My last post summarised the plot of this play. Look Back in Anger made a big impression when it was first performed in the 1950’s. It caught the zeitgeist in that special way that some works of art do, and because they are so very much part of the cultural, social and political environment in which they were created, it is often the case that outside that context they lose much if not all of their impact. That’s not in any way a criticism of such works, or a claim that timelessness equals greatness. But the unarguable fact is that Look Back in Anger is not performed very much if at all nowadays, and for a good reason. 

The 1950s were an interesting time. The war still hung over the country and the austerity is caused was only just wearing off. People like Jimmy Porter were going to university for the first time, where they were taught by men who had come through the war. At the same time the Cold War was accelerating, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation of the planet was becoming clearer. Britain’s role on the world stage was diminishing, and Alison’s father’s reminiscences of the days of the Raj are a reminder of this. Jimmy’s anger was, for 1950’s audiences, a slap in the face, a visceral shock, and the fact that his anger is so unfocussed – it is never really clear precisely what it is he is angry about – make sit all the more difficult to respond to. Which is why Cliff and Alison, for the most part, simply absorb it. It is interesting to me that the play’s title is Look Back in Anger – that is to say Jimmy’s anger is about the past, not so much the present. And neither Cliff nor Alison can do much about the past, hence their helplessness in the face of Jimmy’s ranting. 

So the question is whether this play is simply a period piece, important at the time but no longer of any particular interest, or whether it can be re-staged and made relevant for the twenty-first century? Is there anything left to be angry about now the Cold War has been won and we are all middle class? I would be astonished if an accomplished company couldn’t resurrect this play. There are some staging issues – everyone seems to smoke throughout the play for example, although that could be updated to e-cigarettes I suppose with a bit of a nod to the passage of time – and some of the contemporary references could be updated without any damage to the integrity of the play. But the relevance of Jimmy’s frustration with the state of the country and his place (or lack thereof) in it seems screamingly relevant to me. 

Having said that I suspect the sudden switch of affection from Alison to Helena, their interchangability in Jimmy’s bed, would be hard to pull off convincingly. Jimmy would need to be irresistible, which I suppose could be done. I’d like to see a company try it.