John Osborne’s play ‘Look Back in Anger’ (written May 1955; first performed 1956) was a pioneer at the time and began not only the movement of the kitchen sink realism (or kitchen sink drama) but also spawned the concept of “angry young men.” The former was a term coined to describe a British cultural movement that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s and used social realism to depict working class Britons’ cramped and dirty living conditions to explore a range of social and political issues. An instance of the genre was Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste of Honey, about a teenage schoolgirl who had an affair with a black sailor, got pregnant, and then moved in with a gay acquaintance.
With the rise and fall of the British empire as the background to the period, the early twentieth century saw the peak of power and influence of British colonialism but by the 1950s, two economically devastating World Wars and the rise of the United States as a new world power meant that the British empire had entered a steep decline. Look Back in Anger thus dealt with social alienation, the claustrophobia and bitterness of life on low income. Jimmy Porter became illustrative of an entire culture wistful for past glory. He romanticised the past even while mocking those who could not understand the change in times. In a time of crucial transition from Britain’s Victorian past into the modern twentieth century, Jimmy’s rage was an expression of pent-up emotion in an inert and dull world.
That anger became a symbol of the rebellion against the political and social malaise of British culture. Osborne dealt with these struggles in his play (written in seventeen days in a deck chair on Morecambe Pier), drawing from autobiographical incidents such as his unhappy marriage to actress Pamela Lane and their cramped life. (Lane, more avaricious and pragmatic, did not take Osborne’s theatrical ambitions seriously and cuckolded him.) It also drew from Osborne’s earlier life; for example, the death of his father, Thomas, but was best remembered for Jimmy’s harangues, often against British middle-class haughtiness and some against female characters, an echo of Osborne’s own uneasiness with women, including his mother, whom he described in his autobiography A Better Class of Person as “hypocritical, self-absorbed, calculating and indifferent.” The harsh, realistic style of such kitchen sink drama contrasted sharply with the escapism of the previous generation’s “well-made plays.”
The protagonists of works employing the ‘kitchen sink realism’ style usually could be described as “angry young men” disillusioned with modern society. These ‘angry young men’ included writers mostly of lower-class origin concerned with their political and economic aspirations. In addition to being an archetype, John Osborne was one of the leading literary figures of the angry young en movement. This movement was identified after the Second World War as some British intellectuals began to question orthodox customs. The main issues of angry young men were “impatience with the status quo, refusal to be co-opted by a bankrupt society, an instinctive solidarity with the lower classes.” (Luc Gilleman, 2008.) ‘Kitchen sink realism,’ literary works thus began to deal with lower class themes while, in earlier decades, less attention was given to literature that illuminated the experience of the lower classes.
In 1961, Osborne made public headlines with ‘Letter to my Fellow Countrymen’ that represented an anti-England mentality, protesting against Britain’s joining the arms race. He expressed anger not only at what Britain had become, but also at what he felt it had failed to become. As the angry young men movement expressed these themes, awareness of related issues was more prominent. Osborne depicted these issues in his play through his protagonist, Jimmy, who saw “the wrong people go hungry, the wrong people be loved, the wrong people dying.” In post-World War Britain, with extremely poor quality of life for lower class citizens, Osborne used this theme to demonstrate Britain’s neglect of those that needed most care. The educated are compared to savages in the play, to elucidate the difference between the classes.
Jimmy was the embodiment of the young, rebellious post-war youth that questioned the state and its actions. Look Back in Anger gave its audience hope that Osborne’s work would revive British theatre and empower it to act as a “harbinger of the New Left” (Samuel Weiss, 1960.) However, Osborne also critiqued the British Left consistently. The term ‘angry young man,’ always imprecise, thus grew to lose meaning over the years as the writers to whom it was originally applied became more divergent, and many of them dismissed the label as useless. Osborne expressed his own concerns through his plays and provided controversial angry pronouncements, delivered with an immaturity compared to impatient youth. Some critics ridiculed Osborne for a lack of maturity in his statements, debating about his politics and those of the “movement.” Jimmy’s anger, destructive to those around him, and the psychological violence of the play received a great deal of criticism as well.
Negatively though it was received by critics at first, Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson (now considered the most influential critics of the time) were among the few to have praised it then. Tynan wrote of the play as containing “all the qualities […] one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage—the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of ‘official’ attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour, the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned,” calling the play a “minor miracle,” even as other critics criticised the pathetic wife in Mary Ure (who stars as Alison—the wife character based on Pamela Lane—in the play and film and who Osborne leaves Lane for), saying she appeared “to have taken on the nation’s laundry” (Wilson, C. of the recurring motif of her ironing), recalling Arthur Miller’s Linda and the trope of her laundry baskets seen throughout the play. As Alan Sillitoe comments, Osborne “didn’t [just] contribute to British theatre, he set off a land-mine and blew most of it up.” Critics today agree that the play is central to an understanding of British life in the twentieth century and has, thus, a crucial piece of literature in the British canon.