May 8: On this day in 1956 John Osborne’s first play, Look Back in Anger, opened in London. The Royal Court Theatre press release called the twenty-six-year-old Osborne “an angry young man,” and when the play became a hit, the phrase stuck as a label for a young, post-war generation which felt disillusioned and disenfranchised. Critic Clive Barnes later cited the opening night of Look Back in Anger as the “actual birthday…of modern British theatre.”
Osborne’s Jimmy Porter has a university education, but he has dropped out so far that he runs a sweet shop, the better to observe and rage — against the class system still hanging on in Britain, against the empty promises of the welfare state, against the Cold War, against his wife and friends for putting up with all this. “I’ve an idea,” says Jimmy at one point. “Why don’t we have a little game? Let’s pretend that we’re human beings and that we’re actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say?” Such remarks, said Kenneth Tynan’s review, make Jimmy “the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet,” the play a petard to hoist the century:
…the drift towards anarchy, the instinctive leftishness, the automatic rejection of ‘official’ attitudes, the surrealist sense of humour (Jimmy describes a pansy friend as ‘a female Emily Bronte’), the casual promiscuity, the sense of lacking a crusade worth fighting for…. It is the best young play of its decade.
There would be other hits for Osborne — Luther, Inadmissible Evidence, an Oscar for his Tom Jones screenplay — but he, too, came to regard the premiere of his first play as a defining moment. In the first paragraph of his two-volume autobiography he describes May 8th as “the one unforgettable feast in my calendar” — not only the debut of his play but his father’s birthday and the day in 1945 when WWII ended in Europe.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.