Look Back in Anger

Summary and Analysis of Act I (pages 26 - 38)

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Summary

Cliff and Jimmy wrestle and Jimmy pushes Cliff into Alison and her ironing board. They fall to the floor together and Alison burns her arm on the iron. Jimmy tries to apologize, but Alison yells for him to leave the room. He goes into his room and begins to play his trumpet. Cliff sits down with her and gets some soap to wash the wound. Alison confides to him that “I don’t think I can take much more...I don’t think I want anything more to do with love.”

Cliff tells Alison that she is too young to give up, but she responds that these days she cannot remember what it was like to be really young and carefree. She knows Jimmy feels the same way. As Cliff continues to bandage her arm, she tells him that she is pregnant and that she has not told Jimmy. He asks her if it is “too late to avert the situation,” and she tells him she doesn’t know. He urges her to tell Jimmy because Jimmy does love her, even though he is cruel. She believes that Jimmy will suspect that she is attempting to trap him in a life with her. She tells Cliff that Jimmy has “his own private morality” and that he had been angry when he had slept with her on their wedding night and found out she was a virgin, as if “an untouched woman would defile him.”

Cliff tells her that he understands Jimmy in some way. They both come from working class people and Jimmy likes him for that. In Jimmy's words, it is because Cliff is “common as dirt....” Jimmy reenters the room and sees Cliff and Alison touching and close together on the couch, but he doesn’t say anything and sits down to read the paper. He makes fun of the two of them and how physically affectionate they are with each other. Jimmy tells Cliff that he’s just a “randy little mouse” and Cliff begins to run and dance around the flat like a mouse. He grabs Jimmy’s foot and they begin to tussle. When they finish playing, Alison gives Cliff a half a crown for cigarettes and he exits to go to the store.

Jimmy enters again in an apologetic mood. He tells Alison that he is sorry that he pushed her down. He tells her that “There’s hardly a moment when I’m not -- watching and wanting you.” He acknowledges that sometimes he takes her for granted and Alison warms to his affection. Jimmy suggests that they have sex, but Alison shyly reminds him that Cliff will return soon. Jimmy reflects that Cliff is probably the only friend he has, though he remembers all his former friends from school. He and Alison tease each other, him calling her a squirrel and she calling him a bear. She makes squirrel noises as they hug each other.

Cliff enters and tells them he couldn’t even leave the house because Mrs. Drury, their landlord, wouldn’t let him get away. Cliff tells Alison that she has a call from Helena Charles. Alison leaves to take the call. Jimmy tells Cliff that this is one of Alison’s old friends and he calls her a “bitch.” He explains that she is one of his “natural enemies.” Jimmy reflects that he has “had enough of this ‘expense of spirit’ lark, as far as women are concerned.” He thinks that they have a “cause” and that plenty of women have a “revolutionary fire” to them. Most people don’t like him because he’s got a “strawberry mark” to him as a “right-wing deviationist.” He goes through Alison’s purse and finds a letter from her mother. He is angry because Alison and her mother write letters but never mention his name because it’s a “dirty word” to them.

Alison reenters and tells Jimmy that Helena is coming to stay with them while she is in town. Jimmy is angry. He starts to verbally assault his wife, telling her that if only she “could have a child, and it would die...Let it grow, let a recognisable (sic) human face emerge from that little mass of indiarubber and wrinkles” than she would understand the ways of the world. He tells her that she devours his passion as a python devours an animal. Alison stands over the stove and trembles as Cliff watches the scene.

Analysis

Jimmy’s trumpet playing is an allusion to the twentieth century British fascination with Black American jazz culture. When Jimmy plays the trumpet, it represents his affinity for a culture which he believes is truly alive. This is a common theme in several works of mid-twentieth century white English culture, from literature to popular music. Osborne here suggests that black jazz culture is an embodiment of a “natural” humanity. Jimmy’s anger is a result of not being able to live in such a humanity and his trumpet playing is an symbol of his attempt to connect with such a life.

Alison’s own fear is revealed in her private conversation with Cliff. She tells Cliff that she is afraid to tell him of her pregnancy because she does not want to “trap him.” This is an ironic statement since Jimmy is already trapped in a sleepy, domestic life that he does not want. Such a statement also demonstrates the tension that is at the heart of the character of Alison. On the one hand, she is dedicated to the conservative familial structure of her upbringing. On the other hand, she is in love with Jimmy and wants more than all to put his needs above her own.

Alison and Cliff’s affectionate relationship is also revealed in this scene. It is a strange relationship because the two seem to have a close physical connection -- they often touch and hug -- yet this does not seem to inspire any jealousy or emotion in Jimmy. This relationship between the three shows how Cliff’s character is integral to Jimmy and Alison’s relationship with each other. Alison is able to get the affection that she desires from Cliff while Cliff also provides the masculine friendship and confidence that Jimmy desires. Jimmy seems to unconsciously understand that the two will not consummate their affair because of the very malaise that Jimmy accuses them of having.

Jimmy becomes angry at Alison for allowing Helena to stay with them during her visit and his rant towards her at the end of the first act is one of his most vicious. This rant makes clear what Jimmy deems necessary in order to be truly alive. One must suffer as he did when he watched his father die in order to understand what it truly means to live. The audience sees that the death of Jimmy's father is integral to his own understanding of himself. This will be explored further in Act II. When Jimmy tells Alison that he wishes that she could see her child die, it is a moment of both dramatic irony and foreshadowing. It is ironic because the audience already knows that Alison is present. Jimmy’s attack on her foreshadows the death of her child and her future hardships.

Jimmy’s anger is representative of Osborne’s critique of the feminization of society in the 1950’s. Osborne later wrote that Jimmy’s anger is a manifestation of the subliminal anger felt by a generation of men domesticated by a feminine culture. Jimmy’s anger is Osborne’s attempt to return genuine masculine emotion to cultural life. This is one of the reasons that Osborne’s play received such attention and critical reception, both good and bad. Some critics argued that his attempt was ultimately misogynistic.