Theatre Censorship – 22: John Osborne’s Luther

John Osborne

John Osborne

John Osborne’s Luther (1961) was a major milestone along the road to the abolition of censorship. A history of Martin Luther, it traced his life from being a young, fearful monk born in the late 15th century, through his arguments with the Catholic Church, to his advocating a Reformed Church and his marriage to ex-nun Katherine von Bora. The subject matter of the play was obviously controversial and the censor feared that it might be offensive to Christians. Throughout the century the censors had been particularly strict against plays which they felt offended on religious grounds; the chief problem was that it was forbidden to portray the deity on stage, although, as Fowell and Palmer point out in their 1913 book Censorship in England, nobody seems able to trace the origin of this rule. As a result several thought-provoking and quality plays were long banned. For example, W. B. Yeats’ Noh Drama Calvary (1920), based on Oscar Wilde’s story The Doer of Good, has at its core two awkward problems; one, that Lazarus does not wish to be raised from the dead, and two, that Judas betrays Christ in order to escape the trappings of his all-encompassing religion. The Lord Chamberlain could never have permitted Christ to be vilified on stage by his enemies like that. The American Marc Connelly’s fantasy representation of the Old Testament stories, Green Pastures (1929), was also banned outright even though critical opinion felt it was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930.

LutherFaced with the prospect of licensing Luther, the Lord Chamberlain had no hesitation in demanding fourteen cuts from the play. Osborne had been appalled at the demands made by the censor of his previous two plays, The Entertainer and The World of Paul Slickey (1959). In the latter case he employed the services of a solicitor to argue with the Lord Chamberlain over changes. Osborne decided that he had had enough unfair treatment from the censor. He refused to comply with the cuts under any circumstances and wrote a public letter to the Lord Chamberlain, who was at the time Lord Scarborough: “I don’t write plays to have them rewritten by someone else,” he said; “I am quite prepared to withdraw the play from production altogether and wait for the day when Lord Scarborough is no more…” Surprisingly, Osborne’s anger made an impression on the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and, presumably feeling threatened, or guilty, they withdrew most of their amendments. Bullies always back down when you face them openly, and Osborne’s easy victory made the censor appear weak and inconsistent. This did the public image of the Lord Chamberlain’s office no good at all. Shocked by the success of his letter, Osborne compromised, went back on his word and agreed to accept the few changes which the Lord Chamberlain continued to demand.

Earl of Scarborough

Earl of Scarborough

In the scene where Martin speaks to his father Hans after he has given his first Mass, Hans refers to the weak wine made by the monks first as “convent piss” and later as “monk’s piss”. Osborne agreed to the Lord Chamberlain’s demand to change “monk’s piss” to “monk’s wine” which takes the venom out of the term; and he changed “convent piss” to “kidney juice” which, personally, I think is even more distasteful. In the same scene, Hans refers to Martin as “piss-scared”, which Osborne had to change simply to “scared”. When Martin is discussing the nature of contentment with his religious mentor Staupitz he affirms that: “a hog waffling in its own crap is contented”. It was the word “crap” to which the censor most objected, but Osborne changed the sentence to read “a pig waffling in its own filth is contented”. The image is the same; no real damage done to the play.

The final change that the censor required was the exclusion of the phrase “balls of the Medici”. Much to the amusement of commentators, the Lord Chamberlain’s office suggested that “testicles of the Medici” would be acceptable, ignoring the fact that the coat of arms of the Medici family was a set of brass balls. This goes to show that it’s the use of slang, as much anything else, that the censor found more objectionable. That’s why “kidney juice” was not considered as reprehensible as the slang “piss”, even though the longer phrase dwells on the subject more. Osborne was outraged at the suggestion that Luther, furious with the papal bull which excommunicates him, should cast it in to flames with the dramatic declaration, “as for this bull, it’s going to roast, it’s going to roast and so are the testicles of the Medici!” Osborne complained that the censor took no notice of the double significance of “balls” in this context. The word “testicles”, he maintained, did not appropriately describe the crest; the censor, realising his error, felt compelled to withdraw the objection and “balls of the Medici” stands.

Erik H Erikson

Erik H Erikson

Had Osborne accepted the censor’s fourteen original cuts, the play would have lost much of its structure and bite, and would have been largely ruined. The cuts that he did accept, however, have left the play more or less the way he originally wanted. Nevertheless, most critics agree that the play’s structure isn’t that great anyway. Some say the play falls apart after the scene concerning the Diet of Worms, as the sudden change of the character of the knight – from supporter to enemy – is too unbelievable. As the play is mainly derived from a source work, Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther, you might not necessarily expect to find any of Osborne’s recurrent themes; but Martin is surely much more of an angry young man than Jimmy Porter ever was. He is angry at the Church and angry with himself. He is angry at the fools who buy indulgences and at the Swabian peasants whose revolt against serfdom and whose demands for the pure gospel had to be exterminated. Above all, he is also a stubborn young man. He never gives way.

The language of Luther is uncomfortably but realistically uneven in two different ways. Firstly, there is an enormous range of different types of speeches and there are different speech patterns for each of his characters. Osborne offers us the stichomythic (I know, get me, look it up) conversation of Lucas and Hans, the communal speeches of confession, and general conversational speech, as well as vast debates and tirades which extend over many pages such as those delivered by Tetzel, Martin, both Martin and Eck together, and the knight. The length of the speeches grows as the play progresses and they become more philosophical and more turgid in the process. In the Faber edition of the play, only six speeches cover pages 79 – 88, because of their inordinate length. It seems that Osborne is much more at home with diatribe than with dialogue.

Martin’s visceral language provides a strong contrast with the holy conservatism of the monks, using individualistic words and phrases such as “worminess” or “warm hair and a bony heart… a scraped marrow and a dying jelly”. His sensuous vocabulary sets him aside from the penitent low-key confessions of the other monks who have no feel for language or vocabulary of their own, because they are conforming to the ideal of the platonic monk, and therefore must stifle their own personal tendencies. Elsewhere in the play his vivid linguistic imagination gives way to some splendid imagery. I really admire the phrase: “I wish my bowels would open. I’m blocked up like an old crypt.”

As well as using blasphemous language, Luther also takes up the question of blasphemy itself by pointing out the antithesis between the godly and the ungodly, the sincere and the ridiculous: “and so, the praising ended – and the blasphemy began”. This refers not only to his taking Mass – for which he feels he is insufficiently qualified, strictly in accordance with Christ’s teaching – but is also an oblique reference to the naked child he holds; one requires child-like innocence to enter heaven, but after childhood, man’s life is in itself blasphemy because he is no longer worthy of heaven. The phrase is also, even more widely, a reference to Martin’s life of rebellion against Catholicism.

Pope Leo

Pope Leo X

You don’t expect to hear particularly bad language from a member of the Church, so there’s a great shock effect from, for example, Pope Leo calling Martin a “double faced German bastard” – it puts Martin’s earlier use of the words “mother’s tit” in the shade. You expect the clergy to be polite, but they swear; indeed, their bad language is a major outlet for their blasphemy. With his argumentative nature, Martin should have been a lawyer instead of a cleric; rather than saying confession with the other monks, he’s more at home talking about his vivid, sexual, anxious dreams. But over the years Martin realises that the differences between himself and the other members of the Church are symptomatic of the rift he would set in motion.

Looking back, it’s clear how Osborne dominated this period, both in terms of drama and in his struggles against the censor. His argument with Lord Scarborough over Luther indicates the path that other dramatists were about to take but matters had not quite come to a head yet. But we’ll never know what might have been written by those who could not see the point of creating plays which could not be performed due to censorship.

In my next post I’m going to consider plays by Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett.

Theatre Censorship – 20: Billy Rice Will Not Appear Again (John Osborne’s The Entertainer)

John Osborne

John Osborne

Despite the considerable influence of Look Back in Anger, there was no immediate enormous swing to realistic, working-class drama. The Suez Crisis had passed, the Hungarian Revolution had passed. As 1956 became 1957, people in Britain felt exactly the same about things as they had before. The direct influence of Look Back in Anger had not yet been felt. Any anticipated, endless supply of prospective dramatists, sending in an abundance of new scripts to the Royal Court, had not materialised; the situation was no different from when Osborne submitted his play and the majority of new drama was still “endless blank verse shit”, as Tony Richardson, who had directed Look Back in Anger, put it. In fact, the only production in the first season at the Royal Court which was financially viable was a star-studded production of Wycherley’s The Country Wife, a Restoration Comedy which transferred into the West End and whose success paid for the continuation of the English Stage Company’s policies.

The EntertainerThe next dramatic work to engage the public’s imagination (although its impact was considerably less) was Osborne’s next play, The Entertainer (1957). Before Look Back in Anger, Osborne had written Epitaph for George Dillon in collaboration with Anthony Creighton, where the central character is a performer; and like George Dillon, and Jimmy Porter, and Archie Rice – The Entertainer himself – hasn’t achieved any substantial success. The Entertainer continues where Epitaph for George Dillon left off; this time the central subject matter, the settings and the structure of the play create an analysis of the role of the theatre in everyday life. Archie Rice is an old-fashioned entertainer; unlike George Dillon, he seems unlikely to become acceptable to modern tastes. He is a music hall artiste, a stage comedian and compere whose persona revolves around pubs, girls and mother in law jokes. He’s very much based on the real-life Max Miller. His downfall has been his inability to keep up with the times – although his father Billy, himself an “old pro”, is even further behind; he believes the kind of music-hall entertainment that Archie practices has changed too much since his day and, of course, for the worse.

In his introductory note, Osborne writes: “the music hall is dying, and, with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.” The Rice family are a microcosm of 1957 England. They are scattered and disunited through their attitudes to relationships, beliefs, age and duty. The confident music hall patter gradually sticks in Archie Rice’s throat as he realises, through the course of the play, the enormous gap between himself and his stage persona. The music hall routine is full of nationalistic pride, but this is a painful juxtaposition with his sorrow at the death of his son returning from Cyprus with the British Army. His jokes are all based on sexual prowess, but we know that he and his wife Phoebe no longer have sex. His songs are full of irony; they contain throw-away asides like “why should I worry?” and “thank God I’m normal”, a bitter humour that pokes fun at anyone who doesn’t conform to the norm; and which also gives the (wrong) impression of a happy, carefree man on a one-way ticket to self-enjoyment. Not surprisingly, at the end of the play, he just crumples up. The glitter and fun and noise of the music hall make it a deceitful art – it only allows optimistic thoughts to be expressed, suppressing the real dissatisfaction people hide behind the smiles – the Tears of a Clown, as Smokey Robinson would have it.

The simplest and most obvious way a music hall performer could inject sexual intrigue into his act was to be backed by a group of nude girls. Music hall itself was never categorised separately in the 1832 Theatres Act and because of that anomaly the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain did not extend to it. However, music hall acts within other plays or revues were censorable. The fact that this form of uncensored entertainment had outlived its popularity and was thus on its last legs could clearly be used by those in favour of stage censorship as an argument for its retention. This was certainly what Billy Rice believed. He’s in no doubt that the nudes are to blame for the music hall’s decline: “they’re killing the business… why should a family man take his wife and kids to see a lot of third class sluts standing about in the nude?” Billy clearly approves of the work of the Lord Chamberlain who, as far as he’s concerned, protects the family unit – knowing how disparate his own family is. Archie, of course, takes the opposite view and exploits the nudes for as much sexual joking as possible: “What about these girls? What about them? Smashin’. I bet you think I have a marvellous time up here with all these posing girls, don’t you? You think I have a smashin’ time, don’t you? You’re dead right!”

Windmill Theatre

Windmill Theatre

Posing girls became an almost unavoidable part of revue entertainment during the Second World War – they became synonymous with the Windmill Theatre, and it was at this time that music hall merged into revue and became subject to the censor’s rules and regulations. Owing to the controversial nature of this subject, the Lord Chamberlain’s office had issued a statement on the use of nudity on stage. As we’ve already seen, actresses were allowed to pose completely nude “provided the pose is motionless and expressionless, it is artistic and something rather more than a mere display of nakedness, and provided that the lighting was subdued”. One would expect that none of these conditions were met in Archie Rice’s show. Actresses who moved were meant to wear at least “briefs and an opaque controlling brassiere”, and “strip-tease” was not permitted in any circumstances. These instructions continued until the 1968 Theatres Act was introduced.

The death of Billy Rice in the play represents the demise of his artistic views and values. Nude girls would inevitably continue to be part of the act. Archie notes Billy’s death with sadness and respect, and is obviously sorry that the type of entertainment he represented has also passed on: “Billy Rice will not appear again. I wish I could sing a song for him – in his place”. But he says he simply cannot, and therefore the nudes continue to have gainful employment. Archie has no respect for the censor – in his end monologue he refers to his nudes as “a lot of madam” and then adds “oh, I put a line in there. Never mind, it doesn’t matter”. A performer like Archie must have found it very difficult and restrictive to keep to a script; but of course he had to because otherwise he would have infringed the conditions of the licence.

GhostsAs for The Entertainer itself, the censor demanded a number of changes, which Osborne reluctantly agreed to make. Nearly all were at the expense of some sexual innuendo, as sex was of course still the censor’s chief bête noir (at this time, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned). The individual lines which the censor refused to pass, when taken as part of the whole work, don’t stand out as extreme in any way. Taken out of context, however, they could give the impression of a sex-crazed script, much as Peter Nichols had said of his own Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and I doubt the Lord Chamberlain would have approved.

For example, when the members of the family are discussing Archie and Phoebe’s son Mick at war, Archie denies any allegations that Mick might be suffering from depression: “I expect he’s screwing himself silly. I hope he is anyway.” The censor deleted this line, not only because it advocates sexual immorality but also because the phrase may have suggested a kind of syphilitic madness. The censor could not possibly allow such a flippant attitude to so serious a subject to remain unchecked. After all, Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881), which features a character suffering from inherited syphilis, remained banned in Britain for nearly forty years, and indeed the actual word syphilis was still forbidden. Osborne did not substitute another line for this one – he just removed it and made Archie continue with his speech: “What’s happened with you and Graham?” he asks Jean. Osborne’s original intention was to make Archie imply that sexual problems were the cause of Jean and Graham’s problems. However, now that the reference to sex has been removed from the speech, that implication is missing. Osborne’s original wording enhances our understanding of Archie as a seedy, insinuating person. Without it, it becomes just a bland sequence of conversation.

The censor also shortened the verse of one of Archie’s chorus songs. His songs are, of course, an intrinsic part of his act and reflect the persona with great accuracy. He sings about sex, and about being “ordinary” to make the majority of his audience relate to him. This made the censor’s job more difficult because the audience is on Archie’s side. Therefore, the censor removed the lines: “I don’t push and shove at the thing they call love, I never go in for goings on.” The lines are deliberately ambiguous; again, they do not seem particularly daring in context, where their chief purpose is to confirm the idea “I never really care, I’m what you call a moderate”. However, the censor doubtless saw the references to sexual intercourse: “push and shove”, “go in”, both in the context of “love” and “goings on”. As a result of this cut, Osborne also chose to remove the lines: “I’m what you call a moderate, I weigh all the pros and the cons” in order to make the metre fit the tune again. The whole cut makes the song rather innocuous.

Another major cut is that of the passage in which Archie very frankly described the regularity of his sexual activity. He maintains: “I’ve always been a seven day a week man myself, haven’t I, Phoebe? A seven day a week man. I always needed a jump at the end of the day – and at the beginning too usually. Just like a piece of bacon on the slab.” The censor probably thought that, given the repetition in the speech and the maudlin, drunk tone Archie has adopted, the audience might find this speech embarrassing. The imagery of the piece of bacon was no doubt a step too far. By cutting this speech, it was as though the censor was protecting Archie from himself, and from the audience’s judgment. He is drunk, and possibly he may say something he will regret, especially as in a few moments he will hear that Mick has been killed on his return home. This paternalistic censorship changes our impression of Osborne’s attitude to Archie. Osborne’s attempts to communicate Archie’s coarseness are effectively thwarted and the effect of the cut is to render Archie’s speech confusing if not meaningless. The speech sounds very much as though a key issue has been omitted from it – which, of course, it has: “Say, aren’t you glad you’re normal? Well, it’s everybody’s problem”. That’s a complete non-sequitur. What is? Being normal or not being normal? In fact, the problem Osborne intended Archie to refer to is that of chercher la femme. Archie’s explanation: “either they’re doing it, and they’re not enjoying it. Or else they’re not doing it and they aren’t enjoying it” seems a little out of place without the overt sexual reference.

The only other censored word in the text is the censor’s insistence on using the word “decent” instead of “devout” in the description of an act Archie used to know called “Lady Rosie Bothways”. The censor obviously thought that the religious overtones of the word “devout” were not in keeping with the rest of the description. All in all, the substituted words and passages and censored sections of the play weaken the force of the play; it’s less coarse and therefore Archie himself doesn’t come across as quite so reprehensible a character.

Thematically, any relation the play bears to Look Back in Anger is indistinct. There are hints of class-consciousness, such as Billy’s attitude to Archie’s “third class sluts”, and Graham’s attitude to Jean and her family, but there is no real advocating of a class-struggle. War is just a catalyst, causing the death of Mick, the missing link of the family chain, but not the overpowering threat that it is in the earlier play. The closest association may be seen in the character of Jean who, though, not central to the play, is nearly an “angry young woman”; she is at least sufficiently motivated to protest in Trafalgar Square against the government. She gives up her boyfriend at the end because of class differences and family loyalties. She decides that nothing can be gained merely by turning her back on her family: “here we are, we’re alone in the universe, there’s no God, it just seems that it all began by something as simple as sunlight striking on a piece of rock… somehow we’ve just got to make a go of it. We’ve only ourselves”. Her final position is one of reconciliation with her family, just as Jimmy Porter and Alison are (temporarily at least) reconciled at the end of Look Back in Anger.

Next up I’m going to take a look at Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.

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.

Theatre Censorship – 18: Jimmy Blows his Trumpet – Look Back in Appreciation of Look Back in Anger (Part Two)

Angry Young ManAnother 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.

Theatre Censorship – 17: Jimmy Blows his Trumpet – Look Back in Appreciation of Look Back in Anger (Part One)

Look Back in AngerOn reflection, one of the most surprising facts about 20th century British theatre is that the play which has been most widely regarded as being the watershed in modern drama, John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956), with its reputation for anger, generation-gap protest, bald domesticity, and bloody-mindedness, does not fall foul of any of the categories agreed by the Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship) in 1909, and did not receive much attention from the Lord Chamberlain’s office.

There was some bartering over a few words and phrases, some of which Osborne agreed to change, some on which the censor relented. My favourite example of horse-trading getting this play licensed was the censor’s insistence on removing the song title “There’s a Smokescreen in my Pubic Hair”, which Osborne changed to “You can quit hanging round my counter, Mildred, cos you’ll find my position is closed.” Go figure. Bizarrely, the thing that upset the censor the most was Osborne’s imagery of a python devouring its prey as a metaphor for Alison’s sexual hunger. Eventually they agreed on a milder description of the act; maintaining the metaphor but just toning down the language a little. It all seems so petty nowadays.

The play takes war, arguably the most offensive and indecent act in the world, as the starting-point for its anger. Jimmy Porter tells Helena: “I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry – angry and helpless… I knew more about love, betrayal… and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know all your life.” This desperation was caused by the young Jimmy’s concern for his dying father. The rest of his family did not care about him because he had been wounded fighting for the cause of socialism in the Spanish Civil War; this was an embarrassment to them as they preferred to belong to the “smart and fashionable” set. Jimmy’s disgust at this mother, whose only thought was “that she allied herself to a man who seemed to be on the wrong side in all things” went on to cause an obsession with mother-figures; recognisable in both his utter hatred of his girlfriend Alison’s mother, and his unconditional love for his mate Hugh’s mother.

Jimmy’s war-scarred upbringing, then, converted him into a socialist because of his admiration for the supreme sacrifice made by his father. However, rather than trying to be an upbeat promoter of his cause, he tries to inflict the misery which he experienced on others in the hope that, via suffering, they might reach the same conclusions as him. Unsurprisingly, this is not a successful tactic. At best his motives are misunderstood and at worst he’s the epitome of boorish insensitivity. He’s the archetypal “own worst enemy”.

Ronald HaymanThis boorishness and insensitivity led to a critical misunderstanding of the significance of the character of Jimmy Porter. Consider, if you will, the difference of opinion between these short statements: “Jimmy Porter is being offered as a spokesman for a disaffected generation… contrived to express the misgivings, the grievances and the impatience of almost everyone who resented the power and the corruption” (Ronald Hayman, in British Theatre since 1955 – A Reassessment); “there is absolutely no indication in the play that Osborne ever intended Jimmy’s remarks to be taken as a general condemnation of society. Jimmy is an extremely unusual young man and anything but representative of the young men of our time” (George A. Wellwarth’s essay, John Osborne – Angry Young Man?) Fifteen years elapsed between the two comments – Hayman’s was made in 1979, Wellwarth’s in 1964 – and certainly the more recent comment reflects the attitude most widely held nowadays.

Today aficionados of Jimmy Porter and his play would criticise Wellwarth’s opinion, believing that at the time he was too close to the situation to understand its truth – basically, he couldn’t see the wood for the trees – and that the added years have enabled us to see the play in greater perspective. Jimmy fans may well also believe that he was too realistic and accurate a creation to be easily acceptable. Nevertheless, Wellwarth’s comment was delivered eight years after the play, and, as the play itself clearly states, society is continually changing, so I think it is unlikely that he was too involved in the situation to have a clear vision of what was taking place. Supporters of Wellwarth’s argument might well agree that Jimmy is a psychotic individual with an individual tale to tell. Certainly, in performance, the audience is more interested in discovering how the love affairs of Jimmy, Alison and Helena will work out, rather than relating the whole story to Britain in 1956. Perhaps Ronald Hayman’s quote suggests that he succumbed to the easy mistake of considering the myth more than the play itself.

George Devine

George Devine

It is important to separate the two. Over the past six decades, commentators have romanticised the play and its characters almost out of recognition. Osborne’s own personal success with it is a kind of fairy story; George Devine, director of the English Stage Company based at the Royal Court theatre, had invited young and as yet unknown writers to submit their plays with a view to their being produced in the 1956 season. Look Back in Anger was submitted in this way, and was the only play from those sent in that was chosen for production. In his famous criticism in the Observer of 13th May 1956, Kenneth Tynan agreed “that “Look Back in Anger” is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of 20 and 30…. 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’s typically sensationalist and emotive language did not cut much ice with many of the other critics. Milton Shulman, never quick to keep up with the times, wrote in the London Evening Standard on 9th May 1956: “Nothing is so comfortable to the young as the opportunity to feel sorry for themselves… [Look Back in Anger] aims at being a despairing cry but achieves only the stature of a self-pitying snivel”.

Despite the enormous variety of critical responses, it was not a box-office success until a scene from it was shown on television. Public awareness of the play suddenly grew, as did the audiences, and the season was extended. Also, despite their reactions to the play itself, the critics were almost unanimous when they considered Osborne’s skill as a writer. Cecil Wilson, in the Daily Mail, also on 9th May 1956, hit the nail on the head as far as many commentators were concerned, when he said: “we can perceive what a brilliant play this young man will write when he has got this one out of his system and let a little sunshine into his soul.”

In my next blog post, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the character of Jimmy Porter.