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Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Speaking of tragic heroes...

Here's an example of a character I think is not a tragic hero, but often gets seen that way: Jimmy Porter, protagonist of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. The interesting thing about Jimmy is that he's a clear, obvious example, if you're familiar with the concept, of something you're not supposed to see in male-written literary drama - the Mary Sue.

Look Back In Anger was the subject of tremendous praise, and had tremendous influence, when it first opened in 1956; its title gave the 'Angry Young Man' movement its name, and since then it's turned up as a standard text on university courses about tragedy. Nowadays critics praise it as a period piece that supposedly rescued the British stage from stale drawing-room comedy, but this is the truth: it is an inexcusable work of art.

Critics who praise the hero tend to do so because he's 'honest'. The New York Herald Tribune, on the back of my copy, gushes: 'The truth about this conscienceless sadist is that he's absolutely alive!' It's true in the literary sense, but that is a fault of the writing, not a virtue: Jimmy looks vitally alive compared with all the other characters because he's the only one who's properly written. Osborne always acknowledged that Jimmy was a self-portrait, and as a result, the character speaks with Osborne's linguistic energy, an energy denied the other characters, but there's more to it than that. In scenes where Jimmy is on stage - scenes that Osborne could have observed while acting that way himself - the writing is much better. When Jimmy is offstage, however, the writing degenerates into wishful thinking. Characters talk about Jimmy behind his back non-stop; there's never a scene that doesn't have either Jimmy in it or Jimmy as its main focus of conversation. And what they say about him is less thoughtful character study on Osborne's part, and more a tendency to place his opinions unrealistically in the mouths of other characters. Here's the Colonel, father of Jimmy's long-suffering wife Alison, talking to her as she prepares to leave Jimmy, the husband he has tried to prevent her marrying in the first place:

I can't help feeling that [Jimmy] must have had a little bit of right on his
side ... We were all to blame, in our different ways. No doubt Jimmy acted in
good faith. He's honest enough, whatever else he may be ... Perhaps you and I
were most to blame ... I think you may take after me a little, my dear, you like
to sit on the fence because it's comfortable and more peaceful ... Perhaps it
might have been better if you hadn't written letters to us, knowing how we felt
about your husband...

Self-sacrificing of him, isn't it, to feel it would be morally right to relinquish his daughter to a man he thinks is bad for her? Alison, at this point, is pregnant, unable to tell Jimmy, and leaving him in an era where single motherhood was a disaster because she simply can't bear his bullying any more; the Colonel's attitude is extraordinarily forgiving towards the man who has just driven his daughter out of her home. But it's the 'sitting on the fence' remark that really gives it away. Jimmy's primary taunt against Alison is that she's 'pusillanimous', disinclined to make a mental effort and take sides. From what we can see on stage, this is largely because she refuses to rise to his bait when he tries to pick fights, a tactic that might be called passive-aggressive (it certainly succeeds in annoying Jimmy), but is hardly comfortable and peaceful. But this provocative accusation, which is not born out by her actual behaviour, somehow leaps into the mouth of the father who's taking her home in crisis. Jimmy's judgement has contaminated another character in a scene where you'd expect that character's opinion of Jimmy to be at its lowest.

To take another example: Helena, Alison's friend who has had an affair with Jimmy after his departure. (Helena acted all disapproving of Jimmy, but that's only because she fancied him, and that little gag alone should be worth at least ten vicious reviews.) As Helena decides to leave Jimmy, she remarks:

I have discovered what is wrong with Jimmy[.] It's very simple really. He was
born out of his time ... There's no place for people like that any longer - in
sex, or politics, or anything. That's why he's so futile. Sometimes, when I
listen to him, I feel he thinks he's still in the middle of the French
Revolution. And that's where he ought to be, of course.

Have you ever heard, in real life, anyone give so flattering an explanation of why someone is a bullying waster? But this little caress isn't even accurate, if we consider Jimmy's behaviour. While he self-pityingly decries the lack of 'brave causes' to fight for, one of his overriding qualities is cowardice. Presented with opportunities to fight for himself, he runs away. Asked whether he accepted his brother-in-law's challenge to fight when Jimmy called the man's mother 'evil minded', he replies: 'Certainly not. He's a big chap.' Losing a scuffle he's provoked with his friend Cliff, he wails 'You're a savage, a hooligan! ... You don't deserve to live in the same house with decent, sensitive people!', retreating into verbal attack as he reaslises he can't win a physical one. Faced with a family who didn't want him to marry their daughter, rather than standing his ground with them, he runs away with her and marries her on the sly before they can intervene. Having married her, he goes on the attack in all their friends' houses - but only with his best friend Hugh there to back him up. Jimmy, in fact, never gets into a fight that he isn't absolutely certain he can win; he seeks to 'draw blood', but he isn't prepared to take any actual risks. That's hardly the attitude of a revolutionary.

Neither is he any kind of real idealist. He's articulate in speech, but his thinking is entirely incoherent, getting equally angry at every single stimulus, praising things one moment and reviling them the next. Alison's friend Webster, for example, is lauded thus: 'He's not only got guts, but sensitivity as well. That's about the rarest combination I can think of.' - but later attacks him, re his homosexuality, thus: 'He's like a man with a strawberry mark - he keeps thrusting it in your face because he can't believe it doesn't interest or horrify you particularly.' The opporunity to be a good man is something he considers beneath him; he's more interested in admiring his own sensitivity. But this sensitivity is profoundly insensitive. Take, for instance, his lament over his father's death:

My mother looked after him without complaining. But that was about all. Perhaps
she pitied him. I suppose she was capable of that ... But I was the
only one who cared!

Honest assessment of a situation? Or a narcissistic disbelief that anyone else's emotions could possibly be as valid as his own? Considering that when his poor wife returns to him having had a traumatic, permanently damaging miscarriage, his first impulse is to attack her for failing to send flowers to the funeral of a friend of his the day she left him - 'You had to deny me that too, didn't you?' - the latter seems altogether more plausible.

Broken down to their essentials, 'good brave causes' of the kind that Jimmy claims to long for are always causes that increase human happiness and lessen human suffering. A man who spends all his time trying to make the people around him suffer and detroying human happiness has no right to call himself an idealist lacking a cause. Let's not forget that this was written in the mid-1950s, where such causes as racial equality, equal pay for women, the legalisation of homosexuality and sexual freedom were fights that hadn't even been started, never mind won: there's always something that needs doing if you really want to throw your shoulder to the wheel. (Of course, Osborne didn't like women, gays or racial minorities, so possibly he was happy for them all to be oppressed, but that hardly redounds to his credit.) But a man dedicated to hurting everyone around him - and that's the only purpose that Jimmy spends any energy pursuing - is not an idealist. He's simply pulling off the all-too-common trick of being both self-righteous and in the wrong.

You cannot be honest without thinking; you cannot be passionate without conviction. Wildly saying anything that comes into your head is merely hysterical. With those two supposed qualities recognised for what they are, qualities Jimmy mistakenly likes to imagine himself possessing, and which Osborne imposes on the speech of secondary characters when Jimmy leaves the stage - unable to bear his favourite being too harshly spoken of, and unable to imagine than anyone might dislike either Jimmy or himself on their own terms for legitimate reasons - Jimmy stands as a character devoid of virtues. Yet somehow, the play revolves around him.

This is where Mary Sue comes in. John Osborne - let's be honest, to use his favourite word - was a bad man. Listen to this:

What I do believe is that you are almost uniquely cold-hearted. That, far from
being the result of a troubled inner life (clearly, you have no inner life
whatever, just a commonplace hole in the air, composed of idiotic quarrels,
feuds and top of the fucking pops) or a difficult upbringing, it is from your
own appalling nature, which I commonly assume is your Mother's principal, almost
only, gift to you. It's become clear to me that I should have left you in New
Jimmy lambasting Alison? It could be - it's very similar to the abuse he hurls at her throughout Look Back In Anger - but in fact, this is a note that Osborne left for his teenage daughter Nolan to find after a minor quarrel. Osborne took in Nolan when she was thirteen, threw her out when she was seventeen, and spent the intervening period hating her for such crimes as being more interested in hanging around with her friends than in meeting his. (Jimmy's cowardice evidently stems from his author: a man who so fears a confrontation with his fifteen-year-old child that he leaves a letter for her to find instead is no kind of man at all.) It may sound brave and passionate when one fictional character is doing it to another, less well-written fictional character, but see an example of it in real life, done to someone who actually has feelings, and I hope no one will make the mistake of considering it 'honest' and 'alive'.

A big part of Look Back In Anger's driving force is misogyny. Its biggest critical defender was Kenneth Tynan, with his famous 'I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger' and praise of its 'candour'. A journalist acquaintance remarks of Tynan that 'women seem to have objected less to his sadism, which took only a mild form, than to his vanity and authoritarianism. [...] He treated women as possessions. [...] Tynan, while reserving the unqualified right to be unfaithful himself, expected loyalty from his spouse.' But a simpler demonstration can be found in Tynan's own writings. Tynan took considerable pleasure in his relationship with Laurence Olivier, and almost equal pleasure in denigrating his wife, Vivien Leigh, as a mediocre actress unworthy to associate with her great husband. In the same review of a Macbeth performance where the couple acted together, for example, he gleefully derided Leigh as 'more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda' while 'Sir Laurence shook hands with greatness, and within a week or so the performance will have ripened into a masterpiece'.

If one decides not to regard women as fully human, it can be most convenient: in the absence of a 'good, brave cause', one can always have a go at women instead. So with Jimmy; beginning by lamenting 'the infernal racket of the flaming female', moving on to demanding Helena 'stop breathing your female wisdom all over me', he climaxes with:

Why, why, why do we let these women bleed us to death? Have you ever had a
letter, and on it is franked 'Please Give Your Blood Generously'? Well, the
Postmaster-General does that, on behalf of all the women of the world. I suppose
people of our generation aren't allowed to die for good causes any longer ...
there's nothing left for it, me boy, but to let yourself be butchered by the
This, in Jimmy's view, is the outcry of 'a kind of burning virility of mind and spirit that looks for something as powerful as itself'. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.

Jimmy is a hateful character, but why get so agitated about him? Well, one reason is that critics still struggle to find reasons why Look Back In Anger was a good play, rather than simply admit the truth: a mistake was made, and the play was the self-justifying fantasy of a nasty piece of work. Reading it through, I found myself struggling: the word 'evil' is a dangerous one to use, but it kept returning to me. The trouble, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that Jimmy not only speaks for Osborne, but warps the rest of the narrative. Characters never discuss their own concerns when Jimmy is off-stage; it's always Jimmy, and the kind of things they say about him are less like the kind of things someone would actually say than like Osborne struggling to work out why somebody might not like him, beginning with the faulty premise that it can't just be because no rational person could. Similarly, Jimmy warps the structure of the story. A science fiction site I found has come up with the useful phrase 'Aura of Smooth', defining it as 'the imaginary energy field self-inserted characters generate to bend the regular cast to their wills - i.e. trusting and/or falling in love with them for no stated reason', and Jimmy's Aura of Smooth is immense. Alison's friend Helena falls in love with him despite all her professions of loathing, for example, but, more horribly, Jimmy in the first act wishes, a la King Lear, that Alison should have a child that dies. Later, he wishes thus:

Perhaps, one day, you may want to come back. I shall wait for that day. I want
to stand up in your tears, and splash about in them, and sing. I want to be
there when you grovel ... I want to see your face rubbed in the mud - that's all
I can hope for. There's nothing else I want any longer.
Kindly, Osborne grants his darling's wish. Alison loses her baby, so traumatically that it leaves her barren, and she stumbles back, weeping 'I'm in the mud at last! I'm grovelling!' So potent is Jimmy's Aura of Smooth, in fact, that he not only occupies everyone's thoughts all the time - which would be mere self-indulgence - but that it extends to murder, destroying characters that happen to catch his spite.

The kind of Mary Sue one chooses tells an audience a lot about the author's fantasies. Osborne goes beyond violet eyes and magical bunny-charming powers: his fantasies are all of destruction, physical and emotional, vengeance against people who have committed no greater crime than failing to pay him the adulation he feels he deserves. And people call the play heroic. That's something one ought to take seriously.

I haven't seen this suggested anywhere, but there's a mental disorder known as borderline personality, which involves certain symptoms: violent mood swings, unstable relationships alternating between extreme idealisation and extreme devaluation, a pathological need for attention, impulsivity, chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate displays of anger and aggresssion... Do you see what I'm getting at here? Sound familiar? Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire is sometimes cited as a fictional borderline, and there's a lot of overlap. Jimmy's behaviour is most simply described by the phrase 'drama queen'. He wants to feel, to be the centre of attention, and in the absence of anything to justify his wild emotionality, he attacks left and right, whipping up scenes like a clumsy author where the passion and conflict is far out of proportion to the situation. He can't stand to be neglected, taking it as provocation when people iron, read, or otherwise mind their own business rather than focusing on him. He justifies everything on the grounds that it's passionate, takes everything personally. Now, moody, fantasising, needy Blanche Dubois is generally considered to be a fine piece of character writing but not an admirable character. But manipulation, scene-making, demanding attention - qualities that are traditionally despised in women - somehow gets tremendous adulation when displayed in a man.

Sexism is a heavy charge to lay against anyone, but it isn't just sexism that's the problem with Look Back In Anger. Misogyny is merely the expression of a deeper malaise: the indulgent protection of a vicious self-portrait, a mind seeking for reasons to justify its vindictiveness and settling on easy targets to blame rather than doing some hard self-examination. Jimmy Porter isn't a considered piece of introspection. Osborne doesn't disguise his faults, but neither does he really consider that they need to be changed; instead, he implausibly forces other characters to excuse and justify Jimmy behind his back. That isn't honest. Even as I think the phrase, I hear the echoes of all the stuffy old critics who excoriated challenging and important new works of art, but for once, there's no other description: Look Back In Anger is that often-named by rarely-found phenomenon, the outpouring of a sick mind.

'...the character speaks with Osbourne's linguistic energy...'

Or, to put it another way, he rants and raves like the worst kind of pub bore.

Yes - not a favourite of mine either.
Look Back In Anger is that often-named by rarely-found phenomenon, the outpouring of a sick mind.

Wow, what an incredibly detailed post! I haven't read Look Back In Anger, but maybe I should. (I am familiar with Streetcar, though, so I'm not completely lame! *g)
I know... You know how sometimes you read or sit through a whole thing, and it gets under your skin so much that you just have to write it all out? I feel better now. :-)
C'mon Kit, tell us what you really think! lol

I think the most hilarious thing I've ever read is in Shakespeare, explaining how men need to be in charge in the same way as the king bee rules the hive.

Ol' Will might want to rethink that one today.
I recently saw the film version of Look Back in Anger, and had much the same reaction.

Except at shorter length, and with a few degrees less sophistication. Instead of "Misogyny is merely the expression of a deeper malaise: the indulgent protection of a vicious self-portrait, a mind seeking for reasons to justify its vindictiveness and settling on easy targets to blame rather than doing some hard self-examination," I just said to myself, "Wow, what a fugghead."
I think you get a point for succinctness :-) It's my whole argument in four words!
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