John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger: Setting, Characterisation, Themes and Dramatic Elements

Setting: Setting refers to the spatiotemporal dimensions of a work of art. The two important concepts in setting are time and place. It can then be said that Osborne’s Look Back in Anger is set in the England of the 1950s. By this time, Britain had just emerged from World War II and was counting her losses. Her status as world power was being threatened with the emergence of the United States as the contending world power. It should be noted that the United States was once colonised by Britain. Thus, the significance here is that power was gradually shifting from the coloniser to the colonised, from the powerful to the powerless. An instance is the independence of India from British rule in 1947 shortly after World War II, and this was to be followed by the independence of other British colonies around the world, especially in Africa, where Ghana, for instance, gained independence in 1957.

The play, specifically, is also set in a rented apartment in the Midlands. The Midlands is so called because it is bordered by Northern and Southern England and was popular in the industrial revolution of the 18th and the 19th centuries. It is significant that Jimmy and Cliff who are working class people also stay in the Midlands. The spatial setting in the play is mostly in a rented room apartment. The other places like London where Hugh’s mother stays are merely mentioned. The specific temporal setting of the play for the first act is a Sunday in April during the season of spring. Act II is set two weeks after the first and it is the act where Helena Charles, who had arrived at the end of the first Act, calls Alison’s father to come for his daughter.  The third and the final Act is set several months after Alison had left Jimmy and Helena had taken her place. Alison returns to the house in this act and Helena leaves to allow her take over her rightful place as the wife of Jimmy.

Characterisation: Characterisation refers to the act and art of creating characters and assigning them roles in a work of art. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger has a small set of characters. They are Jimmy Porter, Alison Porter, Cliff Lewis, Helena Charles and Colonel Redfern.

Jimmy Porter: Jimmy Porter is the hero of the play. He is portrayed as coming from working class background and being of the lower class stratum of the English society. He co-owns a sweet stall [or Cliff is helping him out] with Cliff Lewis, his friend, with whom they share an apartment. Jimmy is described in the stage direction as a tall, thin young man. He is about 25 years old. The fact that he wears a worn jacket and flannels is indicative of his poverty and class. He is depicted smoking a pipe. Indeed, as it is evident in the play, smoking is one thing that Jimmy, Cliff and Alison share in common, though Jimmy likes smoking an old pipe that makes the room to stink. Though Cliff complains about this pipe, Alison says she is used to it. Jimmy is also depicted as the most talkative character in the play. His words are a combination of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and cruelty.

 Jimmy is also portrayed as restless and full of pride. He is also importunate with his relationship with others. Jimmy hates being ignored. He is lively and wants others to be the same. The stage direction notes that such social attitudes as exhibited by Jimmy fetches one very few friends. Jimmy is also full of vulgarity. His speech lacks refinement. This is also characteristic of his class and sets him apart from the characters from the upper class structure of society. Jimmy is depicted as the angry young man. His life is full of disappointment and frustration. This appears to give him a higher moral edge than the other characters. He is often noted playing Jazz on his trumpet as a pastime and as a way of comforting himself. He is educated but that education does not place him in the right class that he should belong because he is of the working class and earns very little from his sweat.

Cliff Lewis: Cliff Lewis is Jimmy’s friend. Jimmy says that he is the only friend of his that still stays around especially after Hugh went abroad. Cliff is of the same age as Jimmy. But unlike Jimmy, Cliff is short, dark and big-boned. In Act I, he wears a pullover and grey new but very creased trousers. He is teased by Cliff and Alison for not being able to take care of his new trousers. This is indicative of his lower class background which is supposed to be crude. Cliff is relaxed, easy and lethargic. The stage direction also states that Cliff has the sad natural intelligence of the self-taught. This means that though Cliff might not have been educated like Jimmy, he still tries to ‘better himself’ as can be seen in his seriousness at reading newspapers in the play. Cliff is the foil of Jimmy in the play. While Jimmy tends to alienate people and their love, Cliff attracts people. People find it easier to talk to and confide in him. He cares so much about Alison and this counteracts Jimmy’s characteristic indifference.

Alison Porter: Alison is Jimmy’s wife. When the play begins, she is depicted pressing clothes at the ironing board. There is no indication that she has a job in the play. This means that she is a full time house wife in the tradition of upper class Victorian woman. The stage direction portrays her wearing a grubby but expensive skirt. She also wears Jimmy’s cherry red shirt. The grubby but expensive shirt shows how her upper middle class status has been mixed up with the working class people through her marriage to Jimmy and her relationship with Cliff. Alison’s personality is said to be elusive. It even deceived Jimmy who thought that she was relaxed during their time of courtship. Alison is elegant in her outfit. She is also about the same age as the men. Alison is tall, slim and dark. She has large and deep eyes.

Helena Charles: Helena Charles is Alison’s friend who comes to stay with Alison in the course of the play. She later becomes Jimmy’s lover after she has persuaded Alison to leave Jimmy due to their seeming incompatibility and constant abuse. Helena is an entertainer, an actress. She has an ambivalent feeling towards Jimmy in the sense that all through the play, she makes everyone perceive that she does not like Jimmy, only for her to suddenly love him after Alison leaves. In fact, she confesses to Jimmy that she had always wanted him. She takes Alison to church, which shows her traditional Christian background. But after Alison leaves, Helena does not go to church anymore. She appears to like most of the attributes of Jimmy that Alison hated and which she [Helena] earlier condemned.

She is the woman who is bold enough to face Jimmy when he comes back from visiting the ailing Hugh’s mother who later dies. Helena is able to confront Jimmy about his attitudes towards Alison. She is depicted as a feminist. But when she falls in love with Jimmy, she shades those feminist traits and submits to him. It could be said that the author uses Helena’s character to teach Alison never to complain in her marriage and that she has to accept her man with all his flaws. Helena is also seen as morally principled in the sense that when Alison returns to the house, she [Helena] quickly takes her leave knowing that it is not right to usurp another’s matrimonial home, especially the home of a best friend. Alison’s absence and the loss of the pregnancy must have also taught Jimmy to appreciate Alison more as a wife, just as Helena envisaged.

Colonel Redfern: Colonel Redfern is Alison’s father. He only appears in the play when he arrives Jimmy’s apartment to take Alison back to the house after her marriage with Jimmy hit the rock. He is portrayed as a retired military man of the English upper middle class, who had served the British government in colonial India. He returned to England after India got her independence from the British. Together with his wife, Redfern is portrayed as a man who lives in the past and who refuses to accept that things have changed. This explains why they found it difficult to allow Alison marry Jimmy, a poor man of a lower class background. It is only in retrospect that he acknowledges his faults even though he still maintains that he can never accept Jimmy for his in-law.

Other Characters (Ghost Characters): The other characters in the play are those that can be described as Ghost Characters. Ghost characters are those characters who are mentioned in the play by other characters but they do not make appearances, neither do they speak in the play. The characterisation of ghost characters is usually too visible and relevant to be ignored in the analysis. The Ghost characters in Look Back in Anger include Brother Nigel, Jimmy’s father, Mrs Redfern, Hugh Tanner, Hugh’s mother, Madeline and Miss Drury.

Brother Nigel is Alison’s bother who is one of the butts of Jimmy’s abuses and scorn. He is a hopeful politician being trained in Sandhurst Academy, a military school. Jimmy abuses Brother Nigel for having vague knowledge about life and things and says that he deserves an award in vaguery: ‘For Vaguery in the Field’. Jimmy says that Brother Nigel might end up in the Cabinet one day. This means that Brother Nigel’s political career is set before him. But Jimmy also sees him as a sellout, though he is a patriotic Englishman.

Jimmy’s father is mentioned when Jimmy tries to explain to Helena what it means to watch a loved one die. His father fought in the Spanish civil war and was seriously wounded by a ‘gentleman’. Jimmy says his father died alone and lonely, having been abandoned by everyone except him [Jimmy].

Hugh Tanner is an important ghost character in the play. He is Jimmy’s friend who had since gone abroad, specifically to China where he hopes to become a writer. Hugh took in Jimmy and Alison shortly after their marriage when they could not afford a place of their own. Jimmy feels bad that Hugh was not patriotic enough to stay in Britain and face the postwar difficulties. Neither did he do well in abandoning his poor old mother. Hugh joined Alison and Jimmy in deliberately crashing the parties of the upper class members of society whom Alison knew.

Hugh’s Mother is one of the persons that Jimmy really feels attached to. He says that this attachment is because she helped Jimmy with the setting up of the sweet stall and also because she loves Alison, though Alison is not willing to reciprocate the gesture. Jimmy receives a call that Hugh’s Mother, Mrs Tanner, had a stroke. He does not hesitate to take the next train to London to see her. When Jimmy comes back, we learn that Mrs Tanner has died and will be buried on Thursday. She is another person that Jimmy watches as she dies.

Mrs Redfern, wife to Colonel Redfern and mother of Alison, is another ghost character in the play. She is noted for her stiff opposition to the marriage between Alison and Jimmy. She is said to have gone to great lengths to ensure that the marriage didn’t take place. For instance, she hires private detectives to follow Jimmy and to enquire about his background and morality. The idea was to find something indicting to be used as a good excuse for stopping the marriage. Mrs Redfern also continues to write to Alison even after the marriage. This is one of the things that offend Jimmy in the play. Jimmy is seen going through Alison’s handbag in her absence in a bid to find such letters. He actually finds one. What makes him angrier about these letters is that he is conspicuously omitted in them. In other words, he is not mentioned in the letters at all.

Madeline: Madeline is an older woman that Jimmy once fell in love with. He talks about her most of the time. She is ten years older than Jimmy. She was like a mentor to Jimmy but they really got along in their relationship. It is apparent that Madeline and Jimmy were very compatible. Some critics have said that the character of Madeline represents Stella Linton who was Osborne’s friend and mentor.

Miss Drury: She is Alison’s landlady. She doesn’t appear in the play but Cliff tells us that she complains of the apartment not being properly kept clean and Alison is afraid that the noise that Jimmy makes could cause Miss Drury to throw them out of the house. She must also be religious because Jimmy says that she might be in church where the bells are ringing.

Themes: Among the themes in the play are marriage and class conflict, love, friendship, survival, betrayal, gender oppression, poverty, anger, disillusionment, death.

Dramatic Elements: The play is rich in symbols like the Squirrel and the Teddy Bear, church bells, newspapers, Trumpet and Jazz.

There is also foreshadowing as a dramatic element. This occurs when Jimmy wishes that something would happen that would make Alison learn a great lesson. He also wishes for her to have a child who would die so that she would learn a great lesson. Alison eventually loses her pregnancy. This is also dramatic irony in the sense that when Jimmy makes the statement, he does not know that Alison is pregnant, but Cliff knows. 


Briefly discuss at least three symbols in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger

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