Another myth that grew at this time was that of the “angry young man”. Today Jimmy Porter and that phrase are synonymous despite the fact that the phrase was first used by the Anglo-Irish writer Leslie Paul in 1951 as the title of his autobiography. The critic John Russell Taylor adapted the phrase to suit his purposes when he published his book Anger and After in 1962. “Angry young man” sums up a good deal of Jimmy Porter’s outward personality, and is, of course, an easy and memorable epithet.
The myth even extends to the period. 1956 was a notorious year. It was the year of the Suez crisis, when Britain decided to join forces with France to invade Egypt after Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Protests against the Suez invasion lead to the eventual establishment of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. 1956 was also the year of the Hungarian Revolution, when Hungarian dissidents were strongly supressed by the Russian communists. Amid this turmoil arrived Jimmy, a man, whether he be spokesman or individual, who cared for his country and his people and who turned his anger on the politicians and moralists of the day because they had moulded the national situation into its current, dismal shape.
However, this was not the first period of turmoil that Britain had experienced in the twentieth century. If the creation of a character like Jimmy Porter is a natural reaction to the horrors of war, why didn’t an equivalent character arrive on the scene shortly after the First World War, which was far more horrendous and cost many more lives? For me, it was the antagonism between the United States and (what was) the Soviet Union that created the perfect environment for Jimmy Porter. In a most self-conscious attempt at flippancy, Jimmy says: “we get our cooking from Paris…our politics from Moscow, and our morals from Port Said” – a world of fine dining, Russian expansionism and corruption! He is concerned at what he considers to be the threat to British individualism from foreign powers, and continues to maintain a sneaking regard for Colonel Redfern (Alison’s stiff-upper-lip father) and his Edwardian England. However, his socialism causes him to side more with the USSR than with America; he is disgusted with the Bishop of Bromley’s appeal “to all Christians to do what they can to assist in the manufacture of the H-Bomb” because it naturally assumes that the USA are the good guys and that Russia is the enemy. He cannot believe that it can be Christian and, above all, right, to kill off the Russians. There’s no doubt that he’s portrayed as a CND pioneer.
Furthermore, he is revealed as anti-American in most respects. His story about the American evangelist at Earl’s Court, where a woman was badly injured under the weight of enthusiastic Christians who were so carried away by their keenness to get to the front that they did not notice she had been trampled underfoot, is used to demonstrate both the impracticality and horror of organised religion and what he sees as the self-centredness of American influence. It’s no surprise that critical reaction to the play in the USSR was most favourable. Reuters reported on 5th August 1957 that the TASS drama critic had written that “one of the most attractive features of the work is its faith in everything that is good and radiant in the soul”. This radiance is presumably the opposite of the tedium that Jimmy envisages in the future; “I must say it’s pretty dreary living in the American Age – unless you’re an American, of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans. That’s a thought, isn’t it?” It is a thought, and it’s a shame he doesn’t develop it further.
This kind of behaviour – bringing up an important idea and then not drawing any conclusions from it – is symptomatic of both his fear for the future and his laziness. C. W. E. Bigsby commented in his 1981 essay The Language of Crisis in British Theatre: “Education had given [him] articulateness but nothing to be articulate about”; but that’s not entirely the same thing. Jimmy is clearly an educated man, to set him apart from the other major characters of the play. Colonel Redfern cannot understand why Jimmy has not achieved more than just running a sweet stall in a market, but doubtless the personal contact involved and the more leisurely pace offer him a greater quality of life than the cut-throat worlds of, say, journalism or advertising, two of the careers which Alison says he has tried. At the beginning of the play, education and intelligence appear to be Jimmy’s main preoccupations, as he spends most of his time shaming and bullying house-mate Cliff into admitting that he is ignorant and uneducated. At the beginning of the second act we hear Jimmy playing his jazz trumpet; evidence of eloquence and talent, but wasted as there is no audience. Certainly, Alison and Helena would wish he would keep his trumpet quiet. In fact, Helena’s slight paranoia comes to the fore as she imagines him killing her with it. Does that take the symbolism of the trumpet too far? It is more revealing that she enjoys the danger – she finds him “horrifying and oddly exciting”; her eventual relationship with Jimmy will not come as quite such a surprise.
It is that kind of stifling of Jimmy’s activities and responses which make Jimmy associate himself with the unborn foetus at the end of Act One. Something which does not experience life but has the promise of it; something so protected and untouchable, that it is virtually a prisoner, suffocating in silence; Jimmy believes that he and the foetus share the same plight. A cruel extension of this idea is his wish that Alison should have a miscarriage; ostensibly, Jimmy simply wants to generate a reaction from Alison, a spark of individualism which would prove life and the power of communication. At the same time the death of the foetus would represent the end of Jimmy’s own suffocation.
Jimmy’s use of the foetus as a symbol for his own condition is a good example of his being his own worst enemy. In his efforts to express himself and to provoke reactions, Jimmy manages to be cruel and antagonistic. It’s brutal to wish that a pregnant woman should lose her child. Osborne emphasises Alison’s reaction to his cruelty: “She moves away, stunned… Alison’s head goes back as if she were about to make some sound. But her mouth remains open and trembling…” Normally she takes all Jimmy’s petty cruelties in her stride, but this demand for an elimination of life and love is too shocking for her. She moves as if to speak – which would be her natural reaction – but she does not, because this would signify that Jimmy’s cruelty had hit its target. Therefore, she hovers between the expressive and the insensible and refuses to yield to his violence.
In my next blog post, I’ll conclude this appreciation of Look Back in Anger.