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
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The Independent Culture

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.