What made the ‘angry young men’ so angry?

I read John Osborne’s 1956 play, Look Back in Anger, as part of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The play consists mainly of diatribes by the central character, Jimmy Porter, against virtually everything in 1950s British life.  He is especially abusive toward his long-suffering wife, Allison.   When she tells him she is pregnant, he says he hopes the baby will be born dead—which, it so happens, it is.   Porter shows no consideration for his loyal friend Cliff.

We in Walter’s play-reading group all thought Jimmy was despicable.  We saw him as a textbook case of an abusive husband.

Yet at the time theater audiences responded to his rage.  Look Back in Anger was one of the most successful plays of its season, and made Osborne’s reputation.

Osborne was one of a group of novelists and playwrights called the “angry young men.”

They were sons of working-class or lower-class parents. They were the beneficiaries of the new British welfare state.   They had economic and educational opportunities far above their parents’ generation.

Why weren’t they grateful?  What made them so angry?

A clue can be found in the two people to whom Jimmy Porter gives unreserved love and affection.   One is dying elderly lower-class woman who bequeathed Jimmy a “sweet stall,” where he can make a living by selling snacks to passers-by.  This spares him the indignity of working for a boss.

The old woman dies alone except for Jimmy, and he is the only one to attend her funeral.   His wife Allison thinks it strange he could care about such a marginal person.   “Jimmy seems to adore her principally because she’s been poor all her life,” the wife says, “and she’s frankly ignorant.”

The other is Jimmy’s own father, a veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, who came home from the war a broken man and died within a year.   Jimmy says that he, at the age of 10, was the only one who cared enough about his father to sit at his bedside and listen to him in the last year of his life.

He says the family sent the father a monthly check, but all of them, including his mother, thought of him as a loser and an embarrassment, and were glad to see the last of him.   Some 15 or more years later, Jimmy still hasn’t forgiven them.

Now the International Brigades had two goals.  One was the defeat of fascism.   The other was the creation of some kind of workers’ government.

By 1945, you could argue that these two goals had been achieved.  Hitler and Mussolini had been defeated, and a socialist government come to power in Britain.

John Osborne

But for Jimmy Porter, this is not enough,   The British class system endured and he was still on a lower rung of that system.

Yet there was no cause left that he can join up with to change this.  Hence his frustration and feeling of meaninglessness.

Most human beings in most times and places do not need a political or social cause to give life meaning.  They find it in the practice of a religious faith.

Religious faith is incomprehensible to Jimmy.  When his wife tells him she is going to church with a friend, the only reason he can think of that she would do this is to spite him.

The two things that enrage Jimmy are (1) hypocrisy and (2) indifference.   This is the type of moral indignation open to someone without fixed moral beliefs.

Many families—typically but not necessarily lower-class families—freely vent their emotions, flying into furious rages and then making up.   Other families—typically but not necessarily upper-class and middle-class families—are careful about what they say, and expect to be understood without spelling things out.

People from the first kind of family find people from the second kind of family extremely frustrating.   Their typical response is to try to provoke the second kind into some kind of emotional reaction, however negative, and this causes their target to double down on emotional self-control.

This is how I see what’s going on between Jimmy and Allison.   He is trying to break through the barrier of what he perceives as indifference and evoke real emotion, and he doesn’t care whether the emotion is love or hate.

Of course, there is an alternate explanation, which is that Jimmy Porter and his creator simply don’t like or understand women.

Look Back in Anger is more than just a period piece.  The world is still full of angry young men, lacking meaning or purpose in their lives and full of unfocused rage.

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