Why We Should All Look Back in Anger; Forty Years Ago This Summer, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger Erupted on the Stage, Triggering a Social and Moral Revolution with Disastrous Consequences for Britain Today

Daily Mail (London), July 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

Why We Should All Look Back in Anger; Forty Years Ago This Summer, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger Erupted on the Stage, Triggering a Social and Moral Revolution with Disastrous Consequences for Britain Today


Byline: Paul Johnson

THE staging of Look Back In Anger at the Royal Court Theatre in London 40 years ago introduced the era of downward mobility - the deliberate adoption of lower-class standards of behaviour - into Britain.

Today, we can see the baneful consequences of this destructive process: ubiquitous crime, school-leavers who cannot read or write, unsafe streets, football hooliganism and a general atmosphere of coarseness and crudity.

John Osborne's brilliant and epoch-making play, the most influential since the war, was about many other things. It was about the unrestrained anger of frustrated youth, which made Osborne the central figure in the new school of writers known as the Angry Young Men.

It was about the smashing of the conventional restraints which kept the London theatre hidebound and, as we thought in 1956, feeble.

But chiefly it was about Jimmy Porter, the university-educated intellectual who had deliberately chosen to run a market stall and adopt a working-class lifestyle in protest against the stifling inhibitions of the bourgeoisie.

Look Back In Anger brought the process of downward mobility to the cultural surface. The roots went much deeper - some would say to before the turn of the century when black jazz music, with its deliberate `ragging', or poking of fun at serious, middle-class white music (it was originally known as rag) crept up from New Orleans and St Louis to New York and so to Europe.

It was no coincidence that when Osborne's play opened to enthusiastic acclaim and bitter controversy, the ferocious best-selling U.S. novelist Norman Mailer was writing his highly influential The White Negro in which he urged young white people to adopt `hip consciousness', the self-assertive, counter-culture of confident, aggressive young blacks as a form of liberation from the straitjacket of well-behaved, white, social `oppression'.

Mailer argued that the speech forms, accents, vocabulary, promiscuity and even the casual violence of hip blacks were admirable and ought to be imitated by ultra-inhibited, middle-class, white youth.

This was a heady doctrine on both sides of the Atlantic, coinciding as it did with the beginnings of pop culture, represented by such white celebrities as Elvis Presley, but embodying black rhythms, vernacular and phrasing.

In class-conscious Britain, there was, in addition, a strong tendency to adopt what were supposed to be working-class habits as a political and social protest.

Many left-wing ideologues, such as Oxford guru Richard Tawney, praised the morality and cultural honesty of the masses as opposed to the artificiality and hypocrisy of middle-class society.

In Victorian times, upward mobility was seen as a universal and natural process with the workers gradually adopting the manners, speech, morality and codes of behaviour of their betters as education spread and incomes rose.

But with the rise of socialism in the Forties and Fifties, more and more writers presented this embourgeoisement as corrupt and immoral.

Two fashionable new gurus, Richard Hoggart with The Uses Of Literacy (1957) and Raymond Williams with Culture And Society 1780-1950 (1958), praised the virtues of the culture of the urban poor. But other aspects of working-class behaviour were made to seem attractive, too.

Brought up in the Thirties and early Forties, I had always been taught that stealing was indescribably wicked and unthinkable. The rare boy who stole at school was treated as a pariah, as well as being heavily punished.

Then in the mid-Fifties I met the brilliant young Welsh writer John Morgan, later to be a TV star. He told me that as a boy in Swansea, he and his friends had gone on shoplifting expeditions to Woolworth's as a `protest against capitalism'.

He laughed at my middle-class disapproval. I discovered that this attitude to adolescent theft was common among working-class university graduates. …

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