John Osborne’s Look Back Has Had Happier Birthdays

Could you name, I wonder, the one play in the history of theater that has a birthday?

When was Hamlet born? The premiere of The Three Sisters ? The date that Tony Kushner’s Angels in America , the epic drama of our time, opened? No, only John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger , the watershed drama of its time, actually has a birthday. It stands unusually alone, less an accident of history, more a time bomb. It premiered at the then newly founded Royal Court Theater, London, on May 8, 1956-dynamiting the tasteful, reticent course of English drama and ushering in the new.

Alas, you would get no sense of the importance of Look Back in Anger -or even of its living, vital quality as drama-from the careless, deadly revival by the Classic Stage Company. I regret to say that it is as if the director Jo Bonney and her histrionic leading man, Reg Rogers, as Jimmy Porter, haven’t a clue what they’re doing, or why. It’s more than unfortunate that of all the gin joints in all the world, they happened to bump into me, who’s currently struggling along with the official biography of John Osborne.

The wayward production is a lost opportunity to interest New Yorkers in a seminal English drama rarely seen here. It leaves me looking back with the thought that if this had been the premiere of Look Back , we almost certainly would never have heard of the play, or its author, again.

Yet this ferocious drama of class war and marital battlegrounds that’s so identified with England couldn’t be more un-English in its blistering rhetoric and passion. Osborne wrote from the gut-reacting against the refined middle-class drawing room dramas of Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan. He admired them both, but he was speaking as the rebellious spokesman of the restless new generation.

His articulate rage on behalf of the dispossessed lower class of England left Rattigan out of fashion and fleeing to Hollywood. The bewildered Rattigan spent hours explaining to George Devine, the founding artistic director of the Royal Court, why Look Back couldn’t be a success. “Well, it is,” Devine kept answering. “And it’s going to make the Royal Court possible.” “Then I know nothing about plays,” said Rattigan. “You know everything about plays,” Devine told him. “But you don’t know a fucking thing about Look Back in Anger .”

In fact, the form of Look Back was nothing new. (Beckett’s 1955 Waiting for Godot broke the form.) Osborne described his own play as “a formal, rather old-fashioned play.” Its conventional three-act structure was no different to the Rattigan and Coward dramas he’d appeared in when he was a small-time repertory actor. The self-educated Osborne actually learned about theater-and how to write, or how not to write-from acting in good plays and bad.

What was stunningly new about Look Back was the heat and vitality of its language. It still stirs the blood. “It’s no good trying to fool yourself about love,” goes one of Jimmy Porter’s famous speeches. “You can’t fall into it like a soft job, without dirtying your hands. It takes muscle and guts. And 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 sheer immensity of feeling amid the torpor of class-ridden 1950′s England was literally a shock to the system-to the privileged ruling elites, the conformist chinless wonders, the measured English way. “Oh heavens, how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm,” Jimmy Porter cries. “Just enthusiasm-that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out hallelujah! Hallelujah! I’m alive!”

The American sociologist, George Goetschius, was an unofficial adviser to the Royal Court and a friend of Tony Richardson’s, the original director of Look Back . Seven hundred fifty new plays were submitted to the Court in 1955; only Look Back was produced. But when Mr. Goetschius was shown the script, he said admiringly: “I tell you this. No Englishman wrote this dialogue. The guy’s an American.”

Arthur Miller was another admirer of Look Back , finding it in 1950′s London “the only modern English play that I have seen.” He meant its atmosphere of social realism as much as its burning rhetoric. English theater, and Osborne in particular, have a lot to thank Mr. Miller for. He introduced Laurence Olivier to the play, and Olivier’s support was like being kissed by God. It happened in this near-farcical way:

Mr. Miller-nicknamed “Mr. Monroe” by the English press-was in London in 1956 when Marilyn, his then-wife, was making a terrible film co-starring and directed by Olivier, The Prince and the Showgirl . Olivier asked Mr. Miller what play he’d like to see, and was told that he’d heard Look Back was interesting. Olivier took him to see it-hiding the fact that he’d already seen it and hated every minute of it. When Mr. Miller gave Look Back his enthusiastic endorsement, however, Olivier saw the light and jumped on the Royal Court bandwagon.

He immediately contacted his friend, George Devine, to ask if this young man Osborne would write something for him. Osborne was then in the midst of writing The Entertainer , his drama about a failed music hall comic, Archie Rice, as postcolonial metaphor for crumbling old England. (“Don’t clap too hard, it’s a very old building!”) The first two acts were sent to Olivier, who responded that he’d be delighted to play the role of Billy. He’d got it wrong! (Wrong again!) He’d chosen the part of the sympathetic Edwardian father. Gently advised that the lead role was Archie, Olivier, the greatest classical actor of the century, went on to play him, of course, and make the play a legend.

It was also a bold move for Olivier to take, in effect blessing the scourge of the establishment. Osborne, a nonconformist all his life, was mistaken for a social revolutionary, just as Look Back was wrongly seen as left-wing political propaganda. He wanted theater to change; in fact, he romanticized England’s mythic past. Somerset Maugham had already called Osborne’s generation “scum.” The literary critic Harold Nicholson snootily prophesied, “The dandies of the new generation will have dirty fingernails.” Osborne went on to dress like a dandy, too, and Kenneth Tynan, the leading drama critic of his day, in the London Observer called Osborne “the dandy with a machine gun.”

It was Tynan who famously wrote about Look Back : “I doubt I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger .” Even so, Osborne distrusted the brilliant Tynan’s faddish cleverness (and the champagne socialist’s love of Bertolt Brecht). “Come and help us make history,” Tynan grandly said to him as literary manager of the newly founded National Theater. “I’ve already made it,” Osborne replied, which was the start of a beautiful feud.

But few would disagree-except for nutty revisionists-that Osborne did make history. For one undeniable thing, Look Back saved the Royal Court Theater in its first, shaky season. For another, it linked a public view of England to private wounds-a specialty of Osborne’s, and the mantle inherited by many English dramatists, including David Hare.

To be sure, the play has its flaws. It always had. It has been critiqued as a bullying misogynist tirade by feminists and as a closet homosexual drama by gay activists. Yet every new generation has always responded to it, in spite of the silent sixth character in the play waging another war of attrition-the ironing board, said to be as obsolete nowadays as a horse and buggy.

It’s disappointing, then, about the Classic Stage Company’s production. But you aren’t taking much care if you dress 1950′s England in American clothes. You aren’t conveying the open wounds of class warfare if your Jimmy Porter is played with a weird upper-class accent out of-of all things-Noël Coward. You can’t hate in Look Back in Anger without the right kind of love.