes me that Osbourne, in the effort of presenting a generation who are completely circumscribed by the society to the point of numbness, succeeded in presenting an attitude that is also incredibly defeatist: a generation who will ‘just sit there, and do nothing!’ If Jimmy represents young men of his generation, he is reminiscent of a petulant little child banging his fists on the table waiting for someone else to ‘help’ him. He despises class division and its representatives but does not have any qualms about ‘plundering them, wolfing their food and drinks’ with a thinly concealed sense of entitlement simply bordering on envy. He condemns women but does not hesitate living off ‘a few shares’ his wife Alison used to have. From the comfort of his armchair, he points a blaming finger in all directions but his own and rationalises this by dubbing it ‘fighting’.
Certainly my key issue with Osbourne’s play is his presentation of women. From a modern perspective, it would be difficult not to describe their presentation as misogynistic. They seem to be metonymously reduced to ‘irons and saucepans’: the stereotypical roles assigned to them by age old patriarchy. The intellectual and rebellious Jimmy considers those to be ‘the eternal flaming racket of the female’. Perhaps this is meant to represent male insecurity and lack of confidence as to their purpose in life; some kind of jealousy that women appear to have some, however unsatisfactory. Perhaps this disdain for the continuous activity and occupation regardless of the ‘malaise’ of the routine reveals a deep seated concern that women are after all the stronger vessel. Their ‘matriarchal authority’ is inherent, not imposed. Is this one of the struggles of a modern male? The realisation that the masculine identity is so often directly related to the nature of their relationships with women? Jimmy seems to owe his meagre lot in life to them: ‘everything … to Madeline’ or his sweets’ stall to his friend Hugh’s mum. Is this disempowerment the fuel to ‘such hatred’ as he shows towards his wife Alison and later her friend/ soon to be his lover Helena? After all the only way in which he maintains the semblance of power, certainly in front of others, is through verbal aggression or a metaphorical marital role play of a ‘bear’ and ‘a squirrel’. If such a portrayal aims to incite pity, sympathy or compassion for the powerless and lost angry young men, the execution is in itself particularly male- and egocentric.
Rather curiously, the questionable presentation of femininity actually succeeds in establishing the solid base of ‘female wisdom’ which is oppressed by male narcissism, expectation or passivity. Ironically, the angry young man tormented by the society in which ‘all [are] to blame’, becomes the animalistic persecutor with no remorse. The most he can aim for is to ‘pretend that we’re human beings’ while it is the female who recognizes that ‘you can’t be happy when what you’re doing is wrong, or is hurting someone else.’