The Angry Young Man Drama

When WWII was still underway, theatre was used as a social instrument to boost the morale of the armed forces and the war-affected civilians. By the time the war ended, there were hardly any innovations taking place in English theatre– it had become nondescript and dull. Further, for Great Britain, the world wars had culminated into an era where it found it difficult to stamp its authority as the superpower; the United States of America, largely on account of its stable economy, supplanted Britain and dominated the international sphere.

In this context, the phrase ‘Angry young man’ came into being in the Britain of the nineteen fifties. The angry young men were a new breed of intellectuals that belonged to the working or lower-middle-class. They shared an outspoken irreverence for the British class system, its traditional network of pedigreed families, and the elitist Oxford and Cambridge universities. Through their heroes (or anti-heroes), they exposed the deep disillusionment and purposelessness of those not privileged by birth or power. They attacked the prevailing complacency of the British public and private life and the hypocrisies of the upper-class lifestyle. They confronted taboos of everyday life — single motherhood, abortion, homosexuality, sexual frustrations, social impasses, declining employment, stifling families, unwanted pregnancies, and shotgun weddings.

This ‘angry young man’ phenomenon, however, was entirely a creation of the media. The press agent of the Royal Court Theatre (where Look Back in Anger was staged) described the play’s 26-year-old writer John Osborne as an “angry young man”. Eventually, the term was extended to all Osborne’s contemporaries who expressed rage at class distinctions, pride in their lower-class mannerisms, and disdain for anything highbrow or ‘phoney.’

Another such movement was that of kitchen sink realism, a term denoting the British artistic movement widely identified with domesticity and mundane everyday life. Inspired by John Bratby’s painting of the kitchen sink, a new generation of playwrights began depicting social, political and economic inequalities; if the 19th-century Victorian theatre showcased the life of the wealthy aristocrats, the kitchen-sink genre enacted the life of the proletariat in cramped, rented and cooped-up accommodations. While the kitchen was considered to be the realm of females and servants in the Victorian period and was often excluded on stage, kitchen sink dramas made a kitchen the centre of familial and social life. In the process, they portrayed the most intimate aspects of domestic life, while blurring out other aspects in a dash of stark realism. Appropriately, the protagonist of these dramas was a discontented, disenchanted and disoriented angry young man.

For instance, Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), feels betrayed by the promise of a ‘brave new world’– after the war, hierarchy and power continue to exist. He smoulders at the sight of class-based oppression and pretension, and his ire is often sadistically directed at his wife, Alison, who hails from an upper-middle-class family. Alison remarks about Jimmy’s reaction towards her virginity: “…afterwards, he actually taunted me with my virginity. He was quite angry about it as if I had deceived him in some strange way.”

In spite of his university education, Jimmy deliberately chooses to run a sweet shop instead of getting sucked into the bureaucratic structures of the farcical welfare state. Jimmy is also upset with the Church: firstly, it is culpable of supporting the interests of the dominant class. Secondly, its opposition to secular values of reason and progress vexes him, and thirdly, he believes that religion functions as a tranquillizer of social consciousness and social responsibility. He feels trapped, a person like him is helpless in the face of conditions pre-ordained by systemic challenges– this feeling is theatrically represented by the closed attic room where the action takes place.

Arnold Wesker’s play, Chicken Soup with Barley (1958) is a complex play about a Jewish family, the Kahns, living in London’s East End from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s. The protagonist, thirty-seven-year-old Sarah, is the wife of Harry Kahn and the mother of Ada and Ronnie Kahn. Sarah is an ardent Socialist– she is strong, family-oriented, honest and somewhat bossy. Her husband on the other hand, however, is a weak liar who lacks conviction. When her daughter falls seriously ill, her husband refuses to take her to the hospital and disappears, leaving a pregnant Sarah to tend after her daughter alone. Her salvation lies in the chicken soup with barley provided by her neighbour, Mrs Bernstein. The soup, in a sense, becomes a metaphor for brotherhood and socialism. She survives multiple tragedies: her husband’s physical and mental collapse, the breakup of her own family, and the breakup of the Jewish East End community. Nevertheless, she remains unbroken and never loses her warmth or conviction.

People believe that the angry young man was politically committed, and indeed he was so. He was torn between his ideals and the depressing reality which shattered all hopes of a better future. Nona Balkian opines:

“…what rankles him is the realization that he does not ‘belong’. Nobody hears his words when he speaks, much less understands his heart when it aches.”

Picture Courtesy- The British Library

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