A “double header” today. John Osborne’s ground-breaking play Look Back in Anger debuted on May 8, 1956. And May 8, 1945 was Victory in Europe day. This Today in London History podcast looks back in wonder.
“All scum and a mile wide.”
“Audiences gasped at the sight of an ironing board on a London stage.”
How’s that for an opener. How’s that for a couple of takeaways.
Those two remarks were responses to the play that opened at the Royal Court Theatre on this day, May 8th, in 1956.
Yes, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Osborne was a 26-year-old jobbing actor at the time. Look Back in Anger was the play that established him as the original ‘angry young man’ – and into the bargain started a vogue for ‘kitchen sink’ drama.
“All scum and a mile wide” was in fact a big thumbs up from the avant-garde critic Kenneth Tynan. Writing in the Observer, Tynan said, ’I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade’.
Tynan said Look Back in Anger spoke for everyone in the country between twenty and thirty years old.
He said, ’it presents post-war youth as it really is, with special emphasis on the non-U [non-university] intelligentsia who live in bed-sitters.”
“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, the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned.”
And as for the deep shock of that ironing board on the London stage – well, what would you expect. Audiences had had a lifetime of glamorous high society, country house and Belgravia townhouse locations and suddenly they were thrust into a pokey attic room in the Midlands.
So much for the comfort zone of “the better sort of people” – so much for upper-class English drawing rooms and cocktails and clipped intonation. So much for restraint and understatement and the narrow bandwidth of what was acceptable to polite company. Osborne and his fellow angry young men took a blowtorch to all of that.
In the words of critic Dan Rebellato, What was exquisite in the work of playwright Terence Rattigan, for example, was the use of understatement, subtext, the unsaid. There is very little unsaid in Look Back in Anger: Jimmy Porter lashes out verbally at a huge variety of topics – the class system, American evangelists, Alison’s family, women in general, flamboyant homosexuals, church bells, Sundays and more – and the tone is unstrained: scornful, witty, ferociously articulate. Osborne called them ‘arias’, like a solo in an opera, and each time Jimmy Porter launches another verbal barrage into the room one can sense even now the power of this new music on the London stage.”
Osborne, Look Back in Anger, the Royal Court, the times, what the country had been through in the preceding 20 years or so…it was the dramatic equivalent of a perfect storm. The English theatrical equivalent of the first performance of The Rite of Spring.
It’s a rich, rewarding field to till. But today being May 8th, I’ve got other fish to fry.
All scum and a mile wide was our first glimpse of John Osborne and Look Back in Anger. Let’s take our leave of him with a couple – well, three actually – stepping stones across that mile-wide stretch of scum. All of them pretty memorable way stations. They get our angry young man and his fulminations – his work – into focus. First one’s well and truly biographical.
As a youngster John Osborne was expelled from his school for thumping the headmaster, who’d struck him for listening to a proscribed broadcast by Frank Sinatra.
Stepping stone number two, in the words of another critic, that mile-wide expanse of scum was “A pained, painful, and violently funny play, that returned invective to the English stage for the first time since George Bernard Shaw and placed it in the mouth of a sadist who was also a romantic and patriot manqué: ‘There aren’t any good, brave causes left’, cries Jimmy Porter bitterly in the third act of the play. ‘If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned, grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.’
And with Look Back in Anger, John Osborne was just getting started. He also had other fish to fry.
He was the first playwright to question the point of the monarchy on a prominent public stage and to treat male homosexuality—a criminal condition at the time—as a subject about which it was possible to be at once sympathetic, bracing, and lewd. In the words of biographer Michael Ratcliffe, “He ran up the black flag for contempt as an honest and healthy emotion, and for the purgative wisdom of bad behaviour and bad taste.
‘The real revelation’,’was that a character could behave like a rat and still speak the truth.’
Ok, let’s move on. Where I grew up – in the driftless hills of the land of the gathering waters – the driftless hills is the name for a region in southwestern Wisconsin – and Wisconsin itself is an Ojibway word that means “the land of the gathering waters” – anyway, I grew up on a regular diet of double features and doubleheaders. Double features were two movies, one after the other on the same afternoon or evening, for the price of one admission. Doubleheaders were two baseball games in the same stadium on the same day.
So this podcast – its being May 8th – is a doubleheader. Or a double feature if you prefer.
It’s May 8th, 1945. It’s Victory in Europe in Day. I sometimes give it a nod on my Old Westminster walk. I talk about St Margaret’s Westminster, the parish church of the House of Commons. Tucked in there next to Westminster Abbey, like a little lamb next to its Ewe. And I say that on VE Day, after a session in the House of Commons, they all trooped over to St Margaret’s for a Thanksgiving service.
But let’s hear from somebody who was alive – and in London – on VE Day. Let’s hear from Noel Coward.
Here’s his diary entry for May 8th, 1945.
And for a Today In London recommendation – well, you know what’s coming. How do you go wrong with a show at the Royal Court. 66 years on it’s still in the front lines, still carrying the torch of putting on new, challenging, ground-breaking work. The five titles in the current season – all by themselves – are like shark fins moving through the water. Here they are: Two Palestinians Go Dogging, This Is Not a Pity Memoir, Outside Edge Performance, That Is Not Who I Am, and Hangmen on Broadway.
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And on that caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow.