Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

From Angry Young Scholarship Boy to Male Role Model: The Rise of the Working-Class Hero

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

From Angry Young Scholarship Boy to Male Role Model: The Rise of the Working-Class Hero

Article excerpt

When John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London on May 8th, 1956, and Kenneth Haigh hit the stage as a "working class Hamlet"1 Jimmy Porter, a new era for English literature began: fostered not so much by a consistent literary movement but mainly by considerable media attention and an extraordinary publicity campaign, "angry young men" conquered theatre stages, cinema screens and bestseller lists.2 In this essay, I will argue that Jimmy Porter and the "post-Osborne revolution"3 not only set the stage for upcoming vital theatre productions and became a role-model for a series of angry texts, but that they also provided an effective mode of male identity formation, that is the "working-class hero", as a model of male identity that is still effective in our time. I intend to show that Jimmy Porter as well as Joe Lampton - the protagonist of John Braine's Room at the Top and one of the many other original angry young men - fall back on this mythologically charged mode of subcultural subject formation when they are trapped between the brave new world of the aspiring middle class and their ambiguous working-class origins.

A closer look will reveal that both are not only in class trouble, but also in a gender conflict. With their pride and masculinity at stake, Joe and Jimmy strive for compensations for their frustration: Jimmy by attacking and intimidating upper-class prigs, Joe by materially extending his working-class physicality through financial potency and status symbols. Yet both of them produce themselves as typical workingclass heroes, since this subcultural male subject form serves as a very simple but effectively reaffirming mode of male identity formation. Moreover, it develops into a male role model that, as we shall finally see, even gains global influence today through one outstanding and very specific product of mass media representation: James Bond.

The post-war years and the 1950s: from euphoria to the "angry decade"

Revolutionary though he might have been, Jimmy Porter was still a product of his time, the "angry decade", as the 1950s were called by Kenneth Allsop.4 A short summary of the socio-cultural changes of the time might be helpful to understand the character of Jimmy Porter and his tremendous success among contemporary theatre-goers.

The 1940 Blitz, the German attempt to invade Britain via aircraft attacks, ended in a triumphant victory for the British military services and the whole British nation: though hopelessly outnumbered, Britain's Royal Air Force fought back the German attacks in less than half a year. The result of this heroic "Battle of Britain" was a never known feeling of coherence and community within British society. Even today veterans and older people look back on the war not in anger, but remember it as "the brief period when the English people felt that they were a truly democratic community".5 As a result of this feeling of coherence and community, the 1945 general election provided the Labour Party under Prime Minister Clement Attlee with its biggest ever majority in parliament.6 Even if the respective "postwar hope for socialism in Britain now seems to have been amazingly hubristic",7 the Labour ideal of a classless society seemed realistic in the euphoria of both the war and the election victory. And indeed, with the establishment of the welfare state (with National Insurance, National Assistance and the National Health Service) the government seemed to be able to overcome traditional British class divisions, and the new form of "welfare-capitalism implied that now all the people were to share in those good things that the upper classes had generally secured to themselves".8 Moreover, the 1944 Butler Education Act with its "free secondary education for all" had been hailed as "a great advance towards a unified modern society" even before the Labour government was elected.9

However, even if the economic boom of the post-war years and the early 1950s turned Britain into an affluent society10 in which even the tabloid Daily Express rejoiced in 1955 that the "British people never had it so good. …

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