For the first time this deplorable season, a major Boston theatre is housing a good serious play. On the basis of Look Back in Anger, John Osborne is the best prose playwright in England, and has few rivals on this side of the Atlantic. He writes from his guts as well as from his brains, in an age when few playwrights have either.
His hero, Jimmy Porter (one of the few characters in modern drama whose names have a chance of becoming household words), spends much of his time delivering long monologues, with a ferocious, virile, hilarious brilliance unparallelled since God knows when. His themes can be grouped under two rubrics: Sex and Society in Modern England, and The Sorrows of Jimmy Porter; sociology, and self-pity. Within these constantly-overlapping categories he ranges widely and cogently. His comment on his well-bred in-laws is a pretty good capsule comment on the spirit that conquered India and beat the fuzzy-wuzzies: "They'll kick you in the groin while you hand your hat to the maid."
Aside from his intellectual and rhetorical powers, Jimmy's chief talents are for making his wife happy at night and miserable during the day. These facts, with the additional fact that Jimmy is not averse to making similar contributions to the nocturnal happiness of other women, comprise Mr. Osborne's simple, sufficient plot. The air in the Porters' dingy attic is thick with a one-way stream of recriminations; Jimmy has no need to beat his wife when he can browbeat her so effectively. At one point she leaves him; eventually she comes back, and the curtain falls on the same situation that prevailed before it rose.
Considered either as a play or as Jimmy Porter's interrupted monologue, Look Back in Anger has more substance than can be exhausted or even touched on in this small corner of the editorial page: it combines sociological analysis, a dissection of the zeitgeist, and a moving affirmation of the romantic view that to live fully, even sorrowfully, is better than to live sealed off from experience.
This last is the point of the return of Jimmy's wife, which is motivated less metaphysically by their powerful sexual love. It is hard to imagine any other motivation being sufficiently strong, for Jimmy is a bad lot: a slander-mouthed railer, a malicious, nasty, monstrously selfish barbarian, and a bit of a paranoiac as well. His creator views him with a bracingly cool eye, never veiling him in a romantic haze, never losing his objectivity, explaining but not excusing. Since the author never loses sight of the fact that his hero is a "bloody bastard," the audience can hate Jimmy Porter without being annoyed at the author or the play.
Tony Richardson's direction is skillfully contrived to keep Jimmy's negative qualities from becoming annoying. The performance is nothing if not athletic: Jimmy and his friend Cliff bounce and jump and wrestle with a disarmingly youthful abandon. Because the long speeches are unobtrusively broken up with movement, and because they are delivered brilliantly by Kenneth Haigh as Jimmy, there is never any suggestion that they are formal setpieces, or that Jimmy is a windbag. Mr. Haigh, who created the role in London and New York, is an emotional actor of considerable power, with an almost impish charm that takes just enough of the curse off Jimmy's bitcheries.
The supporting actors are all adequate, which means okay-but-not-very-good, but Mr. Osborne has given them little to work with. Next to Jimmy Porter they all appear not-quite-realized. Fortunately, when Jimmy is not talking he is usually being talked about. Look Back in Anger is his play and it is a good one.