Next week, a 1950s English play opens off-Broadway that was more than just a play, says WNYC’s Sara Fishko. It was a cultural landmark that shook English class consciousness to its foundations. A trip to post World War II Britain –in this episode of Fishko Files.
A revival of Look Back in Anger opens on February 2nd at the Roundabout Theatre. For more information, visit the Roundabout Theatre Company’s website.
England was in dire straits when Look Back in Anger premiered at the Royal Court Theater in 1956. Playwright John Osborne was a product of this climate. Osborne’s biographer, John Heilpern, explains…
"He grew out of post-war depression. I mean, it’s almost hard to imagine an England that was really broke. That had lost its empire. That had rationing. That believed in capital punishment, still. Where homosexuality was a crime. You could be imprisoned for it. This is bleak! This is a bleak place! And Osborne was the first really to mirror a class war in England that was going on at the time - in my view, still does. But nevertheless it was at its height then, of working class or even lower-middle class of England, who were ignored."
In Heilpern’s authorized biography of Osborne, “John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Man” (2006), he zeroes in on the direct impact England’s hardship had on Osborne’s work. Osborne pinpointed one of England’s many problems as a faltering of ‘feeling.’ From Heilpern’s book…
“’What is most disastrous about the British way of life is the British Way of Feeling,’ Osborne wrote soon after Look Back in Anger’s premiere, ‘and that is something theatre can attack. We need a new feeling as much as we need a new language. Out of the feeling will come the language.’”
Osborne repeated his call for “a new feeling” in his 1957 “Declaration” essay entitled “They Call It Cricket."
“I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterward. In other countries this could be a dangerous approach, but there seems little danger of people feeling too much – at least not in England as I am writing”
Look Back in Anger opened to mixed reviews, to put it mildly.
Ivor Brown, of BBC Radio’s “The Critics,”
“[The setting is] unspeakably dirty and squalid. It is difficult to believe that a colonel’s daughter, brought up with some standards, would have stayed in this sty for a day…I felt angry because [Look Back in Anger] wasted my time.”
Kenneth Tynan, The Observer
“I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.’
Harold Hobson, The Sunday Times
“[John Osborne is a] writer of outstanding promise, and the English Stage Company is to be congratulated on discovering him.”
What really got the play seen by a larger, non-theater-going, audience was an excerpt aired on British TV. Heilpern explains…
"The young didn’t go to the theater. They watched the telly, you see? And then they saw it. They saw this man talking their language! This furious Jimmy Porter - and they, in a way, themselves: their resentments in life about class, and their resentments about emotion and marriage, and whatever the state of England was at the time. It was all mirrored in the play."
Look Back in Anger touched off a new movement in British theater and film, known as Kitchen Sink Realism. These films embraced the initially controversial realism seen in Osborne’s work. Here’s a selection from the era, below.
- Look Back in Anger, 1959
A film adaptation of Osborne’s play.
Director: Tony Richardson; Starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Mary Ure
- Room at the Top, 1959
An ambitious young social-climber schemes to wed a wealthy factory owner's daughter.
Director: Jack Clayton; Starring Simone Signoret, Laurence Harvey, and Heather Sears.
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1960
A rebellious, hard-living factory worker juggles relationships with two women. Director: Karel Reisz. Starring Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, and Rachel Roberts.
- A Taste of Honey, 1961
A plain young girl matures after becoming pregnant by a sailor.
Director: Tony Richardson; Starring Dora Bryan, Robert Stephens, Rita Tushingham.
- The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 1962
An unruly boy, sentenced to a reformatory school, survives the institution with his talent as a long distance runner.
Director: Tony Richardson. Starring Michaeld Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage.
- Bill Liar, 1963
A lazy young clerk in provincial Northern England lives in his own fantasy world.
Director: John Schlesinger. Starring Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, and Wilfred Pickles.
- Alfie, 1966
An unapologetic ladies' man learns the consequences of his lifestyle.
Director: Lewis Gilbert; Starring Michael Caine, Shelley Winters, and Millicent Martin.
For more on John Heilpern…
John Heilpern is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, where he writes the Out to Lunch column. Heilpern’s biography of Osborne, “John Osborne: The Many Life of the Angry Young Man,” is available here.
Fishko Files Production Credits
Executive Producer: Sara Fishko
Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer
Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister
WNYC Newsroom Editor: Karen Frillmann