Look Back in Anger of the Modern Time
It is in the year 1956 when John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was first staged at the Royal Court, but it was only in the final semester in the college [I graduated in 2015] that I got to know about it through my HSS course in Masculinity Studies. And therefore, for anyone reading this article any further, a thorough reading of the drama is essential.
Look Back in Anger is set in the period of post-colonial British Empire, the Sun has now started setting down in the Empire. The highly reputed, overly coveted jobs over shore which were once present are not there anymore and with that, the pride itself on being called a Brit is decaying (interestingly, this is a pronounced effect after Brexit as well but that is not the part of our discussion here). The unemployment rate is high and therefore, even the well-educated are now part of the daily working class. The consecutive World Wars forced women to come out of their houses and be a part of the workforce. While this had certainly made women more empowered, but it added the pressure on the men and in many ways hurt their masculinity (the masculinity being defined here in its own time). And the plot over and over depicts the frustration in terms of anger expelled by Jimmy Porter both in terms of verbal speech and physical action. The time period in which we live although is separated by less than a century from the time depicted in the drama but everything has changed so fast in recent times that the drama on the first glance seems to have little or no relevance to the modern man. For some, they deem it as an old classic – the literature that everyone appreciates but no one reads largely because of the little relevance it holds in the modern world. And yet, in my very little time in the outside world (the life after college when you are on your own), I have come to see the stark similarity between the men of today and the way Jimmy has been described. This isn’t about justifying Jimmy’s anger and everything that he went on doing having been gripped by it. This isn’t also about expressing solidarity with him having known his character well and having been related to a few of the quirks myself. These are the views that I have left out in the open so that readers can form their own understanding and viewpoints independently. With this piece, I am merely stating its relevance in current time.
A young kid from a typical middle class family of a small city with no contact with known face of the city, whose familial existence if gone won’t even see the obituary column of the local newspaper, the last rites of whom shall only be attended by few blood relations on condition that they aren’t holding grudge against some conversation they had at one of the family/relative function sees college education from a reputed University as a passport to good life. He hasn’t seen a passport ever but from his books he knows what passport means, he knows that it is an essential document that you need to carry if you ever have to visit foreign countries. He isn’t poor. He has never slept without food in his belly ever in his life. And yet he is poor, a hunger for recognition and the luxury that modern life comprises of. The increased penetration of media amplifies this effect. The Colleges in his city doesn’t guarantee employment and his family contact end with the city boundary itself. Therefore, he prepares for national level examinations so that he could be one of the few whose photographs appear in the local newspaper. He has seen the trend every year. It happens every year in the month of May and June when the results are announced. This is the only way he knows how to earn recognition at such an age. And therefore, because of extreme obsession over time, the document which he had heard of being essential slowly takes a form where he starts thinking it to be a guarantee of good life, a life full of recognition and awards. While he is in college, he is in a limbo. He is in a way cut off from the real world. He is getting to know everything about the world and the happenings all over the country but he is neither being a part of it, neither is he affected by it much. Of course, a few incidents here and there makes him happy or sad but they aren’t really affecting him. But when the time comes to step out of there, he starts feeling the heat. “The college education is a passport, not a guarantee,” he finally gets to know but he hasn’t been able to internalize it yet. And therefore, like Jimmy Porter, an intelligent and educated man yet working with and among the working class, he is conflicted and angry all the time. Jimmy doesn’t mean to hurt anyone around him, not really, but apart from playing trumpet every Saturday he doesn’t have any other way to vent out and release his anger. These fresh graduates are as disillusioned as Jimmy was with his education.
But in many ways, Jimmy was in a better place. He had Lewis’ company as a friend. I always wondered how a system where another man living in a household already comprising of a husband and a wife ever work. In modern times, this doesn’t even work when another man is younger brother in many cases. Of course, Lewis and Jimmy were business partners and perhaps they were not making enough money to afford two apartments in London but this is only one-half of the reason. The other half is that despite being angry with everything happening around him, Jimmy found comfort in the presence of Lewis. it made him feel good about himself. That he is better educated. That he is the one who has a girl in his life. That he is more of a man than Lewis is. With everyone involved in rat race and with our contacts and social circle in physical sense limited to the people we went to college with (with the technology penetration, we are connected to large number of people virtually not physically. Recall the last person with whom you had good conversation face to face), it is hard to come by someone like Lewis.
In addition to that, the workforce has now changed. Being angry is not cool. It is not the part of corporate culture. And quite frequently when the long work hours are not replenished with leisure and family time (because of family living in a different state of the country and in some cases a different country), the courteous meter (the dullness with the every thank you and sorry) runs out. The youth of today is not an Angry Young Man but a Depressed Young Man.
The time in which the original drama is set is a time when the concept of feminism was coming up. World wars ended and with that social scientists and people, in general, found out that behavioral pattern and quirks which people once associated with gender aren’t really a gendered phenomenon but rather a job or situation effect. From that point of time in history to the current one time, the concept of feminism has come a long way. While the problems in implementation certainly exist to today, there are still gender pay divides in the informal sector and in the sector which has fluctuating income but as a concept, we have been able to understand things very well. And as the concept feminism was evolving, the definition of masculinity changed a lot. In fact, in many cases, the modern standpoint of masculinity commands one to be supportive of feminism. Say, if a person is vocal in support of female issues like maternal leave policy, he is considered to be a more manly man. The men of today (most of them) don’t distinguish between men and women in the work sphere. In the personal domain too, they want a working women in their life (while this is fueled by economic reasons as well, where in order to afford a good life and start a family in metropolitan city, you need two more earning hands but utilitarianism dictates that all’s well that ends well and with that no one really bothers to go into what is really affecting the change in psyche of today’s demographic). This young generation of men has seen his mother sacrificing her personal ambitions not only to raise him and his siblings(s) and to provide care to the groom’s family but also to avoid friction that comes when the women start earning more. He is critical about it. He thinks that it was a terrible time to live. That it was a hypocritical world. Therefore, with whoever he is right now, his girlfriend or wife, he asks them to go for personal ambitions and pursue professional goals. He urges his female friends as well to do the same. Most of his friends think of it in the same fairness.
And yet sometimes, he craves the way his father was loved by his mother or any older couple as a matter of fact. God! If he could be loved like that. A person willing to sacrifice and willing to go to any length just in order to be together. He goes into conflict here as well because what his cultural upbringing wants him to want is different than what he is taught to want.
He feels guilt for having thought in a way opposite to what his moral education dictated. He is angry because of the way economic prosperity works. He is frustrated by the monotonicity of the life that keeps dragging from weekend to another where the only central time is Sunday Morning and that too gets absorbed in cleaning and ironing clothes in order to be prepared for the next six days marathon. His family lives so far away and he has been away from them so long that he feels disconnect as a figurative death of a particular type of relation that he once had with everyone back home. Jimmy suffered the death of a close personal figure in life too. With social apps and dating sites, it is more than easy than ever to hook up and seek solace in temporary comfort. This temporary comfort hardly lasts. It is gone the minute the other person walks out of the door and therefore at the end of the day, it is only emptiness that you feel. And because of all this that the man goes through, he may get settled down at some point of time ahead, this emptiness never goes away figuratively explained in the drama with the couple staying together but they cannot have a child.
On the sidelines, with nothing quite relevant to what I have been talking till now, it is interesting how the generation that grew up with Harry Potter is now like Jimmy Porter. From one Potter to another (with a slight difference in spelling, of course). Britishers once ruled our country. It is interesting how their literature is still ruling us – in times when we were kids and now in times when we are the young adults.