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A Look Back in Anger: How Anger Changes Things

Updated on August 25, 2014


Look Back in Anger is a play written by John Osborne in 1956 and has been portrayed several times. I encourage readers to seek this play out and read. When I read this play, it helped to see how others are effected by anger in someone they love or whom they are around a lot. Anger takes a toll on everyone, including the person feeling the anger as well.

The play I decided to focus on was starring Richard Burton as Jimmy, Mary Ure as Alison, Claire Bloom as Helena, and Gary Raymond as Cliff. Richard Burton portrays anger in the best way on screen/on stage: It is felt by ALL. Mary Ure can certainly show the fear and hurt that her character constantly feels and does a beautiful job with showing the faint exhaustion Alison is constantly under.

Look Back in Anger: Video Preview

Look Back in Anger:

How Anger Changes Things

In John Osbourne’s play Look Back in Anger, it is obvious from the beginning that the main male character, Jimmy, has anger issues that he takes out on his wife Alison. Throughout the play, Jimmy’s anger changes the way the people around him act, speak, and go about their daily lives. Aside from Jimmy and Alison, Cliff, their friend and roommate, plays a large part in the play and in trying to keep Jimmy calm. Helena, Alison’s friend, also plays a small part in the play as well.

It is clear that Jimmy has been angry for much of his life, as Alison tells Helena of how it was when she and Jimmy first married and they were living with Jimmy’s friend Hugh. It is also clear that Hugh had anger issues as well, and this is probably the reason Jimmy and Hugh got along well in the first place. It is unclear as to where Jimmy’s anger has come from, although one may speculate the loss of his father could be the reason for his huge anger problem.

Jimmy’s anger affects one person the most throughout the entire play: Alison. The play opens up with Jimmy and his friend Cliff reading newspapers and Alison ironing in the setting of their shared apartment. As the three of them sit and hold a conversation, the audience first sees Jimmy's anger when he says things like “Well she can talk, can’t she? You can talk, can’t you? You can express an opinion. Or does the White Woman’s Burden make it impossible to think?” (Osborne 11). His tone of voice and the words he chose to use in this scenario come off very mean and the audience can see how his words affect his wife, Alison right away. This only expresses a mild instance of Jimmy’s anger, which is followed by other minor outbursts such as “Can’t think! She hasn’t had a thought in years!” (Osborne 12): a very condescending thing to say to anyone, let alone your wife as Jimmy does.

These outbursts of anger on Jimmy’s part soon cause Cliff and Jimmy to get into a small scuffle in which Jimmy knocks Cliff into Alison and the Ironing board, burning Alison’s arm. It is at this point that Alison says “I don’t think I can take much more. I think I feel rather sick” (Osborne 27), because she simply cannot take Jimmy’s angry outbursts any longer than she already has, being married to him for three years. Anger takes a toll on a person and those around them, also what Alison is speaking out about in talking of her sickness.

We learn that Alison is also pregnant at this time, so she has to deal with that along with Jimmy’s anger on a daily basis. The anger Jimmy has everyday could also be making Alison sick because she knows she is going to have his child. She may even be feeling as if he cannot be a father (a good father at least) because of his anger. A child does not need to grow in a home filled with anger and fighting, a child needs love an nurturing.

Jimmy takes out his anger on Alison the most, which is something she is so used to and she is quiet, letting his anger run its course. In times when she has had enough of the verbal abuse, she decides to yell back at Jimmy, which only fuels his anger some more. This seems like a no-win situation for Alison in which Jimmy is getting somewhat of a relief from his anger in screaming at Alison and Alison only struggles. Several times in the play, we see that he is only trying to rouse someone into the anger that he is feeling at all times. Jimmy is like a bomb, exploding at any minute with no warning, and that takes a toll on Alison as his wife who has to be around him more often than all others.

Even though Alison is pregnant, she is afraid to tell Jimmy because she is unsure of how he would react. She does not know if he will accuse her of mothering a child from a man who was not him or if he would even care in the slightest that she carrying his child. This seems like something that could happen because Jimmy does not trust Alison as he states, “When she goes out, I go through everything- trunks, cases, drawers, bookcase, everything. Why? To see if there is something of me somewhere, a reference to me. I want to know if I’m being betrayed” (Osborne 36). This mistrust in the relationship causes stress on Alison because she knows he does not trust her. She already has to deal with his anger and dealing with his mistrust of her on top of being pregnant is not healthy for Alison at all.

In Act II, we see Alison finally leave Jimmy as she cannot take him anymore. Alison writes Jimmy a note telling him why she left him in act II, scene II, also telling the reader why she felt she had to get away from living with Jimmy. Alison writes, “I need peace so desperately, and, at the moment, I am willing to sacrifice everything just for that” (Osborne 72), which does not go into complete detail, but goes into enough detail for the reader to understand, even if Jimmy does not. In this point, Alison is tired from dealing with Jimmy’s anger and her pregnancy, so she must leave to get peace and rest for her own health and the baby's health as well.

When Helena comes to stay with Alison, Jimmy, and Cliff, she gives the reader the first outside perspective of Jimmy and his anger when she says “It’s almost as if he wanted to kill someone…I’ve never seen such hatred in someone’s eyes before” (Osborne 41). This quote alone puts focus on the hatred that Jimmy lets out on a daily basis, painting a slightly horrifying picture of Jimmy for the reader to see. It is like Jimmy does not know how to contain his anger at all and he just gets out of control before he realizes what he is doing a lot of the time. In some cases, it is obvious that he feels bad afterword, as when he knocked Alison to the ground and caused her to burn her arm on the hot iron, because he helped her when he saw she was hurt. Another perspective could be that he is afraid people will know how he treats his wife because of the physical evidence and so he is quick to backtrack and apologize.

There are no other words in the play that seem to display the level of hate and danger that Jimmy is capable of than Helena’s words to Alison as they are discussing Alison and Jimmy’s relationship and she says “Listen to me: You've got to fight him. Fight, or get out. Otherwise, he will kill you” (Osborne 47). To me, these words display the genuine worry that Helena has for the safety of Alison because she is afraid Jimmy will get angry and be more out of control than he normally is, causing Alison to be in great danger. These words also seem to support that idea that Jimmy and Alison’s relationship is very unhealthy as a result of Jimmy’s uncontrolled anger towards Alison: A recipe for disaster.

The second person that Jimmy’s anger effects throughout the play is his friend and business partner Cliff. Cliff is less effected by Jimmy’s anger than Alison is because he can openly defend himself against Jimmy’s anger at any time, physically or verbally. There are several times in the play when Cliff says to Jimmy, “Don’t let’s brawl, boyo” (Osborne 52), or “You've gone too far, Jimmy! Now dry up!” (Osborne 55). Cliff will say this type of thing to Jimmy when he has pushed the women, (Alison and Helena), too far with taking his anger out on them, trying to defuse the situations Jimmy was putting them all in. There are several times in the play when Jimmy and Cliff get into physical arguments as a cause of Jimmy’s anger, but these arguments never seem to have a huge impact of their friendship, because they are always okay with each other moments after.

There is mention that Cliff has no intention of moving out, leaving Jimmy and Alison to fend for themselves as a couple. I think it is quite possible that Cliff does not want to leave because he cares deeply for Alison as a friend and wants to make sure Jimmy does not go too far and hurt her more than he already has. He might be afraid that if he were to leave the two of them alone, then someone may get hurt- like when Alison was burned with the iron, which Jimmy admitted to doing on purpose when he was apologizing to Alison.

There is one instance in the play when Cliff leaves the apartment because he does not want to deal with Jimmy’s anger at all. When Helena calls for Alison’s father to pick Alison up and take her home, Helena stays behind at the apartment and asks Cliff if he is going to stay at the apartment as well to wait for Jimmy to get back from London. Cliff says “I've had a hard day, and I don’t think I want to see anyone hurt until I've had something to eat first, and perhaps a few drinks as well” (Osborne 71), bluntly saying he does not feel like being there when Jimmy comes home to the news that his wife had left him because he knows it will not go well.

Jimmy’s anger also affects Helena, but in less vivid and constant ways as it affects Alison and Cliff, because she does not live in the area and is only in for a visit. As Helena is a visitor in Jimmy and Alison's home, she then becomes aware of Jimmy's anger and also becomes defensive of herself and Alison- as a good friend should do.


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