Posts Tagged ‘Angry Young Men’

What made the ‘angry young men’ so angry?

November 14, 2017

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.

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