John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger", first performed at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1956, is often cited as marking a theatrical revolution. The British theatre of the early fifties, dominated by playwrights like Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan, was widely regarded as genteel, well-mannered and middle-class. Osborne's play can be seen as a deliberate reaction against those values. Its plot is conventional enough. It centres around the stormy marriage of a young couple, Jimmy and Alison Porter, who separate after a series of quarrels. Unknown to Jimmy, Alison is pregnant at the time, and he starts a relationship with her best friend Helena, an actress. Six months later Alison, having lost her baby, returns, and Helena ends her affair with Jimmy so as to allow the couple to be reunited.
What was shocking about the play was its social setting and the attitudes displayed by the characters, especially Jimmy. He is from a working-class family and, although he has a university degree, has turned his back on the sort of well-paid white-collar job that such an educational background would normally have led to in the fifties, working as a trader in the local market, running a sweet stall with his friend Cliff. He and Alison, with Cliff as a lodger, live in a dingy bed-sit in a large Midlands town. Alison herself is from the wealthy upper middle classes (her father is a retired Indian Army officer) and her family resent her marriage to Jimmy.
It was in the late fifties that the term "Angry Young Man" was coined by the critics to describe not only writers such as Osborne, Kingsley Amis and John Braine, but also their characters such as Jimmy Porter and Amis's Lucky Jim, characters who were seen as the mouthpieces of their creators. Jimmy is, to borrow the title of a famous film of the period, a rebel without a cause. He is instinctively suspicious of any form of authority and of the establishment. He is hostile to religion and to the growing conservatism of fifties Britain. He dislikes Alison's family, especially her mother, because he sees them as part of the traditional British ruling class. He does not, however, himself really subscribe to any alternative system of values such as Communism or Socialism. A frequent theme of his complaints is that there are no longer any good causes to fight for; he envies his parents' generation who could fight the anti-fascist battles of the thirties and forties. (His father was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War).
Jimmy's relationship with Alison is a complex one, perhaps best expressed by the cliché that they can neither live with one another nor without one another. On the one hand, the differences in their personalities and their social backgrounds is the cause of constant friction between them. On the other, they have a deep emotional need for one another, shown by their game of "bears and squirrels". To an outsider such as Helena this is mere sentimental whimsy; to them, it is a way of expressing their mutual love.
The British cinema was undergoing a similar revolution in the late fifties to that which was happening in the theatre, with an increasing emphasis on films about working-class life in what became known as "kitchen sink realism". It was, therefore, perhaps inevitable that "Look Back" would be filmed. It is, however, not a very cinematic play. Apart from its plot, it is traditional in another respect, in that it observes two of the three classical unities, those of place and action. The film-makers clearly felt that this structure would not work in the cinema, because they took pains to "open it up". The action moves out of Jimmy's flat- there are scenes set in a jazz club, in the market where Jimmy works and in a theatre where Helena is appearing. Characters, such as Mrs Tanner, who are only referred to in the play actually appear in person in the film. The writers have added a sub-plot, not found in the play, about Jimmy's struggles with an unpleasant market inspector and his attempts to prevent an Indian trader from falling victim to racist discrimination by the other stallholders.
At 115 minutes the film is already shorter than the normal running-time of a stage production of this play, and the insertion of these extra scenes meant that even more of the original text had to be sacrificed. Those who know the play from the theatre, therefore, will find the film version very truncated. Many of Jimmy's lengthy speeches, in particular, have been cut, and the centrality of the relationship between himself and Alison is diluted by the introduction of new characters and new sub-plots. Although "opening up" works when some stage plays are transferred to the screen, in my view this is not one of them. In my opinion the film would have worked better as a piece of "filmed theatre", sticking closer to Osborne's original text.
One reviewer compares this film to "A Streetcar Named Desire", which can be seen as a piece of American "kitchen sink". There are certainly similarities between the two plays, both of which have at their centre an angry, outspoken working-class young man (Stanley/Jimmy), a milder friend (Mitch/Cliff) and two more genteel, middle-class women (Blanche and Stella/Alison and Helena). Both plays, when performed well in the theatre, can also provide a powerful emotional experience. The famous Marlon Brando/Vivien Leigh version of "Streetcar", however, is a better film than "Look Back" because it succeeds in preserving the power of that experience in the cinema. At times, Richard Burton and Mary Ure come close to capturing the impact of Osborne's play, but it is only at times. At other times that impact seems weakened. 7/10