Look back in dismay

John Osborne's kitchen-sink classic is being celebrated on its 50th anniversary. Wrongly, says Rhoda Koenig - it's misogynistic, reactionary and theatrically uninspired

Through the Royal Court's 50th-anniversary tributes to the play that put the theatre on the map, the reminiscences and the readings, a naughty voice whispers: Look Back in Anger is certainly one of the best-known British plays of the 20th century - but was it all that influential? Was it all that good?

In a paradox that is hardly uncommon in Britain, this once-reviled play is now a National Treasure. The people who hated it (most of whom never went to the theatre) had sons and daughters who were cheered by the raspberry it blew at the stale pieties of 1956, and many of the haters mellowed once they benefited from the looser society of the Sixties and after.

Its angry young man, Jimmy Porter, who rages against the world to his passive wife, has also become more attractive with the passage of time: considering what the parents of daughters have had to endure in the past few decades, an employed, articulate young man who actually marries his girlfriend, whose favourite music is jazz, and who does not take drugs or drink, sounds like a gift from heaven.

As well as acquiring tolerance and affection over the years, John Osborne's first play has - again paradoxically, considering it was written by the author of Damn You, England - become a counter in the game of patriotic pride. The NHS may be falling to bits, criminals may strike anywhere without fear, adults may be unable to read, write or speak their native tongue - but, ah, the theatre! A play that has given birth to not one, but two, catchphrases everyone knows has done so much for cultural marketing that questioning its quality isn't just treasonous - it's irrelevant.

The theatre, however, is not just a series of national speeches: it's an international conversation, especially among nations that speak the same language. What was happening on American stages even before Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger lessens his claim to being novel and revolutionary, just as what happened, on stage and in society, afterward has made clear not only the moral but the literary defects of the play.

Osborne, then just 26, was a hero to those who, like him, were boiling with resentment at the drabness and hypocrisy of English life. His own was particularly grim - his father, who died when Osborne was 11, was often absent,in hospitals and sanitariums, and he himself was a sickly child; his mother was a barmaid who kept all her gaiety for the pub.

A Better Class of Person, his memoir of his early years, presents in microscopic detail the horrors of that time - the unchecked sadism of teachers, the automatic condescension of the slightly better off, the pinchpenny attitude taken to emotions and money alike, when art, pleasure and happiness were of dubious respectability.

But, even taking into account Osborne's physical and emotional suffering at the hands of women, his misogyny was extreme. In the Fifties, his vilification of four of his five wives, including his wish to shit on the corpse of one of them, Jill Bennett, was still to come, but his vengeance then did not stop at wishes: when a female colleague enraged him with her primness, he inserted a used condom into her sandwich. That prank was more than three decades in the past when Osborne wrote his autobiography, but he remained emphatic that the woman deserved it.

A defective, even disgusting, personality doesn't rule out the creation of great art; many artists can leave theirs in the unsatisfying world of real life while they get on with creating a better one. This is not the case, however, with Look Back in Anger, which is weakened not so much by misogyny as by immaturity. Osborne's play is a child's fantasy - the characters, especially the women (Jimmy's wife, Alison, and her visiting friend, Helena), have no existence apart from the protagonist, whom, despite his sulks and tantrums, they find irresistible. Although Jimmy abuses Alison viciously, she praises his loyalty to his friends and adds: "I've never really wanted anyone else."

Helena finds the hatred in Jimmy's eyes "horrifying - and oddly exciting". Sure enough, the distaste she expresses for Jimmy turns out to be merely a way of egging him on to more and more outrageous remarks, which culminate in her slapping his face, then falling into his arms. When their affair is over, she tells him: "I shall never love anyone as I have loved you."

Jimmy's friend, Cliff, is one of those easy-going men who, too timid to lash out at anyone, warms himself in the passion given off by Jimmy's blazing masculinity. Yet, though Jimmy's soliloquies are filled with loathing, the impression they give is not one of force, but of a helpless child trying to shock. It's no wonder the play infuriated so many men, who looked at Kenneth Haigh and demanded: "What do they see in him?" The movie forestalled the question by giving the part to Richard Burton, but it also pointed up how far casting had to go to supply what was lacking in the script.

For what was stirring in the bushes of the Fifties, to create horror and consternation by springing out into the open in the Sixties, was not anger but sex. Osborne's play doesn't really deal with it because the love Jimmy wants is pre-sexual - a love of endless succour and comfort. Like a child with a difficult or neglectful mother (as Osborne had), Jimmy baits and provokes the women until he gets a response, but that's the way to get attention or (as with Helena) sex, not love. At best, Jimmy gets a maternal kind of love from his wife, who recognises his vulnerability, but that soon bores him.

Jimmy can't give up his anger, because it makes him feel strong, but while he clings to it, he won't get the love he craves, just adventures with women who, like those in Osborne's life, saw him as a challenge (any decent-looking misogynist always has to beat women off with a stick). None of this would matter if one felt that Osborne realised it, but he doesn't.

Look Back in Anger was outshone sexually by not one, not two, but three homosexual playwrights using a similar plot. As early as 1949, London saw another play in which a woman who has married beneath her temporarily loses her husband to a refined but randy female intruder. It was, of course, A Streetcar Named Desire, and the facetiousness and shudders provoked by Osborne's play were but a faint echo of the revulsion at the play by Tennessee Williams ("preposterous", "tedious and squalid", "These poker players and workmen... talk like cesspools").

What those critics missed was the poetry of Williams' dialogue, a style that would influence more playwrights than Osborne's anger. Streetcar could make the stage shake with sex, as did Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962, which provided the angry people with opponents who gave as good as they got. Edward Albee also managed what neither Osborne nor Williams did - he showed that the quiet, apparently passive spouse (in this case, the man) was really the one pulling the strings.

The sexual theme was given a further twist by Joe Orton in his own intruder play, Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964). While the other three were explosive, Orton was disquieting, but his lack of anger freed him to find the surrealistic humour in everyday language. While Osborne ranted against mediocrity and self-deception, Orton embraced them for their found poetry, inspiring a deeper feeling than indignation.

This seems a long way from Osborne, but what the three other plays have in common, besides a plot, is that, as recent revivals have shown, they stand up far better than his first. Who these days would moan, as Jimmy does, of there not being a cause worth dying for? Who even said such a thing then? Failure to recognise its absurdity is only one example of a larger failure in the play.

While Osborne could write, for Jimmy, wildly funny riffs on the objects of his hatred, such as his upper-class in-laws, his anger prevented him from identifying with them and creating, like Orton, the much more subversive humour that arises from seeing everyone as the victim of circumstances - and one's own pretensions.

None of this cancels the good things about Look Back in Anger - its blowtorch attacks on pettiness and hypocrisy are welcome as long as such targets exist. But its fame is greater than its merit. Osborne would write better plays, even if none of them created such a scandal, a subject that most people find more exciting than art.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence