Critical Analysis of The Play Look Back in Anger

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Introduction

      The ventured to stage Look Back in Anger by a young playwright without a valid literary reputation at great peril. A new group called the English Stage Company established itself at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1956 with an object to become a writer’s theatre. The rest is history as both the play and the company achieved tremendous success. It created a sensation and appealed to the masses, mostly to the youth as they began to identify themselves with the hero with the staging of this play, Osborne was hailed as a potential dramatist with a bright future. His play was extensively reviewed and was both appreciated and criticized.

A Critical Examination

      Familiarity of the Story Line: The story of Look Back in Anger is familiar enough. Jimmy and Alison’s marriage is rapidly breaking down in spite of their shared affection under the strain of Jimmy’s continuous verbal assaults. His brief affair with Alison’s friend Helena fails to survive his wife’s abject return and reconciles at the end. In spite of the relative straight forwardness and familiarity of the storyline, the author had given a unique treatment to the character.

Autobiographical Element

      Look Back in Anger has some autobiographical elements. A substantial body of critical and popular opinion has subscribed to the view that Jimmy is a self-portrait of Osborne himself. Jimmy shares the same kind of Anger as Osborne has his roots in a similar social-economic background, and has watched his father die at a tender age. Jimmy also reflects Osborne’s disillusionment with contemporary British society and serves as his mouthpiece in denouncing the Church, the Royalty, the Government, the Upper Class, and traditional morality. Alison’s mother’s opposition to Jimmy marrying her daughter which is similar to the opposition he faced from Pamela Lane’s parents in his personal life. Jimmy is a fully drawn and individualized character inspite of his strong resemblance to his creator.

Sensitiveness of the Hero

      The hero Jimmy, beneath his crude and offensive behavior, is sensitive person. He is profoundly sentimental. His sense of emotional loss is felt in equal magnitude by Alison but never shared between them. He recalls the experience of watching his dying father with bitterness, gets sentimental and says: “you see, I learned at an early age what it was to be angry and helpless. And I can never forget it”. In another instance, when he gets the information about Hugh’s mother’s illness he is distressed. He asks Alison: “you’re coming with me, aren’t you?” to accompany him to visit the dying old lady. He pleads very gently “I.....need you.....to come with me.”

      On Alison’s silent refusal, he feels desalted, falls on to the bed and buries his face in the cover.

      In the last scene of the last act when Alison atones for mistake and cries he is unable to bear and says to her: “Don’t please don’t.....I can’t’’ and he forgives her.

The Significance of the Animal Game

      The lack of essential compatibility between the couple, their inability to share their emotional feeling has strained their marital life in a way. Their bears and squirrels game is a brave attempt to compensate for this failure by means of an extended metaphor. When they play this game the bitterness and pain seems to erode away. They escape from the cruelties of the real world and in their fantasy shower their uncomplicated love on each other. Jimmy's desire to see his wife humiliated, to see her face rubbed in the mud is fulfilled at the end as she accepts her role as the dominant partner. Seeing her groveling and crawling at the end Jimmy is ready to play the bear to her squirrel in an uprush of tender affection. The significance of the game as explained by Alison to Helena is an attempt to escape into dumb, uncomplicated affection in cozy zoo for two, “a silly symphony for people who couldn’t bear the pain of being human beings any longer?” .

A Peculiar Kind of Sexual Relationship in the Play

      The actual action of the play is centred round Jimmy’s relationship with wife Alison and his anarchism develops into familiar pattern of Stindberge’s love hate relationship between the sexes. Deeply in love, the young couple is perpetually inflicting wounds on each other, until the wife feels, she can bear no longer”.

      Her place in the menage is taken by her friend, Helena who also feels the same ambivalence in her love for Jimmy, moving in her case from' hatred to love.

      Jimmy’s tragedy is not only the vicious injustice and hypocrisy of the social order, it is his surprising awareness of the psychological paradox caused by his desperate, overriding need to possess a woman’s complete unquestioning love and inability to get along with anyone.

      Whenever his wife fails to level the standard of devotion he expects from her, he assaults her verbally, knowing of the same time that complete allegiance is impossible.

The Nostalgic Feeling

      In Jimmy’s strongly worded rhetoric speeches a sense of nostalgic feeling can be perceived. It is less a nostalgia for a past experience than for denied experience for Colonel Redfern’s “long, cool evenings up in the hills, everything purple and golden,” for a world which “looked like going on forever”. The words of Colonel Redfern echoes Jimmy’s earlier longing of a time of “love-made cakes and croquet, bright ideas, bright uniforms”.

Plot Construction

      While constructing the play, the playwright, Osborne has adhered to the traditional norms. (The play is divided into three acts, and specifies a single domestic interior) Look Back in Anger is three-act play set within realistic walls. Exposition development, conclusion, character presentation and progressive building of conflict and tensions are all duly presented in the play. The exposition in the first act proceeds through the self-pitying and grumbling speeches of Jimmy against the alleged insensitivity of Alison and Cliff. His speeches characterize Jimmy’s habit of going to the past and his tendency to repeat (The only thing new in the play was the kind of life the play mirrored in detail). The speech, also suggests the tense relationship between Jimmy and Alison and the casual catalytic function of Cliff who has become a neutral point between the couple.

      Look Back in Anger adapts the familiar mechanics of the naturalistic problem play. A first-act exposition culminates in the arrival of an outsider to develop the situation, as Helena does in the second act, and in the last act, restores a kind of precarious status quo. Osborne has skillfully ended an act or a scene and began another. The only exception was the scene where Helena seduces Jimmy all of a sudden much to the surprise of everyone. Helena’s equally sudden renunciation, which reconciles Jimmy and Alison is somewhat unsatisfactory. Both this dramatic twist lends theatrical viability to the play.

Technical Flaws in the Play

      Osborne opens the first and the third act of the play in identical settings—Helena nearly succeeding Alison in the ironing board in Act III. This shows Osborne’s technical maturity. This looking glass effect not only succeeds theatrically, but shapes the action into a closed circle entirely appropriate to its theme. In spite of its occasional expository lapses as during Alison’s over-explicit recollection of her marriage and the drawing into action the mother of Jimmy’s friend, Mrs. Tanner. Mrs. Tanner lives and dies off-state. Despite her physical absence in the play, she comes to life, in Jimmy’s genuine response to her death (as if a figment of Jimmy’s working class wish is fulfilled).

      Another off-stage character is Jimmy’s first mistress, Madeline. She is handled rather clumsily, though the weakness here is in the rhetoric, rather than in the reportage: “Her curiosity about people was staggering.....”. It sounds false on the stage partly because its careful, consecutive development reflects over-anxiety on Osborne’s part to make his point, rather than Jimmy’s usual, free-flowing stream-of-consciousness. Alison’s retrospection for Helena’s benefit in Act II is another sequence during which the construction clumsily breaks surface. Alison’s miscarriage too is over-timely.

The Role of Cliff and Helena

      Cliff and Helena are like chemical agents in the play. Cliff describes himself as a no-main land between Alison and Jimmy. The speech in which he defends himself against Helena’s accusation suggests his credibility. He provides stability and sense of pity into the play, without which Jimmy’s severity might prove less effective. The inconsistency of Cliff’s friendship with Jimmy makes it more acceptable. Helena with the air of “the gracious representative of visiting royalty” embodies everything Jimmy despises. The affair that develops between Jimmy and her is necessary to the formal shape of the play, their mutual attraction is given very little dramatic substance. Helena’s seduction of Jimmy would seem insignificant if she were adequately depicted as the upright Anglican. She proclaims herself to be, that is the excuse she offers for her final departures. Her whole existence in the play seems no more than a mere dramatic convenience.

      Helena, on the other hand, can be considered to be a potential soulmate to Jimmy.

Jimmy’s Puritanism

      Jimmy’s ethical values is entirely controlled by sentimentalized working class Puritanism. He is almost Victorian in ethical values who insists upon keeping a sexual relationship within the confines of the bedroom. Outside bed, Jimmy confesses brawling is “the only thing left I’ am any good at.” Jimmy does not speak to his wife except in anger or in allegory. His marriage with a middle-class girl has apparently damned him in the eyes of his former friends. He seems well aware that his wife’s social background resembles that of his own mother’s.

      To redeem that maternal grit, Jimmy has sought a working-class mother substitute in Hugh’s mum over whom he gets emotional.

Jimmy’s Demand for Complete Allegiance

      The problem with Jimmy as Alison tells Helena is that he demands complete loyalty from others “and he expects you to be pretty literal about them. Not only about himself and all the things he believes in, his present and his future, but his past as well.” Jimmy’s need, to possess a woman’s complete unquestioning love is not only impossible but also imperialistic. The kind of complete devotion and loyalty that he desires from Alison is not only implausible but also unrealistic. Alison is prepared to offer this allegiance to him because she adores him and consequently needs Jimmy and is prepared to compromise with him on almost any terms. She goes through a lot of suffering, goes through a lot of mental torment because of her husband’s ceaseless verbal assault. The only relief that she gets is by the occasional comfort of the bears-and-squirrels fantasy. At the end, she submits herself to Jimmy completely and Osborne chooses the animal fantasy to make the reconciliation perfect.

Psychological Aspect of the Play

      Some critics were of the opinion that Osborne’s maladjusted characters in this play exist in the vortex of emotional vindictiveness which the writer creates. The sweet stall operated by Jimmy does not seem quite integral. The sweet stall is a part of the complex process of self-identification of the hero, his conflict of the mind regarding his failure to secure a suitable job despite his university degrees. This play is basically a well-made problem play of considerable psychological insight. The hero Jimmy a frustrated youth of twenty-five is never tired of hitting out at others by his sarcastic and witty comments. He bullies his wife constantly to take revenge on the upper middle which he detests most. Jimmy’s scorn and his apparently unmotivated outbreak of anger has its roots in his acknowledgment of his failure in society.

The Sociological Background

      Jimmy makes some interesting comments on the contemporary society. He comments sarcastically that there are no brave causes left in the world to die for and says that men are being bled to death by women.

      There are so many remarks uttered by various characters expressing their sociological views. There are some critics who are of the opinion that Osborne has over-socialized the play. Jimmy remarks that his wife and Cliff has no human enthusiasm. Those characteristics are considered very important by Jimmy. In this atmosphere, there is no gusto for living in a better society. He feels that he is maltreated by women and does not wish to survive. These ironical remarks are very significant revealing the sociological comments. Moreover, he wants brave causes to prevail like that of the Suez war and the Hungarian Revolution.

      Thus Look Back in Anger was considered as a harbinger of the New Left, of Anti Apartheid, and of the campaign for Nuclear disarmament. Jimmy himself was an enthusiastic campaigner to support these movements. According to a critic, a social interpretations are very beneficial as he says, “Jimmy could have found no more enduring a satisfaction by leading a protest march than in the warm, animal comfort of his squirrel’s day. Jimmy’s emotional needs may have been typical, but his response to them was “exceptional” (a word which Osborne himself has used to describe the condition reredos). After a few more fears, Jimmy might well have sought comfort from gin, from a number of casual mistresses, one after the other and from a hopeless nostalgia over the years that divided him from his instinctive heritage”.

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