John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger: Author’s Biodata, Background to the Play and Synopsis

John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger: Author’s Biodata, Background to the Text and Synopsis

John Osborne was an English playwright, screenwriter, actor and a political activist. He was born in 1929 and died in 1994. He is best known for his play, Look Back in Anger, published and first premiered in 1956. Before Look Back in Anger, Osborne had tried his hands on journalism after failing to graduate from Belmont College, having been expelled for being fresh with the headmaster who punished him for listening to a forbidden broadcast in school. Osborne was introduced to the theatre when he worked as a tutor for touring company of young and junior actors.

His first play The Devil inside Him was coauthored with Stella Linden. He also coauthored Personal Enemy with Anthony Creighton before going on to write Look Back in Anger, which is overtly autobiographical, as it documents most of Osborne’s personal experiences as a struggling working-class English man with difficulties in marriage relationships. It should be noted that Osborne married five times without much success and happiness, with the only exception, perhaps, being his last wife, Helen Dawson. His first marriage was with Pamela Lane, in 1951.

This marriage suffered setbacks as it was marred by arguments, poverty and extramarital affairs. Osborne went on to marry Mary Ure, Penelope Gilliatt, Jill Bennett and finally Helen Dawson. Osborne’s political statements were made mostly through his plays, and through his autobiographies, A Better Class Person and Almost a Gentleman. Osborne died in 1994 after struggling for some time with liver problem and diabetes.

Background to the Play

Look Back in Anger is the most successful and most popular of Osborne’s plays. It is a realistic play. This means that it is based on the philosophy of realism and, specifically, social realism. Realism is an arts movement and ideology which seeks to make artistic representations faithful to reality as much as it is possible. To achieve this, the realistic work of art usually relies on facts and events that actually occurred in real life. Social realism is an ideology which sees literature and other art forms as avenues for depicting the conditions of working-class people from the sociopolitical point of view.

In other words, the representation of the social conditions of the poor, lower class and labouring people makes a major statement about the class and power structures in society that ensure their oppression. Look Back in Anger is also known as Kitchen sink drama or Kitchen sink realism. The term is used to refer to the British cultural movement which developed in the late 1950s and the early 1960s in theatre, art, novels, film and television plays. Kitchen sink drama is characterised by the anger of the protagonists which is occasioned by their disillusionment with modern society. It also makes use of social realism which portrays the domestic situations or conditions of the working-class people who are depicted living in cramped and rented apartments and spending their work-free hours drinking and exploring controversial social and political issues. Such issues range from abortion to homelessness. The style of the kitchen sink drama is harsh and hostile towards the power structures and it is sharply contrasted with the style of the well-made plays of the 19th century which was noted for their escapism. This explains why Jimmy, the hero of Look Back in Anger, is called ‘an angry young man’, just like its creator Osborne.

As it has already been stated, Look Back in Anger draws its raw material from the personal life of its author, especially his many failed marriages, his frustration and anger directed at his socially stratified milieu. The play also dramatises the post-war spirit that was perceived as ushering in a new social order that questions all old values and norms, particular those of the Edwardian era. The Edwardian era in British history spanned 1901 and 1910 when Edward VII was King. Attitudes were largely Victorian and socially pretentious with clear boundaries on class and morality. Look Back in Anger also mirrors the existentialist and the absurdist outlook of the postwar British Empire, especially in its repetitive plot, ridiculous dialogue and events.


Jimmy Porter – The Angry Young Man and Protagonist of the play

Cliff Lewis – Friend to Jimmy

Alison Porter – Wife to Jimmy Porter

Helena Charles – Friend to Alison and later Jimmy’s lover

Colonel Redfern – Alison’s father, a retired military man of the British Upper Middle Class


The play is organised in three Acts and set in a one-room flat in a large Midland town in postwar Britain. It is evening in April and the season is spring. The story told in the play revolves around three or four important characters – Jimmy Porter, Alison Porter, Cliff Lewis and Helena Charles. As the play begins, Jimmy and Cliff are depicted reading newspapers while Alison is pressing clothes by the ironing board. Jimmy begins a conversation based on the papers he and Cliff are reading. Jimmy keeps asking Cliff to make more tea, and both Cliff and Alison chide him for eating too much.

The conversations are expository in the sense that they reveal the stories surrounding the characters. For instance, it is revealed that Cliff and Jimmy are friends and both are from working class background. Jimmy and Alison are spouses but they are incompatible in terms of class as Jimmy is from lower working-class background while Alison is of the Upper Middle class British society. They married without the consent of Alison’s parents. Jimmy is portrayed as a character who likes to talk without caution or politeness. His words are raw, naked and harsh.

Throughout the play, Jimmy deliberately attempts to hurt and harass Alison with words. He goes as far as calling her ‘pusillanimous’, which is an adjective that means timid and cowardly. He does not only verbally abuse Cliff, his friend and business partner with whom he runs a sweet-shop by referring to him as ignorant and uneducated, he also gets physical with him a number of times through kicking him and play-fighting. This fighting gets to the ironing board where Alison irons clothes and she is hurt in the arm.

It is actually Cliff who tends to show more affection to Alison, as he is the one who notices that she is tired, asks her to get rest, calls her tender names and even treats her hurt arm when she burns her arm with the iron during Cliff’s friendly fight with Jimmy. Jimmy expresses his irritation at everything. He insults and abuses Alison’s parents whom he hates for belonging to the past. He does and says everything he can to anger and humiliate Alison. He also complains that the noise from Alison’s ironing board is interfering with the Vaughan Williams’ music that he is listening to on radio.

And when the church bells are rung, he shouts from the window for them to stop. Alison fears that he would court the wrath of the landlady, Miss Drury. This is, perhaps, the only time that she raises her voice throughout the duration of the verbal torture. Jimmy also disturbs the house by playing on his jazz trumpet. From Cliff’s discussion with Alison, it is revealed that she only stays on with Jimmy not out of love, but rather as a matter of necessity since she has nowhere else to go. She also reveals to Cliff that she is pregnant for Jimmy but has not told him yet. She also tells Cliff of how she met Jimmy, how they dated, their parents’ opposition to the marriage and her disappointment and disillusionment with Jimmy shortly after getting married secretly. She says the marriage on her part was more or less an act of defiance or protest against her parents.

When Cliff goes out to get cigarettes, Jimmy begins to act caringly towards Alison, asking after her hurt arm, apologising for her hurt, speaking tenderly to her. Then they start kissing passionately. Then they talk about Cliff, with Jimmy saying that of all his friends – Watson, Hugh, Roberts, Davies, Jenny and Madeline – Cliff is the only friend he has left now especially since Hugh travelled abroad. He is only attached to Hugh’s mother at the moment and wonders why Alison is not close to Hugh’s mother as Hugh’s mother loves her. Alison begins to protest but then Jimmy begins praising her beauty and then they play their usual game of Bear and Squirrel; Jimmy as the Bear and Alison as the Squirrel, before Cliff returns shortly to report that he couldn’t get a cigarette because he was held back by the landlady, Miss Drury, who complains that the tenants haven’t cleaned the house well enough. He also reports that there was someone on the phone and that her name is Helena.

Helena happens to be Alison’s friend whom Jimmy hates and who hates Jimmy as well, or so the reader is made to believe. Alison reports that Helena is coming to stay with them for a while due to her acting job: ‘She’s playing with the company at the Hippodrome this week, and she’s got no digs. She can’t find anywhere to stay. . .’ It is obvious that Jimmy is not comfortable with the idea of having Helena over. It could be because he knows that Helena is not as pusillanimous as Alison.

In Act Two Scene I of the play which takes place two weeks after the first, the conversation between Helena and Alison reveals sisterhood and bonding, as Alison draws strength from Helena. They hold a long discussion while Jimmy plays on his jazz trumpet in another room. Helena’s stay, it is apparent, has helped to relieve Alison of most of her wifely duties as well as constituting a defence against the constant bullying of Jimmy and his insults and abuses directed at Alison’s parents.

Alison confides in Helena on what she has been passing through in her marriage and the fact that she is pregnant. Helena is portrayed as a feminist, a strong woman who resists any form of gender oppression. She does not hide her disapproval of how Jimmy treats Alison and advises that Alison should return to her parents’ house. She even puts a call through to Colonel Redfern, Alison’s Dad, who promises to come for his daughter the next day. Meanwhile, Jimmy feels betrayed that Alison has chosen to follow Helena to church instead of staying with him or following him to see Hugh’s Mum who has just had a stroke and is dying.

In Act Two Scene II, which takes place the next evening, Alison’s Dad has come to collect his daughter and is seen conversing with Alison. Colonel Redfern appears sad and somewhat remorseful about the events that led to his daughter’s estrangement from him and the mother. He regrets the antagonism directed by his wife at Jimmy, ‘all those enquiries, the private detectives . . . the accusations. . .’ because she thought that Jimmy was a criminal. Redfern goes on to say that he did not approve of Jimmy at all but that looking back on it, he thinks that things wouldn’t have been so bad if they had not interfered with the courtship and the marriage. He even admits that he is an old plant left from the Edwardian Wilderness.  Alison is parking her things in preparation to leave with her father. Jimmy has gone to see Hugh Tanner’s Mum in London.

The three-year marriage between Alison and Jimmy comes to an end, as Colonel Redfern picks up Alison’s suitcase to put in the car outside. Alison stays behind to talk to Cliff and Helena, who is staying behind for a couple of days, to the surprise of Alison. She says she has an appointment about a job in Birmingham the following day. Cliff is also leaving for a while because he wants to avoid being the one to inform Jimmy of Alison’s sudden departure. He hands the letter of explanation and goodbye that Alison gave him to Helena asking her to give it to Jimmy when he comes back and hopes that Jimmy shoves the letter down her throat, as Cliff believes that Helena is the cause of the collapse in the relationship between Alison and Jimmy.

Jimmy soon returns from visiting Hugh’s mother who has just died. In fact, he meets Colonel Redfern as he drives off and Cliff looking the other way and acting as if he has not seen him, as he leaves the neigbourhood, not wanting to face Jimmy and his anger. Jimmy meets only Helena in the house. Helena gives him Alison’s letter and informs him that Alison is pregnant for him. They soon have an argument which degenerates into a struggle during which Helena slaps Jimmy. But Jimmy cannot slap her back as he had vowed to do earlier. Helena kisses him passionately as the scene and the act end.

In Act III Scene I, which takes places several months later, the first scene of the play is recreated with all the characters except Alison. It is Sunday evening and Jimmy and Cliff sit in their usual places conversing. Helena is now by the ironing board pressing clothes. She has taken the place of Alison. The conversations are the same because they centre on the commonplace things.  Jimmy now abuses Cliff and Helena though Helena is not offended at all. She appears to enjoy Jimmy’s company and his harsh attitude.

Alison soon arrives the house towards the end of the scene to visit her friend Helena, as Jimmy announces to Helena, ‘Friend of yours to see you. . .’ In Scene Two, we get to learn that Helena had written to Alison about what she had done – staying back to take Jimmy for herself. Alison informs Helena that she had lost the pregnancy. She equally is apologetic about visiting at the wrong moment, saying that she had put off the visit several times. Helena tells Alison that she has more right in the house than her because she (Alison) is the rightful wife of Jimmy. In fact, Helena says she has decided to leave Jimmy as she still has her sense of morality. Helena informs Jimmy of her decision and Alison accepts Jimmy as he is – with all the harshness and the evil in him. Almost weeping, she tells Jimmy, ‘. . . I was wrong I was wrong! I don’t want to be a lost cause. I want to be corrupt and futile!’


Discuss the subject matter of the play based on the synopsis above.

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