Look Back in Anger


John Osborne

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Look Back in Anger Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Osborne

John Osborne was born in southwest London to lower middle class parents, a barmaid and an advertising copywriter. His father died in 1941, when Osborne was twelve. Osborne briefly attended a public (non state-run) high school, but was expelled after two years when he struck a school administrator who had tried to discipline him. He wrote his first play at the age of twenty-one, in 1950. Around that time, Osborne also married his first wife, the actress Pamela Lane. Look Back in Anger is loosely based on their tumultuous relationship. Osborne wrote it in 17 days while on vacation, and it was first produced in 1956. The production catapulted the 26-year-old Osborne to fame, and ushered in a new era of British theater showcasing working class protagonists in the contemporary, post-World War 2, era. Osborne went on to write many more plays and a two-volume autobiography (in which he reveals a vehement dislike for his mother). Osborne married five times, ending his life happily married to the art critic Helen Dawson. He died in 1994 due to complications from diabetes. His last word, to Dawson, is said to have been “sorry.” Look Back in Anger remains by far his most famous work.
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Historical Context of Look Back in Anger

World War 2 ended in 1945, and Britain faced the task of rebuilding their infrastructure, which had been decimated by German bombs, and propping up a struggling economy. Partly as a result of these difficulties, Britain withdrew from their colonies in India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar in 1947. The 1956 Suez Crisis, in which Britain invaded Egypt and eventually withdrew due to political and economic pressure, led to a humiliating recognition that the country was no longer a world power. Further changing the social context in the country, the 1944 Mass Education Act in Britain had made secondary education free, opening of the possibility of higher education to the working classes. This created more class mobility in the post-war era than had existed before it, and economic recovery in the 1950s furthered this trend. At the same time, British class structure remained somewhat static, resulting in a generation of educated children of the working class who found it difficult to put the education they had received to good use.

Other Books Related to Look Back in Anger

Other playwrights of the Angry Young Men movement include Bernard Kops, Arnold Wesker, and John Arden. Kops’s 1956 The Hamlet of Stepney Green and Wesker’s 1958 Chicken Soup with Barley are thematically similar to Look Back in Anger, chronicling working class disillusionment and frustration. Novels ascribed to the movement include John Braine’s 1957 Room at the top and Allan Sillietoe’s 1958 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Both follow working class British protagonists as they struggle to achieve their goals and create meaningful lives. British New Wave film of the 1960s, which dealt with similar themes, is also considered an offshoot of the movement.
Key Facts about Look Back in Anger
  • Full Title: Look Back in Anger
  • When Written: 1955
  • Where Written: Osborne wrote much of the play in the beach town of Morcambe in Lancashire, England. He was living in London at the time.
  • When Published: The play premiered on May 8, 1956 at the Royal Court Theater in London. It was first published in 1957 by Faber and Faber.
  • Literary Period: Theatrical realism. The play kicked off British theater’s “Angry Young Men” movement.
  • Genre: Dramatic stage play
  • Setting: A working class apartment in the Midlands, a region in the center of Britain sometime during the early 1950s.
  • Climax: Alison loses her baby to a miscarriage and returns to her husband, Jimmy.
  • Antagonist: Both Jimmy and Alison can be considered antagonists, as they fight with and antagonize each other. A broader thematic antagonist is post-war malaise in Britain.

Extra Credit for Look Back in Anger

Quotable old press officer. The origin of the phrase “angry young men” to describe playwrights comes from a 1957 Daily Telegraph article by Royal Court Theater press officer George Fearon. Fearon had predicted that his own generation was likely to hate Look Back in Anger, while Osborne’s generation would love it. “If that happens,” Fearon said to Osborne, “you will become known as the ‘Angry Young Man.’ In fact, we decided then and there that henceforth he was to be known as that.”

The Ironing Board. Osborne’s play was revolutionary in that it brought a new type of realism to the stage. In fact, audiences were so shocked to see an ironing board when the curtain went up on opening night that an audible gasp could be heard in the Royal Court Theater.