The Roundabout Theatre Company has created a fairly faithful revival of John Osborne’s groundbreaking shocker of the 1950s, “Look Back in Anger.” According to its director, Sam Gold, the text has been judiciously edited to convert its classic three-act structure into a more manageable two-act arrangement. I must have read this play while in grad school, but I had virtually no memory of it (or the movie). The production is quite good, even though there are a few quirky choices: virtually no set with the action performed on a 10 foot lip of the stage against a wooden black back-drop; the actors remain on the sidelines of the stage when not in the scene. The acting is of the highest caliber and Mr. Gold’s direction keeps the audience focused and attentive throughout.
It’s quite clear why the play had the effect it had in the mid-1950s, spawning a whole new class of playwrights and play writing, dubbed “the angry young men.” But, while the current production fully exploits Osborne’s vitriol and angst, I struggled to “get into” this play throughout the evening. Try as I may, it left me unaffected. The play’s central character, Jimmy, is so thoroughly a malcontent that it’s difficult to take any of his rants as the social commentary that made this piece so transformative. Jimmy is a working class laborer with a college education in post-WWII Britain. He lives in a grotesquely small run-down apartment with his faithful (and secretly pregnant) wife, Alison, and his one true friend, a sort of Art Carney sidekick named Cliff, played engagingly by Roundabout veteran, Adam Driver. Jimmy is unflinchingly abusive of his wife who tolerates his mistreatment with the faithfulness of a woman blinded by some unfathomable version of love. Today we might classify her as a victim of verbal battered abuse. Cliff is treated as a sort of step-child, accorded love and abuse in equal measure, sometimes playing referee, other times sitting on the sidelines as a sort of pedestrian watching a terrible car wreck.
Welsh actor Matthew Rhys labors to make Jimmy seem at least human (if not humane) and handles the character’s perpetual revolving door of emotions in a thoroughly believable manner. Jimmy is a misanthrope. While his outrage and anger are certainly related to the conditions in the culture of his time, his uncompromising negativity makes the issues he rails against appear to be a function of his personality defects rather than societal failings. Again, in the context of Britain in the 1950s (and possibly equally true of the United States then and now), this play’s anger, misogyny, and anti-classism must have been powerful stuff. But for me, it was difficult to find insights into our current state of affairs, even though each of those features certainly flourishes in our 21st century American culture.
The characters live as working class bohemians. They survive in squalid conditions, eking out an existence in midland England during its post-war recovery. Cliff and Alison appear to be non-political while Jimmy spends his Sundays consuming “the posh press,” cover to cover. He explodes and then becomes introverted and retreats to playing dark jazz on his trumpet. Alison, played with secure ambiguity by Sarah Goldberg, comes from a middle-class background; her family has rejected her choice for marital bliss. She spends much of the play ironing and tending to the needs of her two men (or should I say man and boy).
Their lives are disrupted when Helena, a friend of Allison’s family who has a fledgling career as an actress, comes into their household for a brief stay. She appears to be a moral compass for Allison, but, having convinced her friend that her marriage is a wasteland, becomes Jimmy’s lover (and surrogate recipient of his abuse) while Allison tries unsuccessfully to escape the clutches of her master and subjugator. Charlotte Parry has the unenviable task of portraying this clumsily named allusion to Shakespeare’s “other woman” in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” Helena. At first this character seems to be the representation of the would-be middle class, but later emerges as a manipulative suitor of Jimmy. Neither character is very convincing, primarily because Osborne seems more interested in using this plot device to exaggerate the intensity of Jimmy and Alison’s draw to each other than the credibility of the Helena’s character.
When Alison returns, Helena departs having recognized the immorality of her ways, or at least that’s how she explains her change of heart. Cliff says he will also be leaving, but that is doubtful at best. Alison, having suffered a horrific miscarriage (or was it a careless abortion?), falls back into her faithful subservience as the squirrel to Jimmy’s bear, the animals they play in their more tender moments. The play ends with Jimmy and Allison lustfully embracing, a moment of peace, but clearly only a moment.
Many critics have cited the autobiographical elements of the “Look Back in Anger.”” Like the struggling playwright John Osborne, Jimmy writes song lyrics and lives with a seemingly asexual friend, a.k.a Anthony Creighton, a homosexual with whom Osborne shared a decrepit houseboat on the Thames. Last year, as part of 59E59 British Festival, I saw a very strange earlier play by Osborne, “Personal Enemy,” written in collaboration with Creighton when they lived together in squalid conditions similar to those in “Anger. However, “Personal Enemy” seemed to be anything but autobiographical, at least from Osborne’s point of view. The play was about the McCarthy period in the United States. A Middle-American family is caught up in those persecutions when their older son defects to the communist side in the Korean war and his younger brother, living at home, has shown homosexual leanings as manifested in his “relationship” with a local freethinking librarian. The production was terrible; so bad that it was hard to tell how good or bad the play was. But this new production of “Anger” was certainly telling how far Osborne’s writing had progressed in the single year between the two plays. “Anger” was his first solo effort after two unsuccessful collaborations.
Of course, the contrast in the sexual perspectives of the two works also jumps out at me. After his death, Creighton claimed, but eventually withdrew, an assertion that he and Osborne had been lovers. Osborne has been portrayed as homophobic or a self-hating homosexual by several commentators. Regardless of his sexual proclivities, he clearly had sexual issues – he was married five times and had a history of abusive relationships. Therefore, it’s not surprising that “Anger’s” view of women is quite chauvinistic and equally traditional (Allison’s “good wife” appears to be the manifestation of “what I did for love…”). It’s portrayal of would-be bohemian women in mid-20th century Britain sort of reminded me of pre-feminist hippy days in the United States – women as the shared property of men who had dropped out of mainstream society. Maybe I have been so saturated by the many, many subsequent plays and films that “Anger” inspired that I could not see its portrayal of the disenfranchised as enlightening. I kept wanting the play to lead somewhere beyond the nowhere of these people’s existence.
In one of his many rants, Jimmy exclaims, “Oh, heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm—that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah. I’m alive!’” But Jimmy seems incapable of living enthusiastically and virtually every word he utters is the antithesis of “Praise Yea (i.e., Hallelujah). There are certainly the makings of tragedy in these elements, but Osborne seems more interested in slapping his audience in the face than in producing catharsis. Clearly he was successful in his effort. Seen in the context of what was passing for realistic theatre in the mid-50s, this play must have caused a sense of chaotic societal instability for British audiences, much as movies like “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause” threatened American values and social order.
Over fifty years later, there are indications that we may be entering a renewed age of discontent. There is a growing sense of the societal divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The Occupy Wall Street movement is predicated on unfocused rage, much as Jimmy’s indignation is not connected to any particular agenda or philosophy. And the “posh media” has become the object of scorn, ironically from both sides of the political spectrum. But “Look Back in Anger” is inextricably a product of its time and place. As such, the Roundabout production provides a faithful reincarnation of that time and place, sort of like watching “The Wild One” in 2012: an informative and accurate portrayal of a period and a frame of mind, but more of an archival representation than a truly affecting theatrical experience.
[Note: These comments are based on a preview performance one week prior to the official opening of the production.]