23 February 2012

'Look Back in Anger'

by Kirk Woodward

[Frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward saw the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger earlier this month. He hasn’t written a conventional report, but he’s submitted a discussion of the play’s importance—or lack thereof—as a major piece of theatrical literature. Does it belong in the canon, or not? Does it have significance for today’s theater? Today’s audiences? American audiences? Did it ever? No play staged in an important venue such as Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre in the Broadway Theater District needs further rationale to merit discussion, but nonetheless, let me set the scene, so to speak, with a little theater history that explains Look Back’s significance a little.

[As Kirk notes in his article, Osborne’s drama opened in London on 8 May 1956 at the Royal Court Theatre. The English Stage Company’s production, directed by Tony Richardson, immediately caused a stir among theater people, reviewers, and spectators. It was a break with convention that was to go on to have profound repercussions in Western theater, especially in Britain and the United States. Almost all of our theater in the last 56 years has happened in great part because of
Look Back. Kirk speaks of this in his discussion, so I won’t burden readers with a preview, but I’ll note two aspects of Osborne’s creation that are particularly significant, both for the stage of the last half century and perhaps even more importantly, for the cinema. First, Osborne’s protagonist in Look Back in Anger, Jimmy Porter, was the prototype for the Angry Young Man, a figure that has populated a great deal of Western drama, both live and filmed, for five decades and counting. The careers of the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and many others would have been severely curtailed had it not been for Jimmy Porter. So would the writing careers of Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, among others. (Race was no boundary—or the gender of the author. One of the most prominent AYM’s of the era was Walter Younger of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Raisin in the Sun.) In fact, little of the Hollywood of the ’60s could have existed without the Angry Young Man. If John Osborne hadn’t invented Jimmy Porter, someone else would have had to or we’d all still be going to see Horse Eats Hat!

[But Jimmy Porter wasn’t just the first important AYM of the Western stage. He was also the first important (and successful, theatrically speaking) anti-hero. He was arguably the first leading character of the modern stage who was thoroughly unlikeable as a person. You might sympathize with him, even come to understand him some—but you would have to work very hard to
like him. He’s not a nice person. He treats everyone badly—sort of Gregory House without the medical degree and the wit. The list of Hollywood and Broadway or Off-Broadway characters who took after Jimmy Porter in that respect is too long even to start. I’ll drop two names, though: Charles Bronson and Neville Brand. I don’t think either man played anything but anti-heroes. (They had the looks for the role—but, boy, were they fun!) Of course, there were anti-heroes before Look Back—Richard III and Macbeth come to mind immediately—but Jimmy Porter defined the type for a generation of writers, directors, and actors. If you look anti-hero up in an encyclopedia, Jimmy Porter’s picture will be there. (Of course, he’ll probably look a lot like Richard Burton—who played the role in the 1959 film. Kenneth Haigh played the character on the stage both in London and on Broadway—but no one remembers what he looked like anymore.)

[All this alone would have made
Look Back in Anger an important historical phenomenon, though perhaps just a footnote in today’s theater texts. Look Back’s most significant contribution to cultural history is that it launched what became known as “contemporary theater” as differentiated from “modern theater,” which pretty much began with Henrik Ibsen’s Realistic plays, starting essentially with Doll House in 1879. (We’re into Postmodernism now—whatever that means!) The contemporary drama began in the aftermath of World War II and most authorities date it from 1956 with the opening of Look Back in Anger. Kirk will be discussing some of the thematic reasons for this divide, but suffice it to say for now that Look Back marked a major change in the way theater was made, viewed, and discussed. However we may judge the script today, with the perspective of time and distance, good, bad, or indifferent, Look Back in Anger has a permanent place in the annals of theater history. ~Rick]

A landmark play had better have more to it than the novelties that made it a landmark, if it is going to be worth reviving.

The Roundabout Theatre in New York City opened its production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger on January 13, 2012, scheduled to run through April 8, 2012, and I saw it on February 9. When the play first opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1956, it caused a memorable stir. Most reviewers slammed it. Kenneth Tynan, the theater reviewer of The Observer, on the other hand, famously wrote that “I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger.” His opinion, and that of Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times, helped turn the tide in favor of the play.

What caused the controversy? The best known British playwrights at the time were Noel Coward and Terrence Rattigan. Compared to John Osborne, they, and the British theater of that era, were decorous, and their plays focused on the middle and upper classes, with the lower classes typically presented for comedy or contrast.

Osborne looked at class distinctions from the bottom up; his hero is intelligent but also plebian, and he works in a sweets shop. Osborne also put on stage a rough, unpleasant, decidedly unstable home scene, and mixed it with a strong dose of skepticism about the typical assumptions of British life. Audiences are said to have been mesmerized, and even shocked, by the sight of an ironing board on stage in the play. It seemed to symbolize a whole aspect of life that had not been dramatized before.

Look Back in Anger centers on Jimmy Porter, an aggressive, bright, witty, caustic, restless young man from the lower classes, as opposed to his wife, Alison, whose upper class parents bitterly oppose their marriage. The couple live in a small, uncomfortable flat. The play finds their relationship at a low ebb; Alison can’t express her feelings, Jimmy can’t help expressing his feelings in eruptive gusts, and neither can help wounding the other.

Look Back in Anger, along with Waiting for Godot, which had its first London production a year earlier, in 1955, caused permanent change in British theater, and influenced Western theater as a whole. Old boundaries disappeared. Gritty, realistic, pessimistic plays about people of all classes became acceptable, while on the other hand, the Theater of the Absurd opened the door for surrealism and fantasy. Neither Anger nor Godot were box-office smashes, but, to the distress of writers like Noel Coward himself, they shaped the way the plays that followed them were perceived.

That was then, this is now. Look Back in Anger is fifty-six years old this year. The changes it brought about are commonplaces these days, practically wallpaper in today’s theater. So its current revival raises the question: does Look Back in Anger matter now, except as an historical artifact?

The director of the Roundabout production, Sam Gold, has done everything he can to make the play connect with today’s audience. He has set the play on the apron of the stage, so the playing area is as wide as the stage – and no more than half a dozen feet deep, which gives the audience an appropriate feeling of claustrophobia, and surely does the same for the actors, who can barely move past each other. Everything is painted black (the New York Times compared the set to a blackboard), with just a few set pieces on it – a kitchen cabinet, an ironing board, a fold-up table, a couple of chairs, a chest of drawers, a mattress pushed up against the wall, and lots and lots of paper and garbage on the floor.

Gold has cut the play, including one character (Alison’s father), reducing it to two acts. (I was surprised that the new act break didn’t take place one scene later, so the first and second acts could each begin with a woman – a different woman each time – doing the ironing.) Gold stages Anger to emphasize its resemblance to the plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, with long pauses pointing up non-sequiturs and moments of strong emotion. Most importantly, much of the political talk is gone; the characters are less specifically rooted in the England of 1956, and presumably more accessible to American audiences of 2012.

So the play, in its Roundabout production, is at least effective. It is, however, no longer controversial, partly for reasons not its own fault – its surprises have become commonplaces – and it is not a masterpiece of dramaturgy. Brooks Atkinson wrote a penetrating review of the play in The New York Times in 1957, and he pointed out that after an act or so of remarkable freshness, it becomes a much more conventional play, although it does return to its strengths in the last scene.

With its political focus severely reduced, the play is also deeply exasperating, because it must rise and fall on the character of Jimmy, its main character. Jimmy is deeply unhappy, and since the political context of the play is largely gone, we are left with not much but his wife Alison’s remark that Jimmy was born out of his time – that he should have lived during the French Revolution. Nothing is going to satisfy Jimmy’s sense that life is a mess. He brings to mind Hamlet’s statement:

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
There’s not a chance that I can set it right.

. . . except that’s not exactly what Hamlet says. Hamlet believes, however fitfully, that he was born to “set it right,” and as a result he is a hero. Jimmy would laugh at the notion of a hero, and at anyone we dared to designate as one. I’m not sure why Osborne says Jimmy looks back in anger. He looks with anger in every direction, and even in the modestly calm ending of the play, we can tell he’s not going to remain that way. Robbed of his context by time and directorial decisions, Jimmy is just angry.

Look Back in Anger isn’t revolutionary any more – it has won its revolution – but it is still hard to take. Most reviews I’ve seen of the Roundabout production were at best mixed. (Charles Isherwood, writing in the Times, focused on the daring extremes in Sam Gold’s staging, noting, for example, that the squalor and rubble in the flat is so blatant that it’s a wonder Alison, raised after all in a more sophisticated environment, doesn’t just pick the stuff up.)

My own opinion is that Sam Gold’s staging both strengthens the play (by its theatricality), and weakens it (by removing the heart of the political argument), but that in any case, Look Back in Anger is unsatisfactory as a play. It’s interesting, with strong acting roles, and it certainly has value as a piece of theatrical history, but at its heart it’s an uneasy combination of a wail and a fairly conventional story, and I suspect it will always be more referred to, for its place in theatrical history, than enjoyed.

[Following our graduation from college, Kirk and I joined a group of students led by our college theater director on a trip to London. It was actually a summer course (with assigned readings and a paper), but as we’d graduated and were basically marking time until we each had to report for active military duty later in the year, Kirk and I went along for the fun of a month or so of theater and other diversions in London, in those days, my favorite city in the world. (The journey to London, on which Kirk didn’t come, went through Rome, Florence, and Paris—three others of my favorite cities. We were in Rome when the first astronauts landed on the moon—and all Americans were heroes for a while. In Florence, a friend and I spent the afternoon watching the David—because I swear to God, that statue breathes! In Paris, my friends and I played “ex-pats,” drinking Pernod and smoking Gauloises—like characters in Midnight in Paris! It was a truly glorious break from real life. It was July; by December came the army, which ended up taking nearly five years of my life. Not without its rewards, but far less carefree.)

[The program was housed in a dormitory of London University and along with the shows we saw, we had meetings and lectures from a number of theater figures, both pros and academics, at the dorm. At one of those sessions, a talk by playwright Christopher Hampton, an incident centering on
Look Back in Anger drew me up short. Hampton, whose play The Philanthropist had just opened at the Royal Court Theatre as I remember, came to speak to us about the rise of the contemporary theater (or something like that—I forget the actual topic after almost 43 years). In his discussion, Hampton mentioned that an important influence in his artistic development was the original production of Look Back in Anger in 1956, which he'd seen when he was 10. I quickly did the math and figured out that Hampton was the same age as I was—born about 1946. I was immediately depressed (and have remained so ever since, by the way) because here he was, a produced playwright of some renown already and here I was, sitting, as it were, at his feet, having accomplished nothing so far in my life. (Addendum: It turns out that Hampton's about exactly 11 months older than I am. He's gone on to write several important plays, including Total Eclipse and Liaisons Dangereuses, and a batch of screenplays, while I have gone on . . . to continue to do nothing of significance—with the possible exception, says Kirk graciously, of starting Rick On Theater; but that’s only a late development. Ah, well . . . such are the inequities of life!)]

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