Analysis of John Osborn’s Look Back in Anger

Sep 27, 2021 | Journal

I have to admit that I read this drama multiple times. It is quite different, more modern compared to what I am used to. Therefore, it uses symbols in an open manner and meanwhile makes the whole picture easier to see. However, at the same time, this makes it harder to put my thoughts into comprehensible sentences.

When I started to read Look Back in Anger it immediately became obvious for me that Jimmy is a revolutionary person, a rebel, who stands against society. He sees himself as an outcast, who stands alone in his fight. However, he blinds himself with his ideals and only at the end of the drama will he realise how he depends on others whom he despises.

The drama is full of symbols, both evident and not so evident ones. So, after my first read, I had to look up John Osborn’s biography. My speculation was almost correct, because I thought that he wrote Look Back in Anger around the beginning 60’s. As it turns out, he wrote it in 1956. It is important in the manner of understanding his symbols and his words, because during this time British colonialism has just ended and a great shift and change within the British society was taking place. According to Nandi Bathia, who came to the same conclusion, the drama is an analogue to the conflict between the classes.

Events within the drama can easily anger the modern reader and audience, because it operates with very profane elements. For example, mild racism, verbal abuse, toxic relationship and even physical raw pathos. Jimmy, the main character of the drama is not a positive character at all. A sort of antihero without a goal and a purpose. However, he plays the role of a rebel. He often focuses his anger on his friends and most importantly abuses his wife, because he cannot control himself. However, the greatest shock for the audience at the time was not all of this. They were shocked by the language of the drama: it uses slang! Which was very uncommon for stage at the time. This is a kitchen sink drama, therefore, it portrays the life of the ordinary everyday people without elevating or glorifying it.

Each character in the drama represents a social class. First of all, Jimmy is representing the working class, who stands against the world (more importantly the aristocracy), despite enjoying the privileges of a rising middle class (like education and the chance to marry a “noble-born” woman). Second, Cliff is more or less from the same class as Jimmy, however, he is Welsh, which gives him a special role (treated as a second class citizen). Third, Alison is representing the new aristocracy alongside Helena, who more or less represents the new middleclass. Last but not least, on the other hand, Alison’s father, the old Colonel Redfern represents the old aristocracy, and in fact he is a relic of a bygone era.

Just as Nandi Bathia explains, the drama at first glance appears to be about the everyday life of a married couple and their friends, but it soon becomes evident that it is in fact a simplified version of the changing British society that is in conflict with itself. According to Samuel A. Weiss, the drama represents a battlefield, hence the roughness of their conversations. Each word said by the parties are meant to be deadly blows, and it is mostly true about Jimmy. The war, which Jimmy wages against the hierarchy plays out on those who he loves the most. And unknown to him, at least he is blind to recognise this, he recreated the same society within his own community, which he is fighting against. For example, he insults Cliff (bullies him), because he is Welsh, treating him as a second class citizen within their house (theme of racism), however, despite all this Cliff appears to be a good friend and understanding towards Jimmy and Alison. Also, Jimmy constantly calls out Alison for being highborn. On the other hand, despite the devastating war he waged on his loved ones, in the end he realises the key to a working society: because it does not matter how each class despises the other, none of them can exist without the other. (The working class hating the rich and blaming them for their suffering and the rich looking down on the poor cannot exist without each other. The foundations of society, which is the lower classes or the working class, need the aristocracy to manage state affairs and vice-versa.) This is nicely symbolised with the reunion of Alison and Jimmy.

In conclusion, Look Back in Anger represents the social tension of the British Isles around the 50’s. Jimmy is a rebel, who has no goal, no self-control and no power to actually change things.

Exploring the symbols within the drama:

Osborn uses a lot of colonial symbolism, which might make the understanding of the drama a bit difficult for those who do not know what they mean. He refers to India and the role of the British Empire many times.

“Perhaps all our children will be American […]”

John Osborn – Look Back in Anger (1956)

Here I would like to go on a tangent as well, while trying to connect the dots. In ’56, when Osborn wrote his drama, the effects of the USA as a dominant power not only politically, but culturally could be felt already.  The British society, which was raised on British values has long gone nowadays, and Osborne saw that coming earlier. Western culture is dominated by media form the USA. Children who grow up socialise on American films, books and series, etcetera. Therefore, values of the people of the USA are dominant and old values of a bygone Empire are no longer present within the new generation of British society. (For example, mainstream films made in western countries use American themes.)

Constant comparison to animals is a minor, but important theme within the drama. The social changes of the XX. Century had made the life of ordinary people very different and difficult compared to what their parents had to lead. It was full of instability and became very complicated. A lot of people sought simpler life and often used the comparison to animals, which creatures could live a life without worry. Simplicity meant a happy life, where people could live out their inner desires and instincts (like animals did).

The toxic relationship of Alison and Jimmy is an analogue to the toxic relationship within the different classes of the British hierarchy. The conflicts and dilemmas of the couple is a perfect representation of the social dilemmas and miscommunication between the classes. In a way they sometimes chose to misunderstand the other. Based on Charles Marowitz’s ideas and Osborne’s biography, I came to the conclusion that John Osborne is at war with the society, which he so desperately wants to save. He writes about things that are not pleasant, but important. Desires change, but in his own ideals.

The character of the Colonel:

Colonel Redfern is a relic, not only for our time, but for the time of the drama too. He represents a bygone era, and even admits within the drama that it is no longer the same Britain he left behind long time ago, when he went to India. He represents the old aristocracy, the ideals of the colonialism. However, despite being this relic of the past, he is the only character to understand what is going on, and he is the only one to care.

My personal attachments:

I was in conflict about either including these ideas or not, but I decided to not delete them, because they affected my understanding of the drama. Also, I think these are required to understand my train of thought.

In my opinion, the following quote from the drama sums up the idea of post-modern pretty well:

“I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer.”

John Osborn – Look Back in Anger (1956)

This quote echoes even today. I can feel its weight, because for my generation, and I suppose for generations born during and after the Great Wars, it is hard to find a real purpose in life.

When Jimmy talks about witnessing the death of a close one hit very hard on me, since I went through roughly the same. I watched my mother die, and therefore I can perfectly understand what his point was. It changes a person, deeply transforms the soul. Seeing pain, suffering and death matures up the soul and real life hits very hard at that moment. From then on, life is not about careless easy parties and receives a different heavy meaning, which I still suffer to put into words to this day. However, these scars are not a big deal in the light of the greater picture. These may operate as fuel for Jimmy the rebel, but he is incapable of moving forward and overcoming his own emotions. Therefore, he is controlled by his fear, which blinds him and eventually leads him to hurt his wife.

Lamenting on the title: Look Back in Anger

My first question was: Who? Who (has to) look(s) back in anger? Is it Jimmy? Is it the reader perhaps? To answer this question, it is important to know when Osborn’s biography.  According to Nandi Bathia, whose approach supports my thoughts, since Osborne was a political activist, his ideals are represented in the drama, especially within Jimmy. The drama is written for a British society in crisis amidst the middle of a great social change. Therefore, the title also refers to the British people who look back to their past in anger and despise, but they should also look back to learn from their past and carry out the change in a good manner.

On the other hand, both the title and the character of Jimmy represents the whole post war generation of Great Britain. According to dr. Attila Miklós Kiss, the generation lacks a goal, self-control and real power to change. They became an empty bubble, with an agenda of hatred. What they really need is a program. They have the spirit and the will to rebel and have an enemy, but they lack directions and something to fight for. In other words: they need a new set of values.

To conclude my rumbling essay, I would like to quote dr. Attila Miklós Kiss on this subject:

“[The post war young generation of Great Britain] they are always looking back and they are always angry, but they never look forward!”