The Tragedy of Jimmy Porter

Overview of the critical opinions about "Look Back in Anger" and development of a thesis

Term Paper, 2007

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Positions of criticism

3. Jimmy's social identity

4. Interim conclusion

5. Jimmy's personal identity

6. Jimmy as victim and perpetrator

7. Jimmy as a tragic character

8. Conclusion


Ehrenwörtliche Erklärung

I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry – angry and helpless.

(Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, p. 50)

Anger is not about… It comes into the world in grief not grievance. It is mourning the unknown, the loss of what went before without you, it's the love another time but not this might have sprung on you, the greatest loss of all, the deprivation of what, even as a child, seemed irrevocably your own.

(Jimmy Porter in Déjàvu, p. 372)

1. Introduction

It is widely accepted that John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger was a turning-point in the history of British theatre, a milestone introducing the era of the New British Drama.[1] Osborne remembers: "On 8 May 1956 [...] Look Back in Anger had its opening at the Royal Court Theatre. This [...] particular date seems to have become fixed in the memories of theatrical historians"[2] and Lacey emphasises: "The moment of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger [...] was undoubtedly a symbolic one in the history of post-war British theatre and of post-war culture generally."[3] However, Look Back in Anger was not perceived as a break-through right from the beginning. Rather, Osborne had to cope with shattering criticism and at first, his play was a crushing defeat. Osborne himself summarized the reactions towards Look Back in Anger in his autobiography about thirty years later: "There was a vehement, undisputed judgement: the play was a palpable miss."[4]

Nearly all reviews focused on the play's hero Jimmy Porter, whose nature they depicted as the reason for the "essential wrongness"[5] of the play. Jimmy was seen as "a bitter young misfit,"[6] "a boor, self-pitying, self-dramatising rebel"[7] and a "cynical, neurotic [young man] of working-class stock,"[8] whose "continuous tirade against life [...] ha[d] a deadening effect upon the whole play."[9] Cecil Wilson sharpened the criticism when she exclaimed that Jimmy Porter's bitterness and his savage and often vulgar talk "crie[d] out for a knife."[10]

However, the attitudes towards Osborne and his first play changed with the publication of Kenneth Tynan's testimony in the Sunday newspaper a week later stating that he could hardly "love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade."[11] This provocative review suddenly shed a new light on the play. Overnight, Look Back in Anger had become a success, its (anti-)hero Jimmy Porter "the first young voice to cry out for a new generation that had forgotten the war, mistrusted the welfare state and mocked its established rulers with boredom, anger and disgust"[12] and John Osborne had become a celebrated young writer. Owing to its literary key role in the history of British Drama I would like to give a brief overview of the critical opinions about Look Back in Anger before I move on to developing my own thesis.

2. Positions of criticism

The interpretations of Look Back in Anger are not only manifold but also rather contradictory. Zapf comments:

Besteht hinsichtlich der faktisch-historischen Bedeutung von Look Back in Anger weitgehende Einigkeit in der Literaturkritik, so gehen indessen die Meinungen über nahezu alle wichtigen Fragen der Interpretation, der Thematik und der künstlerischen Einschätzung des Stücks teilweise weit ausein-ander.[13]

Opinions already differ concerning the question whether and to what extent the drama has led to an innovation of the British Theatre that has been attributed to it.[14] Most critics find that the form of the drama is quite traditional and conventional, while its innovative potential lies in its content. Even the author himself admitted at one point that Look Back in Anger was "a formal, rather old fashioned-play."[15]

For Demastes, the play is situated on "a theatrical fault line, riding upon ground moving in two opposite directions, and being fully part of neither."[16] He suggests that Look Back in Anger is a problematic play because it follows both a traditional, naturalist and a postmodern direction.[17] The tradionalist perspective comprises the audience's desire for guidance, consistent characters and closure, whereas Jimmy Porter's vagueness and evasiveness as well as his objectionable nature are attributed to the postmodern aspect of the play. Demastes argues that the problem of Look Back in Anger lies in the fact that Osborne has – possibly unconsciously – introduced a new dramatic methodology that the spectators yet have to come to terms with. The "play works much more effectively not as a piece that leads its audience to answers but rather as a work that pushes its audience to derive its own answers and conclusions."[18] Thus, the predicament which both the audience and critics find themselves in stems from their insistance on a traditional reading of Look Back in Anger although the play actually requires a postmodern view.[19]

In terms of dramatic structure, it has been argued that the play suffers severe weaknesses. One major fault of the play was claimed to lie in the imbalance between Jimmy's role and those of all other characters.[20] Jimmy's dominating character led Hayman to the conclusion that Look Back in Anger is "the one-man play par excellence."[21] Quigley consequently reasons that Look Back in Anger is "widely regarded as a very important but not very good play."[22]

When we draw our attention to the play's themes we find an even wider gap. On the one hand, there is the tendency to see Jimmy as the spokesman of the British post-war generation, a working-class representative raging against the lack of idealism and enthusiasm in the Welfare State. Taylor comments that "Jimmy was taken to be speaking for a whole generation"[23] and Worth adds that the play was almost obligatorily labelled with the phrases 'kitchen sink drama' and its protagonist referred to as 'angry young man.'[24] On the other hand, we find psychoanalytical approaches, which identify Jimmy as a neurotic character and attempt to understand his anger and his relationships on the basis of Freudian theories. Zapf criticises that both these concepts are too one-sided as they both reduce the play to an inadequate extent:

In einer rein soziologischen Deutung wird die relative Eigengewichtigkeit der psychologischen Ebene entwertet, da diese nur als unnötiges, wenn nicht störendes Beiwerk empfunden wird. Umgekehrt erscheint in einer psychologischen Deutung Jimmy als Neurotiker, dessen Gesellschaftskritik nur eine Projektion seiner unbewältigten Beziehungsprobleme darstellt und daher ebenfalls als ernstzunehmende Bedeutungsebene entwertet wird.[25]

Indeed, many sociological and psychological approaches to Look Back in Anger are often too narrow and not comprehensive enough. However, in the following, I will try to demonstrate that the two approaches are not equally suitable for analysing Jimmy's motivation behind his behaviour. In my opinion, sociological explanations are stuck with the phenomenology of Jimmy's anger and fail to explain it.

This paper is set out to answer the question why Jimmy is so angry. First, I will discuss the sociological approaches in more detail by focusing on Jimmy Porter's social identity. Then I want to concentrate on psychoanalytical approaches and Jimmy Porter's personal identity. In the main part, I shall discuss the significance of Jimmy's childhood trauma for his current behaviour. I will conclude that Jimmy Porter is a tragic character who – by his refusal to accept his past – finds himself enclosed in a vicious circle and is thus "a spokesman for no one but [him]self." (Déjàvu, p. 367)

3. Jimmy's social identity

Sociological analyses commence with Jimmy's connection with society. When examining Jimmy's position towards society it soon becomes obvious that it is characterized by the opposition between working and upper/middle class. "Versucht man aus den zunächst diffus und unzusammenhängend wirkenden Aussagen Jimmy Porters zur Gesellschaft Hauptzüge festzusetzen, so sind dabei zunächst die Konturen einer Klassensstruktur erkennbar, die am Gegensatz zwischen working class und middle class festgemacht ist."[26] He identifies with the former and is rebelling against his wife Alison and her family, who are members of the upper middle class and whom he therefore considers as enemy. In accordance with this interpretation is Jimmy's refusal to pursue a professional career. Though he is without doubt an intelligent, well-read person and has enjoyed a higher education at university, Jimmy has finally chosen to run a sweet stall. Having experimented with a variety of jobs (he has "had his own jazz band once" (Look Back in Anger, p.35) and has tried "journalism, advertising, even vacuum cleaners for a few weeks" (Look Back in Anger, p.57)), he has decided on a job that is clearly associated with the working classes.


[1] See Taylor. In: Taylor (1978): p. 75.

[2] Osborne (1991): p.13.

[3] Lacey in Luckhurst (2006): p.164.

[4] Osborne (1991): p.4.

[5] Daily Mail. In: Taylor (1978): p. 36. Please note: The following newspaper reviews are not listed in the bibliography. They can be found in Taylor, p. 35-45.

[6] Star. In: Taylor (1978): p. 40.

[7] Manchester Guardian. In: Taylor (1978): p. 39.

[8] Daily Worker. In: Taylor (1978): p. 44.

[9] News Chronicle. In: Taylor (1978): p. 36.

[10] Daily Mail. In: Taylor (1978): p. 36.

[11] Observer. In: Taylor (1978): p. 51.

[12] Mortimer. In: Denison (1997): p. 183.

[13] Zapf (1988): p. 62.

[14] Zapf distinguishes four positions in terms of the dimensions content and form. For further information, see Zapf (1988): p. 62-64.

[15] Osborne (That Awful Museum, 1961). In: Taylor (1978): p. 66.

[16] Demastes. In: Denison (1997): p. 63.

[17] See Demastes. In: Denison (1997): p. 63ff.

[18] Demastes. In: Denison (1997): p. 62f.

[19] For further information see Demastes. In: Denison (1997): p. 61- 69.

[20] See Quigley (1997): p. 36.

[21] Hayman (1976): p.17.

[22] Quigley (1997): p. 35.

[23] Taylor. In: Taylor (1978): p. 77.

[24] See Worth. In: Taylor (19978): p. 102.

[25] Zapf (1988): p. 64.

[26] Zapf (1988): p. 65f.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


The Tragedy of Jimmy Porter
Overview of the critical opinions about "Look Back in Anger" and development of a thesis
University of Mannheim
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ISBN (Book)
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Tragedy, Jimmy, Porter, Overview, Look, Back, Anger
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Lydia Prexl (Author), 2007, The Tragedy of Jimmy Porter, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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