Bailiwick Repertory

For England 1956 was not a happy year. Wartime privation lingered on–rationing of certain foods, for example, continued up until 1952–and factory employment dwindled just as hordes of young men, many of them traumatized, returned home in search of the domestic dream that had sustained them. Amid this national fatigue and confusion John Osborne created an indelible picture of a society in transition with Look Back in Anger.

The plot is simple and sordid enough. Working-class but university-educated Jimmy is married to middle-class Alison, and the two of them are sharing a shabby flat with Jimmy’s best buddy, Cliff, who provides companionship for Jimmy and affection for Alison. She returns his playful flirtations, since Jimmy’s communication these days consists of an unending stream of abuse and complaints directed at her, her family, their economic situation, and the world in general. Alison’s glamorous chum Helena comes to visit and convinces the distraught wife to go home to her parents, after which Helena all but rapes the bewildered Jimmy. After a few months, however, she decides she must leave, and Cliff also proposes to move on. At this point Alison, her genteel facade shattered by a recent miscarriage, returns to Jimmy, who has learned compassion. They vow to try again to make their marriage work.

There are several reasons this scenario and this Bailiwick Repertory production may strike modern American audiences as quaint, puzzling, or downright repugnant:

1) The separations between social classes are not so rigid for us Yanks as they are for Brits. For Jimmy and Alison, the mere fact of those exotic class differences is reason enough for attraction and for tying the knot.

2) The dissatisfied husband in the dead-end job who takes out his anger on his family is a familiar figure in our culture but one who is no longer easily tolerated. The man who exaggerates his loyalty to his “roots” in order to excuse and repeat his parents’ destructive marital patterns is a more recent phenomenon but is likewise unacceptable. So these days Alison’s meek capitulation seems inexplicable.

3) Jimmy says and does nothing to discourage the relationship between Alison and Cliff, which stops just short of adultery–indeed, Jimmy seems more put out by Cliff’s imminent departure than by either woman’s. This would not be odd to English theatergoers, accustomed to close friendships between heterosexual males, but it raises distracting suspicions of homosexuality for American audiences.

4) Though Mark Arthur Miller is a skilled and professional actor, he plays Jimmy not as a frustrated, sensitive youth but as an ordinary, loudmouthed Stanley Kowalski-style bully. And because he’s larger than anyone else on the stage, the sympathy we must feel for him despite his atrocious behavior is stymied. Miller is also substantially older than either of the women, making the irresistible attraction they profess for him somewhat implausible.

On the other hand, there are reasons to see Bailiwick’s production:

1) Osborne’s play represents a major turning point in modern British theater. Its realistic setting, criticism of social conditions, and new type of antihero (later dubbed the “angry young man”) spawned a naturalistic genre that continues today.

2) Director Philip Edward Van Lear has assembled a brilliant lineup (the miscast Miller notwithstanding) whose acting is a joy to behold. Keli Garrett, though little more than a saintly doormat as Alison, finds subtle emotions behind her enigmatic passivity; Molly Glynn is honey and steel as the sensual Helena; and Timothy Jenkins as gentle Cliff anchors the others’ volatile passions with his quiet dignity.

3) Brian Traynor’s set captures a shabby Midlands flat in all its claustrophobic detail–the minute we see the ironing board set up behind the armchairs, at the foot of which lies an untidy pile of discarded newspapers, we know where we are and are glad we don’t live there. The accurate dialects (Carlton Miller coached) likewise locate us so firmly that any confusion caused by the color-blind casting is quickly dispelled.

4) Americans usually call a 38-year-old play by, say, Ionesco or Durrenmatt a classic while they often dismiss an English-language play of the same age as a war-horse. Bailiwick demonstrates considerable courage in producing a work at once familiar and foreign that’s nevertheless the prototype for much theater today.