Bullying, demeaning and harassing women: Look Back in Anger at The Gate

John Osborne’s aggressive scourge Jimmy Porter is about to appear in the Gate

 

In the Gate Theatre, an institution still reeling from allegations of abuse of power, we now find a man on its stage bullying, demeaning and harassing women.

To some, a new staging of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the English playwright’s famously vituperative play from 1956, may resemble an artistic inquiry into codes of conduct; presenting in Osborne’s central character a study of toxic masculinity, riven with ego, misogyny and abuse. To others, following the momentum of Waking The Feminists, the Gate’s welcome new management and #MeToo, this may seem like neither the time or the place.

But if Jimmy Porter, a college-educated member of the working-class who can find no access to the establishment, stands for any real figure, it is that of his creator. The play that blew apart the escapism of theatre in post-war Britain, characterised by the mannered, aloof works of Noel Coward and Terrence Rattigan, may as well have been called “No escapism”. Set in a crowded and suffocating attic flat in the British Midlands, it depicts scenes from a calamitous marital breakdown, while Jimmy hurls invective at his wife, his friend, and the state of the nation.

Incendiary effect

Early on, you get something like his character note: “People like me don’t get fat,” Jimmy says of his metabolism, “we just burn everything up.” His effect was certainly incendiary, changing the course of British theatre, launching the career of Osborne – until then an undistinguished actor working in regional repertory theatre – and anointing the writer and his protagonist the first examples of the “angry young men”. The tribe has gathered members ever since.   

This, however, is no time for angry young men. Over a hurried lunch in the Gate’s green room the other day, Annabelle Comyn, the director of the new production of Look Back in Anger, considered how to approach these male malcontents. “I suppose I was highly aware of that,” she says when I suggest it is a sensitive time to stage such a work at the Gate. “I felt the play had to have a context, or that the production had to have a very strong context. So I really struggled with this.”

In early rehearsals, Comyn and the cast followed the play to its letter, obeying every stage direction and authorial intention, but soon they looked for ways to challenge it, to “slightly subvert it”.

One solution, inspired by the abrasive sounds heard throughout the play, is to construct what Comyn calls an “aural assault”: “A warfare, whether that is coming from his trumpet, or the cathedral bells of conservative morality, the telephone of conspiracy downstairs, or the thumping of the iron, this notion of female domesticity as being a horrific thing, impeding his thinking. I was very aware of sound working as war. As I was struggling with the play, myself and Paul [O’Mahony, the designer and Comyn’s regular collaborator] were struggling with how to broach it. John Osborne’s voice felt like something that we were fighting. We’re taking his voice, actually, and challenging it as well. So we’re doing a slightly deconstructed Look Back in Anger. The production is really looking back at Look Back in Anger.”

The question of voice comes up frequently when dealing with Osborne, a writer who seems to be ventriloquizing not only through Jimmy, but most of his characters. Asked if it is possible to over identify Osborne with his characters, Peter Whitebrook, his affable biographer, replies, “No, to give you a short answer.”

Surprised to find

While researching his 2015 book, John Osborne: Anger is not About…, Whitebrook was surprised to find lines in Osborne’s letters that would make it into his play almost verbatim. Osborne’s situation was almost identical to that of Jimmy, losing his idolised father at a young age, marrying young, steeped in social resentment and sharing his lodgings with a friend while his marriage fell apart. “You read the letters and think, this is in the play,” says Whitebrook. Take one of Jimmy’s harangues: “Slamming their doors, stamping their high heels, banging their irons and saucepans – the eternal flaming racket of the female.” Osborne wrote those words to an actor friend. Or Jimmy’s adoption of the adjective “pusillanimous” to describe his meek, perhaps passive-aggressive, wife, Alison, as Osborne did for his first wife, Pamela Lane. (Osborne was married five times.)

Is there something more instructive to take from Jimmy, or Osborne, than a series of wearisome, petty tirades, for which he is invariably rewarded? (“I’ve never seen such hatred in someone’s eyes before,” marvels Alison’s friend Helena. “It’s slightly horrifying… and oddly exciting.”) You can either choose to see Jimmy as a scourge or a symptom of society, which, in the year of the Suez Crisis, was itself in an emasculated spin. As Whitebrook points out, Osborne does not spare himself any lashes.

“What’s remarkable is that the guy is 25 when he wrote it. It’s obviously a young man’s play but it’s very mature linguistically. If you think Jimmy Porter is basically John Osborne, it’s not a therapy piece. He’s not saying ‘hey, look guys, I was really innocent in this terrible situation with this terrible woman’. He’s quite a harsh self-critic. Jimmy’s flaws are all on display. He’s cruel, cruel cruel.” In 1957, Osborne was asked on the confrontational interview show Face to Face, what quality his worst enemy would associate with him, he replied, “Cruelty”.

There is no point in trying to rehabilitate this angry young man, Annabelle Comyn agrees, but it doesn’t mean that you have to endorse him either. It’s tempting to draw a line between the articulate frustrations of Jimmy Porter, which might have been a purging emetic for Britain’s mid-century political rut, and the kind of poisonous contemporary rhetoric behind Brexit, Trump and Le Pen – a dismal chorus of “taking back control”. If you can understand the problem, though, you can move beyond it. “It’s not a question about sanitising the play in some way,” says Comyn. “Or allowing a man on stage to have ugly thoughts or a woman to come across as some sort of saint. Drama should allow for all ugliness.” The problem is that the play itself can come across as a misogynist work, magically fulfilling Jimmy’s spiteful curses, rewarding his hateful rhetoric with inexplicable affection, indulging him at length.

“A lot of the time you want to shout back,” says Whitebrook. “That’s what [Osborne] was going for; to provoke a reaction. He wrote at the time, ‘I want to talk about feelings. Nobody talks about real feelings.’ And it was quite true. In the theatre that was new.”

Difficult to sustain

Comyn agrees to a point. “There’s a very valid voice there. But what’s not valid is the form of abuse in which Osborne thinks it’s ok to puncture people from their lethargy. That’s really problematic: that I have to psychologically batter you in order to feel. That is very patronising and very dangerous.”

Anger is a difficult feeling to sustain – either it curdles into cynicism or burns itself out. Osborne made it his signature: at first successfully, in plays such as The Entertainer, Luther and A Patriot for Me; then more tiresomely, through increasingly reactionary articles and letters to the press; and latterly into an enervated tetchiness, culminating in his final work, the appositely titled Déjàvu, a sequel to Look Back in Anger.  

“There’s nothing wrong with anger,” says Comyn. “It’s how anger is used. It just depends on how you channel that anger into something constructive, not destructive.” That can sound like an interesting way to approach a problematic play and a complicated legacy at an acutely sensitive time. “Things have to tumble sometimes to change.”

Anger: All the Rage

“Anger is an energy,” once sang Johnny Rotten – and he should know. But even the punk movement can trace its roots back to Jimmy Porter, a mouthy malcontent and advocate of the jazz trumpet. The famous anti-hero of John Osborne’s breakthrough play from 1956, Look Back in Anger, held the stage with the honest force of his vitriol at a time when the British theatre would rather have escaped the fray on tip-toes, like the characters of a Noel Coward play.

After Look Back in Anger, though, the English stage seemed to change overnight, with both sides of its division crediting Osborne as a revolutionary new force. Coward even became a close friend, Terrence Rattigan approved, while later playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard acknowledged Osborne’s influence. Those writers represent the first and second wave of the angry young men to come, stirred by Osborne’s theatre of deep feeling and political disillusionment to pursue their own brands of political theatre and stylistic innovations.

If Osborne detailed Britain’s social alienation, where the anxieties of a colonial past and a rigid class system were laid bare, his success made the theatre more accessible. The prolific playwright Arnold Wesker arguably shifted Osborne’s Midlands attic setting to East End basements for an unvarnished depiction of urban living. Edward Bond’s notorious play Saved, staged at Osborne’s alma mater The Royal Court in the 1960s, was similar in its fury towards social degradation. Even Tom Murphy, whose Whistle in the Dark was originally too controversial for the Abbey, was easily associated with the movement.

David Hare, who continues to write plays in the spirit of the radical-left, says that all playwrights owe a debt to Osborne, who first laid out a path to attack the nation’s past and present.

But the term “angry young men” now seems anachronistic, often used to describe any new writer with an axe to bear – the “In Yer Face” successors of the 1990s, including Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, were thankfully less gender-specific. But the phrase was never sacrosanct or intended to last: it was coined by the Royal Court Theatre press officer, to help market John Osborne’s play. It was all the rage.

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