1956, Suez and Sloane Square:
Empire’s Ebb and Flow
Few texts adhere so tenaciously to the moment of their first production as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. First performed by the English Stage Company (ESC) at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London on 8 May 1956, it is anchored to its moment in three ways. First, the title invites a reassessment and suggests, albeit equivocally, a break from the past. Second, 1956 was a year of political and cultural tumult and, for many, the play seemed to articulate feelings of enraged but helpless frustration over events that included Britain’s ‘Suez Crisis’ and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The first of these was a major episode in Britain’s imperial endgame, while the second was a significant moment in the struggle for sovereignty between new superpowers. As one empire ebbed, others flowed. Third, literary history itself has rapidly co-opted Look Back in Anger, and the year of its production, as a watershed in postwar sensibility. In the history of dramatic writing especially, 1956 is the year in which new attitudes, and new kinds of cultural awareness, reshaped literary practice.
This essay will explore these themes. Resuming Osborne’s optical metaphor, the play will be explored as a kaleidoscope: turned this way and that to look back at some of the period’s significant configurations. For it contains reflections of many of the geopolitical, social, cultural and sexual tensions that shaped postwar writing. To consider Look Back in Anger in this way is not new, but this is the point. That the play seemed so inaugural and representative to Osborne’s contemporaries is an important fact. There has rarely been a literary work so quickly turned into history, or which was taken so speedily to define its own epoch. What was it in May of 1956 that people wanted so much that a first play by an unknown and undistinguished 27-year-old actor could deliver?
Although Look Back in Anger was a rapid success, its triumph was not instantaneous. On opening, reviews were largely negative. Some thought it well acted, and several admired its vivid language. However the majority thought it technically incompetent, and took a strong dislike to what they saw as Osborne’s peevish, ranting, provincial anti-hero, Jimmy Porter (Elsom 1981; Lloyd Evans 1985; Page 1988; Taylor 1968). Porter’s tirades against the withered manifestations of Britain in decline are directed onstage at his wife and friends. But they found their targets in a West End audience identified with ‘The Establishment’, a phrase coined before the war, but succinctly redefined by the journalist Henry Fairlie in the Spectator in 1955: ‘By “The Establishment” I do not mean only the centres of official power – though they are certainly a part of it – but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised’ (Ayto 1999: 138). Thus Look Back in Anger starts with an attack on pretentious, obfuscating highbrows reviewing for the Sunday papers – ‘I’ve just read three whole columns on the English