Theatre Censorship – 19: Jimmy Blows his Trumpet – Look Back in Appreciation of Look Back in Anger (Part Three)

There are many other little niggling qualities about Jimmy Porter which render him irritating and contrary. He smokes a pipe simply because he knows that it annoys Cliff; both because of the smell and because it reminds him of the cigarettes the doctor has forbidden him to smoke. Jimmy makes it one degree worse for Cliff with his self-righteous scoffing: “They’re your ulcers. Go ahead, and have a bellyache if that’s what you want”. He refuses to lend Cliff his newspaper, so although he advocates education, in his own small way he deliberately impedes Cliff’s progress. He rifles through Alison’s handbag, in search of “something of me somewhere, a reference to me. I want to know if I’m being betrayed”, predatory like the bear which represents him in their lovers’ games. He storms off angrily when Alison burns herself on the iron, another symbol, a painful weapon of domesticity, the mark of the bored housewife.

By all accounts, he was no less boorish when younger. The raids made on the friends of the Redferns by Jimmy and Hugh appear not only to have been embarrassingly puerile but also calculated to indulge their greed and their desire to upset all the other guests. He even taunted Alison about her virginity when they got married. By remaining a virgin to her wedding day she remained faithful to her upbringing and class; she had done what was expected of her, and this infuriated her rebellious husband, who still reflects on his first lover, Madeline, to whom, in Alison’s words, “he owes just about everything”. When Alison leaves Jimmy in Act Two Scene Two, she has prepared a leaving note for him in a sealed envelope for Cliff to give him. Cliff seems surprised that she should tell Jimmy in this way, but, as she explains, she is “a conventional girl”.

Here is another cause of Jimmy’s antagonistic behaviour; wherever he goes he runs up against the divisive class system which he loathes. This is, of course, why he and Hugh disrupted the parties of the Arksdens, the Tarnatts and the Wains; they wanted to show they had no affiliation to the upper-middle-class. It was Hugh’s mother who ran the sweet stall, and Jimmy now carries on the trade as a mark of respect for her and what she represents; whilst at the same time scorning the more acceptable and financially viable positions occupied by the very people Jimmy abominates. Hugh’s mother’s stroke affects Jimmy very deeply, for it reminds him of how his own father suffered; both old people felt the scorn and contempt of everyone except Jimmy, and both represent old qualities of socialism which appear to have little relevance in 1956. Therefore Jimmy delivers diatribes of wrath against defenders of Edwardian England, like J. B. Priestley and Colonel Redfern, and reports the quote by the Bishop of Bromley which totally condemns that reputable clergyman: “He’s upset because someone has suggested that he supports the rich against the poor. He says he denies the difference of class distinctions. “This idea has been persistently and wickedly fostered by – the working classes!” Well!” Jimmy’s reaction is outraged but feeble – all he can add to the argument is “Well!”.

Helena, his “natural enemy”, appears to Jimmy at first as the epitome of everything squalid and contemptible about the class-ridden society. She doesn’t maintain her position in society but deliberately “slums it” by being an actress. Jimmy interprets this as her abandoning real life for playing out fantasies. This makes her the complete opposite of Jimmy, who is down-to-earth if nothing else. He forces her to threaten him with physical violence – “If you come any nearer, I will slap your face” – and then refuses to play the middle-class game of giving way to a woman who threatens to slap one’s face: “I’ve no public-school scruples about hitting girls. If you slap my face – by God, I’ll lay you out!” That’s Jimmy’s version of scrupulous fairness and equality.

However, Jimmy’s attitude to class struggles is not as straightforward as it might seem. He may condemn class distinctions, but his own class-oriented behaviour ensures that the traditions of the classes continue. He may seem bitter in his condemnation of Redfern’s Edwardian England, but he is unable to hide a certain resentment, even jealousy, of the contented idyll of something which can never be his, “still casting well-fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable, disenfranchised wilderness”. There is nothing intrinsically honourable about not being well-fed or comfortable; and there is a certain romance in the phrase “Edwardian twilight”, the years before the World War when the well-to-do family felt comfortably free from all responsibility to have care for others less well off. In his own way, Jimmy Porter, would also dearly love some form of capricious disenfranchisement which would free him of his burdens.

Above all, it is the way that Osborne has created the character of Colonel Redfern that proves Jimmy’s reports of him are false. Far from being an unreasonable, dogmatic, overpowering character, he is mild, kind and very understanding indeed. Alison cannot really accept it when Redfern believes that some of the communication-gap between the two parties was his own fault. One might expect Redfern to be far more infuriated with his foolish daughter than he is. He even agrees with Jimmy’s description of him: “one of those sturdy old plants left over from the Edwardian Wilderness that can’t understand why the sun isn’t shining any more”. Rather than representing the past, or arch-Conservatism, or class hatred, or any of the things to which Jimmy is obviously opposed, Redfern is a family man who represents basic decency, and never considers himself infallible. He is quite prepared to try to learn the lesson of the young; he accepts that the amount of time that he spent abroad meant he missed out on trends in Britain. Above all, he is not proud and does not set himself up as Jimmy’s chief opponent. As a result, Jimmy’s heroism looks like just petulance.

Redfern perhaps represents society which refuses to change with the world. Alison tries to sum up the basic difference between her father and her husband: “You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it. Something’s gone wrong somewhere, hasn’t it?” Both men have experienced change; Jimmy has come through the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War as a child, and, indeed, Redfern served in India between 1914 and 1947. Redfern has not been at home in Britain for as long as Jimmy and this causes the rift between them. Nevertheless, Jimmy is also a static character, whereas Redfern is strangely progressive. The play begins with Jimmy complaining that every Sunday they go through the same ritual of reading all the newspapers, no matter what happens, as Alison does her ironing: “Even the book reviews seem to be the same as last week’s”. The play is, in fact, largely static because even though Jimmy’s lover changes, the new one is still seen doing the Sunday afternoon ironing. Alison seems to use this ironing as a coping mechanism; she pretends to be so involved with her task that she cannot tear herself away from it to answer Jimmy’s irritating questions. This is particularly noticeable after his recriminations against Alison’s brother Nigel in Act One.

The major change in Alison is caused by Helena’s arrival, making her see sense as far as her marriage is concerned. The turning point for her is the moment she announces that she is going to church. Jimmy can only retaliate with some inarticulate bluster, but does not really know how to cope with the situation. Religion is an anathema to Jimmy and is to be treated with the utmost derision. When he thinks of Alison going to church, he calls to mind the story of the Earl’s Court evangelist and the article by the Bishop of Bromley; but more than that, just like her pre-marital virginity, going to church on a Sunday is one of the last bastions of middle-class life which he so despises. So Jimmy sees this as a step back on Alison’s part, heavily influenced by Helena.

John Osborne

John Osborne

In later years, Osborne’s own opinion of the play was that he wanted very little to do with it, and that he became deeply embarrassed if he saw a scene or read a part of it. In 1961 he famously described it in an essay entitled That Awful Museum, as “a formal, rather old-fashioned play”, and it is true that it has dated quickly. This is perhaps because of the special nature of the year 1956 and of the enormous progress made in the theatre since then. I agree with Osborne’s description of the play as formal, with its three-act structure and recurrent themes and images; and perhaps what Kenneth Tynan described in The Observer on 13th May 1956 as “the painful whimsy of the final reconciliation” does indeed indicate an old-fashioned yearning for a neat and happy ending. Today Jimmy Porter would be well into his eighties, maybe ninety – if he has survived; probably still a campaigner against nuclear arms and refusing to patronise any of the chains of American fast-food restaurants. Alternatively, his neuroses might have given him one too many heart attacks by now, and he probably wouldn’t be alive to see what became of the dreams he once had.

Thanks for sticking with me through this week of Look Back in Anger! In my next blog post, I’ll move on to Osborne’s next significant play, The Entertainer.

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