Look Back in Anger follows a young husband and wife, Alison and Jimmy Porter, as they attempt to navigate class conflict and deal with a deteriorating marriage in 1950s England. Alison comes from a traditional upper class background. Jimmy comes from a working class background, though he is highly educated. The couple lives with Cliff Lewis, an affable working class man and Jimmy’s longtime friend. The scene opens on a Sunday morning in the apartment. Alison irons clothes while Cliff and Jimmy read the newspaper.
The play’s first act largely consists of Jimmy’s angry tirades against upper class complacency and his wife’s lack of “enthusiasm.” Jimmy thinks that suffering is the only way to experience true human emotion, and that Alison and other upper class people are therefore less “alive” than he is. He also seems to have some nostalgia for a past age in Britain when the country had more power. Jimmy’s attempts to shock his wife into some display of emotion escalate as the act progresses—he insults her family and complains that all women are out to destroy men. Cliff, attempting to cheer Jimmy up, begins to banter and roughhouse with his friend. The two fall against Alison’s ironing board, and she burns her arm. Jimmy apologizes, but she yells at him to leave, and he exits.
Cliff helps Alison treat the burn, and she reveals to him that she is pregnant with Jimmy’s child. She hasn’t told Jimmy yet, because she is afraid that he’ll feel trapped and angry. Cliff comforts Alison, and tells her that Jimmy loves her. He kisses her. Jimmy enters while they are kissing, but doesn’t acknowledge or object (the three live in a non-traditional set-up that would have been shocking to audiences at the time). Soon after, Cliff leaves to get some cigarettes, and Alison and Jimmy share a tender moment. They play their “bear and squirrel” game, which allows them to escape into affection while pretending to be animals. Then Cliff returns and says that Helena Charles, one of Alison’s upper class friends, is on the phone. Jimmy’s mood immediately darkens. When Alison says that Helena wants to stay with them, Jimmy explodes. He says he wishes that Alison would have a baby that would die so that she could experience true suffering.
The second act begins with Helena and Alison sharing the womanly duties of the home while Jimmy plays his trumpet off stage. Alison tells Helena about her first months with Jimmy. They lived with his working class friend Hugh Tanner, and spent time going on “raids” to parties of Alison’s upper class friends. She says that she felt like “a hostage from those sections of society they had declared war on.” Helena asks why they got married, and Alison says that it seemed to be largely because Alison’s mother and her father Colonel Redfern disapproved. That made Jimmy want to marry her no matter what.
Jimmy and Cliff come in to eat. When he hears that Helena and Alison are going to church together later that day, Jimmy also becomes convinced that Helena is out to take Alison away from him. He lets fly a series of outrageous insults against Alison’s mother. Helena tries, and fails, to reason with him, and Jimmy asks whether she has ever watched someone die. He tells the story of watching his father die from wounds received fighting in the Spanish Civil war when he was ten years old, and claims that this taught him more about life than Helena and Alison know even now. Near the end of the scene, Jimmy leaves to go get the telephone. While he’s gone, Helena tells Alison that she has sent a message to Colonel Redfern asking him to come pick Alison up. Alison doesn’t protest. When Jimmy returns, he says that Hugh’s mum, the working class woman who set him up in his candy stall and for whom he harbors deep affection, is dying of a stroke. He asks Alison to come to the hospital with him. Instead, she goes to church. Jimmy is left alone on stage.
In the next scene, Colonel Redfern helps Alison pack to leave. He reveals that he thinks he and Alison’s mother reacted too strongly to her marriage with Jimmy, and that Jimmy might have been right to be angry with them. He says he thinks that Jimmy could be right that he, Redfern, is a relic of an old version of England that has ceased to exist. He also says that he and Alison have a tendency to stay neutral and not take a strong stand on things. She is surprised to hear this from him, and as she finishes packing she briefly re-considers her move. Then Helena enters, and Alison decides to go. She says goodbye to Cliff. Helena stays behind because she has a work meeting the following day. Alison and Colonel Redfern exit, and Cliff, angry that Helena has disrupted their life, leaves before Jimmy comes back. Jimmy returns a few moments later, furious, having seen Alison leaving with her father on his way home. Helena gives him a letter that Alison wrote explaining her decision. Jimmy is angry at her polite, restrained language. Helena tells him that Alison is going to have a baby. He says that he is not overcome with emotion at this news, and insults Helena, who slaps him. This causes Jimmy to collapse in despair. Then Helena “kisses him passionately,” and the act ends.
The scene opens several months later, looking very similar to the beginning of Act 1, except that it is now Helena who is ironing. Jimmy and Cliff joke and discuss newspaper articles. They roughhouse, and Cliff dirties his shirt. Helena leaves to clean it, and while she is off stage, Cliff tells Jimmy that he is moving out. Jimmy wonders why he always chooses women over male friendship, even though he value’s Cliff’s company more highly than he values Helena’s. Helena comes back with the shirt, and Cliff leaves to dry it in his room. Helena tells Jimmy that she loves him, and he asks her desperately to never leave him. Then Alison appears at the door, looking sick and disheveled.
The next scene opens a few minutes later, with Jimmy playing his trumpet off stage. Alison tells Helena that she is not angry with her, and is not trying to break up the new couple. Helena, however, says that Alison’s presence has reminded her that what she is doing is wrong. Alison has also had a miscarriage, and Helena considers this a “judgment” on her relationship. She calls Jimmy back, and tells him that she is leaving. Jimmy says that he always knew Helena wasn’t strong enough for true love, which requires “muscle and guts.” Helena leaves.
Alison apologizes, and Jimmy says that she should have sent flowers to Hugh’s mum, and remembers his first meeting with her, when he thought that she had a “wonderful relaxation of spirit.” This turned out to be just complacency, he says. Alison lets out a cry, and tells him that the loss of their child has made her understand the depth of emotion that he wanted her to have all this time. She tells him that she wants to be “corrupt and futile,” and collapses at his feet. Jimmy can’t bear to see her this way, and kneels to help her. Then, “with a kind of mocking, tender irony,” he launches into their bear and squirrel imaginary game. “Poor squirrels,” he says to Alison, and she responds, “poor, poor, bears.”