Back catalogue: John Osborne
John Osborne and the Myth of Anger by Aleks Sierz (1996)
The people I should like to contact - if I knew how - aren't likely to be reading this book anyway. If they have ever heard of me, it is only as a rather odd-looking 'angry young man'.
(John Osborne, 'They Call It Cricket')
When John Osborne died on Christmas Eve 1994, the Guardian, along with other newspapers, reported the event on its front page. It was big news. Under the headline 'John Osborne, Founding "Angry Young Man", Dies Aged 65', the report emphasised the two things that readers could be expected to know about the playwright: that he was 'the original angry young man' and that he was 'best known for Look Back in Anger, the original kitchen sink drama'. (1) Osborne remains an iconic figure, as much a cultural symbol of the 1950s as James Dean or Marlon Brando. Because of this, our perception of 1956, the year Look Back in Anger was first put on, has been completely colonised by the myth of anger: for example, few people under the age of 60 can have a first hand memory of the event, but most of us live in the shadow of its resonances. In this way, the myth of the event is now more real to us than the event itself.
And the myth-making started soon after the play opened. The invention, for instance, of the Angry Young Man took mere weeks to accomplish. And, as early as 1958, Kenneth Allsop had already rushed into print with The Angry Decade, although a more accurate title would have been 'The Angry Eighteen Months'. By 1969, the extent to which Osborne's first success had become a potent symbol was underlined by critic Simon Trussler. In The Plays of John Osborne, he opens the chapter on Look Back in Anger by saying that it is 'at once a play and a myth'. Pointing out that 'its name and its supposed theme are recognised instantly by many more people than have ever seen a production or read a script', Trussler observes that 'it is not altogether possible or even desirable to separate the resultant myth from the reality. A good play, like any major work of art, accretes associations and spawns its own canon of critical commonplaces'. (2)
But what does it mean to call a cultural artefact a myth? There are two ways of looking at modern myth: the mythophobic and the mythophilic. The first uses the debunking approach, usually seeing myth as a 'media event'. In journalist Harry Ritchie's account, for example, the Angry Young Men were a hype 'invented by the media', which grew as 'the great publicity of the myth of the Angry Young Men actually created the reality the writers were supposed to be reflecting'. For mythophobes, myth and reality don't mix. Ritchie's strength lies in his meticulous account of what happened; his weakness is his superficial understanding of how myth works. Much of the fuss about anger, he claims, 'could have been avoided if Osborne had chosen a different title for his play'. (3) But, as the title page of the manuscript clearly shows, out of the seven titles that Osborne wrote down, six are variations on the theme of anger: Farewell to Anger, Angry Man, Man in a Rage, Close the Cage Behind You, My Blood Is a Mile High and Look Back in Anger. For its author, the play's theme was anger. Remembering that the Christian apologist Leslie Paul had used Angry Young Man as the title of his autobiography in 1951, it is clear that the idea of anger was not Osborne's alone - it was in the air, a sign of the times. (4)
The other way of looking at myth is mythophile, the pleasure being to tease out meaning from cultural icons. In critic Robert Hewison's approach, for example, 'myths are imaginative versions of truth' - cultural myth is a 'combination of historical truths and popular distortion'. What matters is not the literal truth, but the symbolic resonance. For Hewison, 1956 was the 'first moment of history after the Second World War about which there is anything like a persistent myth'. But why do myths persist? Hewison sees how they play a vital social role: in his description of the discontented intellectuals of the mid-1950s, he says, 'What was needed was a myth, and in 1956 there appeared the myth of the Angry Young Man'. (5) If the strength of the mythophilic school is that it shows how myth answers a social need, its weakness is that it tends to accept a myth's politics at face value.
And while the mythophobes point out that the opening night of Look Back in Anger on 8 May 1956 was a rather dull evening, the myth-makers see it as a historic moment. For example, in Anger and After, the first standard text about the new wave in postwar British theatre, critic John Russell Taylor turns a quiet night at the theatre into an explosive occasion: 'If ever a revolution began with one explosion it was this.' Taylor's enthusiasm, expressed through a insistent use of the metaphor of revolution, reminds us that myths answer emotional needs. While those who were undoubtedly there remember the opening night as quiet, the many hundreds who claim to have attended describe it as a momentous occasion. (6) Yet few have asked the question: why was the metaphor of revolution a vital ingredient in the myth of anger?
Origins of the myth
Whether mythophobe or mythophile, all commentators look back to the first production of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court, the cauldron in which the myth of anger was cooked up. From the brash imperative of its title to the symbolism of its ironing board and jazz trumpet, it is a play teeming with ingredients for myth-making. What holds them all together is the play's emotionality. Categorised at the time by Allsop as an 'Emotionalist', Osborne not only explored feelings: he flung them at the audience. Lord Harewood, a member of the Royal Court board, remembers lending the play's text to a friend who protested: 'People won’t stand for being shouted at like that, it's not what they go to the theatre for.' While perfectly true of Aunt Edna audiences, the English Stage Company's George Devine was counting on a different public, one for whom Jimmy Porter's in-your-face emotionality struck an immediate chord.
On the first night, Observer critic Kenneth Tynan recognised in the play's leading character a representative of all those who 'deplore the tyranny of "good taste" and refuse to accept "emotional" as a term of abuse'. By January 1957, Osborne made the link between emotion and protest explicit when he mocked the 'emotion snobs who believe that protest is vulgar'. (7) Although derided by some critics as incoherent, Jimmy's emotionality was one of the play's strengths. In terms of myth, it sent a signal from the stage to the gallery. And emotionality in Look Back in Anger is mainly expressed through Jimmy's tirades. In 'language riding on a high emotional charge', Osborne created a myth of authentic feeling. Undergraduate in style, aggressively witty, revelling in wordiness, repetition and exaggeration, Jimmy's fulminations are symbolic of the wider cultural conflict between idealised passion and repressive conformity. Often on 'the point of breaking into a public rhetorical speech', his eloquence also represents a fiction of the authentic spoken vernacular. But, contrary to received wisdom, it is 'the voice of the rebel middle class for all its plebeian pretentions'. (8)
While no one in real life speaks like Jimmy does, his language works at the level of fantasy. 'Thousands of people wanted to feel that, like Jimmy, they were full of febrile energy and immune to endemic complacency.' To an audience conscious of stultifying conventions, Jimmy says out loud what Everyman secretly longs to tell his wife or mother-in-law. Osborne's often quoted intention of giving 'lessons in feeling' relies on the therapeutic device of wish-fulfilment. An apocryphal story emphasises the point: 'A young Australian painter brought up in a remote mining community tells me that Porter's sardonic quotations from the Sunday papers at the start of the play gripped his attention instantly, because they expressed feelings which he had long been disturbed by himself […] What he found in Osborne was a kind of safety valve.' Allsop goes further. Because many of us secretly share Jimmy's sadism, self-righteousness and sentimentality, 'it was a great conscience-spree to see them acted out before our eyes in the most tearaway fashion imaginable […] With Jimmy up there on stage saying and doing it all for us, we all came away feeling winged-ankled, purged of a great ballast of guilt.' (9) What enables the myth of anger to come alive is the audience's profound need for it.
Hero and anti-hero
It is the job of the cult anti-hero not only to express social anxieties, but to cure them at the level of fiction. So while Osborne claimed that his play was not a vehicle for a message, it is clear that Jimmy is the message. What spectators take away from the play is not its literary allusions, but the image of Jimmy, whether ranting or reading, playing the fool or stricken with pain. Those that identified with him, loved the play; those that didn't, hated it. Compared to theatrical heroes such as Terence Rattigan's tight-lipped Freddy, John Whiting's Rupert Forster or T. S. Eliot's spiritually challenged Lord Monchensey, Jimmy is down to earth, angry and alienated. Central to his persona is the 'unexamined assumption that working-class people are more real than others because they suffer more'. Though capable of flights of eloquence, it was Jimmy who first 'broke up the death mask of loftiness with which previous writers had attempted to disguise their emotions'. (10)
Whether Jimmy he is labelled a hero, anti-hero or folk hero doesn't matter. What is important for the growth of myth is not just that Jimmy mirrors what his audiences were, but that he suggests so forcefully what they might wish to become. Myth not only expresses needs - it also articulates aspirations.
The myths inside the play
Most good plays embody more than one myth. Though Jimmy's alienation - his feeling of being out of place, his idealising of the past, his use of memory as a defence against meaninglessness - drives the play along, none of this happens in a vacuum. What gives Osborne's portrait of the individual its power is that it also portrays a national malaise. Jimmy's personal way of looking back is congruent with his country's way of looking back. Both share assumptions about explaining current woes by contrasting them with an idealised past. And not only is the play's essential Englishness implicit in the structure of its main situations, it is also explicit in its basic belief that literature can change the world. Look Back in Anger became the most symbolic play of its decade not because it was the profoundest, but because it was the most English. This quality, which George Steiner called 'deliberate parochialism', was plain to foreign critics. Harold Clurman thought Americans might find Jimmy's anger 'a little difficult to understand', while Guy Dumur, commenting on the 1958 French version, asked whether 'the boredom of the English Sunday, the colonel back from India and so on - can they be translated into French?'. If the play's themes are English, so too is its idiom - especially its concern with registers of class. Clurman pointed out that the English understand the anger 'because the jitters which rack Jimmy, though out of proportion to the facts within the play, are in the very air the Englishman breathes'. (11)
Or in the very myths the English believe in. What Osborne typically does is to oppose the dominant myths of his day with their repressed opposites. Compared to Colonel Redfern's idea of two people marrying for love - which assumes love is an altruistic emotion - Jimmy embodies the idea that marriage is a battle between two animals - which assumes that you can only be honest by being hurtful. Both myths are romantic. And, as in the sex war, so in the class struggle. Look Back in Anger pits the ideal of commitment - which assumes society can be changed by doing something - against the feeling of disillusionment - which provides an alibi for doing nothing.
Two other images pervade the play: one is Alison silently ironing (she is made to find meaning through humiliation); the other is Jimmy talking himself into a corner (he is made to seek truth through masochism). Within a paradigm defined by the tension between conformity and transgression, Osborne offers no solutions. The play is fertile ground for myth because it is fuelled by this tension between opposites. As well as thematic tensions, Look Back in Anger also has a circularity of plot. If in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, nothing happens twice, 'then in Look Back in Anger nothing can be said to happen three times'. (12)
Unable to do anything about their lives, the play's characters constantly complain about the boredom of a life in which nothing changes. Ironically, it may be this absence of a myth of change at the heart of the play which allowed it to be seen less as a story about a troubled marriage and more as a play about society. The politics implied by this 'original kitchen sink drama' centre not only on its gestures of negation, but are also implied by its pervasive sense of powerlessness. With an ending that emphasises irresolution and illusion, the play both reflected and legitimated the political contradictions of its admirers.
The hero as real person
The much vaunted realism of Look Back in Anger has less to do with its set - it's typical of myth that the 'original kitchen sink drama' takes place in an attic without a sink - and more with the fact that audiences were prepared to recognise Jimmy as a real person. The first sign of the play's escape from the confines of fiction and into the bracing air of cultural mythology was Tynan's Observer review. Though Harold Hobson's review in the Sunday Times was more perceptive about the play, Tynan's was a much better myth-making exercise. Using a barrage of rhetorical devices, Tynan gives Jimmy opinions about flogging, lynching and colonialism - subjects that don't appear in the play. And, after savaging those who doubted its excellence, he turns Jimmy's ambiguities into his own point of view, praising the 'drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of "official" attitudes, the surreal sense of humour […] the casual promiscuity'. (13) There is no better list of what liberal intellectuals wanted from a radical play in the mid-1950s.
The need to see Look Back in Anger in these terms blinded many not only to its traditional character, but to the fact that one its main subjects is a marriage. Instead, the play grows rapidly as a myth - mainly because Osborne and Jimmy, author and creation, become one in the public mind. The 'sense of naked honesty that came from the identification between author and protagonist' gave a powerful boost to the image of authenticity at the heart of the play. (14)
This image gained further strength from its associations in English culture. Since JO and JP are truth-tellers, they remind us of other artists of authenticity, such as F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence. Myth thus unites an idealised tradition with a new icon of rebellion, the Angry Young Man.
The Angry Young Man as symbol
Whether or not it was George Fearon, the Royal Court's press officer, who coined the phrase 'Angry Young Man' in despair at publicising the play, doesn't really matter. The significant thing is that Osborne was not only identified with an anti-heroic persona, but was also lumped together with other 'dissentient' writers, such as Kingsley Amis, John Wain and Colin Wilson, to form a composite character. Such apparently casual mixing produced a compelling myth, whose most surprising asset was Osborne himself - his idea of the authentic artist was a man who spouted aggressive opinions on every subject under the sun. An early example of the rentaquote personality.
As a potent symbol, the figure of the Angry Young Man spoke volumes about popular culture. Its connotations are fertile with meaning. Anger, at a time of buttoned up emotions and stiff upper lips, means losing your cool. A very non-U feeling, anger signified behaving badly, scandal, foreignness, threat. In a word, otherness. As English culture's repressed other, anger was seen as provincial rather than metropolitan, rough rather than well spoken, predatory rather than safe - and dissatisfied rather than complacent.
What does the Young in AYM connote? At a time when sociology was coming up with new ways of discussing the youth question, the AYM became a potent metaphor for youth. Just as critics were divided on Jimmy's character - who personified either deviance or hope - so what you felt about the AYM depended on what you felt about youth. In the 1950s, the quarrel between generations was widely seen as newly nihilistic. In Professor George Steiner's words: 'The mumble of the drop-out, the "fuck-off" of the beatnik, the silence of the teenager in the enemy house of his parents, are meant to destroy.' Newly visible, the teenager was both a problem and a market opportunity - anything that was sold as 'new' had to be dressed up as 'young'. By 1959, author Colin MacInnes glimpsed a changed social landscape: 'The "two nations" of our society may perhaps no longer be those of the "rich" and the "poor" (or, to use old-fashioned terms, the "upper" and "working" classes), but those of teenagers on the one hand and, on the other, all those who have assumed the burdens of adult responsibility.' (15)
Though no longer teenagers, the Jimmy Porters and Lucky Jims were symbols of negative youth. Often, they were equated with the teddy boys. Typical of such assumptions was Tynan's equation of youth and radicalism - he believed that everyone between the ages of 20 and 30 would like Look Back in Anger.
What does the Man in AYM connote? At a time when women, and Alison is a good example, were often metaphors for suffering and symbols of victimisation, men were imagined as active subjects - even if the activity lead nowhere. Masculinity equalled freedom, and mobility. For men, sex meant aggressive conquest rather than pleasurable langour. It was also a method of social climbing: Look Back in Anger is typical of its decade in that the class war was fought in the bedroom - an example of what Anthony Burgess called 'hypergamy', meaning marriage by a man into a social class higher than his own. It is also significant that the play's classic 'There aren't any good, brave causes left' speech begins: 'Why, why, why, why do we let these women bleed us to death?' First seen as an attack on society, the play's plot is actually based on the degradation of women. As far as Osborne is concerned, his bad boy image at the time of Suez had less to do with politics than with misogyny - in the Daily Mail, for example, he blustered: 'What's gone wrong with WOMEN?' (16)
Whether Osborne's misogyny was due to homosexual ambivalence or to a wider anxiety about maleness in a society where roles were starting to be questioned, is immaterial. Anger remained a man's business. Although the Angry Young Man was partly a media hype, he was mainly a much-needed myth that both summed up a problematic present and suggested ways of dealing with it. He could both attack society and prove that you could succeed in it. He was both English and anti-English. As the 'educated thug', he had to resolve the tension between the image of success held out to the majority and the actual attainment of success by a mere minority - he had to personify not only the scholarship boy, but other youth as well.
Allegedly the result of the 1944 Education Act, the AYM exemplified the growing vogue for sociological explanation. Vaguely lower class, he represented social mobility; vaguely lefty, he promised change. A rebel without a cause, he implied that to be politically aware meant being politically disengaged. More than the sum of his parts, the AYM gave the impression that individuals could be part of a movement for change simply by being honest. It was the job of the myth of anger to resolve such contradictions.
The metaphor of revolution
Because myth answers contradictory needs, it is rarely coherent. While the Angry Young Man was rather apolitical, he has become associated in our cultural memory with changes that were highly politicised. He was both an icon of nihilism and part of a project of constructive reform. As such, he needed the metaphor of revolution. John Russell Taylor may have described the new wave drama as a revolution more insistently than others, but his was by no means a lone voice. In January 1957, Tynan claimed he that he had heard 'the distinct sound of barricades' being erected at the Royal Court. In 1958, Allsop called Osborne, Amis and Wilson 'The Three Musketeers of the revolutionary army'. A year later, while director Lindsay Anderson agreed with Osborne that a 'revolution' in drama had taken place, Hobson was equally hyperbolic: Look Back in Anger was 'praised as a call to something like revolution, and the overthrow of all accepted values'. Even those who, like the sceptical Christopher Booker, looked askance at the changes, agreed they were a 'revolution'. (17)
Of course, the idea of revolution takes many shapes. Often, it is in the eye of the beholder. For academic Martin Banham, Look Back in Anger, the 'first manifestation of a dramatic revolution', was 'not a revolution in form but rather one of content'. Like Taylor, critic Ronald Hayman notes that, though sudden, 'it obviously wasn't a revolution that happened overnight'. For Booker, there was irony in the fact that 'the "revolution" for which Tynan, Anderson and so many of the New Oxford Group had eagerly been waiting, was now taking place almost faster than they could take in'. (18)
Although the metaphor of revolution is a figure of speech and thus not to be taken literally, it also powerfully conditions the way we think about what happened in 1956. Calling Look Back in Anger a revolution implies it was a sudden overnight success that changed everything. As John Russell Taylor announced: 'Then, on 8 May 1956 came the revolution...' (19) Actually, the play took months to become a success. This doesn't mean that a cultural revolution didn't happen, but it does show how a metaphor both expresses wishful thinking and smuggles in often unwarranted assumptions under the cloak of the self-evident. And when the metaphor of revolution is linked with natural phenomena such as an eruption, earthquake, explosion or new wave, a social event is legitimated by being characterised as natural. To call a cultural event a revolution is to give it various moral connotations. Psychologically, revolution implies decisive rupture, a point of no return. By assuming that revolutionaries are better people and have a truer picture of reality, it suggests that good triumphs over evil. Politically, a just revolution is left-wing, with the assumption that what went before was a corrupt ancien regime which could not be reformed but which had to be swept away. When revolutions are seen as natural, they are not only good but necessary: in Crane Brinton's classic study - which incidentally mentions Colin Wilson's The Outsider in its preface - revolution is a 'fever' which 'burns up wicked germs'. (20)
The myth of cultural revolution thus both expresses a longing for a moral utopia and obscures the messy reality of what actually happened. Perhaps the most confusing illusion in the myth of anger was the claim that changes in theatre had working class support. For Tynan, Jimmy was 'a working-class hero'. In 1969, Hayman imagined that 'the working-classes that had been banging at the door [of British theatre] for so long have been let in'. Being working class was assumed to guarantee personal authenticity and artistic integrity. 'Osborne,' observed American novelist Mary McCarthy, 'is a socialist who prefers working-class people to people who have never seen a flat with an outside toilet' because 'they are more real'. (21) For reasons that are unclear, middle-class people are thus unreal.
Often patronising, such commonplaces gave a moral value to being 'working class' which obscured the true nature of cultural change. Using strong metaphors, such as revolution, may have resulted from the justifiable desire to equate what happens in culture with what happens in politics, but it sometimes confused the Royal Court with the Winter Palace: they are simply not the same thing.
The narrative of revolution
Just as the rhetoric of 1956 involves necessary simplifications - by means of which the winners in a cultural struggle colonised our perception of events - so the metaphor of revolution was usually embedded in a narrative which gave a structure to the myth of anger. Three of these stories are worth considering. The first is the narrative of the three-pronged attack. Here the much-derided Loamshire play comes under assault from three directions: from Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Brecht's Berliner Ensemble (a necessary Continental ally, but a calculated snub to Joan Littlewood). When the dust settles, good theatre is seen as composed of three camps: Angry (young working-class rebels finding their voices in naturalistic settings); Absurd (underdog characters in empty landscapes making sense of a Godless world); and Brechtian (didactic dramas which used alienation effects to teach us how to take sides). Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and John Arden are conscripted into these categories; then David Mercer, Tom Stoppard and Edward Bond. In some versions, the 'three pronged suburban assault' is geographic rather than stylistic, coming from the west (Royal Court), the City (Mermaid) and the east (Theatre Workshop Stratford East - Littlewood acknowledged). (22)
The second narrative is that of the revolution betrayed. Exiled by the Stalins of subsidy, the Trotskys represent the true radicals. Here Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop is cast as the socialists who stayed in touch with the people. Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney and the group project Oh What a Lovely War! re-write the theatrical agenda. Marginalised by a compromised mainstream, this camp is swelled by renegades such as Arden and John McGrath. Though starved of resources, the true revolutionaries retain a purity of practice.
The third narrative is that of the revolution recuperated. This claims that very little was changed by the revolt. Most people found out about kitchen-sink dramas and characters living in dustbins by hearsay, through cartoons and cliches in the media. For this mass audience, what mattered was the ability of 'middle-class' domestic comedy to absorb elements of radical theatre. Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn acclimatised mainstream audiences to new ideas. Anger comes to mean star actors wrestling with their consciences (Albert Finney in Osborne's Luther); alienation effects turn into ironic narrators (Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons) and epic theatre into lavish spectacle (Peter Shaffe's The Royal Hunt of the Sun); and what 'finally managed to make sense of all that Beckettian dustbin business' was Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (23)
None of these narratives is wrong, but each is a myth which depends on all sorts of unarticulated assumptions. They are important not only because they condense many meanings into a memorable story, but also because they express a profound desire for change. Since changes in British theatre were neither as rapid nor as complete as many radicals wanted, it was often easier to elaborate on the myth rather than to alter the theatre system further.
It would be wrong to assume that the myth of a revolution in drama went completely unchallenged. In 1960, playwright Ronald Duncan wrote, 'It is true that proletarian drama is now more fashionable, but a change in fashion should not be confused with a revolution in taste.' Looking back on 1958, Charles Marowitz says, 'I accepted the fictitious "war situation" between the Angries and the Establishment and didn't realise until much later that each was as unreal as the other'. In Encore magazine 'readers were constantly being urged to run to the barricades, store up ammunition, invade enemy territory'. For some, such symbolic images have exerted their spell for almost 40 years: Keith Baxter still remembers how in the late 1950s, 'British theatre was in revolution. If critic Kenneth Tynan was its bugle, the centre of operations was in Sloane Square where director George Devine was summoning up the tumbrels.' (24)
An audience for myth
Revolutions need manifestos, and the nearest thing to a manifesto for anger was Declaration, which was published in 1957 and includes essays by Osborne, Tynan and Anderson. Within three months, it sold 25,000 copies. Clearly a new audience was buying into the myth of anger. And what was important about them was not their youth, class nor education - what distinguished them was their style consciousness. The first beneficiaries of the postwar boom, they began to assert their identity not only through what they wore (beatnik clothes) but through the culture they consumed. Theatre in the late 1950s became important because it offered such social groups a series of exciting images of revolt.
In fact, the success of Look Back in Anger owed everything to a new audience, one which hadn't heard about the play by reading Tynan's ecstatic review, but which bought tickets only after an extract had been broadcast on television. Anecdotal evidence of these changes includes writer Michael Halifax's memory of the Royal Court's 'completely new audience': 'After the TV extract, all these people started arriving. People you never see in theatres.' Other observers offer glimpses of their cultural style. Derek Granger saw them as 'fisher-sweatered noctambules from Espresso-land', while George Melly remembers 'Fair Isle-jerseyed suburbanites and battle-dressed art students'. In warmer weather, they struck Tynan as 'young people in flimsy dresses and open-necked shirts' who spoke 'a vivid vernacular made up of Hollywood, space fiction and local dialect'. (25)
Class, culture and politics
Just as style is an outer badge of identity, so myth is a inner token of esteem. Whatever its intellectual inconsistencies, the myth of anger helped place all who believed in it. First, it located them in their decade. 'Not one of us,' says Jeff Nuttall, 'had any serious political preoccupation', but all had a 'crackling certainty of Now'. (26) After the misery of postwar austerity, the idea of anger offered the excitement of risk. In a Now where the new heaven of consumer pleasure clashed with the new hell of atomic warfare, English angst stressed both fear and anger. Of the two, anger helped establish identity - it made people take sides. In class terms, anger appealed less to secure social groups and more to the newly mobilised lower-middle class, unsure of its bearings.
Osborne's autobiography is a good example of the uncertainties experienced in an age of rapid social change. Upward mobility needed cultural lodestars. Anger focused resentment not on class society as such but on some of its 'phoney' values. Attacks on old-fashioned mores could go hand-in-hand with sympathy for upper-middle-class individuals (such as Look Back in Anger's very own Colonel Redfern). Osborne's nostalgia for the Edwardian age arose because the past represents stability, while the 1950s felt insecure.
Like the Movement poets before them, the angries suffered 'an uneasy combination of class-consciousness and acceptance of class division'. For some, 'the anger of the Fifties was as often a rage of frustration at the lack of access to a limited number of privileges, as passionate moral outrage at the caution and spiritlessness of the age'. Wesker puts it more strongly: 'I was never an angry young man […] We were all very happy young men and women […] Discovered, paid, applauded, made internationally famous overnight!' (27)
In cultural terms, anger offered an alternative to modernism, which was often seen as elitist, foreign, difficult, amoral. Despite the strong presence of Continental drama on the margins, it was anger - expressed through the aesthetic of naturalism - that won the mainstream. For audiences, one way of developing a secure identity was to value 'kitchen sink' realism and to reject upper-class aloofness, avant-garde modernism and homosexual sensibility. Not only was naturalism populist, it also allowed a minority interest - theatre - to join hands with television, films and novels. One result was the pose of the 'intellectual teddy boy', deliberately philistine, provincial, provocative. Could Osborne's misogyny be interpreted as an aspect of this anti-Establishment posture? (28)
In political terms, anger was negative, but represented more a coming to terms with the Butskellite era than a coherent project of change. The 'dissentience' of the 1950s wanted 'not so much to rebel against the old order of authority and standards, but to refuse to vote for it'. If the myth of anger expressed the moment between the conformism of the early 1950s and the commitment of the late 1950s, it was a time when the absence of 'good, brave causes' didn't prevent you being self-righteous. As David Marquand records, '"Look Back in Anger", one prominent University left-winger shouted at me recently, his voice almost shaking with passion, "is a more important political document than anything the Labour Party has said since 1951."' (29) But what made anger so memorable was that gradual cultural change collided with two unexpected events that suddenly aroused political passions: Suez and Hungary.
The consequences of anger
Despite the mythophobes, 'May 1956 has become a moment of mythic significance'. (30) What Osborne's writing expressed about the 1950s was the decade's contradictory mix of discontent and nostalgia. Happy to promote the image of the angry young artist, he became one of the first literary pop stars - and, despite his disclaimers about media hype, he loved it. With a talent to accuse and arouse, he pushed theatre into the spotlight of cultural myth-making.
Seen today, Look Back in Anger seems more long-winded and less radical than its reputation suggests. More than ever prone to be a one-man show, the irony is that the more charismatic the lead actor, the more unbalanced the play. Another irony is that having successfully changed public taste, Osborne's Jimmy is today more than ever likely to appear self-indulgent and melodramatic. A further consequence of the success of the myth of anger was that it narrowed the options for the actor playing the lead. In a note to his Dejavu (a 1991 play that revisits in true postmodern fashion the original Look Back in Anger), Osborne complained that incarnations of Jimmy were 'often strident and frequently dull'. Only Kenneth Branagh's mild delivery satisfied his requirement that Jimmy be a 'comic character' with an 'inescapable melancholy'. (31)
Revolt into style
The closer you look at the class politics of the myth of anger, the shakier its underlying assumptions are. Already in 1957, David Watt saw through the prole cred of Look Back in Anger: 'The ordinary working man was just as likely to want to take a strap to Jimmy Porter as any retired Brigadier.' Osborne, realised Allsop, tended to be 'romantic and sentimental about Ordinary People'. At worst, says playwright John McGrath, the new drama was 'no more than the elaboration of a theatrical technique for turning authentic working-class experience into satisfying thrills for the bourgeoisie' - he notes that in a competitive profession people used any means, even 'pretending to be more working class than they really were', to get to the top. Above all, Wesker questions a central tenet of received wisdom about anger: 'I remember writing fairly early on articles saying that this was not a theatrical revolution.' (32)
Perhaps the most damning criticism of all appeared in the Parisian magazine Internationale Situationniste in 1958. Just as Allsop was describing how the 'old class system' was simply 'under new management', the situationists pointed out that English culture was 30 years behind the times, condemning the Angry Young Men as 'particularly reactionary in their attribution of a privileged, redemptive value to the practice of literature'. (33) Thus the French radicals attacked one of the central assumptions on which the myth of anger thrived - that culture could be as radical as politics.
The audience for the new drama is usually characterised as young, lower-middle-class and left-liberal. For this group, the myth of anger offered a radical identity which helped them cope with the insecurity of rapid social change. It glamorised the politics of the negation and provided a role model. It united on a symbolic level what reality kept apart: left-liberals might never meet a teddy boy, but a myth could bring them together on the level of fiction. The myth of anger offered both the hope of change and the consolations of a secure identity. Myth explained chaotic events, gave heart to confrontation and legitimated new feelings. Its function was partly to acclimatise people to social change and partly to push for more. But the most insidious trap for radical theatre was 'a tendency to attract likeminded audiences, who instead of being challenged were able to congratulate themselves'. While Stuart Hall and Wesker debated whether the 'new spirit' of commitment after Suez was just a 'literary and aesthetic experience', a fad, it remained easier to change cultural style than to alter social conditions. (34)
Audiences might flatter themselves by thinking that 'working class' drama could help change society, but all it did was change drama. Cultural images of the working class were a place where the middle class worked out its ideas. On the other side of town, working-class life followed completely different agendas. If we cannot avoid using myth when we look at the past, we can at least be conscious of what a myth means - and what its hidden assumptions are. The myth of anger is now central to the way we remember the 1950s not only because it gives a vivid image of the origins of postwar culture but also because it provides a blueprint for change. If, in the end, such change was mainly a matter of style, then perhaps style too has a role to play in altering social conditions.
Notes and references
1. Lawrence Donegan in the Guardian, 27 December 1994, p. 1.
2. Simon Trussler, The Plays of John Osborne: An Assessment (Gollancz, 1969), p. 40.
3. Harry Ritchie, Success Stories: Literature and the Media in England 1950-59 (Faber, 1988), pp. 207-8, 205, 211, see also pp. 31-2.
4. Kenneth Allsop makes a similar point: 'It would have been surprising if such an obvious grouping of ordinary words had not been used before May 8, 1956', The Angry Decade: A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the 1950s (Peter Owen, 1958), p. 11. For the play's title page see John Osborne, Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography Vol II, 1955-66 (Faber, 1991), illustration 2.
5. Robert Hewison, In Anger: Culture in the Cold War (Methuen, 1988), pp. 151, 148, xv-xvi. The mid-1950s were a good time for mythographers: Claude Levi-Strauss' essay on 'The Structural Study of Myth' was published in 1955 and Roland Barthes' Mythologies in 1956.
6. John Russell Taylor, Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama (Eyre Methuen, 1969), pp. 9, 14, 17, 28, 33; Ritchie, Success Stories, p. 126; Osborne, Almost a Gentleman, p. 20.
7. Harewood in Irving Wardle, The Theatres of George Devine (Eyre Methuen, 1978), p. 180; Kenneth Tynan, A View of the English Stage 1944-65 (Methuen, 1975); p.178; Osborne in Martin Banham, Osborne (Oliver and Boyd, 1969), p.8.
8. Laurence Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama (Faber, 1962), p. 30; Gareth Lloyd Evans, The Language of Modern Drama (Dent, 1977), pp. 106-7; Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (Paladin, 1970), p. 43.
9. Ronald Hayman, British Theatre since 1955: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 10; John Osborne, 'Some Call It Cricket' in Tom Maschler (ed) Declaration (MacGibbon & Kee), 1957), p. 65; Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama, p. 101; Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 111.
10. Gamini Salgado, English Drama: A Critical Introduction (Edward Arnold, 1980), p. 193; John Elsom, Post-War British Theatre (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), pp. 74, 80.
11. Quoted in John Russell Taylor (ed) John Osborne 'Look Back in Anger': A Casebook (Macmillan, 1968), pp. 186, 47, 169-70, 174.
12. John Bull, Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre (Macmillan, 1994), p. 50.
13. Tynan, View, pp.178, 199, 271.
14. Christopher Innes, Modern British Drama 1890-1990 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.103.
15. Steiner in notes to Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim: With an Introduction by the Author (Hodder & Stoughton, 1990), p. 225; Colin MacInnes, 'A Taste of Reality', Encounter no 67 (April 1959), p. 66.
16. Burgess in Amis, Lucky Jim, p.218; Osborne in Ritchie, Success Stories, p. 128.
17. Tynan, View, p. 199; Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 8; Anderson in Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama, p. 176; Harold Hobson, Theatre in Britain: A Personal View (Phaidon, 1984), p. 188; Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs: The Revolution in English Life in the 50s and 60s (Pimlico, 1992), pp. 43, 80 and passim.
18. Banham, Osborne, pp. 1, 10, 104; Ronald Hayman, John Osborne (Heineman, 1969), p.3; Booker, Neophiliacs, pp. 122, 98.
19. Taylor, Anger and After, p. 28.
20. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (Vintage, 1965, preface 1956), pp. 16-20.
21. Tynan, View, p. 271; Hayman, Osborne, p. 1; Mary McCarthy, Sights and Spectacles 1937-58 (Heineman, 1959), p. 196.
22. Martin Priestman, 'A Critical Stage: Drama in the 1960s' in Bart Moore-Gilbert and John Seed (eds) Cultural Revolution? The Challenge of the Arts in the 1960s (Routledge, 1992), pp. 118-20; Tynan, View, pp. 252, 255-6.
23. Priestman, 'Critical Stage', p.120.
24. Duncan in Taylor, Osborne Casebook, p. 192; Charles Marowitz, Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic: A London Theatre Notebook 1958-71 (Eyre Methuen, 1973), p. 45; Charles Marowitz et al (eds) The Encore Reader: A Chronicle of the New Drama (Methuen, 1965), p. 39; Baxter in the Daily Telegraph, 29 October 1994.
25. Halifax in Wardle, Devine, p. 185; Granger in Hewison, In Anger, p. 170; George Melly, Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in the 50s and 60s (Oxford, 1989), p. 31; Tynan, View, p. 272 and in Maschler, Declaration, p. 128.
26. Nuttall, Bomb Culture, p. 24.
27. Blake Morrison, The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s (Methuen, 1980), pp. 74-5; Hewison, In Anger, p. xi; Arnold Wesker, As Much As I Dare: An Autobiography 1932-59 (Century, 1994), p. 7.
28. Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain (Blackwell, 1989), p. 81.
29. Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 9; Marquand in Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals after Stalin (Lawrence & Wishart, 1995), p. 99.
30. Bernard Bergonzi, Wartime and Aftermath: English Literature and Its Background 1939-60 (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 153.
31. Lloyd-Evans, Language, pp. 108-9; John Osborne, Dejavu (Faber, 1991), p. vii.
32. Watt in Encore Reader, p. 59; Allsop, Angry Decade, p. 99; John McGrath, A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre - Audience, Class and Form (Methuen, 1981), pp. 1-13; Wesker in The Big Issue, 30 Jan-5 Feb 1995.
33. Internationale Situationniste 1953-69 (Champs Libre, Paris, reprint 1975), p. 5.
34. Alan Sinfield, 'Theatre and Its Audiences' in his Society and Literature 1945-70 (Holmes & Meier, 1983), p. 181; Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture, pp. 260, 153, 81; Encore Reader, p. 111.
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'John Osborne and the Myth of Anger', New Theatre Quarterly 46, May 1996: pp 136-46.