Look Back in Anger (1956) is a John Osborne play and 1958 movie about a love triangle involving an intelligent but disaffected young man, his middle-class, impassive wife, her snooty best friend and an amiable Welsh lodger.
It was originally produced at London's Royal Court Theatre, with the press release calling the author an angry young man, a phrase which came to represent a new movement in 1950s British theatre. The play opened on 8 May 1956 and legend has it that audiences gasped at the sight of an ironing board on a London stage. Some critics accused Jimmy Porter of self-pity wallowing and verbose and the play of being callow but the reviews reveal how much has changed: on BBC radio's The Critics, Ivor Brown began his tirade by describing the play's setting - a one-room flat in the Midlands - as 'unspeakably dirty and squalid. It is difficult to believe that a colonel's daughter, brought up with some standards, would have stayed in this sty for a day'. He went on to fume: 'I felt angry because it wasted my time'. It seems that critics such as the Daily Mail's Cecil Wilson - who felt that 'Mary Ure's beauty was frittered away on the part of a wife who, judging by the time she spends ironing, seems to have taken on the nation's laundry' - weren't terribly experienced at ironing. After all, Alison (played by Ure, who later became the second Mrs Osborne) ironed only during act one; in act two she made lunch. The critic who saw past this old-fashioned enmity was Kenneth Tynan who wrote 'I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger'.
'I've an idea,' says Jimmy at one point. 'Why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say?' Such remarks, said Kenneth Tynan's review, make the play 'a minor miracle'. All the qualities are there, qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage - the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of 'official' attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour (Jimmy describes a pansy friend as 'a female Emily Bronte'), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who does shall go unmourned'. Alan Sillitoe, author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner wrote that Osborne 'didn't contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up'.
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.
Osborne began a relationship with one of the play's stars, Mary Ure and divorced his wife to marry Ms. Ure in 1957. The following year, the production moved to Broadway under producer David Merrick and director Tony Richardson. Starring Alan Bates, Vivienne Drummond, and Mary Ure, it would receive three Tony Award nominations including for Best Play and "Best Dramatic Actress" for Ms. Ure.
In 1958, the play was adapted for film and like the play was directed by Tony Richardson, seen as one of the new wave of British film directors who, like the "Angry Young Men," focused on working class themes. The movie version featured Richard Burton in one of his first starring roles, with Claire Bloom in the female lead and Mary Ure reprising her stage role. The screenplay was written by Nigel Kneale. The film was nominated for both BAFTA and Golden Globe awards, although many critics felt Burton aged 33 was too old for the role of Jimmy Porter.
The black and white film opens with a close up on Burton (as Jimmy Porter) playing lead trumpet in a crowded, smokey jazz club. Having finished to a vigorous round of applause, the impoverished musician walks home alone. It is not until seven minutes into the film that the first lines of dialogue begin. He tries to talk with his friend Cliff, sitting at a front row table, but his friend waves him off, being more intent on winning the affections of a woman.
Arriving home, he surreptitiously reads his sleeping wife's pocketbook and tries to interest her in making love, but she refuses to open her eyes. The next morning, with a train rattling by the open window, Jimmy wakes up and walks into Cliff's room. He complains of his wife's letters to her mother. Once everyone is awake, Jimmy tries to start an argument with his wife. Cliff tries to improve Jimmy's mood and end the argument, but horseplay leads to his wife's ironing board being knocked over and she burns her arm.
Jimmy and Cliff go off to run their sweet stall in the market place, while the wife visits the doctor. She tells him her own carelessness caused the burn. The doctor asks whether her husband knows that she is pregnant. She asks if it is "too late to do anything about it" (clearly a reference to abortion), and the doctor indignantly rebuffs her question.
"Look Back in Anger" is also a song written by British rocker David Bowie off his album Lodger. The band Oasis referenced this with their song Don't Look Back In Anger. It is also a phrase frequently used by Craig Charles on the UK Takeshi's Castle when announcing the 'Furious Flashback' ("and now we look back in anger...").