Big mouth, vulnerable heart

John Osborne's 'Look back in Anger'

If you’d let me recommend 10 plays you’d have to go and see before you die, John Osborne’s ‘Look back in Anger’, the play inspiring David Bowie, the band Oasis and so many others, would always be one of them. Even if it was only because of its main character, Jimmy Porter: loudmouth Jimmy, about whom in the course of the past 50 years more than a bit of ink has flowed. A lot of people indeed seem to detest him. I’ve never understood why, - honestly, i like the guy. The loudmouth, in my eyes, appears to be a sensitive, vulnerable character, hiding his insecurities, weaknesses and, yes, shyness behind a bucketful of very clumsy words.
     This quite different understanding of the Jimmy Porter character is the main reason why, when reading reviews about it, i have often been wondering if i had actually seen the same play - or read the same script. Of course the class theme is evident - at least everybody seems to agree on that: the ‘hero’, Jimmy Porter, working class, has, through education, worked himself up, to reach a quite uncomfortable position on the border of the middle class. He marries an upper-middle class girl, Alison. He’s blocked in his ambitions though: with his friend Cliff he’s running a candy stall in the local street market (not exactly the most heroic economic activity in the world).

But - about Jimmy Porter’s sensitivity, and his obvious weakness: rarely a word by the critics. And, if any, certainly not a positive one. Moreover, time doesn’t seem to do the man any good: use Jimmy’s language nowadays and be ready to be slaughtered publicly. So, then, let me be the one to stand up in favour of this marvelous character.

There’s so much evidence for this to be found in the script. For instance: he feels threatened by Helena, his wife Alison’s friend, whom he detests profoundly (at this point he strongly reminds me of Franz Kafka’s attitude, in his Letters to Felice, towards Felice’s friends. More about him soon.) When she enters - Jimmy hasn’t seen her for a long time - he immediately puts on a posture of defence; he starts a tirade, insulting his wife. Helena comes to her rescue though. Then:

“Helena: I think you’re a very tiresome young man.
Jimmy: Oh dear, oh dear! My wife’s friends! Pass Lady Bracknell the cucumber sandwiches, will you?”

Then, immediately, out of the blue, he starts another one, this time on Alison’s mum. He simply wants to shock Helena (and yes, Cupid is lurking around the corner):

“I knew that, to protect her innocent young, she wouldn’t hesitate to cheat, lie and blackmail. Threatened with me, a young man without money, background or even looks, she’d bellow like a rhinoceros in labor – enough to make every male rhino for miles turn white, and pledge himself to celibacy. But even I underestimated her strength. Mummy may look overfed and a bit flabby on the outside, but don’t let that well-bred guzzler fool you. Underneath all that, she’s armour plated-
He clutches wildly for something to shock Helena with.

She’s as rough as a night in a Bombay brothel, and as tough as a matelot’s arm.”

Jimmy’s slanging-matches are pure Tarantino: so far gone and over-the-top they finally end up making the man as irresistibly funny as he’s clumsy. (This said: couple of months ago while i was watching Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, near the end of the ‘car scene’ - Travolta showing his gun to his partner-in-crime, and incidentally blowing the head off a student in the passenger’s seat -, my friend in the seat next to me, utterly scandalized by my smiling, started hitting me rather fiercely on the head and blowing curses into my ear. “He’s killed the boy, for God’s sake!” Clearly not everybody’s interpreting scenes the same way.)

There’s a lot of John Osborne, the playwright, in Jimmy. The play indeed is strongly autobiographical: his unhappy marriage to the actress Pamela Lane was disintegrating; they lived in a same cramped studio as the one depicted in the play. Osborne was working class himself, the son of a commercial artist and a barmaid, and 26 when his play was performed, by the English Stage Company, at London’s Royal Court Theatre on May 8th 1956. It ushered in a new movement in British drama and made him known as the first of the Angry Young Men movement.

Here are a couple of other quotes illustrating Jimmy Porter’s over-the-top handling of his frustrations. Just sit back and enjoy - and/or get irritated:

(About his wife Alison, to Cliff, his friend, while Alison is listening)
“She’s so clumsy. I watch for her to do the same things every night. The way she jumps on the bed, as if she were stamping on someone’s face, and draws the curtains back with a great clatter, in that casually destructive way of hers. It’s like someone launching a battleship. Have you ever noticed how noisy women are? Have you? The way they kick the floor about, simply walking over it? Or have you watched them sitting at their dressing tables, dropping their weapons and banging down their bits of boxes and brushes and lipsticks?"

(About his stepmother - Alison’s mother. Mind Alison is listening all the time) “I say she ought to be dead. My God, those worms will need a good dose of salts the day they get through her! Oh what a bellyache you’ve got coming to you, my little wormy ones! Alison’s mother is one the way! (In what he intends to be a comic, declamatory voice.) She will pass away, my friends, leaving a trail of worms gasping for laxatives behind her - from purgatives to purgatory.”

Alison, his wife, gives in quite easily. Her (snobbish) friend Helena is another cake. As the play develops it gets clear she’s Jimmy’s target number one. To his wife Alison: “Are you going to let yourself taken in by this saint in Dior’s clothing? I will tell you the simple truth about her. (Articulating with care.) She is a cow. I wouldn’t mind that so much, but she seems to have become a sacred cow as well!” “You see, I know Helena and her kind so well. In fact, her kind are everywhere, you can’t move for them. They’re a romantic lot. They spend their time mostly looking forward to the past. The only place they can see the light is the Dark Ages. She’s moved long ago into a lovely cottage of the soul, cut right off from the ugly problems of the twentieth century altogether. She prefers to be cut off from all the conveniences we’ve fought to get for centuries. She’d rather go down to the ecstatic little shed at the bottom of the garden to relieve her sense of guilt. Our Helena is full of ecstatic wind- (he leans across the table at her) aren’t you?"

(Spoiler! Don’t read this paragraph if you still wish to read the play!)

Now one of the most marvelous scenes ever develops at the very end of Act 2. Completely out of the blue i must say – which makes the scene so powerful. Jimmy deliberately pushes Helena to the limit, and over it, and then – unexpectedly – this happens:

(Anguish in his voice.)
I can’t believe it! I can’t.
(Grabbing her shoulder.)
Well, the performance is over. Now leave me alone, and get out, you evil-minded little virgin.
She slaps his face savagely. An expression of horror and disbelief floods his face. But it drains away, and all that is left is pain. His hand goes up to his head, and a muffled cry of despair escapes him. Helena tears his hand away, and kisses him passionately, drawing him down beside her.

Curtain - End of Act II

The way John Osborne has created the Jimmy character is psychologically no less than masterly. Readers who have been ‘down there’, in whatever way – blocked professionally by a superior, pestered at school (been there), or simply been in a relationship with the ‘uptown girl’ Billy Joel sang about years ago (okay – been there too) –, those readers will have more than warm feelings towards loudmouth Jimmy. Big mouth, vulnerable heart. Nothing much has changed since the 50s, the afterwar. The Jimmy character is universal, and of all times.

As i said i wondered why critics don’t focus on this apparent trait of the main character. As it’s a crucial feature of the play, i asked myself: am i that wrong? And i read certain parts anew and started digging in… actually in everything i found about the play. The answer happened to be in Osborne’s notebook that has fortunately been preserved. A line on page 16 caught my eye; Osborne noted that the premise for the play was that ‘non-attachment leads to the very despair it strives to avoid’. This sounds very familiar: nowadays more people than ever in history (choose to) stay single. Jimmy is, through his vulnerability, his descent but also his sensitivity, unable to really attach (to Alison, nor to Helena). He thinks by pushing her away he’ll avoid being hurt. But it’s precisely the pushing away which’ll, at the end, hurt him.

The message is clear, and it’s woven in a stunning way throughout the play. And Jimmy is the man.

Fun-fact: during the course of the first performances of the play John Osborne couldn’t resist spell nor charmes of Mary Ure, the actress playing Jimmy’s wife Alison. She became his second wife. In 1959 the play has been put onto screen by Tony Richardson, with Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter. Mary Ure, again, playing Alison. The winner takes it all.

(John Osborne, ‘Look Back in Anger’, A Play in Three Acts, 1956.)

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