Angry Young Men

So this post was GOING to be about Parade’s End (not exactly Theatre/Film history, but I was gonna make it work)… but I’d totally forgotten that they’d made a miniseries out of it, (which premieres tonight on BBC 2), and so I decided to forgo what EVERYONE was talking about… not a huge fan of running with the bulls, so to speak. Instead, I was reminded of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of post-war Britain this week… and so this post draws its inspiration from John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger.

Post-war Britain showed a change in the wants of theatre-goers. Previously, the idea of ‘escapism’ was the norm… as I’ve written before; no one wanted to pay money to spend 2+ hours living reality. After the Second World War, however, that changed… by the mid-1950s, realism became acceptable. The first of the ‘angry young men’ generation was Osborne… and Look Back in Anger certainly gave the London stage a completely different experience.

Osborne, who ironically called the “angry young men” label “useless” later in his career, helped to solidify a genre that allowed intense drama, coupled with pent up conflict and anger, all taken place in a one-room settings, to literally explode over the course of the play. Osborne speaks to specific themes, many of which pop up consistently in his plays, and he didn’t guarantee a happy ending.

In Look Back in Anger, Osborne shows exactly why he (along with Kingsley Amis, Michael Hastings, and others) would be coined ‘angry young men’ by the Royal Court Theatre’s press office. Osborne’s main character, Jimmy (who, perhaps, turned out more like Osborne himself than had originally been planned), shows the type of anger with “traditional” society… in this case in the form of his wife and her family. Jimmy, who is decidedly working class, feels a particular need to prove himself… and then becomes increasingly angry with himself and the situation because he feels that need to defend himself: the definitely of an impossible circle.

Even though the moniker has gone, and indeed was rejected by many of those labelled as such, the idea of ‘angry young men’ still persists. Osborne is a perfect example, simply because his own feelings made their way into his writing… Jimmy, in many cases, IS Osborne. Osborne started a movement (unintentionally) that proved that British playwrights weren’t all willing to follow the perceived “acceptable” formula for stage. True, Terrence Rattigan attempted to step out of the prescribed parameters in 1939 and failed miserably… and Osborne was writing in a time of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas and critics who weren’t ready to make the leap. The important part, however, was that the world was ready to take the leap. Rattigan, and others, failed to break out of their literary boxes because it wasn’t yet time. The ending of the Second World War, the beginning of the Cold War, and the changing face of the globe, created a situation that allowed Osborne and the Angry Young Men to flourish.


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