Hi playwrights! Today we’re going to talk about the third play on our monthly reading list, Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne. A three-act play that premiered in 1956, “Look Back In Anger” features a young married couple, Alison and Jimmy, the lodger who shares their cramped attic apartment, Cliff, and, at the end of the first act, Alison’s friend Helena, who has come to visit. Jimmy is presented as a volatile, almost manic character (indeed, the play is famous for his tirades). Described as “strongly autobiographical,” the play is based in large part on Osborne’s failing marriage. It centers on the social gulf between upper-middle-class Alison and firmly working class Jimmy.
One Thing I Noticed: The character descriptions. Oh my god, the character descriptions! They are works of art. Just read these:
“Jimmy is a tall, thin young man about twenty-five, wearing a very worn tweed jacket and flannels. Clouds of smoke fill the room from the pipe he is smoking. He is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loudmouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.”
* * *
“Cliff is the same age, short, dark, big boned, wearing a pullover and grey, new, but very creased trousers. He is easy and relaxed, almost to lethargy, with the rather sad, natural intelligence of the self-taught. If Jimmy alienates love, Cliff seems to exact it –demonstrations of it, at least, even from the cautious. He is a soothing, natural counterpoint to Jimmy.”
* * *
“Standing L, below the food cupboard, is Alison. She is leaning over an ironing board. Beside her is a pile of clothes. Hers is the most elusive personality to catch in the uneasy polyphony of these three people. She is turned in a different key, a key of well-bred malaise that is often drowned in the robust orchestration of the other two. Hanging over the grubby, but expensive, skirt she is wearing is a cherry red shirt of Jimmy’s, but she manages somehow to look quite elegant in it. She is roughly the same age as the men. Somehow, their combined physical oddity makes her beauty more striking than it really is. She is tall, slim, dark. The bones of her face are long and delicate. There is a surprising reservation about her eyes, which are so large and deep they should make equivocation impossible.”
* * *
“Helena enters. She is the same age as Alison, medium height, carefully and expensively dressed. Now and again, when she allows her rather judicial expression of alertness to soften, she is very attractive. Her sense of matriarchal authority makes most men who meet her anxious, not only to please but impress, as if she were the gracious representative of visiting royalty. In this case, the royalty of that middle-class womanhood, which is so eminently secure in its divine rights, that it can afford to tolerate the parliament, and reasonably free assembly of its menfolk. Even from other young women, like Alison, she receives her due of respect and admiration. In Jimmy, as one would expect, she arouses all the rabble-rousing instincts of his spirit. And she is not accustomed to having to defend herself against catcalls. However, her sense of modestly exalted responsibility enables her to behave with an impressive show of strength and dignity, although the strain of this is beginning to tell on her a little. She is carrying a large salad colander.”
* * *
The descriptions are so full of detail and heavy with meaning that at first they may seem difficult to penetrate. They describe such specific characters that I had trouble at first conjuring them up in my mind. But the dialogue of the play matches them perfectly. That is how we really get to know the characters. Then we come back to the descriptions and say “Ah yes! That’s exactly what Jimmy is like.” Now, you may remember my earlier post on character descriptions, and the advice to keep them simple, leaving room for theater folks you will collaborate with if the play is performed to have some say in things, and to make it so that many different types of actors can play a role. Well, I think that is all sound advice, but rules are made to be broken, right? And when they’re broken so masterfully, then you have art.
One Idea: Write a scene or a play in which a musical instrument plays a significant role–is almost its own character–like Jimmy’s trumpet. Let the other characters react to the music and have the music emphasize the mounting tension of the play or contrast with the narrative arc in some noticeable way.
One More Idea: Write a play in which a later scene references a previous one. In the third act of Look Back In Anger, for example, Helena stands at the ironing board ironing, wearing Jimmy’s red shirt, just as Alison did in the first scene.
Thanks playwrights! I hope you enjoy reading our last play, Art, by Yasmina Reza, next week. Join me tomorrow to move past exercises, as we round out the month working on a cohesive play in multiple scenes.
[Also, stay tuned for a preview of next month’s challenge: Experience Journaling.]