Look Back In Anger
by John Osborne
Paragon Theatre Company
Phoenix Theatre, Denver
When it premiered in 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger shocked and baffled its audiences and critics. Theatre goers in England who had been lulled into complacent expectations of the usual postwar era theatre fare of sappy melodramas and stuffy, drawing room comedies found themselves blasted by the stark setting of the play, the deceptive simplicity of someone ironing onstage, and most of all, by the passionately articulate and disarmingly honest words of Osborne’s main character, Jimmy Porter. Through Jimmy, Osborne gave voice to a new generation of youth culture who came of age after the second “Great War” had been fought, a youth culture that found itself struggling to live up to the promises of the “American Age,” and feeling embittered when capitalism didn’t turn out to be as perfect a solution as people had hoped it would be. Jimmy articulated the disillusionment of the individual trying to make a stand for love, for honesty, for real feeling, in a time when culture was becoming more and more dispassionate, in denial, and homogenized. Jimmy shocked people by telling the truth about how he felt in a time when feeling was just not fashionable.
Today it seems like every other day someone is mentioning to me how disillusioned he or she is with politics in the United States. People are passionately protesting the war in Iraq, abortion rights, and the use of stem cell research. Tempers run high and there are strong arguments coming from the right, left and middle, and yet, we find ourselves facing an election in which it is pretty difficult to distinguish one candidate from another. The cultural homogenization that Jimmy faced in the 1950s has progressed to the point that the would-be leaders of the United States are so conditioned to seek the approval of the popular opinion that elected officials won’t make a stand for what they believe in. In this climate of disingenuous politicians, I feel a strong kinship with Jimmy Porter, who rages against the dying of individual thought and passion. I can forgive Jimmy’s hypocrisy and cruelty, because I appreciate the fact that at least I know where he stands, regardless of whether I agree with him or not.
Like Shakespeare’s plays, Look Back in Anger is full of the good stuff that makes a story worthwhile: humor, sex, death, love and betrayal. What sets Osborne’s play apart, though, is the blistering way that Osborne portrayed real people, not princes and queens, living real lives, fighting for what they need to survive. Hearing Jimmy’s words night after night has reminded me to stay awake, to question whether I am standing up for what I believe, and most of all, urges me to “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” As Jimmy says, “…if you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice, clean soul you’d better give up the whole idea of life, and become a saint. Because you’ll never make it as a human being. It’s either this world or the next.”
The company co-founder brings the British bad boy back to life with venom and vinegar in a performance that shows the actor-turned-administrator is foremost a splendid performer.
Best Actor, Drama, Outfront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: Michael Stricker