A while ago I watched “Look Back in Anger” by John Osborne. I have seen it several times but had not seen it for years and had been heartily sick of it last time when it finally ended, despite Richard Burton being great to watch. And Claire Bloom being a bit of alright – and a fab, mesmerising actor too.
I’d read a book of essays by the playwright David Hare on various subjects that I really enjoyed. He is an excellent essayist and polemicist, and prose stylist, and he concentrates the mind wonderfully on the relationship between politics and theatre – whatever you think of his plays and films.
( I just saw ”Page Eight” on BBC – I thought it was execrable, bloody candyfloss.)
You have to admire a razor-sharp polemical lecture against the Church of England that he was actually invited to give by the Church itself in Westminster Abbey. He does the same at an elite gathering of media executives, giving them a tongue-lashing.
There are two pieces in the book celebrating John Osborne for his fire and capacity to shake everybody up. I thought I’d have another look at Osborne’s play.
I couldnt sleep subsequently for the flipping play doing loud manoeuvres in my head. So I wrote down the thing that most struck me about it, something about one line I felt was key.
This iz wot I wroat:
The Look of the Back of “Look Back in Anger”
At a key point in the film of this play, before the seduction, Eleanor murmurs, wondering if Jimmy is in fact “rather fey” – behind the lacerating, outwardly-directed bristling scorn and inwardly-directed self-questioning.
And the phrase reverberates for the rest of the play – or it did for this viewer.
I venture to say that Eleanor is hanging herself.
In the modern, post-war, post-colonial world of 50’s Britain where the Empire and bourgeois, middle class values, sensibilities and certainties like hers began to look obsolete, her and her kind’s pious humanity in the face of difficult modern social and material realities might look like privilege and self-absorption that will screw anything that threatens their existence (that is to say: it looks like this through the lens of Osborne’s very partisan play) .
Childlike innocence, exploratory play and unselfconscious sexual intimacy behind closed doors between adults – something that Jimmy and Alison are seen, touchingly, to actually have, despite his vicious and mortally-wounded class hatred – might be the one thing that adults can look to to offset a godless, self-conscious, very un-fey, unfair, uncertain, anguished and modern, personal and political world of self-interested human actors and disinterested, impersonal forces.
What the play might be hinting at is that a solipsistic, middle class sensibility cruelly stymies sex and intimacy while pretending to a garden it does not possess nor has any dominion over.
Eleanor wants, needs and submits to Jimmy for the sexual satisfaction and wholeness she lacks – not to mention fire and passion.
But the mystery and enchantment that sex and intimacy bring to ordinary life are dangerously close bedfellows with the feyness her kind feel they have a piercing, realistic and gimlet eye for.
Notwithstanding his apparent cruelty, egoism and his relentless inquisitions it is made clear that Jimmy feels—rightly or wrongly, deludedly or clear-sightedly—colonised, used.
He is the reluctant hero – and therefore all the more tragically appealing – because he knows he is not selfless. He is just one more miserable ego among a billion others without a god, certainty or answers in an iniquitous world.
He is no leader—except being the star of this cast of maybe six—and he has small horizons. But his sore eyes are wide open to the nature of his limitations.
I venture also to say this: he mirrors anxieties implicit in the medium of drama itself.
What does this fictional artifice, this construct, this loud, insistently self-important facsimile of troubled people, this polyphony or cacophany, actually do ?
LBIA may be dated, the anger and issues and the presentation rather quaint now.
But if any drama gets all this personal, social or political attention by kicking up a storm, by pushing the emotional buttons of race, class, gender, domestic violence and social and economic power—and crushing disillusionment—and giving caterwauling birth outside the fictive space of the play to vain, self-absorbed imitators of its fire, rhetoric and bitterness, and by laying waste to political or religious or epistemological certainties in a spectator’s mind, by opening a pandora’s box of narratives and concerns that once let out seem to fly and divebomb, harry and pester the psyche endlessly, on and on and on ad f***klipping nauseam…..well….you then are maybe goaded into asking :
Where is it going, what is it all for ? What is the point ?
What are the newly grown up, realistic, disabused, individuated children of an Osborne play—or somesuch—going to do now?
Now we are disabused?
What stops the firestorm from being uselessly self-referential? Hopelessly repetitive and reiterative? What stops it from being parochial and playhouse-bound ?
Please, will someone tell us ?
If any play creates an imaginary or real “us” in the mind every time the text is randomly brought to life, willy-nilly, up and down and in and out of the country, randomly creating a crowd around a firework, then what is it that that lonely crowd of strangers, that ”us”, is going to do with the problems a play like LBIA blows up in its face or rams down its collective or individual gullets ?
If feyness means standing outside the mainstream (although of course it may be the mainstream), espousing eccentric, strange or otherworldly ideas that bear little close examination, in opposition to a disenchanting, straightjacketing and materialist society, then LBIA as a play seems close to the qualities of the fey both in its otiose persistence and its lack of any strong political or moral prescription and vision that would bear examination.
For all the social and emotional realism, anger, pain and self-searching—or just plain affect—it provokes.
Like the fey, the enchantments of it’s stark disabusal (covertly demanding that we submit to its fire and passion) look short-lived – to anyone desperate to have a grown up, realistic, secular head on their shoulders.
Does that sound like bristling scorn?
What if I was echoing the experiences of Claire Bloom, shut up in a doll’s house for a while, and put through one’s paces day after day by another bristly martinet?