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Looking Back in Sorrow and Anger

May 8, 2016


Today is the anniversary of the debut performance of Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre in London.   This apparently seismic cultural event has been brilliantly and perhaps definitively de-mystified and theoretically reconfigured by my old friend Dan Rebellato in his important book 1956 and All That.  Nobody gets under the skin of how theatrical language and culture was actually experienced in the post-war period better than Dan Rebellato.  But mostly on this anniversary I think about my Dad.

My Dad was not especially invested in Theatre in 1956.  Nor was he a Londoner.  But he did claim to have seen the initial 1956 production of Look Back in Anger.  I know a lot of people made this claim – so many that fire regulations must have been completely flouted  as at least three people would have occupied every available seat in the house.  The coffers of the Royal Court Theatre ought to have been a deal fuller than they seem to have been at the time.

All I can know for certain, is that my Dad, in retrospect at least, felt a profound sense of zeitgeist associated with Look Back in Anger which, together with the Suez Crisis, was personally very formative for him.  And I’m also sure that Dad felt a profound and lifelong sense of affinity with the character of Jimmy Porter.  You’ll appreciate that this did not always make him easy to live with.

Look Back in Anger is not an easy play to watch nowadays.  People who just “say the unsayable” regardless of the consequence are now so commonplace as to be dull.  Many such people are running for political office.  Some have achieved it.   After a blistering debut John Osborne himself made the swiftest of transitions from Angry Young Man to Nasty Old Man seemingly with no transitional phase whatsoever.  (Wasn’t he good in Get Carter though?)

I spoke to my Dad about Anger once, and I suggested to him, that Jimmy Porter’s rage is only tolerable if you believe that it’s motivated by a kind of higher love, that we warm to viciousness only because within the urgency of viciousness we suspect some kind of yearning that is inseparable from a profoundly loving bedrock.  If the years past and (in Osborne’s case) no evidence of any bedrock of a loving nature is ever excavated, the anger itself becomes boring at best rather than exciting.   My Dad nodded, but also explained to me that I needed to understand what it felt like to hear such unfettered and liberated language back in 1956.  And then I realised that John Osborne was my Dad’s Rock and Roll moment.  He was too old for actual Rock and Roll, too old for Elvis (though I do remember him once dancing to “All Shook Up” at a party, a performance that gave me scars that will not heal), and was in fact roughly the same age as John Osborne.  My Dad was never a teenager as such – wartime and national service put pay to that for his generation – but he was John Osborne young and angry.

Look Back in Anger is not a great play, and its importance for the development of British Theatre has been greatly overstated.  Its retrospective importance both for my Dad and for my relationship with my Dad is incalculable.  Jimmy Porter informed not so much my Dad’s stated beliefs (which were often wildly inconsistent – sometimes within the same conversation), but rather his style of treating beliefs, his dogged interrogative vehemence,  as well as his lifelong and sincere notion that there was no such thing as an inappropriate conversation.  When you miss someone (and I’ve been missing my Dad for four and a half years now), you miss not just their warmth and generosity (and my Dad like your Dad possessed these qualities), but also those infuriatingly intransigences that made them more distinct and memorable.   The Jimmy Porter in my Dad was not loveable, but his JimmyPorterdom made him unlike other Dads I saw around me.  I’ll repeat, John Osborne did not make my Dad easy to live with.  But he helped make him feel more uniquely mine.




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  1. Petabrun permalink

    I was in the Royal Court Theatre, I promise absolutely, not for the first performance, but during the first week.
    I remember the seats clattering up as outraged patrons left the theatre not waiting for the interval.
    During the interval my boyfriend of the time said, ‘We can talk about it afterwards let’s spend the interval circulating and listening to what people are saying.’ Unfortunately I can’t remember any outraged conversations.
    I do remember my anger at Alison for not standing up to him and the shock of him kissing Helena – The ultimate in betrayal. The true face laps however were cathartic.
    Yes 1956 was a very special year for those of us who were young at that time, and John Osborne somehow personified its uniqueness.
    Thank you Conrad Brunstrom for bringing it back so vividly.

  2. Great post. John Osborne got into real trouble in 1957 with the English Stage Company which led to him being cold-shouldered by the Royal Court for his republican views, published in a book called Declaration. I made a note in my blog:

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