Look Back in Anger (1956) is a John Osborne play about a love triangle involving an intelligent but disaffected young man (Jimmy Porter), his upper-middle-class, impassive wife (Alison), and her snooty best friend (Helena Charles). Cliff, an amiable Welsh lodger, attempts to keep the peace.
Act 1 opens on a dismal Sunday afternoon in Jimmy and Alison’s cramped attic in the English Midlands. Jimmy and Cliff are attempting to read the Sunday papers, plus the radical weekly, “price ninepence, obtainable at any bookstall” as Jimmy snaps, claiming it from Cliff. This is a reference to the New Statesman, and in the context of the period would have instantly signalled the pair’s political preference to the audience. Alison is attempting to do the week’s ironing and is only half listening as Jimmy and Cliff engage in the expository dialogue.
We learn that there’s a huge social gulf between Jimmy and Alison. Her family is upper-middle class military, perhaps verging on upper, while Jimmy is decidedly working-class. He had to campaign hard against her family’s disapproval to win her. “Alison’s mummy and I took one look at each other, and from then on the age of chivalry was dead”, is one of the play’s linguistic gems. We also learn that the sole family income is derived from a sweet stall in the local market — an enterprise that is surely well beneath Jimmy’s education, let alone Alison’s “station in life”.
As Act 1 progresses, Jimmy becomes more and more vituperative, transferring his contempt for Alison’s family onto her personally, calling her “pusillanimous” and generally belittling her to Cliff. It’s possible to play this scene as though Jimmy thinks it’s all a joke, but most actors opt for playing it as though he really is excoriating her. The tirade ends with some physical horseplay, resulting in the ironing board overturning and Alison’s arm getting a burn. Jimmy stomps off to play his trumpet off stage.
Alison and Cliff play a tender scene, during which she confides that she’s accidentally pregnant and can’t quite bring herself to tell Jimmy. Cliff urges her to tell him. When Jimmy returns, Alison announces that her actress friend Helena Charles is coming to stay, and it’s entirely obvious that Jimmy despises Helena even more than Alison. He flies into a total rage, and conflict is inevitable.
Act 2 opens on another Sunday afternoon, with Helena and Alison making lunch. In a two-handed scene, Alison gives a clue as to why she decided to take Jimmy on — her own minor rebellion against her upbringing plus her admiration of Jimmy’s campaigns against the dereliction of English post-war, post-atom-bomb life. She describes Jimmy to Helena as a “knight in shining armour”. Helena says, firmly, “You’ve got to fight him”.
Jimmy enters, and the tirade continues. If his Act 1 material could be played as a joke, there’s no doubt about the intentional viciousness of his attacks on Helena. When the women put on hats and declare that they’re going to church, Jimmy’s sense of betrayal peaks. When he leaves to take an urgent phone call, Helena announces that she’s forced the issue. She’s sent a telegram to Alison’s parents asking them to come and “rescue” her. Alison is stunned but agrees that she will go.
After a scene break, we see Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, who has come to collect her to take her back to her family home. The playwright allows the Colonel to come across as quite a sympathetic character, albeit totally out of touch with the modern world (as he himself admits). “You’re hurt because everything’s changed,” Alison tells him, “and Jimmy’s hurt because everything’s stayed the same.”
Helena arrives to say goodbye, intending to leave very soon herself. Alison is surprised that Helena is staying on for another day, but she leaves, giving Cliff a note for Jimmy. Cliff in turn hands it to Helena and leaves, saying “I hope he stuffs it up your nostrils”. Almost immediately, Jimmy bursts in. His contempt at finding a “goodbye” note makes him turn on Helena again, warning her to keep out of his way until she leaves. Helena tells him that Alison is expecting a baby, and Jimmy admits grudgingly that he’s taken aback. However, his tirade continues. They first come to physical blows, and then as the Act 2 curtain falls, Jimmy and Helena are kissing passionately and falling on the bed.
The final act opens as a deliberate replay of Act 1, but this time with Helena at the ironing-board wearing Jimmy’s Act 1 red shirt. Months have passed. Jimmy is notably more pleasant to Helena than he was to Alison in Act 1. She actually laughs at his jokes, and the three of them get into a music hall comedy routine that obviously isn’t improvised. Cliff announces that he’s decided to strike out on his own. As Jimmy leaves the room to get ready for a final night out for the three of them, he opens the door to find Alison, looking like death. Instead of caring for her he snaps over his shoulder “Friend of yours to see you” and abruptly leaves.
After a scene break, Alison explains to Helena that she lost the baby — one of Jimmy’s cruellest speeches in Act 2 expressed the wish that Alison would conceive a child and lose it — the two women reconcile but Helena realises that what she’s done is immoral and she in turn decides to leave. She summons Jimmy to hear her decision and he lets her go with a sarcastic farewell.
The play ends with a major surprise — a highly sentimental reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison. They revive an old game they used to play, pretending to be bears and squirrels, and we are left to assume that they live, if not happily, at least in a state of truce in the class warfare, ever after.
Look Back in Anger was a strongly autobiographical piece based on Osborne’s unhappy marriage to Pamela Lane and their life in cramped accommodation in Derby. While Osborne aspired towards a career in theatre, Lane was of a more practical and materialistic persuasion, not taking Osborne’s ambitions seriously while cuckolding him with a local dentist. It also contains much of Osborne’s earlier life, the wrenching speech of seeing a loved one die is a replay of the death of Thomas, Osborne’s father. What it is best remembered for though, is Jimmy’s tirades against the mediocrity of middle-class English life, personified by his hated mother Nellie Beatrice. Madeline, the lost love Jimmy pines for, is based on Stella Linden, an older rep-company actress who first encouraged Osborne to write.
The term “kitchen sink” derived from an expressionist painting by John Bratby, which contained an image of a kitchen sink. The critic David Sylvester wrote an article in 1954 about trends in recent English art, calling his article “The Kitchen Sink” in reference to Bratby’s picture. Sylvester argued that there was a new interest among young painters in domestic scenes, with stress on the banality of life. Bratby painted several kitchen subjects, often turning practical utensils such as sieves and spoons into semi-abstract shapes. He also painted bathrooms, and made three paintings of toilets. Other artists associated with the “kitchen sink” style include Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch andJack Smith.
The term was quickly applied to a new style of drama, the hallmark of which was a more realistic representation of social life; country houses and tennis courts were out; ironing boards and minor domestic squalor were in, as in John Osborne‘s play Look Back in Anger with ironing as a piece of stage business. This was a reaction against the Noel Coward/Terence Rattigan style of dramatic setting.
Another factor particularly notable in the films and novels of the time is the use of North of England situations, accents and themes (such as featuring rugby league, the iconic sport of Lancashire and Yorkshire, in works like This Sporting Life). An example here is the 1961 film Whistle Down the Wind, which segues the innocence of earlier British cinema with more modern harsh realities. Also, a combination of a frankness about sex, and a more political content (sometimes descending to rants), led to a rather clean break with the assumptions of 1950 in the arts generally.
Kitchen sink realism is sometimes conflated with the rise of the Angry Young Men. It was in fact more substantive, less driven by journalistic excess, and is more properly its successor.
The British film director John Schlesinger often has his work categorized in the “kitchen sink realism” category. His films such as as Midnight Cowboy and his earlier British films like Billy Liar and Darling fit as well.
Compare August Strindberg’s The father or Dance of Death and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with Look Back in Anger for both style and content.