Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger Study Guide

Look Back in Anger is considered one of the most important plays in the modern British theater. It was the first well-known example of "Kitchen Sink drama," a style of theater that explored the emotion and drama beneath the surface of ordinary domestic life. Jimmy Porter, the play's main character, became the model for the "Angry Young Man," a nickname given to an entire generation of artists and working class young men in post-World War II British society.

Osborne wrote the play in only a few weeks in May of 1955. The play was first rejected by many of the agents and theater companies that Osborne approached about producing it. George Divine, the creative producer for the struggling Royal Court Theater, decided to gamble on the play and staged its first production. The play opened on May 8, 1956. It received mixed reviews from English theater critics, yet it won a rave review from the Times. This established the play's notoriety and helped it eventually build an audience.

The two iconic motifs of the play are the aforementioned concepts of the Angry Young Man and the Kitchen Sink drama. The Angry Young Man motif came to be associated with a group of young writers and artists -- John Osborne and Kingsley Amis being foremost amongst them -- that the cultural public believed to personify an anger, boredom, and frustration with British cultural life that many working class families felt during this time.

The idea of the Kitchen Sink drama was also a revelation for British theater. The stylings of most British theater before Look Back in Anger favored Victorian dramas and comedies or stagings of classical plays. In a general sense, the Victorian plays dealt mostly with polite themes from the late 19th and early 20th century upper ruling class. In contrast, Osborne's play depicted the raw emotions and living conditions of the working class. This style of theater was given the name "Kitchen Sink" because of its focus on the interior domestic and emotional lives of ordinary people. In the case of Look Back in Anger, the kitchen is literally a part of the set.

The cultural backdrop to the play is the rise and fall of the British empire. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the peak of power and influence of British colonialism. By the 1950's, two World Wars, which devastated the British economy, and the rise of the United States as the new world military and political power meant that the British empire had entered a steep decline. Jimmy Porter is representative of an entire culture that remained nostalgic for this past glory. He idealizes the worthy causes of the past even while he mocks those who cannot understand why the times have changed as much as they have.

Look Back in Anger is a play that appeared in a time of crucial transition from Britain's Victorian past into the modern twentieth century. Jimmy's rage and anger is his expression of pent-up emotion and his need for life in a world that has become listless and uninteresting. That anger became a symbol of the rebellion against the political and social malaise of British culture. His anger is destructive to those around him and the psychological violence of the play received a great deal of criticism. Critics today agree, however, that the play is central to an understanding of British life in the twentieth century and, thus, a crucial piece of literature in the British canon.