literary criticism,"Internalized British Imperialism in 'Look Back In Anger,' March 1982
|Internalized British Imperialism in "Look Back In Anger"
In the play "Look Back In Anger" by John Osborne, a state of perpetual conflict exists among all of the characters and is most clearly delineated within the nucleus of Jimmy, Alison, and Cliff. The battle can be viewed as a symbolic microcosm of British imperialism turning against itself as the outside empire crumbles. Jimmy is a member of the working class that has fueled the upper class machine and received no recognition and gained nothing for his efforts and loyalty, Alison embodies the privileged upper classes of English society that have thrived off of the vitality of those working and producing in the lower social ranks, and Cliff is a Welshman, the only remaining outward focus of English feelings of superiority, for Wales is one of the few remaining outposts of the shrunken empire. The lines of power in this factionalised warfare run along the traditional social structure. Jimmy wants to be the commanding officer and conquer his own empire of followers; he refuses to compromise or suffer in silence in accordance with English propriety, yet he is being consumerd by his own love-hate dependency relationship with his country and queen-figure. Alison refuses to be actively engaged and denies Jimmy the love and recognition that he wants; however, she is a controlling factor in his life and at the same time depends on him for his energy and strength. Cliff is an outsider who distracts some of the civil unrest and absorbs some of the venom as the lowest member of the social order. At the start of the play, the upper class is maintaining its position of strength by keeping a distance from the attacks of the revolutionary Jimmy.
Alison plays the strategic game of tuning Jimmy out so that he cannot harm her, and also as a method of counter-attack, because Jimmy wants to be acknowledged. She makes sure that he knows of her lack of attention and attachment: "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening properly." In response to Alison's attitude, Jimmy's rage and bitterness increasess and he intensifies his attacks. He comments on her disengagement by saying:
She's a great one for getting used to things. If
she were to die and wake up in Paradise--after the
first five minutes she's have got used to it. (p.10)
Don't think I could provoke her. Nothing I could
do would provoke her. Not even if I were to drop
All this time I have been married to this woman,
the monument to non-attachment. (p.15)
Since Jimmy most of all wants attention, the blatant defiance of that need by ignoring him is an effective weapon, but it provoked a merciless siege on his part that is determined to force recognition from Alison. One of the main causes of the tension between them is Jimmy's demand not only for unconditional love, but for total reinforcement on all of his ideas; and, from Alison, a rejection of her upbringing and past and the adoption of his. He is determined to be an uncompromising conqueror in the English imperial tradition of the total imposition of the conquering culture on the conquered. Alison mentions Jimmy's demands to Helena in Act II:
It's what you would call a question of allegiances,
and he expects you to be pretty literal about them.
Not only about himself and all of the things he
believes in, his present and his future, but his
past as well. All the people he admires and loves,
and has loved. The friends he used to know, people
I've never even known, and probably wouldn't have
liked. His father, who died years ago. Even the
other women he'd loved. (p.34)
One of the points that enrages Jimmy about Alison is her refusal to surrender to him unconditionally, and he regards this as a betrayal and provocation to keep the battle lines drawn in the civil war. Completing Jimmy's assumption of Alison as a betrayer is the fact that he is ignored even in her letters home to her parents. Alison has the upper hand in the battle by using the traditionally upper class English device of preserving a smooth veneer and ignoring unpleasantries, which has the effect of discounting the working class by simply refusing to see it. However, at the same time Alison recognizes the dependency bond between them when she says simply, "I've never really wanted anyone else." (p.37) For Alison, Jimmy's attraction lies in the burning energy which he has turned against her.
Jimmy, too, is aware of the attraction that lies in his vitality, but he sees that attraction as a threat that will devour all of his energy:
She just devours me whole every time as if I were
some over-large rabbit, and lies back afterward like
a puffed-out python to sleep it off. that's me.
That bulge around her navel--if you're wondering
what it is--it's me. Me, buried alive down there,
and going mad, smothered in the peaceful coil of
that innocent-looking belly. Not a sound, not a
flicker from her--she doesn't even rumble a little.
You'd think that this indigestible mess would stir
up some kind of tremor in those distended, overfed
tripes--but not her! She'll go on sleeping and
devouring until there's nothing left of me." (p.30-31)
By ignoring Jimmy, Alison is effectively suppressing him and at the same time absorbing all of his energy as he attempts to take her over. At the same time, Jimmy is trapped in his love for Alison:
There's hardly a moment when I'm not--watching
and wanting you. I've got to hit our somehow.
Nearly four years of being in the same room with
you, and I still can't stop my sweat breaking out
when i see you doing--something as ordinary as
leaning over an ironing board." (p.26)
There is interdependency in this relationship that, instead of uniting the classes to the progress of England, only causes pain and the desire to alienate diverse elements to the detriment of both.
Jimmy acknowledges the imperialistic tendencies within him, first when he admits to Alison, "I think...I must have a lot of--old stock...Nobody wants it," and then when he blatantly tells Helena, "Perhaps it means something to lie with your victorious general in your arms. Especially when he's heartily sick of the whole campaign, tired out, hungry and dry." (p.71) The reference to his victory has to do with Helena giving over control to him, although it was only temporary. In fact, Jimmy seems very similar to the characterization he uses to describe Alison's parents. "Militant, arrogant, and full of malice." (p.14) And at one point he also admits to wanting to hear "Something strong, something simple, something English," and then self-consciously goes on to say "I suppose people like me aren't supposed to be very patriotic." (p.12) Jimmy's angry feelings aren't directed towards the traditional English attitudes, but toward his exclusion from having an acknowledged part in them; yet he is perfectly willing to censor others under his own system. This is one of the causes of his love-hate self-destructiveness.
A side outlet for Jimmy's venom is Cliff, who occupies an even lower rung of the social scheme, and is no threat to anyone. Jimmy's comments to Cliff are derogatory, but he can accept Cliff because Cliff is not an integral element in the conflict. The Welsh are a people who have been under English rule for a long time, but they have never been accepted as equal to the English (by the English), and they are a traditional dumping-ground of disparagement, Cliff is interesting as a foil to Jimmy because he brings out his imperialistic nature. As soon as the play begins, Jimmy tells Cliff, "Well, you are ignorant. You're just a peasant," and this turns out to be a favorite refrain of his: "Why do you bother. You can't understand a word of it." (p.7) "You've no intellect, no curiosity. It all just washes over you." (p.38) "You're a savage, a hooligan! You really are! Do you know that! You don't deserve to live in the same house with decent, sensitive poeople!" (p.67) These are stock attitudes toward the Welsh, and although Jimmy displays less malice towards Cliff, he also takes him less seriously to begin with. Near the beginning of the play, Jimmy chides Cliff, "You spend good money on a new pair of trousers, and then sprawl about in them like a savage! What do you think you're going to do when I'm not around to look after you? Well, what are you going to do? Tell me." (p.11) That attitude is the epitome of the British colonization ethic of bringing civilization to the barbarians and having to stand by and watch that they learn it as properly as their little barbarian capabililites will allow. Cliff says of his function in the war:
This has always been a battlefield, but I'm pretty
certain that if I hadn't been here, everything
would have been over between these two long ago.
I've been a--a no man's land between them." (p.48)
As a Welshman, Cliff channels some of the destructive impulses away from a direct and full confrontation between Jimmy and Alison, but their disunity causes him to leave, as any separate state would be tempted to secede if there was a split in the central governing body that prevented it from being able to handle its internal problems, let alone those of its satellites.
"Look Back In Anger" embodies the British imperialistic attitude directed against itself. In this essentially dieseased situation; the crumbling, rumbling decay of the social ethos in England accelerates as internal weaknesses prey upon themselves because of a vacuum in a outward direction. The resulting barrenness and further loss marks the end of the self-devouring eithic, and leaves a unified but uncertain future.
Osborne, John, "Look Back In Anger," (Penguin Plays, New York) 1957. (paperback edition)