Portrayal of Characters in The Play Look Back in Anger

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Jimmy Dominates The Play

      There is no doubt about the fact the Jimmy dominates the whole play overshadowing the other characters of Look Back in Anger. Jimmy is the main speaker vehemently expressing his own views throughout the play. He holds the stage for most of the time. His dominance in the play is the result of the author’s deliberate attempt to focus the audience’s attention on him. The author’s intention succeeds as Jimmy is able to hold the attention of the audience for most of the time. Not only does he make the maximum number of speeches in the play, but most of his speeches are extremely long. Nearly all of his speeches are a kind of short lecture or sermon.

      He occupies a commanding position in the play reducing the significance of the other characters—there is no doubt about it. At the same time it would be unfair to assume that the other characters fail to come out alive.

Jimmy Depicted As A Mouthpiece of The Post-War Youth

      The character of Jimmy was sketched by the author keeping in mind the youth of Post-war Britain. As the author intended to depict Jimmy as the spokesman of the frustrated British youth of his time, he definitely needed to be portrayed in an elaborate manner. The author could not have afforded to pay equal and adequate attention to the portrayal of other characters on that account. Jimmy naturally required all the attention from the author and had to be depicted from every angle in all his relationships.

      As Jimmy was considered to be the spokesman of a generation of youth, as he was to voice their frustration, disillusionment and resentment with the contemporary society, it was required that he should express his opinions and views on a variety of subjects, and for that purpose his speeches had to be long and elaborate. Jimmy’s character demanded long speeches in order that he could express himself adequately at the risk of boring the audience or the reader. The author had no alternative than to scale down the portrayal of other characters. In this sense Look Back in Anger may rightly be called a one-man play.

Jimmy is a Fully Realised Character

      It is undeniably true that Jimmy is the only fully realized character in the play. Jimmy’s speeches are often criticized as tedious and hence called “tirades”. But there is no doubt that the author took considerable pain over the portrayal of Jimmy. He is depicted from all angles; his personal life, his relationship with other character, his brutal attack on individuals, his sensitive nature, are treated with minutest detail. Osborne succeeds in creating in Jimmy a protagonist who towers above all the other characters in the play.

      It has been alleged that Jimmy is a self-portrait of Osborne which seems but true. Jimmy is made to express his views about Bishops, about class-distinctions, about the hydrogen bomb, about church going and religious practices and rituals, about politics, about the “Posh” newspaper, about jazz, about women in general, about suffering and about a number of other topics.

Jimmy’s Portrayal From All Angle

His Relationship with Wife Alison

      Jimmy s marital life and his relationship with wife Alison is one of the chief concerns of the play - Although Jimmy and Alison had a love marriage, their marital life was full of tension. Alison’s parent’s opposition to the marriage due to Jimmy’s low social status enraged Jimmy. He could never forgive Alison’s family members for their disapproval of him and constantly bullies his wife in a way to get back to them. He treats her in a callous manner attacking and abusing her parents, her brother in a ruthless manner. He finds fault with her for her endless ironing of clothes, for being devoid of animation and enthusiasm, of being silent when he expects her to retaliate to his attack, for being “pusillanimous”, for having the passion of a python, for coming under the influence of Helena, for being indifferent to the ailing Mrs. Tanner and so on. He shares some occasional moments of tenderness with her and plays the bears-and-squirrels game, thus escaping to the world of fantasy and shower their uncomplicated love for each other.

      But otherwise, his attitude towards her is of scorn and contempt. He humiliates her in front of Cliff by comparing her sexual passion to that of a python. He cares little not to hurt her feeling while criticizing her family members. In fact he deliberately tries to bully her by ridiculing her parents and brother and attacking them with harshest possible language. Alison rightly says to Helena that he treats her like a hostess of the middle class against whom he is waging war.

His War on Middle Class

      Jimmy’s attitude of hatred for the middle class is best revealed through his raging against his wife’s family. The social disparity between Jimmy and Alison was the cause of the opposition that they faced from Alison’s parents. Jimmy felt that because of his humble background, the society has not given him his dues and has deprived him of a suitable job. Both these combined together make him regard the middle class as his sole enemy. By denouncing Alison’s family members he attacks the middle class.

      He mocks at Alison’s father for his nostalgic memories of the past. He criticizes Alison’s brother Nigel for being vague, “as vague as you can get without being actually invisible”. He contemptuously calls both Nigel and Alison as “sycophantic and phlegmatic” and “Pusillanimous”... He is merciless in his criticism of Alison’s mother who according to him, is “as rough as a night in a Bombay brothel, and as tough as a matelote’s arms”, and by eating whose flesh the worms in her grave would suffer from indigestion and belly-ache.

His Relationship with Helena

      Jimmy considered Helena as one of his “natural enemies” when she is first introduced. There is no love between them and he does not even spare her from his ruthless verbal assault. His behavior with her is very un-gentleman-like. After the kissing incident, she becomes his mistress and he shares a good report with her. In her Jimmy finds a good soulmate. She replaces Alison completely in the Porter’s household. She takes over Alison’s work on the ironing board, ceaselessly ironing clothes wearing one of Jimmy’s old shirt.

      Though Jimmy does not play the bears-and-squirrels game with her, yet he shares some tender moments expressing their love for each other. On Alison’s return when Helena decides to leave her, he is hurt. He accuses her of hypocrisy for trying to lead a saint’s life. He also accuses her of trying to escape the pain of being alive. After her desertion he is so distressed that he bangs his fist against the window frame.

His Relation With Cliff

      Cliff is a total contrast to Jimmy. Jimmy finds in Cliff the kind of solidarity that he never finds in Alison and Helena. Cliff is the only one person in the play who is acceptable to Alison as well as Jimmy. He is a common friend of both and closely attached to both the husband and wife. Jimmy appreciates his friendship and says that “he has got a big heart”.

Jimmy’s Sensitiveness

      Judging Jimmy by his speeches, mainly by his condemning speeches of Alison, her parents, her brother Nigel, Helena, he is a ruthless boor who is hell bent on making life miserable for other people. He is so brutal in his criticism of Alisons’ mother that he earns the wrath of the audience. His constant bullying of his wife, his ruthless criticism of her caring little for her feeling makes him an insensitive person in the eyes of the audience. But there is a very humane, very sensitive side of Jimmy. Beneath the rough exterior and sharp tongue that constantly lashes out at other’s is a very sensitive and a very emotional person. He has a deep affection for his friend Cliff who has a “big heart” that he really appreciates. He admires the quality of solidarity in Cliff, a virtue that he is unable to find in either of the two women who are in love with him. He considers solidarity to be a working-class virtue. As a husband he is very broadminded and does not Cliff and Alison though they openly expresses their affection for each other in his presence. Jimmy also has a deep regard and affection for Mrs. Tanner, Hugh’s mother who had established him in a sweet shop. On receiving the news that Mrs. Tanner has had a stroke, Jimmy immediately plans to go to London to visit her. He is disappointed when Alison ignores his pleas to accompany him. He is more disappointed when Alison fails even to send a bunch of flowers to Mrs. Tanner’s funeral. His tenderness for Alison is revealed in the bears-and squirrels game that they play. He refers to her as a “beautiful, grey-eyed squirrel” and expresses his love for her and for sometimes treats her in an affectionate manner.

      There are more evidence of Jimmy’s being human in spite of his brutal and seemingly inhuman attitude. Though he was initially aversed to Helena, he softens and melts in her arms when she kisses him all of a sudden after slapping him. Soon afterward they are seen living happily together with her as his mistress. After Helena deserts him, he realizes how forlorn and desolate he is. He compares himself to “the old bear, following his own breath in the dark forest”. He desperately needs a companion at this point and tells Alison pleadingly: “I may be a lost cause, but I thought if you loved me, it needn’t matter.” All these shows that Jimmy is not a complete cynic devoid of faith in human nature. Though he indiscriminately rages against the world and various individuals, denouncing the Church, the press, the middle class, he is very much a normal human being.

The Insignificance of The Other Character

      Even though Jimmy towers over the other characters in the play, yet each of the supporting characters create a deep impression on our minds. Alison, Jimmy’s wife is a passive sufferer who fails to live up to Jimmy’s expectations. Apparently she looks like a feeble character who fails to defend herself and her family members from the ruthless attacks of her husband. She has a remarkable power of endurance and refrains from retaliating to Jimmy’s attack inspite of his provocations. When she feels that Alison never does, she makes her presence felt in spite of Jimmy’s dominance in the play by showing her guts and courage and standing up to Alison’s defence. She threatens to slap Jimmy if he does not stop his rude talk. She rebukes Cliff for being a silent spectator to Jimmy’s mistreatment of Alison. She even takes the liberty of sending a telegram to Alison’s father informing him to fetch his daughter home and, later tells Alison about it. Towards the end of the play she realizes her guilt for having stayed as she can endure no more, she; leaves Jimmy. Alison has been called a “wet” character i.e. a futile and ineffective person. Though she is passive woman and hardly has any strength in matching Jimmy’s angry temperament yet she cannot be: dismissed as an insignificant character.

      Helena’s vibrant and forceful personality tries her best to put Jimmy in his place soon after her arrival. She falls to Jimmy’s bait easily to retaliate to his vehement attack, something Jimmy’s mistress and leaves Jimmy and thus paving the way for a reconciliation between the husband and the wife.

      Even Cliff and Colonel Redfern who hardly play any role in the development of action in the play has their relevance to the design of the play.

Conclusion

      It cannot be denied that Jimmy Porter steals the show towering over the other characters in the play. Still on the whole the portrayal of the other characters is a triumph for Osborne. Though the supporting characters are passive, their passivity was inevitable as the author had to highlight Jimmy’s personality. The passivity of the supporting characters cannot therefore be regarded as a weakness in the play. Had the author given more attention to the other characters, it would have probably affected the theme of the play.

University Questions

The passivity of the supporting characters in Look Back in Anger is a weakness in the play. Justify the dictum.
or
Osborne’s plays are, at bottom, one-man plays. How far is it true of Look Back in Anger?
or
“The author invested so much of his thought and experience and energy in the person of Jimmy that he had little left over for other characters”. Evaluate the play in the light of the above statement.
or
Write a note on the portrayal of characters in Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger.
or
The characters in Look Back in Anger are not credible or convincing. How far would you agree or disagree with this view? Give a reasoned answer.
or
It has been alleged that Look Back in Anger has only one fully realized character. Give your own views in this regard.

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