Written in 17 days in a deck chair on Morecambe Pier, Look Back in Anger was a strongly autobiographical piece based on Osborne's unhappy marriage to actress Pamela Lane and their life in cramped accommodation in Derby. While Osborne aspired towards a career in theatre, Lane was more practical and materialistic, not taking Osborne's ambitions seriously while cuckolding him with a local dentist. It also draws from Osborne's earlier life; for example, the wrenching speech of witnessing a loved one's death was a replay of the death of his father, Thomas.
What it is best remembered for, though, are Jimmy's tirades. Some of these are directed against generalised British middle-class smugness in the post-atomic world. Many are directed against the female characters, a very distinct echo of Osborne's uneasiness with women, including his mother, Nellie Beatrice, whom he describes in his autobiography A Better Class of Person as "hypocritical, self-absorbed, calculating and indifferent". Madeline, the lost love Jimmy pines for, is based on Stella Linden, the older rep-company actress who first encouraged Osborne to write. After the first production in London, Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure, who played Alison; he divorced his first wife (of five) Pamela Lane to marry Ure in 1957.
The play was premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre, on 8 May 1956 by the English Stage Company under the direction of Tony Richardson, setting by Alan Tagg, and music for songs by Tom Eastwood. The press release called the author an "angry young man", a phrase that came to represent a new movement in 1950s British theatre. Legend has it that audiences gasped at the sight of an ironing board on a London stage.
The cast was as follows: Kenneth Haigh (Jimmy), Alan Bates (Cliff), Mary Ure (Alison), Helena Hughes (Helena Charles) and John Welsh (Colonel Redfern). The following year, the production moved to Broadway under producer David Merrick and director Tony Richardson. Retaining the original cast but starring Vivienne Drummond as Helena, it would receive three Tony Award nominations including for Best Play and "Best Dramatic Actress" for Ure.Time- The present, The action throughout takes place in the Porters' one-room flat in the Midlands.
Scene 1 – Early evening, April
Scene 1 – Two weeks later
Scene 2 – The following evening
Scene 1 – Several months later
Scene 2 – A few minutes later
Act 1 opens on a dismal Sunday afternoon in Jimmy and Alison's cramped attic in the Midlands. Jimmy and Cliff are attempting to read the Sunday papers, plus the radical weekly, "price ninepence, obtainable at any bookstall" as Jimmy snaps, claiming it from Cliff. This is a reference to the New Statesman, and in the context of the period would have instantly signalled the pair's political preference to the audience. Alison is attempting to do the week's ironing and is only half listening as Jimmy and Cliff engage in the expository dialogue.
It becomes apparent that there is a huge social gulf between Jimmy and Alison. Her family is upper-middle-class military, perhaps verging on upper class, while Jimmy is decidedly working class. He had to fight hard against her family's disapproval to win her. "Alison's mummy and I took one look at each other, and from then on the age of chivalry was dead", he explains. We also learn that the sole family income is derived from a sweet stall in the local market—an enterprise that is surely well beneath Jimmy's education, let alone Alison's "station in life".
As Act 1 progresses, Jimmy becomes more and more vituperative, transferring his contempt for Alison's family onto her personally, calling her "pusillanimous" and generally belittling her to Cliff. It is possible to play this scene as though Jimmy thinks everything is just a joke, but most actors opt for playing it as though he really is excoriating her. The tirade ends with some physical horseplay, resulting in the ironing board overturning and Alison's arm getting a burn. Jimmy exits to play his trumpet off stage.
Alison and Cliff play a tender scene, during which she confides that she's accidentally pregnant and can't quite bring herself to tell Jimmy. Cliff urges her to tell him. When Jimmy returns, Alison announces that her actress friend Helena Charles is coming to stay, and it is entirely obvious that Jimmy despises Helena even more than Alison. He flies into a total rage, and conflict is inevitable.
Act 2 opens on another Sunday afternoon, with Helena and Alison making lunch. In a two-handed scene, Alison gives a clue as to why she decided to take Jimmy on—her own minor rebellion against her upbringing plus her admiration of Jimmy's campaigns against the dereliction of life in postwar England. She describes Jimmy to Helena as a "knight in shining armour". Helena says, firmly, "You've got to fight him".
Jimmy enters, and the tirade continues. If his Act 1 material could be played as a joke, there's no doubt about the intentional viciousness of his attacks on Helena. When the women put on hats and declare that they are going to church, Jimmy's sense of betrayal peaks. When he leaves to take an urgent phone call, Helena announces that she has forced the issue. She has sent a telegram to Alison's parents asking them to come and "rescue" her. Alison is stunned but agrees that she will go.
After a scene break, we see Alison's father, Colonel Redfern, who has come to collect her to take her back to her family home. The playwright allows the Colonel to come across as quite a sympathetic character, albeit totally out of touch with the modern world (as he himself admits). "You're hurt because everything's changed", Alison tells him, "and Jimmy's hurt because everything's stayed the same".
Helena arrives to say goodbye, intending to leave very soon herself. Alison is surprised that Helena is staying on for another day, but she leaves, giving Cliff a note for Jimmy. Cliff in turn hands it to Helena and leaves, saying "I hope he rams it up your nostrils". Almost immediately, Jimmy bursts in. His contempt at finding a "goodbye" note makes him turn on Helena again, warning her to keep out of his way until she leaves. Helena tells him that Alison is expecting a baby, and Jimmy admits grudgingly that he's taken aback. However, his tirade continues. They first come to physical blows, and then as the Act 2 curtain falls, Jimmy and Helena are kissing passionately and falling on the bed.
Act 3 opens as a deliberate replay of Act 1, but this time with Helena at the ironing-board wearing Jimmy's Act 1 red shirt. Months have passed. Jimmy is notably more pleasant to Helena than he was to Alison in Act 1. She actually laughs at his jokes, and the three of them (Jimmy, Cliff, and Helena) get into a music hall comedy routine that obviously is not improvised. Cliff announces that he's decided to strike out on his own. As Jimmy leaves the room to get ready for a final night out for the three of them, he opens the door to find Alison, looking like death. Instead of caring for her he snaps over his shoulder "Friend of yours to see you" and abruptly leaves.
After a scene break, Alison explains to Helena that she lost the baby—one of Jimmy's cruellest speeches in Act 1 expressed the wish that Alison would conceive a child and lose it—the two women reconcile but Helena realises that what she's done is immoral and she in turn decides to leave. She summons Jimmy to hear her decision and he lets her go with a sarcastic farewell.
The play ends with a sentimental reconciliation between Jimmy and Alison. They revive an old game they used to play, pretending to be bears and squirrels, and seem to be in a state of truce.
At the time of production reviews of Look Back in Anger were deeply negative. Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson were among the few critics to praise it, and are now regarded among the most influential critics of the time.
For example, on BBC Radio's The Critics, Ivor Brown began his review by describing the play's setting—a one-room flat in the Midlands—as "unspeakably dirty and squalid" such that it was difficult for him to "believe that a colonel's daughter, brought up with some standards", would have lived in it. He expressed anger at having watched something that "wasted [his] time". The Daily Mail's Cecil Wilson wrote that the beauty of Mary Ure was "frittered away" on a pathetic wife, who, "judging by the time she spends ironing, seems to have taken on the nation's laundry". Indeed, Alison, Ure's character, irons during Act One, makes lunch in Act Two, and leaves the ironing to her rival in Act Three.
On the other hand, Kenneth Tynan wrote that he "could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger", describing the play as a "minor miracle" containing "all the qualities...one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage—the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of "official" attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour (e.g., Jimmy describes an effeminate male friend as a 'female Emily Brontë'), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for and, underlying all these, the determination that no one who dies shall go unmourned." Harold Hobson was also quick to recognize the importance of the play "as a landmark of British theatre". He praised Osborne for the play, despite the fact that the "blinkers still obscure his vision".
Alan Sillitoe, author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (both of which are also part of the "angry young men" movement), wrote that Osborne "didn't contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up".
In 1995 Greg Hersov directed a production at the Royal Exchange, Manchester with Michael Sheen as Jimmy Porter, Claire Skinner as Alison Porter, Dominic Rowan as Cliff Lewis and Hermione Norris as Helena Charles.
In 1989 Osborne wrote a sequel to the play entitled Déjàvu, which was first produced in 1992. Déjàvu depicted Jimmy Porter, now known as J.P., in middle age, living with his daughter Alison. He rants about the state of the country to his old friend Cliff, while his Alison irons, just as her mother had done in Look Back. The play was not a commercial success, closing after seven weeks. It was Osborne's last play.A British film adaptation starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Mary Ure and directed by Tony Richardson was made in 1958, and released in 1959. The screenplay was written by the play's author, John Osborne, with Nigel Kneale. Interior set design was by Loudon Sainthill. The film was nominated in four categories in the 1959 BAFTA Awards, including a Best Actor nomination for Richard Burton, but it did not win any of them. In the United States, the film failed at the box office.
A version released in 1980 was directed by Lindsay Anderson and David Hugh Jones.
The 1989 version was a British videotaped TV drama.
An episode of the BBC radio comedy series Hancock's Half Hour paid tribute to Osborne's play in "The East Cheam Drama Festival" (1958). The episode features the regular cast spoofing a number of theatrical genres, with Look Back in Anger recast as "Look Back in Hunger—a new play by the Hungry Young Man, Mr. John Eastbourne". Scriptwriters Alan Simpson and Ray Galton mimic several elements of Osborne's play, from Jimmy's railing against the iniquities of modern life to the values of middle-class bourgeois life. The episode "Sunday Afternoon at Home" (1958) begins with a striking similarity to the opening of Osborne's play, with Hancock and Sid James sitting reading the papers and complaining there's nothing to do.
"Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora", a 1994 documentary about Ed Wood, a B-movie director, released by Rhino Home Video. The cross-dressing Wood often wore an angora sweater and angora fabric is featured in many of his films.
In Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, an American dramedy television series by Aaron Sorkin, the character Andy Mackinaw translates Look Back in Anger into Dutch.
"Look Back in Annoyance" is the title a retrospective episode of Daria, an animated television series.
"Look Back in Anger" is a song by British singer David Bowie from his 1979 album Lodger.
"Look Back in Anger" is a song by British rock group Television Personalities from their first album ...And Don't the Kids Just Love It (1981).
"Don't Look Back in Anger" is a song by the British rock band Oasis on (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (1995).
In the Emmy the Great song "Dylan", the play is referenced in the lyric "you look back in anger".