The play opens with a description of the setting and the scene. Act I takes place on an evening in April. The setting is the Porter’s attic apartment. It is a small room with simple, sparse furniture. It is cluttered with items such as “books, neckties, and odds and ends, including a large, tattered toy teddy bear and soft, woolly squirrel.” There is a large window in the attic, but the only light comes from a skylight, so the room is somewhat dim. As the curtain rises, the audience sees Jimmy Porter and Cliff Lewis seated in two shabby armchairs. They are reading newspapers which cover the top half of their bodies so that the audience can only see their legs. Jimmy is smoking a cigar and wearing a tweed jacket and flannel pants.
The opening of the play gives detailed descriptions of the disposition of each character. Jimmy, who is about 25 years old, is described as “a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike.” Cliff, who is about the same age as Jimmy, is almost the opposite of Jimmy. He is relaxed, “almost to lethargy,” and easy going. Cliff demands other people’s love, while Jimmy mostly repels it.
Also in the attic is Alison Porter, Jimmy’s wife. She is a tall, slim, dark girl whose personality is not immediately apparent to the audience. She “is tuned in a different key, a key of well-bred malaise that is often drowned in the robust orchestration of the other two.” She is ironing a pile of laundry.
Jimmy throws his paper down in disgust. He complains that all the book reviews sound the same and that the papers provide no intellectual stimulation. He asks Cliff antagonistically if the papers make him feel ignorant. He calls Cliff “a peasant.” The audience comes to understand that Cliff has not received the same education that Jimmy has received. Jimmy then turns his antagonism towards Alison who is only half listening to his rantings. Cliff tries to deflect some of Jimmy’s anger away from her, but Jimmy keeps on with his ranting. Jimmy obviously feels that Alison is not as brilliant as she and others think she is. Jimmy then becomes upset that nobody is listening to him when he speaks and he steals the newspaper from Cliff.
Jimmy tells the other two that he is hungry and Cliff mocks him for always wanting food. Cliff tells him that he will end up being fat one day, but Jimmy tells him that won’t happen because “We just burn everything up.” He demands that Cliff make him some tea, and Cliff complains because he’s already had a potful that day. Cliff then complains that Jimmy had creased his paper and Jimmy tells him that “I’m the only one who knows how to treat a paper, or anything else, in this house.”
Cliff is kind to Alison. He tells her to leave the laundry and come sit down and she comes over where Cliff, in a flirting manner, bites her fingers and tells her she’s beautiful. Jimmy is not bothered by this. He only looks at her and says, “That’s what they all tell me.” They begin to discuss the articles in the paper by the Bishop of Bromley who urges all Christians to support the manufacture of the H-bomb and denies the existence of class distinctions. Jimmy discusses some of the other odd articles in the paper. A woman had several ribs broken and her head kicked when a crowd rushed to the stage at a meeting of an American evangelist. He mocks an article on love advice for young women. When Alison suggests that they go to the movies, Jimmy declares that he will not have his evening ruined. He then goes on a rant about a journalist who wrote a poor piece in the paper. Jimmy proclaims that nobody reads the paper because “Nobody can be bothered. No one can raise themselves out of their delicious sloth.”
Cliff’s trousers are wrinkled and Alison offers to iron them. Cliff wants a pipe, but cannot stand the smell of it and so starts to smoke a cigarette even though Jimmy warns him they will upset his ulcers. Jimmy begins to reflect on the state of the English nation. He remembers an old saying about England: “...we get our cooking from Paris (that’s a laugh), our politics from Moscow, and our morals from Port Said.” He knows that he shouldn’t be very patriotic, but he says sarcastically that he can’t help but idealize Alison’s father’s time spent in the British army in India. He decides that “it’s pretty dreary living in the American Age -- unless you’re an American of course.”
Cliff and Jimmy discuss whether Alison’s friend Webster might come over to visit. Jimmy hopes not, but Alison notes that he is the only person that understands him. Jimmy says that Webster exhilarates him in the same way that one of his old girlfriends, Madeline, did. Jimmy talks about Alison’s brother, Nigel. Nigel was a soldier in the British army and is moving up in the world. Jimmy thinks he’ll be in Parliament one day, though he also believes that Nigel “seek(s) sanctuary in his own stupidity.” Jimmy continues to disparage Alison and her family. He calls them “sycophantic, phlegmatic and pusillanimous.” Jimmy then tries to explain what the word “pusillanimous” means. He tells her it means “Wanting of firmness of mind, of small courage, having a little mind, mean spirited, cowardly, timid of mind.” He tells her that this word describes her perfectly. Alison’s face contorts in anger, but the feeling passes and she returns to ironing.
The concert that Jimmy wants to listen to comes on the radio and Alison finishes ironing Cliff’s pants. Alison keeps ironing and Jimmy complains that he can’t hear the music because of the noise. He angrily turns off the radio and Alison chides him for acting like a child. He begins to yell about how loud women are and describes her clumsiness by telling her she is like “a dirty old Arab, sticking his fingers into some mess of lamb fat and gristle.” Church bells start ringing outside and this noise upsets Jimmy even more. Cliff, trying to improve the mood, pretends to dance with Jimmy to the bells and grips him in a vice while Jimmy protests.
The play begins with Osborne’s very specific stage directions. Osborne attempts to give definition to each character through an analysis of their physical traits and their emotional makeup. Jimmy is a study in dualisms: he is angry and bitter, yet he is also tender and intense in his zealous love. Osborne attempts to paint Jimmy as a very masculine character, though the audience is left to decide how much of that is real and how much of that is an act. Alison Porter is described as a woman that has been beaten down by life. Osborne uses the word “malaise” to describe her, denoting the fact that her life has not turned out as she hoped it would. Cliff is described as a likable man, unimposing in his physical characteristics. He is the opposite of the kind of person that Jimmy aspires to be, yet Jimmy is much more like him than he knows or cares to admit. Cliff seems to innately understand this relationship and, therefore, suffers Jimmy’s abuse with good nature. The opening scene uses stereotypical gender references to define the characters. Jimmy is smoking a pipe and reading a paper while Alison is ironing. These represent the way in which both of the characters have attempted to fit into societal roles and expectations that have both made them miserable and angry.
The play opens in April, a reference to T.S. Eliot’s line from The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest (sic) month.” Eliot is mentioned several other times in the play and is used as a definitive English cultural reference for Jimmy. This love/hate relationship with British culture is characteristic of Jimmy's attempts to retain a vibrant patriotism even while being pessimistic about the state of English affairs.
Their apartment flat is a symbol of 1950’s domesticity. The staging of the play is important for understanding the mood of domestic disturbance. The room is filled with old furniture, half-read newspapers, and pieces of worn clothing. This is representative of the characters and the characters’ lifestyle. Like a piece of junk or old furniture, Jimmy, Cliff, and Alison have literally been stowed away in an attic, out of sight from the upper class culture. Their emotions and ambitions do not fit in with the upper class world and this causes a great amount of consternation for Jimmy. The cramped space contains all of the trappings of a meager domestic life. Jimmy’s political and social persuasions become evident here as well when he mocks a faux column in the paper written by the “Bishop of Bromley.” He considers himself unconventional and untied to traditional British politics and even declares that no political party would want him. Though his politics often align with the Liberal party, he is also a bit of an anarchist, opposed to any kind of organization whether it be politics or religion.
The playful banter between Cliff and Jimmy belies the deep tension and anger beneath the surface of the relationships between the three characters. This soon turns to anger and one of the play’s key themes is revealed. Jimmy is concerned, above all, with “enthusiasm” and “living.” He portrays others as slothful and lazy. Alison and Cliff are, presumably, included in this judgment. Jimmy has clear memories of several people who excited him in the past -- Alison’s friend Webster and his former girlfriend Madeline. The reason, he alludes, that these people understood him was precisely because they understood his need for a more enthusiastic mode of living. Jimmy’s anger is a result of his inability to excite similar feelings in the people around him.
The play’s title alludes to a running theme: anger over the political, military, and social prominence of the British past. Jimmy’s comment about the “American age” illuminates his nostalgia for the former British empire. He is at once both antagonistic towards those that refuse to believe that such an empire does not exist anymore, such as Alison’s father who he derides as a fool, and yet he is also fiercely patriotic, an emotion he equates with living a real life. The British empire, thus, represents for Jimmy a point in history in which the Englishman was allowed to truly live as himself. This American age is “dreary” in comparison -- “unless you’re an American.”