Jimmy Porter, the archetype of Britain's angry young men, is back in town for what is said to be the first major production of "Look Back in Anger" since its 1957 Broadway opening.
The major factor in the revival is the starring presence of Malcolm McDowell, who makes his North American stage debut at the Roundabout Theater. Besides extensive stage work in England, Mr. McDowell is known for such films as "If . . .," "O Lucky Man," and "A Clockwork Orange." His highly charged Jimmy Porter provides the indispensable driving force of the production staged by Ted Craig and justifies renewing acquaintance with Osborne's pioneering work.
It is just a year short of a quarter of a century since "Look Back in Anger" exploded onto the stage of London's Royal Court Theater to unleash Jimmy Porter's blistering invective, satirical broadsides, and savage indignation against an indifferent world. He remains an authentic figure of his generation -- a product equally of the working class and a red-brick university, intellectually fired and emotionally seething.
Because the play speaks so directly from, and to, a particular period in recent British history, some of its relevance has been diminished. Whether it can achieve the lasting power of a genuine period peice remains to be seen. The first 25 years are often regarded as the most difficult span in the life of a play.
Two speeches illustrate an aspect, not only of Jimmy Porter's dilemma in a class-riden society, but also the dilemma of his wife's middle-class parents. At one point, Jimmy, whose father died after returning from fighting with the Spanish Republicans, laments: "I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the '30s and the '40s, when we were kids. There aren't any good, brave causes left."
A little earlier, his wife, alison, has said to her father: "You're hurt because everything is changing. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it."
Although Osborne has stated that he is more interested in personal relationships than in sociopolitical comment, the conflict between Jimmy and Alison is inevitably bound up with the larger phenomenon of the British establishment vs. the outsider who challenges it. Working-class Jimmy's challenge was to marry the daughter of a former colonel in Britain's Indian forces. His festering resentments against the world Alison forsook to marry him are at the root of this battle of the sexes. To what extent outer circumstances have changed since the 1950s only an onscene observer could evaluate.
The one-sided and almost catastrophic contest whithin the Porters' one-room flat in the English Midlands still has the capacity to move and arouse the spectator. Mr. McDowell spares nothing in the fury of his verbal aggressions while yet conveying a capacity for love in this intellectual male chauvinist.
Osborne's plot devices and ploys for making Jimmy as sympathetic as possible seem more obvious on renewed acquaintance with the play, but Mr. McDowell avoids the pitfall of self-pity.